Reflections On . . . Formal Education as a Member of the Traveller Community

By Cathleen McDonagh Clark

Updated / Wednesday, 09 December 2020 14:35

As a child, I loved to learn. This has stayed with me, both as a blessing and a trial at times. Please don’t get me wrong, I have a passion for learning. But sometimes the education system does not meet with the expectations of the child, or the adult. I started school when I was four years old, and I can still remember the kindness of one teacher. I was a shy child and I recall the children were making things and I was not taking part; she came over to me and helped me to do a little cut-out paper doll. My mother kept this, as mothers do, and we still have it.

This story really captures how my experience of school was mixed. As Charles Dickens wrote, “it was the best of times and the worst of times”. Some of my teachers were kind, others were indifferent, and one was so negative that can I still remember her. Some teachers can help you blossom and others can hold you back.

My parents valued education and ensured that I, my sister, and brothers always went to school. As a child, I was in a number of primary schools, around five in total. I missed out on attending secondary school. At that time, the value of having a secondary school education was not fully understood. I have always loved learning and as an adult, at 23 years, I went back to formal education. My story has been one of trials and successes. Core to my educational journey were the people who gave me the opportunity and supported me along the way.  

The sad fact is that the Traveller community has engaged with the educational system for years, but the system has not always engaged with them. Adults will tell you of how they were segregated from other children and had different play times. They’ll tell you how they were not taught the curriculum as settled children were, and how they were seen as children with no potential and treated as such. There was no one to take an interest in them. A lot of their parents did not have the experience of school. They did not realise their children were not being treated equally and that their learning outcomes were low.

This resulted in a generation of children having missed out on an education and having a negative experience of school. For children in this situation, this can be and is life changing. It means they have missed out on the most informative years in formal education. This leaves them at a disadvantage in so many areas of life in addition to being deprived of employment opportunities. Education and intelligence are two different things. Sometimes people confuse a lack of formal education with a lack of intelligence, so they have low expectations of those who may not have had the same educational opportunities as they had.

My own journey with education was a mixed one. No different in some cases to other children’s journeys, but in my case prejudice was my shadow. One can believe this or not. But there are children in the education system that are perceived to be less important than others, or to have less potential than others, for no reason other than that they do not fit the perceived perception of normality. The education system should be a place where all children are treated and valued equally, regardless of what others perceive as social difference. Diversity exists. It should be understood for the added value it brings to the school environment. Valuing diversity does not take away from the function of schools. In fact, it can enrich the school environment.

As a child, I did not understand why I was seen and treated as different. As an adult, I have tried to make a difference in the small ways open to me. Core to my message is that real education contains wisdom, understanding, kindness, and challenges. There is more to educating a child than academic success. Education should also enable the child to experience an environment where all children are treated with respect. It should be a holistic educational experience that will equip children for life in a diverse world.

I sometimes reflect on why I had to go through so much in trying to get educated, in trying to get others to believe in me, while sometimes struggling to believe in myself. On this journey, the people who believed in me and gave me the support and opportunity to succeed made all the difference. It was the word of encouragement, the person who listened, the door that opened, and the friend that stood with me. But my journey should not have been reliant on these things. It should have been self-evident in the formal system, a system that provides opportunity for all to engage equally and to learn equality.

What if I did not have the passion for learning and the drive? What if I had given up at the resistance I experienced?  I would never have gone on. What made the difference for me were the kindnesses of others and my sense that something was calling me. It was a journey into the unknown that led me to wonderful places of discovery. But why did this journey of education and learning have to be so hard? I do wonder, if I had to do it again, would I change the path I have taken? No is the answer. But I would have wished for more understanding of what I was trying to do and more awareness from the formal education system. Knowledge is power, after all, and this is a life time journey for me that is still on-going.

My dream is for an education system that is able to fulfil its function to educate all children, a system that also prepares the children to become the creators of the future, a system where a child, regardless of cultural background, can be valued and respected. But unless the education system is able to be held accountable for its failings, it will not change. Yes, parents need to play their part in this. But at the end of the day, the school has the mandate and the responsibility to educate the young.

Any organisation with such an important mandate has to be transparent and accountable. If it is failing children, for whatever reason, this needs to be identified early because the child does not have the luxury of time. A child can be lost in a matter of months. When this happens, it is the child that is left at a disadvantage, not the education system. A system that is there to educate all should not only be relevant to those who understand how it functions and recognise its value. Accountability is not a negative thing. It is just a method to ensure we provide all children with an equal opportunity to be educated. This will be a win for the child, their family, their community, and society in general. The school is the stepping stone to creating an equal society.

This is just a reflection on a system that has failed so many Traveller children. Yes, the community and the parents have a part to play in this story. They need to understand the education system and the value of formal education for the future of their children. They need to be able to understand and challenge the system when it is not working for their children. But at the end of the day, the children of the Traveller community have been engaging with the formal education system for decades. But for the children, and adults, this is not positively reflected in the educational outcomes.

Why has the education system failed so many Traveller children? To answer this question, we have to start with an education system that has equal outcomes for all. Like all systems, though, it will only be as good as the people who control it.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Cathleen McDonagh Clark works in an organisation that provides services to members of the Traveller community. She is the manager of the education service. Her interests are in education, equality, and justice. She has completed a Pastoral Leadership diploma and a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy at All Hallows College Dublin, a Masters in Theology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and a post certificate in Power and Development in Adult Education at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. For both her theses, Cathleen focused on the concept of prejudice. She has a passion for people and truly believes that we have it in our ability to create systems that can make a positive difference in people’s lives.