CEO Address to the Annual Conference of the Irish Traveller Movement 2011

The Inclusive School

Address from Paul Rowe, CEO of Educate Together to the Annual Conference of the Irish Traveller Movement, June 15th 2011, Radisson Blu Hotel, Limerick


First of all I would like to thank Damien Peelo and the Irish Travellers Movement for the very kind invitation to address your conference this morning. Educate Together has been talking and working with Damien Peelo and Damien Walshe over many years on a wide range of issues – most notably on representations to the UN on human rights – and lately we have been working with Paula Madden on the Yellow Flag project.

The Yellow Flag Project We were delighted that Castaheaney Educate Together National School was chosen to be one of the two Yellow Flag project pioneer schools and that just last month one of our fastest growing schools Aston Village Educate Together National School has been awarded the flag this year. The Yellow Flag project is an excellent example of a programme which has its roots in a cause that is based on the rights and needs of one community being creatively developed in a way that makes it really applicable to all communities. It builds very strong links of unity and support between the majority and minority communities. The Irish Traveller Movement is to be congratulated on this initiative and Educate Together is very happy to be involved in the discussions over future strategy and plans for the Yellow Flag programme.

The Inclusive School When I was asked to give this keynote, I thought long about what would be most useful to talk about. Admittedly, I took too long for your long suffering public relations staff who were looking for my script in the last few days. I have decided to address some deep seated ideas that I believe are holding back the full development of the Irish education system and which pioneering new movements like Educate Together have an opportunity to address. A modern, enlightened education system has to start from the basis of the assumption that human ability is spread roughly evenly across the entire population, irrespective of social, cultural or religious factors. Such a system has to look at itself very hard if the real success in the system is still reserved to a select 20% of this population. In our case, the top level of the ABC social class category.

Looking at this in straight economic terms, a society is failing to reap the benefit of the potential of its population and that there are brilliant and powerful people whose abilities are not being tapped in up to 80% of the population. Over the years, the State has spent huge sums of money trying to address this issue, but the percentages have only changed by single digits.It in this context that I would like to talk about the idea of the Inclusive school. There are many commentators and stakeholders both in Ireland and abroad who talk about an inclusive school.Unfortunately, inclusion has come to cover such a wide range of practices that in some contexts, the term has become almost unusable.

The term inclusion The term inclusion has a poor track record. Almost all empires considered that they were inclusive. Certainly both the Roman and the British Empires considered that they offered such a great way of life that it should include all peoples. Such certainty of inclusion is also expressed by some religious bodies. In Ireland, it is regrettable that the concept of an inclusive school has often been reduced to an aspirational statement to allow school providers to feel comfortable that they have met their moral, ethical and social obligations. It has often covered a wide range of discriminatory practices in which children of different social, religious or cultural backgrounds have been marginalised.

Educate Together Educate Together was set up by a group of parents in the mid-1970s who were interested in this issue in the context of the dramatic reforms taking place in school curriculum and governance at that time. Confronting the reality of the time, that all primary schools were devoted to promotion of one or other of the traditional religious outlooks, the group adopted the tag line that No Child is an Outsider and wrote into its legally binding articles a commitment to provide equality of access and esteem to children, irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds. Starting from this policy base, Educate Together, which now consists of a national network of 60 schools in which over 13,000 children attend, has had to confront a wide range of cultural issues in the Irish school environment and some key policy issues that underpin them. Some of the issues are truly cultural in that if one asks the question, the automatic response is either one of incredulity and a lack of appreciation that anyone could even ask or an instinctive defensiveness of a known injustice that cannot ever be acknowledged.

The Cultural Issues

Detailing some of the cultural issues, I would like to mention:

1. Concentration on narrow academic evaluation of success – In Ireland, success in our education system is defined by an incredibly narrow exam – the Leaving Certificate.

2. Home language assumptions – Ethnic and class origin of teaching staff. Those who we choose – or allow – to become teachers, come from a very narrow section of the society, proficient in the Irish language and successful in the Leaving Cert. In reality, we have virtually no teachers from ethnic minorities in our schools who have gained their primary qualification within the State and very few from family backgrounds in disadvantaged areas.

3. The place of school in the community. How a school fits into the community. In terms of the school day, the school year, whether the education process can carry on at weekends and at home with and without technology

4. Deep rooted assumptions over: Religion and identity: the Irish system still suffers from deeply engrained institutional discrimination in relation to religion. In the areas of access to multi-denominational schools, the rights of minorities or even ‘free thinkers’ in schools and all the way to the way in which teachers are trained and career paths are set. Only this year, after decades of advocacy, has one college addressed the human rights of student-teachers and provided an alternative to the Catholic courses that are the norm.

