Leading & Managing, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2018, pp. 44-60

Inclusion and Leadership in Diverse and Challenging Contexts: Irish Travellers and Early Years Education

JOAN HANAFIN Trinity College Dublin & University of Limerick

Email: j.hanafin@ucc.ie

ANNE BOYLE Dublin City University

Email: Anne@funferal.org

LIAM BOYLE Independent Researcher, Galway

Email: Liam.Boyle@gmail.com

MARIE FLYNN Dublin City University

Email: Marie.Flynn@dcu.ie

ABSTRACT: Changing policy discourses and enrolment patterns of minority disadvantaged groups have led increasingly to educational leaders being charged with inclusion, called the major challenge facing educational systems worldwide. This largely qualitative study of Irish Traveller parents and Traveller preschools in Ireland explores inclusion, defined as a response to diversity intended to reduce and eliminate exclusion within and from education. Methods included focus group and individual interviews with Traveller parents, and interviews with teachers and managers. The article is in three parts. The context of Travellers, Traveller education, inclusion and leadership is described. Secondly, data are presented showing that certain recognitive and distributive leadership practices were found to build relational schools and to support a marginalised minority ethnic population to feel included and valued within the educational setting. Specifically, Travellers felt included in the preschools and participated actively; inclusion was strengthened by practices such as intentional cultural representation, open-door policies and warm and supportive attitudes of school staff; and Travellers’ educational experiences and lack of confidence were inhibitors to feeling included. Finally, some points for school leaders wishing to engage inclusively with minority populations are suggested. We conclude that leadership practices can advance or hinder the global inclusion project.

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This article presents some tentative insights about inclusion and leadership in a context of diversity, social exclusion and challenge, drawn from a qualitative study of Irish Traveller parents and Traveller preschools in Ireland. In common with ethnic minority groups worldwide (Kenny & Danaher, 2009), exclusion (and specifically educational exclusion) has been notable in the discourse about Irish Travellers. Globally, in recent decades, changing policy discourses and changing enrolment patterns of minority groups have led increasingly to educational leaders being charged with inclusion in relation to all students and their parents. In fact, inclusion has been named as ‘the major challenge facing educational systems around the world’ (Ainscow, 2005, p. 109).

In Ireland, Traveller education has been marked by distinctive and challenging features and has been the subject of extensive policy consideration and educational intervention. Traveller parents, more than most other parents, have not been included in education and are a hard to reach population. Findings from this article suggest that practices in Traveller preschools – a segregated early years education setting – generated a sense of educational inclusion for Traveller parents. That sense of inclusion and associated practices are described in this article. In giving voice to what Traveller parents have to say (e.g. McCall, 2011) about inclusion, it is hoped that parallels may be drawn that are helpful in other contexts.

This article is in three parts. First, the context of Travellers, Traveller education, inclusion and leadership is outlined. Secondly, findings from a qualitative study of Traveller preschools about inclusion, and supportive practices and inhibitory factors, are presented. Thirdly, some illustrative points for school leaders wishing to engage inclusively with minority population groups are suggested.

Travellers, Traveller Education, Inclusion and Leadership

Irish Travellers The Irish Traveller community, a distinct cultural group and traditionally nomadic, was first formally recognised as an ethnic minority in Ireland in 2017 (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2017). Historically and contemporaneously, Travellers have experienced social exclusion and disadvantage in many domains, including education, health, housing, employment, leisure, and media reporting (Boyle, 2014; Devine, Kenny & Macneela, 2008; Equality Authority, 2006; Harmon, 2015; Lodge & Lynch, 2004; Watson, Kenny & McGinnity, 2017). Travellers are severely under-represented in positions of power or influence in Irish society, and they are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination, with MacGréil (1996, 2011) finding that attitudes to Travellers in Ireland represent a classic case of severe anti-minority prejudice.

According to the Irish Census of Population 2016 (Central Statistics Office (CSO), 2016), there are approximately 30,000 Travellers living in Ireland, accounting for 0.65% of the population. Almost 60% of Travellers are aged under 25 years, compared with just 33.4% of the general population. Among 15–29 year olds, 31.9% of Travellers are married compared with 5.8% in the general population. The unemployment rate for Travellers is over 80%, more than eight times the rate for non-Travellers (<9%) (CSO, 2106). The majority of Travellers live in overcrowded conditions (56% versus 8% of non-Travellers). Health outcomes are poor within the community (All Ireland Traveller Health Study Team (AITH), 2010). Mortality is higher at every age for Travellers, and child mortality is almost four times that of the general population (CSO, 2016). Life expectancy for Traveller males is almost 15 years less than that of the majority population, while females lag by 11 years. Travellers are more prone to a range of chronic diseases and risk factors, and smoking prevalence rates are particularly high, with

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more than 1 in 2 Travellers smoking compared with less than 1 in 5 non-Travellers (Watson, Kenny & McGinnity, 2017). Suicide among Traveller men is also very high, more than seven times that of non-Traveller men (Watson, Kenny & McGinnity, 2017). In short, prevalence rates of early mortality, disability and morbidity are higher among the Traveller community, and they widen with age, suggesting that a process of cumulative disadvantage operates over time, whereby a lifetime of more challenging experiences combines to produce poorer outcomes (Watson, Kenny & McGinnity, 2017).

