Thursday, 17 June 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
1. Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Education and Science the plans, if any, he has to deal with the problem of early school leaving among traveller children being 16 times the rate among the settled community. [15527/99]
Minister for Education and Science (Mr. Martin): Tackling early school leaving has been a long standing policy priority of successive Governments. As Minister, I am determined that we make a significant impact on this complex problem. This involves action on a wide range of fronts, including legislation, the curriculum and targeted initiatives. It also requires that we have a particular focus on traveller children where the problem is most acute.
A range of structural supports is in place to assist the education of traveller pupils. My Department employs a national education officer for travellers and has established an internal co-ordinating committee on traveller education. This committee was set up in 1996 to draw up a comprehensive plan for the implementation of those recommendations of the task force on the travelling community, which were approved by Government, and the White Paper proposals relating to travellers.
The task force report emphasised the need to increase the rate of participation by travellers in formal education. To achieve this it recommended that the visiting teacher service be extended. The number of visiting teachers has been increased from 12 a number of years ago to 20 and I recently sanctioned the appointment of a further ten visiting teachers. This will enable the service to be provided, from the start of the next school year, on a nationwide basis. The service works with schools and traveller families to facilitate travellers' participation in education and, in particular, in second level education.
The task force also strongly recommended the education of travellers in mainstream schools in an integrated setting. I am happy that, while more needs to be done, we are moving away from segregated provision for travellers and, increasingly, they are educated in age-appropriate classes in an integrated setting. To help schools with this, and in line with the recommendations of the co-ordinating committee, the Department sanctions resource teacher posts in primary schools where a minimum of 14 traveller pupils are enrolled. Additional teaching hours are also sanctioned in second level schools in respect of traveller pupils.
The advisory committee on traveller education which I set up last July allows traveller representatives to influence directly, decisions made at national level and which impact on their children's education. My Department provides capitation grants at enhanced rates in respect of traveller children enrolled in primary and post-primary schools. The projects strand of the 8 to 15 year old early school leaver initiative was introduced in 14 areas during the current school year. The projects aim to develop models of good practice in the integrated delivery of in-school and out-of-school actions by schools and other statutory and voluntary agencies.
 The actions are designed to prevent early school leaving and support young people whose behaviour points to them leaving school early. They are also designed to support the return to the formal school system of young people who are not yet 15 years of age and not in school. Information regarding effective models will be disseminated through the system generally and the models will be replicated in areas of disadvantage.
In addition, I recently announced a major initiative aimed at increasing the number of pupils remaining in school to complete the leaving certificate. A key feature of this initiative is that it encourages schools to take charge of tackling early school leaving. Up to 40 schools will participate in the first phase and receive funding on the basis of plans which they will have developed to deal with the problem. While this initiative is aimed at the school population generally, I am confident that it will impact in a significant way on the retention of traveller pupils in the education system.
My Department is a partner with Pavee Point in an Integra project which is working to design a strategy for data gathering, data analysis and decision making to facilitate access to education and training and develop a suitable tracking system for young travellers. Second chance education and training for travellers who have left the school system early is provided through a network of senior traveller training centres. Some 700 participants avail of this programme which is co-ordinated, as part of the early schools leavers' provision, by a national co-ordinator and leads to certification from the National Council for Vocational Awards, allied with junior certificate and leaving certificate options.
There is no room for complacency when dealing with the issue of early school leaving. When it is considered that we are dealing with the life chances of our children, this provides the most powerful impetus to considered and well planned initiatives. We must also be very strong on the review and evaluation of these measures to ensure that objectives are met and real progress is made.
Mr. R. Bruton: Does the Minister accept that the objective of successive Governments has been to reduce the high level of early school leaving by traveller children, yet none has succeeded? Does that not suggest that a much more radical approach is needed than that which he outlined? Should substantial resources be put into localised planning built around individual pupils and their needs as a way of ensuring that they, 80 per cent of whom drop out before the senior cycle, are seriously addressed? The attempt to adapt the existing structure for travellers is not working and it needs to be highly resourced, albeit in an integrated setting. Is more radical thinking needed?
Mr. Martin: We must be mindful of the task force recommendations because it represented the distillation of the views of all those involved in traveller issues and, in particular, traveller education. It would be wrong to discard the series of recommendations that were made. However, I accept that successive Governments have identified this as an objective to encourage greater and longer participation in the education system of traveller youths but the resources were not adequate. More resources are needed and I am glad, for example, that the visiting teacher service is available nationwide.
The resource issue is manageable but there are other more fundamental issues in terms of why, for example, traveller children do not stay longer in second level education. Cultural issues are involved and we must work with the travelling community to identify issues by devising new radical approaches to ensuring participation at second level. The traveller training centres have helped in some regards. I have met the primary school traveller teaching network. It is working reasonably well at primary level but there is a significant reduction in numbers following the transition to second level.
A worrying feature of the analysis we have carried out thus far is that traveller children tend to overstay in primary education. Many of them stay in primary school until they are 13 or 14 years and for a host of reasons do not continue to second level. It is the priority issue.
Mr. R. Bruton: Is the Minister satisfied that the long standing concern about curriculum material has been overcome? There is widespread belief among the travelling community that its culture is not adequately recognised and this is part of the difficulty in an integrated setting. Is he further satisfied that sufficient effort has been made to adapt curriculum material so that it celebrates the culture of the travelling community?
Mr. Martin: Significant effort is being made and groups, such as Pavee Point and others, have been particularly helpful in that. It is also a key issue as is integration. Our preference is for traveller pupils to be educated in an integrated environment and to try to eliminate and reduce the degree of segregation that still occurs in schools.
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