The Acting Director of St Mel’s Education and Training Centre for travellers has said the pace at which the facility was closed down came as a massive shock.
The centre on the Battery Road in Longford Town, which provided both practical and mainstream courses for travellers for the last 25 years, closed its doors for the final time last Friday. In the Traveller Education Strategy published in 2006, it was expected training centres would close on a phased basis over 15 years.
Declan Flanagan, who taught at the centre since it opened in 1987, and became Acting Director in December, said EU funding for the centre was due to end in 2013 but the government decided to bring forward the closures of such centres nationwide in last year’s budget.
Despite being deemed no longer necessary by the government, Mr Flanagan believes the centre has played an important role in enhancing the education of travellers in the last quarter of a century. “The greatest change I’ve noticed since we first started in 1987 is one of belief.
“When travellers first arrived in here they would say things like ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I don’t have the brains for that’, almost blaming themselves for not having the opportunity of education. We told them they could do anything as well as anyone else if they were given the chance and the education, and they proved that.”
This change has played a huge part in increasing the awareness of education amongst travellers. “We see now that more and more travellers are staying in school. When we first opened we were dealing primarily with illiteracy and numeracy issues. That’s improved dramatically. For example, we’ve had people doing Leaving Cert exams at Honours English level, which is a huge jump from where we were at the start,” Mr Flanagan added.
In the last edition of the weekly newsletter provided by the Centre, which has been running for 22 years, former-director Sean Stakelum said the work of the centre had played an important part in transforming traveller life in Longford.
“Its real legacy will be the change that it wrought in the minds of local travellers, at a time of great change for them, and the provision of not only a place of education, but of a ‘genuine place’ for travellers in the community for 25 years, where nothing had existed for them before, and where no separate distinct place is now deemed necessary for them,” he wrote.
In the absence of the centres, it is expected for travellers to enter mainstream education channels, such as adult courses offered by the VEC. The desire of the Department of Education for travellers to enter mainstream education was clear when the centres were forced to stop accepting anyone under the age of 18 in 2008.
However, Martin Collins of traveller representative group Pavee Point said the whole process was unstable and abrupt. “We agree with a non-segregated education system but there has been no exit plan and no plan in place to encourage travellers into mainstream education now that these centres are gone. The Department of Education made this decision based on an internal value-for-money review they conducted themselves without consulting any traveller group.”
It is yet to be confirmed what will happen with the centre but Rosemary Johnson, acting CEO of Longford VEC, said the VEC were actively looking at using the centre’s facilities for expanding the courses on offer in Longford.
Mrs Johnson also confirmed five staff who had been working in the Centre will now be reassigned in the coming months.