A study of 30 teenage and adult travellers in Co Sligo found that all of them experienced some form of discrimination while at school. Some recalled being forced to play in a separate playground to settled children while other common forms of discrimination included being called names such as ‘knacker’ and being accused of stealing and of being dirty and smelly. Many said they had to endure the humiliation of having their school bags searched after wrongly being accused of stealing.
The research, carried out in IT Sligo’s School of Business and Humanities, examined Travellers’ experience of, and attitude towards, education from 1970 to the present day. Many of the participants said that they did have enjoyable experiences at primary school, but older participants in particular, recalled having to endure various forms of discrimination and unfair treatment. As well as having to play in a separate playground at the back of the school they had to pick up litter in the play area reserved for the settled community.
Having to clean up the classroom, being put at the back of the class and given colouring to do while other children were doing “proper work” was also recalled. They said that all Travellers, regardless of their age and ability, tended to be kept together in one class, which resulted in some being bored as they could not advance until everyone was ready to move on.
Tamsin Cavaliero, a lecturer on the BA in Early Childhood Care and Education course at IT Sligo who carried out the research interviewed 15 Travellers in the 15 to 22 years age group and 15 aged from 25 to 46. Twenty two of the participants were female and eight were male, reflecting a view within the travelling community that education is “women’s business”.
“Lack of recognition of Traveller culture and history in schools was an issue for many participants,” said Cavaliero. But she pointed out that a small number said they had felt isolated and humiliated when teachers tried to highlight their culture in the classroom in a manner which they felt was insensitive.
Ms Cavaliero found that the transition to second level was “fraught with anxiety and conflict” for many Travellers. Many parents expressed frustration with the refusal of schools to hold their children back when they were not ready. Parents’ concerns about the transition were attributed to a number of factors including a cultural tradition of chaperoning young Traveller women and fears about the encroaching influences of the settled community.
“The research highlighted a lack of engagement between schools and parents, many of whom felt unable to provide the level of support expected by schools,” explained the lecturer. The study showed that Traveller families are traditionally larger with some families having up to 11 children attending school at the same time, often in different towns or parts of the county, making it difficult to keep appointments with teachers at short notice.
Many parents spoke of the prohibitive costs of providing uniforms and books for large families and felt they were perceived as being unsupportive if they did not have all the necessary equipment at the start of the school year.
“Many of them are reluctant to engage with schools because they lack confidence due to their own negative experience in the education system” said Cavaliero. Some participants said they often cannot understand what the teachers’ were saying, but they agree with the teachers for fear of seeming ignorant.
Many participants who had spent time in the UK said that when at school there, they were regarded as “Paddies” rather than Travellers and this made life easier. Ironically in Britain they tended to live in caravans while they lived in houses in Sligo, where they were labelled as “Travellers” when in school.
The study showed that young Travellers were frequently sent home from school for “messing” but there was a significant gap between what schools regard as behavioural issues and what Travellers themselves see as bad behaviour. Young Traveller women reported frequent clashes with the school authorities over the wearing of uniforms, make up, fake tan and jewellery.
Image Caption: IT Sligo lecturer Tamsin Cavaliero