Traveller Children and Youth’s Rights Matter

Together we Need to Validate and Make Visible Traveller Cultural Identity, Language and Values in Education

Gypsies near the Four Masters Monument, Donegal Town

Dr Anne Marie Kavanagh, School of Human Development, DCU Institute of Education

It is entirely understandable to feel invisible when the school curriculum fails to recognise the value of your community’s cultural identity, knowledge system and concerns. Can any child flourish in an environment which invisibilises and excludes them and fails to uphold their rights?

Article 29(c) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989) states that education should foster respect for all children’s cultural identities, languages and values.

Article 30 focuses specifically on minoritised children and youth’s right to enjoy and share their culture, language and religion with others.
These are rights which struggle to be realised in many Irish educational settings.

Formal and hidden curricula reflect and validate the knowledge and experiences of children and youth from dominant social groups and in doing so uphold their rights in these areas. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Traveller children and youth, whose identities are largely omitted from curricula. Their absence conveys settled society’s disinterest in a culture widely perceived to be inferior and outmoded. Their absence, more significantly, delegitimises Traveller knowledge and cultural repertoires, further compounding the systemic and wider institutional oppression which Travellers experience in a society structured to favour the settled community.

Few in the settled community recognise the rich and valuable perspectives which Traveller culture and knowledge systems possess. All children’s learning can be enriched by engaging with non-dominant ways of being in the world (nomadism as a state of mind and valid way of life), relating to the natural world (which can inform approaches to the climate crisis), and, by considering values which, for example, centre care for the extended family (old and young).

Teaching and learning processes can be enhanced by increased engagement with storytelling as a powerful and effective pedagogical approach for all learners. Children and youth, as rights-holding active agents, can take inspiration from the Traveller community’s long history of resistance and activism. Indeed, Traveller-led activism in coalition with members of the settled community culminated in the recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic group (2017) and the introduction of a bill (Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018) to parliament which seeks to include Traveller culture and history in school curricula at primary and post-primary levels.

Since the bill’s introduction, the place of Travellers in current curricula has been audited by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Arising from this, Dr Hannagh McGinley, a member of the Traveller community, was appointed by the NCCA as Education Officer for Traveller Culture and History in the Curriculum and tasked with furthering the audit’s recommendations. Dr McGinley’s appointment is important as any approach seeking to improve Travellers’ experiences in the education system or any other social system, should be a co-constructed and dialogical process between members of the Traveller and settled communities.

Within the more local classroom context, there are a range of ways that teachers can support Travellers’ rights. One key way is by promoting an approach to education underpinned by the principles of human rights and interculturalism. Such an approach involves intercultural awareness (including critical self-reflection on values, assumptions, implicit biases and deficit thinking) and understanding of the CRC, affirmation of difference (all children should be seen, valued and their dignity respected equally), and, action to address the challenges and barriers Traveller children, youth and families face in schools (including robust policies and practices which promote interculturalism and human rights and challenge anti-Traveller racism).

At a pedagogical level, both the oral tradition and the value of learning through participation, which have been practised for generations by Traveller families hold rich learnings for all teachers and students. There is enormous scope for developing a co-constructed curriculum which embeds Traveller perspectives, knowledge, history and culture across all areas of learning. Possibilities include the areas of, literacy (oral tradition, story, folktales, De Gammon/Cant/Pavee), music (songs, piping), art, science (traditional/folk healing, the value of native herbs), and, history (including Traveller involvement in WW1/2, 1916 Rising, the historical rural economy [tin-smiting, seasonal workers, chimney sweeps, horse dealers, stonemasons, animal doctors, tailors).

Taking these small steps provides tangible evidence that for educators Traveller children and youth’s rights matter too.