Traveller education The relationship between Travellers and the education system has been fraught with difficulties. Prior to the 1960s, Travellers saw little relevance in school learning. Their nomadic culture meant that they did not stay for long in any one place. At the same time, schools made few attempts to adapt to the needs of Travellers. There were extremely low levels of enrolment and poor attendance and achievement for those who did enrol (Government of Ireland, 1963). In the decades since, a general socio-cultural shift in Ireland towards more inclusive legislation, policy, and practice as regards diverse and minority groups has led to many reports and initiatives aimed at improving Travellers’ experiences within the education system.

Notwithstanding the considerable policy and legislative changes in relation to Travellers in the last 60 years (Boyle, Flynn & Hanafin, 2018), educational disadvantage has scarcely abated. Attainment among Travellers continues to lag significantly behind that of the general population (Watson, Kenny & McGinnity, 2017). The Irish Census 2016 (CSO, 2016) shows that just 13.3% of Traveller females were educated to upper secondary level or above, compared with almost 7 in 10 (69.1%) of the general population. Only 8% of Travellers have completed secondary education compared with 73% of non-Travellers. Nearly 6 in 10 male Travellers (57%) were educated to primary level at most, compared with just 13.6% of the general population. Only 167 Travellers possessed a third-level qualification, although this was almost double the 2011 Census figure.

Irish policy context and inclusion A brief account of the trajectory of Irish state policy regarding Travellers in Ireland sets the scene for the early years education initiative that is the focus of this article. In Ireland, the years between 1960 and the present witnessed an evolution in official state attitudes towards the Irish Traveller community, and specifically towards Traveller education (Boyle, Flynn & Hanafin, 2018). This evolution reflected, and occurred in parallel with, and in response to, evolving cultural paradigms within the Irish state. Ireland emerged in the 1960s and 1970s from a society dominated by Catholic Church teaching to become a modern welfare state, a process that continued with Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 (O’Sullivan, 2005). In early government reports, Travellers were seen as being a people in deficit – a community of dropouts and deviants – and their culture was not perceived to have any validity or importance. Later documents demonstrated a growing recognition of Traveller culture and a stated determination to address issues concerning the education of Travellers in a spirit of interculturalism and inclusion, understood as ‘integrated education’ (Boyle, Flynn & Hanafin, 2018).

This evolution in attitudes was matched by parallel developments in Irish state policies. Earlier paternalistic and assimilationist policies and approaches were replaced by concepts of partnership and participation that recognised that Travellers had a right to be involved in decisions that affected them. Worthy as these objectives were, and notwithstanding the significant paradigm shifts evident in the evolution of policy about Travellers and education,

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much remains to be achieved, including the need to acknowledge Traveller culture within the education system, and, indeed, within Irish society generally.

Throughout this period, the language of Irish state policy about Traveller education reflected international use of the concept of inclusion that captured the educational imagination in the 1990s, replacing the concept of integration (Vislie, 2003). Some questioned whether the focus on inclusion rather than integration represented a linguistic shift rather than a new educational policy agenda. Nonetheless, there were moves in policy and practice to respond to the ‘diversity within a common school for all students’ (Vislie, 2003, p. 17). Legislative, policy and practice interventions coincided with these terminological and conceptual changes. In Ireland, these included not only legislation that prohibited educational discrimination against Travellers (Lodge & Lynch, 2004) but also the provision of targeted education for particular groups, such as Travellers, including the preschools that were the subject of this study.

We recognise that, in some places, inclusive education is thought of as being an approach to serving children with disabilities within general education settings (Suleymanov, 2015). Internationally, however, it is increasingly seen more broadly as a reform that supports and welcomes diversity among all learners (Ainscow, 1995). An analysis of the concept of ‘inclusion’ shows it to be used interchangeably with concepts of integration, mainstreaming, and inclusive education (Suleymanov, 2015). A discussion of the latter concepts is not pertinent here as the educational setting for this study was a segregated one, within which practices that generated a sense of inclusion among the Traveller parents were evident.

For the purposes of this article, we take a terminological lead from special education with the view that the term ‘inclusion’ shifts the focus from the child to the school, and that ‘inclusion’ conveys an endeavour to end discrimination and to work towards equal opportunities for all (Winter & O’Raw, 2010). Thus, we understand inclusion to be less about placement and more about a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all children, youth and adults (including parents) with a view to ‘reducing and eliminating exclusion within and from education’ (Suleymanov, 2015, p. 4). In this light, Travellers’ experiences of the preschools, reported in this article, suggest that these ‘protected enclaves’ (Chávez, 2011, p. 1) have something to offer in naming practices that support and strengthen inclusion, for Travellers and for minority ethnic and other diverse communities.

Leadership We take the view in this article that leadership can only be understood within the context in which it is exercised, the ‘simple yet profound observation’ on which Gillett, Clarke and O’Donoghue (2016, p. 592) predicate their observations on leadership in challenging contexts. The educational context for this article is both challenging and rare – a specialist early years education setting for Travellers, an ethnic minority in Ireland who, historically and contemporaneously, have experienced social and educational exclusion, narrated primarily through the accounts of Traveller parents whose children attended the Traveller pre-schools.

