Making it Work – Supporting Travellers in Third Level Education

Tom Farrelly, Munster Technology University.

This paper draws on my experiences of designing and teaching a course entitled mentoring in education. The programme was primarily designed to offer members of the travelling community a QQI level 6 special-purpose award aimed at providing them with the knowledge and skills that can be employed to support both their own journey and their community’s journey through the education system. The course was a community-driven initiative developed under the auspices of the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) 3 programme, one of the key strands of the HEA’s National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021 (DES 2015).

While engaged pedagogy’s central concern is about what happens in the classroom, I was lucky enough to be able to help inform and shape the course long before I taught the first class as I was the author of the course. One of the defining characteristics of this process was the involvement of members of the Travelling community, both at an individual and representative level in terms of shaping and informing the curriculum, and the teaching and assessment strategy. With the support and crucial involvement of the institutional traveller access officer, two focus groups involving Travellers and Traveller representatives and two online surveys were undertaken as part of the research supporting the development of the course. The feedback from this consultation process primarily impacted the course in four ways: (1) assistance with the identification and articulation of the overall aims and objectives of the programme (2) confirmation of the nature and type of module delivery (3) identification of areas of student support required and (4) broad identification with the content of the two modules. This level of involvement in the design process helped create a greater level of student ownership and ultimately, engagement.

However, regardless of the level of preparation and foresight, I would have to acknowledge that the theme of this year’s conference: ‘Making it Work’ certainly chimed with me. When dealing with marginalised groups, individual educators and their institutions need to be able and prepared to go the extra mile if students are to have a successful and engaging learning experience. An engaged pedagogy is not just about adopting a theoretical approach to teaching, it is about getting the little things right because when you are marginalised the little things can be big and trip you up.

But above all else, my primary lessons were about the quality of the relationships that I established with the students. Bell hooks best characterises it, suggesting that “engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher” (hooks, 2009 p.19). My willingness to share, be open, take risks, and “participate mutually in the work of creating a learning community” (hooks, 2009 p.21) is what ultimately proved to be the most meaningful aspect of my involvement with this group.


hooks, bell. (2009) Teaching Critical Thinking : Practical Wisdom. Florence: Routledge.