More Traveller voices should be heard in education
It is a tough time for education in Northern Ireland.
One fifth of all children entering P1 are obese, while some are struggling with mental health problems - noting that the number of pupils needing help with this “increases steadily with age.”
This followed an October report from the NI Audit Office saying that schools’ finances are in a tailspin.
The ETI report – which noted that only 39% of schools had fully cooperated with inspectors over the past couple of years – also stated that, while GCSE and A Level results at the top end were improving, the gap between the exam results of pupils from more deprived backgrounds compared with other children is still far too wide.
A related issue to this is Traveller education. GCSE and A level results for the Traveller community are perhaps not where they should be.
Moreover, the Traveller community does not have much of a voice in NI society. However, educational underattainment is not an insoluble problem – and it is always possible to provide better platforms for people whose views are underrepresented.
Annie Doherty is an Irish Traveller with a nomadic tradition and the second oldest child in a family of six.
In the summer, the 17-year-old discovered she had obtained great GCSE results – 4 As and 4 Bs – and securing her place on a Business Studies course at the Northern Regional College.
Studying can be stressful for any pupil, and requires routine and revision rituals, but Annie’s results show how strong grades can be achieved despite a lot of travel throughout school.
Over the past two years she attended Hazelwood Integrated College, working towards her GCSEs, and in total she attended eight different schools in 12 years.
Speaking about her exam preparation, Annie said: “I started studying early and studied every night before exams, sometimes staying up to early hours in the morning and making a timetable of revision.
“My teachers were helpful, in particular my Business Studies teacher, who provided extra support in allowing me to participate in the A-level class in my spare time as a study session.
“However, I feel the most backing for me was from my parents, who inspire myself and my siblings to be the best we can be.”
Positive and supportive parenting is of enormous importance for any child – and not just within education, obviously – but the state and the third sector both have a massive role to play.
Annie herself received educational support from a young age. Her transition into school was supported by Toybox, a rights-based outreach service for Traveller children aged 0-4 aimed at tackling inequalities in Traveller education, working in partnership with children and parents. The project is managed by Early Years and funded by Department of Education.
Toybox began 15 years ago and since then has helped 2,460 Traveller children from 1,727 different families (thus an average of 224 children and 157 families per year).
It offers a broad range of HighScope initiated play activities. HighScope seeks to “promote independence, curiosity, decision making, cooperation, persistence, creativity, and problem solving in young children.”
It aims to help children gain an understanding of the world through interaction with people, materials and ideas. Learning is measured through children's actions and behaviours rather than their age. From birth children are supported to be active learners through weekly home visits by a project worker trained in the HighScope approach.
Rita Simmonds, who has over 15 years within the project and one of nine project workers with Early Years who worked with the Doherty Family, said:
“We are so proud of Annie. When I started [in Toybox] Annie’s family was one of the first we engaged with, and they contributed to our working method, and helped change mindsets in terms of cultural respect and teaching us the way of their culture.”
Annie herself said: “I feel Toybox contributed to me developing my skills and preparing me for school.”
Toybox is one scheme amongst several – including different statutory initiatives.
A decade ago, the Department of Education established the Taskforce on Traveller Education. In 2011, it published its full report which helped inform the Traveller Child in Education Action Framework, finalised in 2013.
In April 2013, the Traveller Education Support Service (TESS) was established. TESS is funded by DE, through the Education Authority, to support schools, Traveller children and their families throughout the education process. It also works with a number of stakeholder agencies.
Organisations have a significant role to play but that is all about facilitating and encouraging the achievement of individual children. And best practice these days – in every area of the third sector recognises the value of listening to service users, and letting them shape and drive services that will improve their communities.
All this highlights the importance of the views of Annie and her peers, in terms of improving outcomes for Traveller children.
Annie’s mum and dad are huge advocates for the Traveller community, involved in the running of Tóme Anoshá, a voluntary organisation committed to the attainment of human rights for Travellers and Gypsies, and an inspiration to Annie for her future career.
She said: “I would hope to be a positive spokesperson for the Traveller community and I hope someday to write a book”.
Travellers face many social issues – Scope has written about this earlier this year – and has been described as the most at-risk group in the education system.
It was Annie’s desire to learn and achieve that helped her overcome the challenges of daily discrimination, which threatened her chance of achieving her successes.
“My message to younger Travellers is don’t be afraid to ask the teachers for help. If I can do it in the two years of going to school and studying for my GCSEs, with determination and focus, anyone can.
“I tell everyone all the time I am a Traveller and I am proud of it and all I have achieved.”
Her advice for schools is to “learn about different cultures and have the opportunity for peers to learn about the Traveller community.”
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