Accounts of school leadership, grounded in everyday practice that go beyond some generic heuristics for suggested practices are difficult to find (Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2004). Additionally, accounts of school leadership depend, for the most part, on the voices of school leaders; a group often narrowly defined as school managers and principal teachers. On this latter point, we take our lead from Spillane, Halverson and Diamond (2004) who include classroom teachers and others when narrating accounts of leadership in schools. In doing so, we hope that we shine some light on the ‘blind spot’ (Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2004, p. 4) that suggests school leadership is synonymous with the principal, by not ignoring other sources of leadership in schools, in particular classroom teachers.

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In this article, we do not offer a detailed account of leadership practices from the school leaders’ perspectives. Instead, we offer insights from Traveller parents about everyday leadership practices – those of both school managers and school teachers – that helped Travellers to feel included in schools. The raison d’être for the global charge for inclusion is the exclusion or marginalisation of some populations. The silent (or silenced) voices of these populations are a function of this exclusion. In giving voice to a largely unheard group (McCall, 2011), we go further than usual accounts by describing what inclusive school leadership looks like, and feels like, from the perspective of one group among those at whom the global charge for inclusion is directed.

The accounts presented in this article from Traveller parents – a rarely-heard minority and excluded group – in a specific educational context, about quotidien broadly-constructed leadership practices that support their sense of feeling included and valued will, we hope, contribute something to understanding what happens at the nexus of inclusion, leadership, and ethnic minorities in challenging contexts. Methodology

Setting for the research: Traveller preschools In Ireland, Traveller preschools were among the initiatives aimed at improving educational outcomes for Travellers. These developed in the dual context of government policy about Traveller education and the emergence of international research in the 1960s identifying benefits for minority and disadvantaged groups that might be gained from a high-quality supported preschool intervention. The preschools were set up in the early 1970s by voluntary committees, with financial support from the Department of Education. By 2002, there were 52 Traveller preschools around the country (Department of Education & Science (DES), 2003). The inclusion of Traveller parents in the preschools was a policy focus throughout. A departmental evaluation of the preschools (DES, 2003) recommended that parents of children attending the preschools be elected to management committees, and that each preschool draw up parental involvement policies, in consultation with parents and sensitive to Traveller culture. Traveller support services in Ireland were sorely affected by the economic downturn of the late 2000s, and government funding for Traveller preschools ceased in 2011 (Boyle, Flynn & Hanafin, 2018). This reflected occurrences in other countries where economic cuts mean that children at the margins such as Traveller students suffer most. In the UK, for example, the savage reduction in Traveller education services has been described as one of the most alarming outcomes of austerity politics (Ryder, 2017).

Research approach, sample, methods, analysis Qualitative research prioritises process rather than outcome and allows for an emphasis on meaning (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). A qualitative approach was deemed appropriate within this study as it allowed for the generation of understanding about the specific experiences of Traveller parents as they dealt with, and made sense of, their interactions with Traveller preschools. Participants in the study comprised Traveller parents of children attending specialist Traveller preschools as well as Traveller preschool managers and teachers.

Interviews and focus groups were used to research participants’ views using a prepared guide that contained questions for Traveller parents, focusing on their experiences of, and involvement in, Traveller preschools; and questions for managers and teachers about their experiences of Traveller parents in the Traveller preschools. Six individual interviews and six focus group interviews were held with a total of 36 Traveller parents at 10 sites across the

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country. Individual interviews were conducted with five teachers and three preschool managers, and 21 teachers completed a questionnaire survey.

Informed consent was given by all participants and ethical approval was received from the Dublin City University (DCU) Research Ethics Committee. A description of the research in plain English was set out in writing and verbally before each interview, to ensure that participants with varying levels of literacy were made aware of the purpose of the research. For participant confidentiality, pseudonyms were used for participants and names of school sites in the research were changed.

A thematic analysis approach was employed to analyse the data (Braun & Clarke, 2008). The recordings from the interviews and focus groups were transcribed verbatim. The analysis of each data set began with each transcript being read in its entirety before notes were made outlining any interesting comments or findings. From there, codes were generated from each transcript in order to generate a list of initial themes. These preliminary themes were then reviewed separately and together by the authors, and refined and subsequently compared and contrasted in order to present the final findings. Three main themes emerged in relation to leadership practices and inclusion: the nature and extent of inclusion in the preschools; school culture and staff practices that strengthened inclusion; and reported barriers to inclusion.

The research reported in this article presents some methodological limitations, especially in terms of its unusual educational context and generalisability. At the same time, features of this specific and rare educational context allowed us to extract and illuminate leadership practices that supported a marginalised ethnic minority in experiencing a positive sense of educational inclusion, a key element of the global inclusion project. In this regard, Gillett, Clarke and O’Donoghue (2016) draw on the notion of user generalisability (Burns, 1994) to suggest that the findings may serve to encourage others involved with hard to reach populations to reflect on their own experiences as school leaders, and perhaps enable them to derive new insights, understandings and meanings.


This section is in three parts. First, we present evidence that indicates that Travellers felt included in the preschools. We then identify practices that support and strengthen inclusion, and barriers that inhibit inclusion. Inclusion and its associated practices were identified through Travellers’ own reports, with complementary evidence from managers and teachers in the schools.

