A WEST Limerick secondary school has insisted that its decision to teach Traveller students in a separate classroom is not an act of “segregation”.
Colaiste na Trocaire in Rathkeale is currently providing a dedicated classroom with specialised teaching for local Traveller teenagers, whose school attendance record has been so bad that their parents have been prosecuted and threatened with prison.
Details about the “transition” classroom emerged at Newcastle West court last Thursday, as the cases of eleven Traveller parents charged with failing to keep their children in school were heard.
Judge Mary Larkin said that she was happy with the “transitional arrangement” in place at the school, after her fears that it amounted to “segregation” were allayed.
The court heard that a new tough stance by the court on truant Travellers “has had a huge impact on schooling in Rathkeale”.
The prosecution against five sets of parents and one single mother by the National Education Welfare Board related to the long-term truancy of five girls and one boy in the final year of primary school, and their subsequent failure to progress to secondary school.
The parents appeared in court in Newcastle West in January, and were warned by Judge Larkin that if their children did not start attending at Colaiste na Trocaire, they could be sent to prison. The offence carries a penalty of one month in prison and/or a fine of €634.87.
Speaking in court last Thursday solicitor Kate Kiely, prosecuting on behalf of the board, said that since January there has been a “dramatic, huge improvement” in attendances, save for one child whose family have left the country.
Miriam Gleeson, education welfare officer with the board, said that this was due to the special classroom which has been provided at Colaiste na Trocaire.
“It’s proved hugely helpful to them. They’ve developed impressive portfolios of work since the last court date... They have really progressed in a short time”.
Ms Glee-son said that the Traveller children have been given teaching “specific to their needs” in a separate classroom on the school grounds. However, they are still subject to school rules and have to wear their full uniforms.
The judge immediately asked if the new system was “seeking segregation” of Traveller children. Ms Kiely denied this, stating that the system was a “transition” for the students to help them catch up “after long absenteeism”. Ms Kiely added that the long-term plan is to integrate the Traveller children back in to regular class.
Ms Gleeson said that this provision, while currently being used specifically for Traveller children, is open to any students who require it. She added that the warnings issued at the January court “had a huge impact on schooling in Rathkeale”.
Solicitor Michael O’Donnell, defending all of the Traveller parents, said that the rapid improvement in school attendance in less than one month is “something this court has never seen before”.
He said that while Travellers have a known difficulty with second level education, “they’re quite happen to go to school with their own”.
Mr O’Donnell added that the parents, in the face of clear warnings from the court, had shown their willingness “to try something unique and different”.
The court heard that all bar one of the children effected have recorded close to 100% attendance since the January court.
The only one who did not belongs to a family who have since left Rathkeale for the UK and are unlikely to return before the summer, according to Mr O’Donnell.
Ms Kiely insisted that the school’s measures to teach the Traveller children was only temporary. “It is the attitude of the board and the department [of education] that all children are treated equally. “Traveller children cannot be expected to be treated differently, or educated in a separate building”.
The “sole reason” for the recent move, Ms Kiely added, was the “extra educational assistance” the children need after being out of school for so long.
The judge said that it is the court’s responsibility to ensure “all children, regardless of their background, receive a minimum education”.
She said that the provision put in place by Colaiste na Trocaire “seems to address” the immediate problem of absenteeism, and that she was willing to accept it on the basis that it is a “transitional arrangement”.
The cases of all children whose attendance has improved were adjourned until May 23. However, the judge adjourned the case of the absent parents until April 9, to see if the situation has changed.
If not, Judge Larkin warned that she will impose “one or all of the penalties”.