I want to thank Sabrina for introducing the event today and with Anne-Marie Stokes and Kathleen Cawley for helping to steer the research, by attending all the meetings and supporting the work of Jane Holohan, in carrying out the fieldwork across schools, and Traveller groups in Northern Ireland.
This week we have heard the announcement of what will be a complete shake-up of Northern Ireland’s education system. New systems, new measures, new types of schools…
Unfortunately Traveller Children have been waiting too long for anyone to think of addressing the systems they need, the measures that must be taken and the improved schooling they deserve.
In 2004 my predecessor Nigel Williams commissioned Queens University to research the current state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland – it identified significant breaches of the rights of children in the Traveller Community.
The impact of racism, exclusion and discrimination against Traveller children cuts across all areas of their lives and violates their rights in a number of key areas such as education, health care, and housing. It was clear that we needed to include the rights of Traveller children in our priorities.
Both we here at NICCY and the Equality Commission were concerned to identify whether the rights of Traveller children and young people to education were being adequately addressed or realised.;
We therefore set out to review the adequacy and effectiveness of education provision for this ethnic minority group, and particularly paying attention to the children/young person’s perspective.
We’ve heard the findings of the report – most of which will come as no surprise to you.
However, given the situation we all need to draw attention to the very real needs to those who do not understand the problems.
It’s time to acknowledge that our education system and curriculum is failing Traveller children and young people, and in most cases is not protecting them from bullying.
And I want to emphasise one message that is so important for me – it is not the Traveller Children who are ‘failing’. It is the education system that is failing to meet their needs!
For example, why is it that with a few exceptions there is an absence of Traveller Children in pre-school provision? We know how important it is to invest in early years, and the need to develop a good school attendance routine in early years. We need to make sure that Traveller families are encouraged to benefit from pre-school nurseries and playgroups for their children.
I note the reasonable attendance of Traveller Children in Primary schools, which then falls away in post primary. We need to ask ourselves, are we doing enough to support Traveller children attend, stay interested and enjoy the benefits of a good education. Obviously we are not.
We need to be confident that providers of education are doing everything possible to make our schools safe and supportive environments. We need to make sure that the curriculum is relevant and builds the confidence of children, to prepare them for work opportunities in later life. If it is not, it must change.
I believe, based on the evidence presented in this research today, that there is much that needs changed – and changed quickly. It is essential that we work together to take the recommendations forward.
We need a firm commitment from the Department of Education to urgently update their policy on traveller education – and more importantly to put this new policy into practice in every school across Northern Ireland.
The new curriculum must address issues of diversity and educate all young people on the Traveller culture.
The department must change its recording procedures so that data on Traveller children can be collected and monitored. That way we will be able to see if the under achievement of Traveller children and young people has been addressed.
We must support teachers and school staff in implementing new school policies. It is no use foisting policies on people, there must be real efforts to make sure that initiatives, such as training, are put in place.
And we must support Traveller families to overcome the obstacles to accessing appropriate education to meet the needs of the children and young people.
It seems to me from my own experience and from this research that a culture of mutual misunderstanding has been allowed to develop. As a result there has been little or no effort to really make sure children receive the education that is their right and is what they need and deserve.
One of the most shocking parts of this research is that when a Traveller Child is absent the schools and education authorities barely follow-up this absenteeism compared to settled children.
The assumption is made that it is because ‘they move about a lot’. That is a terrible indictment! Yes, Traveller Children move about. That does not mean that arrangements, systems, support cannot be put in place. Instead it means they must be, through innovation and adopting good practice. If it doesn’t happen then we here in this room must ask: why not?
We here today know the problems. Now with this piece of research we can tell others, so that there can be change.
I look forward to working with the Department of Education, the Education and Skills Authority and the Equality Commission to improve the school experiences and achievements of Traveller children and young people.
We cannot allow this issue to drift. I want all the interested parties to set a timeframe on adopting the recommendations of this research.
This should not, and must not be another report gathering dust and collecting working groups by the score. It should and must be a vehicle for change.
Let us make sure that no-one here today looks on. Let us all act.
Can I thank you all once again for coming along today, please stay and have a cup of tea, and share your views on how we can work together to take forward the recommendations of this research.