The nature and extent of inclusion A sense of belonging, feeling respected, being valued, and feeling a level of supportive energy are important indicators of inclusion (Miller & Katz, 2002). As well as being actively involved in the life of the preschools, Travellers in this study reported feelings of belonging, being respected, valued and supported, and ease. The Traveller preschools were a Traveller- only setting in which parents felt comfortable and accepted. This was evident in the nature and extent of parental contact with the preschools.

The all-Traveller nature of the preschools, their location within the community (adjacent to Traveller halting sites or on group housing schemes for Travellers), and the long-standing relationships that families had with the preschools all contributed to parents reporting a sense of belonging within their preschools. Parents were part of the fabric of the schools, a pattern described in detail by parents, teachers and managers. Parents were frequently in the preschools, for many formal and informal reasons. They came to enrol their children, and to drop and collect them. They visited routinely when invited by the teacher: for parent-teacher

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meetings; open mornings; school tours 1; plays and parties. They dropped in informally, to enquire about a child’s progress or to provide information about a child.

Parents reported that they could talk easily to teachers and staff members, and that they could call to the school when they wanted to do so. This ease of communication and access was associated with feeling included in, and being a legitimate part of, the school community. In general, communication was good:

I’d feel comfortable. . . . I find that I can talk to [the preschool teacher] easier than what you can do to the other teachers [in the primary schools]. [They] don’t seem to understand as much. . . . You’d get a straight answer [in the preschool]. There’s a different vibe in it. (Orla, parent)

Inclusion involves providing encouragement and opportunities ‘to actively participate’ (Agyei, 2016, p. 10). Parents took part in many classroom activities, including decision making regarding curriculum. Lily (manager) described a teacher seeking approval and information from parents about the representation of Traveller culture within the preschool. She respected the input from parents on cultural issues, saying: ‘Without the parents we wouldn’t know’. In some preschools, parents helped in the classroom. One preschool had a system whereby ‘parents attend on a rota basis and are familiar with the routine and . . . curriculum’ (Tríona, teacher). Here, parents worked with groups of children as well as with their own child. In two further preschools, parents helped to settle their children in at the beginning of the year. Although their involvement was minimal, it allowed them to gain some familiarity with the operation of the preschool. One teacher noted the opportunities that this practice provided for ‘telling parents about what’s happening in school and encourages them to do the same [at home]’.

As well as being invited to participate in classrooms, Traveller parents did work placements in classrooms, some as part of a childcare course. Annie (parent) described this: ‘We are doing a childcare course. We used to be going in day by day. We used to be encouraged to go in and help’. Michelle (manager) described the situation in her preschool where a Traveller woman, who was not a mother of any of the preschool class, completed her work placement in the preschool:

We did have a Traveller student on work experience here; there’s great advantages. . . . She worked out well. . . . It was great because the thing I noticed [was that] . . . the Traveller children knew her so they would look for a lot of help off her. . . . We had the impression that it was very settling for them . . . very helpful for them to have somebody that they know. Parents were also involved in extra-curricular activities. For example, several preschools held school tours, and parents sometimes helped to organise these and also helped out on the day.

Parental involvement in school management is an important aspect of inclusion, as it acknowledges parents as partners in education, and it includes them in decision making. Although parents were represented on almost half of the management committees, focus groups and individual interviews with parents revealed little knowledge of management among them. One preschool had a developed system for including parents in decision making, whereby parents were represented on the management committee by representatives whom they elected themselves and these parents had good knowledge of management and the role of representative bodies. This example of good practice evolved with careful planning, and it introduced the parents to the notion of ownership of the preschool. It resulted in a group of confident, involved parents.

1 School tours are short outings or excursions that schools organise for schoolchildren, supervised by school staff and usually lasting for several hours during the school day, to places of interest such as historical sites, museums, and recreational facilities.

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In terms of parents’ committees, not all parents were active and those who were were mainly mothers. This is not unusual as, regardless of social class, maternal involvement far exceeds paternal involvement in schools (O’Donoghue, 2013). However, John (parent) did suggest that fathers would attend ‘if a few more went’, so an explicit outreach to fathers may be needed. Whalley (2007) found that, while mothers believed that their partners would not want to be involved, the fathers actually responded positively to an explicit invitation.

In summary, parents were included in the preschools in numerous ways, evidenced not only in their reports of feeling included, but also in the range of activities in which they were involved, and in the high level of comfort and ease that they expressed regarding their interactions with schools and teachers.

Practices supporting inclusion Three practices – widely evident in Traveller preschool culture and staff practices – strengthened inclusion and were important to Travellers in terms of feeling included and positive about the schools: recognition and valuing of Traveller culture; open-door policies; and attitudes of school personnel (teachers and managers).

Representation of Traveller culture Recognition of Traveller culture was evident in the preschools. Teachers and managers understood the pride that Travellers have in their Traveller identity. Tríona (teacher) spoke of how this was apparent, particularly regarding weddings, funerals, first communions and other events, and how she included this within the preschool:

We celebrate. . . . We’d have a special day. They’d bring in their own video, their weddings and their christenings and all that. We’d have everything there to do with them. Last week there we had all to do with the different things they sent in. They love that. . . . It’s great. Curricular inclusion was manifested in many ways, including: the visibility of symbols/traditions; materials and educational resources; the introduction of the Traveller language of Cant; and consultations with parents about culture.