Habitation models: addressing the Irish Travellers’ movement, there still persists a deep-seated assumption that education is something that can only be availed of in a school that is a physical building in a locality, to which a child has to attend for a school year and that integration can only take place in this context. The recent decision to abolish the service of the Visiting Teacher for Travellers is a case in point. While integration should indeed be a responsibility for all schools and no ethnic minority should be singled out for separate or special treatment, there is no reason why the system should still operate on the basis that only settled families can actually avail of its services. In today’s world, where we are now interfacing with a wide global and European population and where Irish schools now routinely interface with migrant and travelling minorities with varied language and cultural roots, this is an issue that must be addressed deeper than is evidenced by contemporary establishment thinking.

Family and relationship normality: Our schools systems still struggle with those children who have ‘ unusual family circumstances’. The recent inadequacies of the Civil Partnership legislation illustrate this starkly. Although the some financial and civic rights are addressed the needs of children in such families have still been ignored.

Rights and responsibility in family and community

The rights and equality based model Over the past 33 years, Educate Together has been forced to confront most of these issues; we have had great difficulty in overcoming many of them and although we have had considerable success we still have a long way to go until we get to the stage in which we could be confident that they will be confined to the past. What we have come up with is: A school must:

• be based on a legally binding, absolute commitment to equality of access and esteem to children and their families, irrespective of their background.

• be absolutely committed to maximise education services to children that enable them to develop the full range of their abilities.

• create a school environment that provides active support for a child’s identity – whatever that is – and allows children to interact and engage critically with their peers in a safe environment.

• provide a core ethical education programme that concentrates on a range of lived values including moral and spiritual development, equality and justice and social and environmental ethics.

• provides an opportunity for children to learn about and critically explore all the main belief systems in the world.

• avoids any practice that forces children to be separated on religious or cultural grounds.

• provides opportunities for families to engage in faith-formation classes outside the compulsory school day.

• strive to operate as a participatory democracy in which the engagement of parents is cherished while positively affirming the professional role of teachers.

This is the type of school that we are determined to pioneer and make available to families in Ireland – in all areas of the country and within a 30 minutes travel time from their homes.

Where does this leave us today?


Ireland today has only 58% of its population of 1800. In 1800, the population of this island was around eight and a half million, today it is around five and quarter. No other European state has suffered such an absolute decline in its population in this period. Most European states have either quadrupled or quintupled their populations during this period. Our current economic problems will pass. This means that the population of Ireland will gradually move towards European densities and that our country is poised for sustained economic growth and sustained growth of our population. This growth will be multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and our systems will have to be configured to avail of this tremendous opportunity.


We have come past the end of the “petroleum century” and are now in the century of sustainable development; our children are in the midst of an explosion of technology that is transforming the way that they communicate and access information. The nomadic peoples of the future will be permanently connected in real time, will be on the internet, will be Skyping their friends in other countries and at little or no costs. The traditional cultural barriers will come down and it will be the norm that your children – my grandchildren – can have close relationships with a circle of friends that routinely spans continents, languages and time-zones.

Education System

What is the school of the future? There are many issues; the one I want to highlight here is the change that must be made and Educate Together is determined to pioneer: fundamental change in our second-level schools. We want to change the way that children are treated in second-level schools. (Instead of the old-fashioned teaching to the test, the tyranny of the right answer). We want to allow young adults to learn in teams, to have their natural talents recognised, address their social skills, their ability to lead, motivate or mediate in teams, and allow them to get marks for this, for their sporting abilities, for their community involvement, their social responsibility, their integrity, creativity and courage. We want to prepare young adults for a real world in which learning is a way of life.

In Conclusion In conclusion, I would like to congratulate and affirm the tremendous work of the ITM, its advocacy and the creative way that it is engaging with its mission. Educate Together is proud to work with your movement in the area of educational reform and in pushing forward the day that our entire system responds to the rights and needs of all children, irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds and provides a supportive space for their identity – whatever that identity is. I look forward to the day when we can see – as a normal part of our school environment – teachers and school leaders who come from our vibrant ethnic minorities, act as role models for and delight in their status and identity. It is my belief that the touchstone for this progress will be when a member of the formally recognised ethnic minority of the Irish Traveller is normally one such teacher or school principal.

Thank you very much.