Traveller and Roma children are significantly more likely to be placed on reduced school days by their schools compared to settled children, new figures have shown.

Data gathered by child support agency Tusla shows that primary schools are four times more likely to reduce the length of the school day for a Traveller or Roma child.

Those children are 12 times more likely to have their school hours cut at second level, and Traveller or Roma children attending special schools are more than 22 times more likely to be told to attend for fewer hours or days.

Traveller representatives told RTÉ News that they are upset and infuriated by the data.

A reduced school day is when a school decides that a child should start their school day later than the other children in their class, ends it earlier or attends for fewer days of the week.

Tusla guidelines state that the practice should only be used in exceptional circumstances - such as in the case of a child suffering mental health difficulties - and only for a short and transitional period of time.

It should not be employed as a sanction or as a behaviour management tool, the guidelines add.

Data gathered over the course of the last school year however shows that Traveller and Roma children are massively over-represented in the cohort of children who are placed on reduced hours.

While 0.08% of settled primary school children were on a reduced timetable during that year, 0.35% of Traveller and Roma children were.

In post-primary, 0.1% of settled students were on reduced hours compared to 1.25% of Traveller and Roma students.

Out of 30 Traveller and Roma children enrolled in Special schools, seven of them had been placed on reduced hours.

That is 23% and compares to 1% of settled children attending those facilities.

Call for 'precise and clear action'

Traveller representatives have told RTÉ News that this is a discriminatory practice being employed in schools and that Traveller parents and students feel humiliated when they are told by their schools that they should be placed on reduced school hours.

Irish Traveller Movement Director Bernard Joyce said the practice was absolutely unacceptable and he called on the State to take responsibility.

"Traveller parents are supporting and encouraging their children, they want their children to have opportunities in life and yet they are being told by their schools that their child should be on reduced hours, and this goes on for years," Mr Joyce said.

He said this meant that as a child progressed they fell further and further behind their peers, and that this was a key reason why so many Traveller children drop out of school towards the end of the Junior Cycle.

Senator Eileen Flynn, who is a Traveller, said that now that the data had been gathered it was time for "precise and clear action to support children being placed in this position".

She said the practice stemmed from the "low expectations" that many schools and teachers had for their Traveller students.

Senator Eileen Flynn says she would 'be hurt to the bone' if it happened to her child

"This is about 'othering' Traveller children," said Ms Flynn. "It is about making the child 'less'. Traveller children are treated as not as valuable. This needs to stop."

"I’d be hurt to the bone if it happened to my child," she added.

The Department of Education has made videos to inform parents of their rights when it comes to schools’ use of reduced hours, with one video aimed especially at Traveller parents.

Actual number could be higher - Traveller organisations

Traveller organisations fear that the actual number of Traveller and Roma children on reduced hours could be even higher.

They point out that not all Traveller and Roma children have informed their schools of their ethnicity.

This is the first time that data on the use of reduced school hours has been published.

The Department of Education has said the gathering of the data was "part of a drive to ensure that Reduced School Days are used in a manner that is limited, appropriate and absolutely necessary in line with the guidelines issued to all schools".

It said that where schools apply a reduced school day, such arrangements should only be put in place with the consent of the parent or guardian.

"It is recognised that, in certain situations, the use of reduced school days is a positive intervention with a view to assisting a student to return to full time attendance and that in some instances parents may request a RSD to support their child to return to full time attendance."

It said the publication of data was "a key step in ensuring reduced school days are used only as intended, as an exceptional measure, in exceptional circumstances, and that the focus is always on return to full-time schooling as quickly as possible".

It said the use of reduced school days were a matter for individual schools and boards of management in agreement with parents.

The Department of Education said reduced school days 'should only be put in place in exceptional circumstances'

But Traveller organisations say Traveller parents often feel that they have no choice when a school tells them that their child should be placed on a reduced school day.

The department said: "The purpose of these guidelines is to provide clarity to school authorities and parents and guardians on the use of reduced school days and to ensure that this practice is limited to only those circumstances where it is deemed absolutely necessary.

RSD is a transitionary arrangement which should only be put in place in exceptional circumstances, and for very limited and time-bound circumstances. It is designed to assist the student to attend for the full school day along with his/her peers."

Schools must notify Tusla Education Support Service if they decide to apply a reduced school day to a child.

The Department of Education has said that this new data will inform work on the development of a Traveller and Roma Education Strategy.