Most of the preschools tried to reflect Traveller culture, in the toys and materials that they used, and in their preschool activities. They used posters, jigsaws and books with themes of particular interest to Travellers, such as horses, trailers and the Cant language. Parents reported that Cant had been introduced in several preschools and they were supportive of this. Síle (parent) stated that it was important to reflect Traveller culture in the preschool:

Because it’s a Traveller preschool, I think Traveller culture is really important and they do things of Traveller culture in different ways. They have themes of horses, caravans. . . . Because it is a Traveller preschool, I think it’s very important that Travellers have that space for Travellers – Traveller culture – and they know it but just to get them learning about it in school makes them familiarise with school. Síle added: ‘I think when you go into that preschool you should know automatically looking around the room that it is a Traveller preschool’.

Some parents were not interested in the inclusion of Traveller culture, seeing the passing on of cultural tradition as being the remit of the home. On this, Lucy said:

It wouldn’t bother me to be honest because we have our own tradition at home and there’s things that we like, say, horses, wagons. If they are on television, we watch them. Representation and valuing of Traveller culture were important, but nuanced. Parents differed in their views concerning the inclusion of Traveller culture within primary and secondary schools, with some believing that it was vital, while others feared that they had to choose between cultural recognition and a good education. Some also believed that references to

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Traveller culture in primary and secondary classrooms would cause settled children to ridicule Traveller children.

Consultations with parents were an important part of cultural recognition. According to Cáit (parent):

The teacher and manager will tell the parents what they are going to do concerning, say, Traveller culture and ask if the parents agree and if they are going about it the proper way. The idea of Travellers themselves mediating or teaching aspects of Traveller culture to children was proposed. Grace (parent) suggested that there should be a Traveller on the staff of the preschool: ‘...it would be good if a Traveller was in there because they know what Travellers teach; a settled person wouldn’t really know the values as much as the Traveller’. Similarly, other parents suggested that the Traveller childcare worker could teach the Traveller traditions, or that they themselves could go into the preschool to do this. Sara (parent) said: ‘Bring in a Traveller, bring in parents. That’s what they do in [local secondary school]. I’d do it. I’d have no problem talking to the children here’. Orla (parent) suggested that an older Traveller could be brought in, saying that ‘old people know more, like’.

Open-door practices The willingness of schools to have parents present and involved in classrooms plays an important role in shaping not only parents’ participation, but also parents’ beliefs about how welcome and included they are (Soodak & Erwin, 2000). Open-door policies were a key practice of inclusion in Traveller preschools, meaning that parents could come to the school or to the classroom, without a formal appointment, to ask questions, get advice, discuss children’s progress, report problems, etc. In many preschools, this meant that parents were free to visit whenever they wished in order to raise issues, to seek information or just to see what was going on. John (parent) told of how he occasionally dropped into the preschool that his children attended: ‘I just go down, dropping the kids off in the morning. Stuff like that. There you see the nice buzz around the place, happy environment’.

The open-door policy was so strong in some schools that it extended to out-of-school hours. Tríona (teacher) said that her preschool was open and welcoming and that she and her staff were also available to parents outside preschool hours:

We always say we have an open door and they’ll come in and have a cup of tea, which they often do, especially if they want to talk. They’ll come in and they’ll phone you up at night-time and have their chat on the phone.

The open-door policy was not perceived in the same way by all parents. While some parents felt welcome to visit the school and speak with the teacher, others felt that they would intrude on teachers’ busy schedules. The comments of Maeve and Deirdre illustrated differing perspectives on the same experience. Maeve explained: ‘I wouldn’t come in and ask how he got on. . . . They do be always busy with all the kids’. Deirdre, on the other hand, did not perceive such an obstacle for parents: ‘It’s always very open. . . . [The parent] comes here to the door and [the teacher] always goes out and have a little word. . . . You couldn’t get nicer. You’re always welcome’.

The frequency of contact led to some schools restricting the open-door policy. Nuala (teacher) said of the open-door policy: ‘I did at times find it challenging and it did hold me back. . . . They did join in with the work, but I still found they would be interrupting to tell me stories’. Such examples suggest a need to strike a balance with regard to parents’ use of the ‘open door’.

Traveller preschools provided many and repeated invitations and opportunities for parents to be involved in the life of the school so that, even in preschools with more restrictive open- door policies, parents still felt the freedom to speak with the teacher. Tara (parent) said: ‘If

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you want to see the teacher, you’d go in and ask her how the child is getting on. . . . If you wanted to ask the teacher, she’d tell you exactly what they do’.

The presence of open-door policies led to parents believing that they were welcome in the school or classroom. Parents felt like valued members of the school community rather than tolerated participants (Soodak & Erwin, 2000), supporting a sense of inclusion rather than exclusion for Traveller parents.

