Three-quarters of Irish Traveller children still leave school with fewer than five GCSEs

Three quarters of Traveller children leave school with fewer than 5 GCSE pass grades. Stock image.

Three quarters of Traveller children leave school with fewer than 5 GCSE pass grades. Stock image.

“My children aren’t going to school with a label on their forehead (saying) ‘I’m a Traveller, treat me different’.” In the first in a series of articles on issues affecting the Irish Traveller community in Northern Ireland, Luke Butterly looks at Travellers’ experiences of education.


Around three-quarters of Irish Traveller children are still leaving school with fewer than five GCSE pass grades - a decade after a Stormont strategy aimed at improving Travellers’ education was set up.

The strategy, launched by the Department of Education in November 2013, aimed that, within 10 years, Traveller children would obtain similar results to other pupils.

But figures obtained from the department by The Detail show that, although more Traveller children are achieving better results, most are still leaving school with either poor grades or no qualifications.

An education expert said the statistics show the department’s strategy “hasn’t worked”.

Several Traveller families have said a lack of support from schools is affecting their children’s results.

Between 2003/04 and 2011/12, around 8.5% of Traveller children left school with at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C.

Around 63% left with no qualifications at all.

Over the following decade (2012/13 to 2021/22), the number of Traveller children who left school with at least five GCSE pass grades rose to around 25%.

But around a third gained fewer than five GCSEs. And 42% obtained no qualifications at all.

The department launched the 10-year strategy after its own 2011 report found there had been a “collective failure” over many decades to address educational underachievement amongst Travellers.

“It is clear that on a range of indicators – including attendance, achievement and the very high proportion of Traveller children identified as having ‘special needs’ – that Traveller children are profoundly disadvantaged in their experience of statutory education,” the report stated.

Dr Robbie McVeigh, co-chair of a taskforce which prompted the strategy, said the department’s approach has not been effective.

“It shows you that the strategy isn't working or hasn't worked,” he said.

He added: “If you are serious about the task of producing equality of outcome between Traveller and non-Traveller children, you need to engage much more proactively with the community and ask Traveller parents and Traveller children and Traveller organisations why the system isn’t working for them.”

Women in Armagh speak about their children's school experiences. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Women in Armagh speak about their children's school experiences. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Lack of appropriate support

Mothers of Traveller pupils told The Detail that their children were struggling due to a lack of appropriate support from schools.

Mary-Patricia McGeough, from Armagh, said many Traveller children are wrongly seen as unruly.

“They class the Traveller child as too disruptive, so that they're like ‘you should go play on the computer for today and why didn't you relax there?’ ” she said.

“The child is loving it, like oh I'm having fun here. Not realising they are getting robbed of their education.”

Almost half of Traveller children have special needs compared to 19% of children in the wider population.

Ms McGeough said she felt Traveller children with special needs were treated differently.

“They dismiss the Traveller child and push them to one side,” she said.

“This has happened for a long time, even from my childhood.”

She said she experienced disturbing discrimination at school and has vivid memories of one “horrifying” class debate which left her feeling singled out.

“One of the questions was: ‘Are Travellers lazy and dirty? Is it a fact or is it opinion?’,” she said.

She recalled other children saying: “Oh yes miss, they are smelly and dirty, see the caravans, knackers and tinkers”.

“I had my best friends, country people, and they're jumping up like ‘Hold a second, Mary-Patricia is a Traveller and her house is immaculate’. I was horrified.”

She left after one year of secondary education, feeling she was not being treated equally.

“As a child, I was trying to deny being a Traveller, trying to fit in,” she said.

She added: “As I’ve told the school a lot of times, my children aren’t going to school with a label on their forehead (saying) ‘I’m a Traveller, treat me different’.”

The 2013 strategy also aimed to improve attendance rates for Traveller children.

Attendance rates did rise from 68% in 2011/12 to 73.7% in 2019/20. However, rates fell again to 68% in 2020/21 and have remained the same.

The most recent figures show that a high proportion of Traveller children do not finish compulsory education.

In 2010/11, 86 children were enrolled in Year 1 but by 2021/22, only 37 Traveller children were enrolled in Year 12.

When asked about the figures, the department said it does not track individual Traveller pupils.

“The fluid nature of Traveller attendance makes it challenging to track pupils across years using the school census,” a spokesman said.

Margaret Maughan, from Armagh, said Traveller families need more support, due to historic high levels of illiteracy within the community.

“Their mothers and their parents cannot read or write,” she said.

“How are (schools) going to put the burden on them when they can't help their children with their homework?”

She said most Travellers hugely value education.

“I never miss a day of the meetings with the teachers,” she said.

“We want the best for our children, we want our children to get jobs.”

Amy Ward, from the Irish Traveller Movement. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Amy Ward, from the Irish Traveller Movement. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail


A 2023 report from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) found that, of the Traveller children who took part in a study, half said they had been bullied.