Attitudes of school staff Teachers’ and managers’ attitudes towards Travellers were the third prominent feature associated with a sense of inclusion. Families’ proclivity to be involved in schools is influenced by the strength of the relationships that children’s teachers and caregivers develop with parents (Knopf & Swick, 2007). Our research suggests that, for the minority Traveller population, such relationships are fostered when parents experience easy access to warm and respectful teaching and managerial staff members, and this is the case even when open-door practices are somewhat restricted.

Warm and respectful attitudes led Traveller parents to feel valued, welcome, and important members of the preschool community. Teachers and managers were mindful of communicating values of respect and equality. Michelle (manager) had regular contact with Traveller parents and she described her preschool as having a ‘very strong value base here as well, around equality and meeting people’s needs’.

Parents were keenly attuned to how teachers interacted with them, and they described how important it was to feel welcome. Parents’ feelings of being made welcome were mediated through the words and actions of teachers. They included teachers’ initial greetings to them, their body language, their offers of hospitality and what parents deemed to be ‘respectful’ attitudes.

Respect for, and acceptance of, Travellers and their culture were manifested through the openness and welcome experienced by the parents. Parents interpreted knowledge and acceptance of Traveller culture as being respect for them. Orla (parent) described this: ‘It’s very comfortable here. . . . When I come in here, I get the world of respect from that teacher. She knows I’m a Traveller, she knows my culture, like with the kids, the same thing’. Knowledge and respect for Traveller culture, their rights as parents, as well as relationship building were important to make Travellers feel included. Lily, a preschool manager, had a good knowledge of and respect for Traveller culture. She described the circumstances in the preschool when she took up her post as childcare manager:

When I first came here, there was very little parental involvement and I think the first year when you work you have to get to know people before you can actually come in and make changes. . . . You have to meet people, get to know them, build up relationships with them, sort out how they feel they could be part of it. Lily was committed to creating ways to engage parents in the preschool and thus to promote a greater knowledge of preschool education. She felt that parents had a right to involvement and through this they could contribute to and influence the work of the preschool.

An additional factor in trust building with parents was that many of the teachers had long years of experience within Traveller preschools. For example, three teachers had an average of 21 years each in their respective preschools. The teachers built trusting relationships with parents over many years and with different children, making it easier for the parents to leave their small children with them.

These three features of Traveller preschools – recognition of, and respect for, Traveller culture; open-door policies; and teacher attitude – were important for supporting the inclusion of Traveller parents in the schools and may have applicability across other diverse and

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challenging educational settings. There were also some barriers to Traveller parents feeling included in, and able to engage with, schools. These are now briefly discussed.

Barriers Barriers to feeling included in school life and activities included Travellers’ recollections of their own poor educational experiences and also their felt lack of competence, knowledge and literacy in their current interactions with schools. Sally had left school without literacy skills, and she was aware of the cultural and social differences between herself and Nuala, the teacher. Sally was accustomed to a lack of acknowledgement of, and respect for, her Traveller identity in the wider community. It was different in the preschool, she said, and she also contrasted the preschool with the primary school, where many parents reported negative experiences:

There’s a welcome there for you. There’s no objection the minute you walk in, shake hands, a big smile on the face, ‘Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?’, it means a lot. . . . [The primary school is] not as [welcoming] as the preschool. (Sally, parent) Difficulties arise when parents do not feel confident enough to get involved. John (parent) suggested that lack of educational achievement among Traveller adults can affect their confidence. He said, ‘The parents have a lack of education themselves and they have low confidence level . . . so it’s very hard to get involved in parents’ committees and stuff like that’. Sara (parent) commented on the need to counteract the lack of education: ‘You’d want a good education for that. . . . If the words were broken down and we understood them in our own way [it would be better]’. Explicit outreach and support, with close attention to the language used, are necessary to ensure participation.

Hannah (parent), referring to the primary school board of management, also spoke of her lack of confidence:

I’d never put myself forward in a million years. I wouldn’t like to be in it, to tell you the truth. I’d be no good in it. No, I wouldn’t like to be in it. They’d be coming up with this thing and that thing. You mightn’t have an answer. John (parent) also mentioned the discrimination that Travellers experience in society, with a resulting lack of confidence, as being reasons why Traveller parents might be reluctant to volunteer for committees:

Society in general don’t want the Traveller community . . . so it’s very hard to get involved in parents’ committees and stuff like that. Tara (parent) offered practical reasons against engaging:

I find my time taken up. . . . I only have four [children] but between washing and cleaning. . . . I nearly always have appointments with doctors and that. The time just goes.

Thus, parents were reluctant to involve themselves in management because of lack of education, lack of confidence and lack of time owing to family commitments. Travellers’ own educational experiences and their reported lack of experience and confidence were the most salient barriers to their inclusion. Their endurance of lifetimes of exclusion and alienation requires that schools reach out repeatedly with an understanding of this exclusion and alienation, in line with the understanding of inclusion not as a one-time but as a routine process (Agyei, 2016). Travellers’ poor literacy levels point to a need for schools to ensure plain language usage and linguistic sensitivity and support for parents, in general and particularly on management committees.

Inclusion and Leadership in Diverse and Challenging Contexts: Irish Travellers ... 55

Discussion of Findings

Inclusion, leadership and relational schools Global educational reform is required if schooling is to be truly inclusive (Rogers, 2012). It is educational leaders – broadly understood – who carry the weight of the exigencies of reform and inclusion. Among these are requirements to create ‘relational schools’, three crucial aspects of which are relational trust, connectionist pedagogies, and an inclusive curriculum (Smyth, Down & McInerney 2010, p. 199). In relational schools, pupils feel included and believe that their ideas and work make a difference. In our study, school managers and teachers worked hard to achieve relational schools. This was visible in how they built trust with Traveller parents and children over time, put effort into pedagogical approaches that connected with Traveller pupils and their parents, and developed and utilised curriculum materials that recognised and valued Travellers and their culture. Some key features of this study made visible how such relational schools were built, in particular the segregated setting of Traveller-only schools and the combination of recognitive and distributive leadership practices being implemented. These are now briefly discussed.

The value of a segregated educational setting Traveller education in Ireland constitutes a challenging educational context for historic and contemporary reasons of Travellers’ educational and social exclusion and also for their continued experiences of prejudice and marginalisation and associated lack of trust and confidence in the education system and in society. Features associated with challenging school contexts include internal factors such as high staff turnover, poor facilities, falling pupil numbers, low teacher expectations, and external factors that encompass pupils’ home lives and financial, transport, and attendance matters (Gillett, Clarke & O’Donoghue, 2016). As Traveller-only preschools had long-standing, experienced and committed staff and specialist resources, the internal features (those to do with the schools themselves) of challenging educational contexts were largely obviated in the case of the schools in this study. The Traveller-only setting thus allowed for a ‘paring back’ of the challenging context, reducing the conceptual ‘noise’ caused by staffing and resourcing problems and the privileging of majoritarian insiders (Ryder, 2017), and making more visible what constituted an inclusive educational environment for Travellers.

Recognitive and distributive leadership practices A major advantage of the unique Traveller-only setting in this study, therefore, was that it helped us to see clearly two important sets of leadership practices that helped Travellers to feel included in their educational setting, namely recognitive and distributive leadership practices (Devine, 2013; Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2004). The recognitive leadership practices of school managers and teachers included the many ways in which Traveller children, parents and culture were recognised. This study also showed the importance of distributive leadership practices, evident in the many ways in which school leadership extended beyond the role of the principal to include the actions of teachers and others in creating an inclusive environment for a marginalised ethnic community.

Personalised recognition, attention, and sincere appreciation are known to be effective leadership tools and, as previously found with employees (Luthans, 2000), Traveller parents placed a high value on these practices. School leaders in the Traveller preschools, both managers and teachers, demonstrated multiple ways of practising recognition, attention, and appreciation. Additionally, the skills and resources of managers and teachers but also of Traveller parents were brought to bear in the creation of what was experienced as an inclusive

56 Joan Hanafin, Anne Boyle, Liam Boyle & Marie Flynn

environment. Travellers felt recognised at a personal level. Staff knew their names and their families and they partook vicariously in family events, whether First Communion or family weddings. They not only recognised them but showed an interest in, and appreciation of, them.

At a school level, parents were recognised by being invited into the classroom, to visit, to speak, to assist, to work. Parents were included in the extra-curricular life of the school, supporting homework and accompanying on school outings. Parents’ efforts were recognised, praised and rewarded, whether it was their help with children’s homework, children’s school work, or their work on school committees. At a cultural level, Traveller culture was recognised and appreciated. Traveller culture, including Traveller values, language and mores, was spoken about with warmth, represented in the school environment, and included in the instructional domain.

In an analysis of distributive leadership practices, Spillane, Halverson and Diamond (2004) show how leadership tasks are distributed across formal leaders, teachers, and followers, and how their various skills are identified and utilised. A model of distributive leadership requires numerous leaders who ‘work together, each bringing somewhat different resources – skills, knowledge, and perspectives – to bear’ (Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2004, p. 18). In the Traveller preschools, Traveller parents’ skills, knowledge and perspectives were identified, utilised and appreciated, thereby making them an important element of the leadership contingent.

Implications for Good Practice: Inclusive Leadership

Leadership practices in the context of schools charged with including minority groups may be recognitive – fostering recognition and positive visibility of ‘others’; or distributive – implementation of policies, through the investment of time and resources, to support teaching and learning for diversity (Devine, 2013, p. 396). For school leaders who wish to engage inclusively with minority groups in diverse and challenging contexts, a number of illustrative points are now suggested regarding practices that support inclusion.

For teachers Travellers are an indigenous minority group in Irish society. This research study showed the importance of teachers’ consciousness of being respectful of Travellers and Traveller culture, and of this being apparent to parents. As regards the representation of Traveller culture, it was agreed by parents, managers and teachers that Traveller children need to see their reality reflected in classrooms. Any representation of Traveller culture should, however, be based on dialogue with parents, as this is the only way that it can be authentic. Inclusion of minority cultures should be part of an overall strategy of inclusiveness in schools, as issues of recognition and representation differ in integrated services when compared with Traveller- only preschools, which were the focus of this study.

There should be positive expectations for all children. It is important that curriculum materials – books, posters and so on – do not stereotype Travellers, nor exoticise them. Practitioners need to ensure that their services do not reflect popular prejudices. They need to recognise that anti-Traveller name-calling is hurtful, and that all bullying and name-calling behaviours need to be tackled.