The report found that bullying was highlighted “as a major factor in the high number of Traveller pupils leaving education before compulsory school leaving age”.

Amy Ward, a Traveller and campaigner from the north who works for the Irish Traveller Movement in Dublin, said long-standing discrimination had led to “transgenerational trauma”.

“All this has a big impact on Travellers’ experience of the education and other formal systems,” she said.

Ms Ward, who studied law at university, said she was in a “huge minority” of Travellers who had gone on to third level education.

“But I was fortunate enough to have the supports put in place,” she said.

Ms Ward said her early experiences of schooling in Northern Ireland were poor.

“Before we moved to England, the experiences of myself, my older sister were pretty awful,” she said.

“My sister was beaten up. Less so because she was a Taig, than because she was a Traveller. Quite badly at times. People were overt about it.

“We had a teacher refer to me as tinker. My sister was called a knacker by the teacher in front of the class. That still happens, by the way.

“We missed some years of schooling, and there were reasons for that. My mother tried to get us registered, and schools said ‘we don’t have any places, full to the brim’.”

She added: “If you (Travellers) managed to get into a school, the vast majority experienced bullying from the other kids, and quite often from teachers, and certainly from the parents.”

Ms Ward said her education improved when her family moved to England and she began secondary school.

She was also supported in her studies by her uncle, who learnt how to read and write later in life.

“He became obsessed with reading. He bought me books on - it was all political - books on Assata Shakur, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X,” she said.

She added: “And he would test me on them. So that helped me as well, in my own development. I think that's probably why I got this thirst for education, I saw just how important it was.”

A model of an old caravan. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

A model of an old caravan. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

‘My Da said to keep away from you’

Figures from the 2021 Census show that more than two-thirds of all Travellers aged over 18 have no qualifications, compared to 23% of the population.

For Seamus*, a Traveller in his sixties, now living in Belfast, his school years cast a long shadow.

He said he was singled out by teachers and bullied by other pupils, due to his background.

“We never really get the attention that the settled community got,” he said.

“We might be given a book and a crayon and let draw away you know, there wouldn't be much attention on us.

“Everybody would have a double desk, everybody would be having fun and stuff like that.

“But I'd always be out on a little desk on my own. And I often wondered why. I didn't realise until I got older that it was because I was a Traveller.”

He said bullying was so commonplace it became “normal”.

“When I was young I was called a ‘smelly gypsy’ all the time.

“You’d meet kids who’d say ‘My Da said to keep away from you, yous are gypsies’.

“And then you come in in the end just to accept that. It just becomes normal to you.

He added: “I look at my grandkids now, they are around that age that I was, you’d hate to think that people were doing that to them.

“You'd love to be able to go back and say ‘You’re gonna be okay. You’ll get through it.’

“That child is long gone, and now there is a pensioner standing here, but I always think back to these things.”

Seamus said he travelled around Ireland as a child with his family but was always enrolled at the nearest school.

“There was a great sense of freedom in it,” he said.

“When you go to a new place, you go to a new school, you might be treated better.”

But he said he was never taught how to read and write and left school at 12, feeling he was “getting nowhere”.

“I can't read or write because nobody would learn me,” he said.

“Every Traveller man or woman my age could never learn how to read or write because nobody showed us.”

Seamus said a lack of formal education meant he was only able to get casual manual work as an adult.

“When you weren’t educated, you had nothing else. You had no other way (to make a living),” he said.

“You are in a hole and you can't get out.”

 Pete Wilkinson, manager of Armagh Roma Traveller Support. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Pete Wilkinson, manager of Armagh Roma Traveller Support. Photo by Chris Scott, The Detail

Traveller education funding

Schools in Northern Ireland are allocated additional funding from the Department of Education - around £1,100 - for each Traveller pupil enrolled.

However the funding does not have to be specifically spent on Traveller education.

Pete Wilkinson, manager of Armagh Roma Traveller Support, said the money is frequently “spent on other things” and schools need to be better held accountable.

“At the end of the year, a school that has received this additional funding, if you look at how many (Travellers) have done their GCSEs, they all leave with nothing,” he said.

In response to the issues raised in this article, a spokesman for the Department of Education said it was “acutely aware that more must be done to improve the educational outcomes of Traveller children and young people”.

He said the Education Authority “provides advice, guidance and focused support to schools and to parents and pupils from the Traveller community”.

“Pupil attendance at school has been severely impacted by Covid-19 and that is reflected in the attendance levels for all pupils including Traveller children,” he said.

The department is reviewing its Traveller education strategy and is due to publish its findings by July next year.

The spokesman said that while funding received by schools for Traveller children is not ring-fenced "the issue will be considered as part of the review of the Traveller Child in Education Framework".

*Seamus is a pseudonym

This investigation was supported by a grant from the St Stephen’s Green Trust.

Receive The Detail story alerts by email
Subscribe on Substack