Services should involve parents to the maximum extent possible. This study showed the willingness of parents to involve themselves when given the opportunity. It is important to develop involvement practices that are meaningful and of benefit to Traveller parents. Services should be warm and welcoming, but it is not enough just to say that there is an open- door policy, as this may be experienced differently by different parents. Parents need to be

Inclusion and Leadership in Diverse and Challenging Contexts: Irish Travellers ... 57

invited explicitly and regularly to engage with the service. It is equally necessary to be sensitive to the challenges to involvement that parents face. The demands placed on them should not be onerous or excessively time-consuming. There is also a need for awareness of the varying literacy abilities of Traveller parents.

For school managers and administrators Many of the implications for practitioners carry equal force in relation to the management and administration. It is managers who must resource and support the efforts of practitioners to ensure that educational provision is respectful and inclusive of Travellers and that it seeks to involve Traveller parents. Policies for inclusion need to be put in place to ensure that inclusion is not just a token concept. Rather, practices that generate a sense of inclusion should be incorporated into the everyday operation of the school, leading to a visible process that is not one-time but routine. Parental involvement policies need to embrace all parents, and need to recognise that some Traveller parents may be reticent and may need encouragement to become involved.

In relation to involving parents in decision making, the election of parents to management committees is an important step. Management committees should be as informal as possible and use plain English, to ensure that parent representatives can contribute. In an integrated service it may be unlikely that parent representatives would be drawn from a minority group, such as the Traveller community. Additional appropriate local interventions may be needed in these contexts. In order to ensure contributions from as wide a range of parents as possible, the development of parents’ committees should be pursued. While this can be challenging for a service, this research showed that it can be a success.

Where Traveller parents are involved in decision making, they must be allowed to advocate for their needs. Management should also consider how they might involve Travellers as staff members. Traveller preschools in this study provided opportunities for individual Travellers, whose level of education would not have been high, to participate as childcare assistants. These opportunities are lost in an integrated setting unless positive action is taken to train members of the Traveller community for these positions. This would create a more inclusive environment for all children and would help to bridge the gap for Traveller children between their homes and the services.

Managers and teachers in Traveller preschools demonstrated that practices of engaging each individual and making people feel valued were essential to the success of the preschool endeavour, thus showing that they understood inclusion not as a one-time process but rather as a routine process (Agyei, 2016).


The inclusion project remains unfinished and conflicting positions prevail about Traveller education. Analyses present it as a ‘civilising’ agent with an assimilationist intent and equally as a means by which Travellers can achieve equality, greater self-reliance, and hence greater cultural autonomy (Foster & Cemlyn, 2012; Ryder, 2017). Ryder (2017) argues that the challenge for schools in the 21st century is to offer learning environments that allow Travellers (and other minorities) to maintain their identity, but also to acquire new and adapt old skills. This, he says, is the work of inclusive schooling. A prerequisite for such inclusive schooling is partnership and dialogue, based on recognition and redistribution. Educationally inclusive schools offer new opportunities to pupils who may have experienced previous difficulties, and take account of students’ varied life experiences and needs.

58 Joan Hanafin, Anne Boyle, Liam Boyle & Marie Flynn

Traveller preschools in Ireland provided targeted early years education for children of the Traveller community. With the re-direction of available resources, and a shift in policy and practice towards integrated settings, such separate provision no longer exists. Integrated settings are often termed inclusive, but such settings do not equal inclusion for all. Segregated settings can teach us something about what inclusion means for minority and marginalised populations. The Traveller preschools are one such example, showing how separate provision generated a sense of inclusion for Travellers, for whom social and educational contexts have long been challenging and alienating. In this article, lessons are drawn from Traveller preschools that may transfer to mainstream ‘inclusive’ settings.

Practices to support inclusion set out to ensure that people feel that they belong, are engaged and are connected (Agyei, 2016). The success of inclusion practices in this early years education environment was indicated by how positive Travellers were about the preschools, seeing them as ‘protected enclaves’ where they felt welcomed, accepted and part of the community; where they experienced cultural value and representation; and where they made meaningful contributions to the school. This study has shown that relational schools are founded on recognitive and distributive leadership practices, and how such practices support a sense of inclusion for marginalised people.

Among the recognitive practices supporting inclusion were intentional representation and valuing of Traveller culture, and warmth, welcome, and respect on the part of teachers and managers. Distributive practices that enabled Traveller parents to become part of the leadership contingent in Traveller preschools were also important. Thus, we conclude that leadership practices may advance or hinder the global inclusion project.

However, Travellers’ own educational experiences and lack of confidence were barriers to a sense of inclusion and it was not easy for preschools to ensure parental inclusion. Parents, teachers and managers were all supportive of the inclusion of Traveller parents, especially on management committees, but they pointed out various obstacles to achieving this.

Nonetheless, overall, Traveller parents reported that the culture and environment of the preschools facilitated their inclusion in this distinctive educational setting. In giving voice to what Traveller parents, and teachers and managers in Traveller preschools in Ireland have to say about practices that support inclusion, it is hoped that parallels may be drawn that are helpful for school leaders in other social, geographical, educational and cultural contexts.


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