Early School Leavers and Alternative Education: Discussion

I am sorry for rushing everybody but because of Covid-19 restrictions we try to limit the meetings to one hour. I welcome Mr. Don O'Leary, director, Ms Caoimhe Cotter, current student, and Mr. Rhys Wooten, former student, of the Cork Life Centre. The witnesses are here to discuss early school-leavers and the goal of alternative education with reference to the resourcing and recognition of alternative education settings. I will invite the witnesses to make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. The committee will publish the opening statement on its website following today's meeting.

I remind members of the longstanding parliamentary practice, which they all know. I remind the witnesses that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations that they make to the committee today. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything that they may say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse the privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by me to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I invite Mr. O'Leary to make his opening statement for three minutes, followed by Ms Cotter for one minute and she will be followed by Mr. Wooten for another minute. The witnesses have five minutes in total and then members will have four minutes each to ask questions and for the witnesses to reply. I will call on speakers to conclude their remarks after four minutes.

Mr. Don O'Leary

I start by thanking the committee for giving us the opportunity to put our case before it for the recognition of alternative education as a vital lifeline for many students for whom mainstream education does not work and connected to that is a case for recognition and adequate, sustainable funding for the Cork Life Centre. I am joined by two students of the Cork Life Centre, who will tell the committee about their experience of the centre and the difference it has made in their lives. The Cork Life Centre is an alternative education provider. We are not mainstream and we do not aim to be mainstream. We exist because mainstream education has not worked for the students who come to us. Without the service we provide, our students would very likely have been lost to the education system. We aim to do everything a school does and more. We are committed to and have been successful in keeping children and young people engaged with education in Cork for the past 20 years. We offer junior certificate, leaving certificate and other certifications. In our longer submission, members will see how successful we are in getting results, not just in exams but under a range of headings. In our 20 years in operation, we have worked alongside many State agencies which know our work and send students to us. They recognise the need for what we provide, but we are not formally recognised and our funding is, to say the least, minimal and precarious. We have attached an appendix to the main document showing our current funding and the source of it. Our appeal to the committee today is to take up the recognition of alternative education and to bring the Minister for Education and her officials before it to ask why Cork Life Centre is not recognised, why alternative education in Ireland is not recognised and to change that.

I will hand over to Ms Caoimhe Cotter who is going to speak about her experience of the Cork Life Centre.

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

I started secondary education in a mainstream school because it was where all my friends went and I had been perfectly fine in primary so there was no need to look for other options. I had a really hard time trying to adjust to this new school that had over three times the amount of students as my previous school. It felt like the world was caving in on me and I quickly developed an anxiety disorder. My parents talked to the principal and came to the agreement that I would go into school three days a week, in between appointments at the doctor or CAMHS. That might work for some, but it just made me even more stressed out and, at that point, the adults in my life came to terms with the idea that maybe mainstream school was not for me. I was close to 13 when I joined the Cork Life Centre. I was a shy and reserved child with no confidence. I could barely leave my house or talk to anybody at all. It was when I could not even get out of my mam's car any more that Don stepped in. He came to the car and took me into school himself and even though he was helping a student, he treated me like an equal, like a friend. Now, three years later, right after my 16th birthday, I have accomplished so much that I never thought I would be able to do. I went from being a child who did not think she would live past 14 to standing here talking in front of the Oireachtas, all thanks to my school.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

My experience in mainstream school was not a positive one. It was definitely not good for my physical health and it bordered on being dangerous for my mental health. Alongside anxiety, I began suffering panic attacks, caused by my experience of school. All of this took a toll on my physical health, my immune system weakened, depression intensified and I began self-harming. I forced myself to keep up with school work and strived relentlessly to excel, trying to study, do my homework and to make sure I had everything so that there was no reason to be singled out by a teacher. I was so scared of my teachers that I could not even write my name sometimes. Then I came to the Cork Life Centre. The staff encouraged me to be myself, but I could not. I was running from my thoughts. It took the bones of two years for me even to begin to feel comfortable enough to say more than a few sentences. I was trying to hide how bad I felt from everyone and I felt it too risky to trust anyone. Even though getting me to talk was like getting blood from a stone, they did not give up on me or forget about me. I could not bring myself to approach them directly so I would write notes or show them pieces of my journal to read. Then they would talk to me about it. There was never any criticism or frustration. They always respected my boundaries and accepted that writing was the only way I really felt comfortable talking about some things.

What about now? I am an author. I have written pieces for publication and through the life centre my book was published. I have just graduated from UCC with a first class honours degree in sociology and psychology. My final year sociology dissertation received the award for the best final year sociology project. Since receiving this award I am working on refining my project for publication in an academic journal. I am taking a year off in between my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. During this year I am volunteering at the life centre teaching mainly maths to the young people. None of this would have been possible if I had not attended and had the support of the Cork Life Centre. As important or impressive as any accomplishments may be, if it had not been for the ethos, persistence and support of the staff in the centre, I would not even have been alive to accomplish any of it.

I thank Mr. O'Leary, Caoimhe and Rhys for their opening statements. They spoke about confidence. Appearing before an Oireachtas committee takes confidence and both students should be very proud of their opening statements. I will have to leave before the end of the meeting but I am really proud of them and they should be very proud of themselves. Mr. O'Leary should be very proud of this students coming before an Oireachtas committee and giving their presentations with such style and panache. I say well done to them.

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

I went from a school that had nearly 2,000 kids to one which had a maximum of 50. That was crazy to me and it made everything much easier. Mr. O'Leary and Ms Lucey really helped me get out of my anxiety and depression. They pushed me towards doing big things like coming here. I did opening speeches for Michael D. Higgins a few years back. They really pushed me and made me come out of my shell like that.

I direct the same question to Mr. Wooten. Will he outline one specific difference between the two settings?

Mr. Rhys Wooten

There are many differences but probably the biggest one is time. The life centre gives one time to be comfortable there. They do not expect one to be automatically able to talk to one's teacher as if one has known them for 20 years. Like I said, I did not talk to them much beyond "Hello. How are you?" for two years but they kept trying. In mainstream, they did not try. Once I was talked to about my attendance and that was to be given out to rather than to be talked to. My attendance improved a hell of a lot in the life centre. It was Mr. O'Leary and Ms Lucey. They linked me up with a counsellor as well who was there when I needed her.

Will Mr. O'Leary give the committee an outline of the services the Cork Life Centre provides? It is far beyond education. Will he give us a quick summary?

Mr. Don O'Leary

We are working with 55 youngsters this year and have 70 staff. The majority of the staff are volunteers. We provide 15 subjects at leaving certificate and 14 at junior certificate. We have horticulture, public speaking, film and drama. We have a counselling team within the centre which provides counselling and therapy for students. We do an outreach programme where we accompany young people. We have kids in care, in the juvenile justice system and in the mental health system. We reach out and go where they need us to go. We do not force ourselves on that. They ask and we have that outreach. Counselling is available to all students within the centre.

We provide meals there and the importance of that is not only in the food, but in the socialisation process. Listening to the students today, having seven H1's is brilliant but if a student has seven H1's and is going into their bedroom, we have failed. I would rather that someone passes the leaving certificate and is capable of going out and taking his or her rightful place in the world. That is what is important for us.

I agree. I wish to highlight again the lack of funding the centre gets. Is the centre entitled to apply for the summer work scheme?

Mr. Don O'Leary

No.

The emergency work scheme?

Mr. Don O'Leary

No.

Mr. Don O'Leary

No.

Most recently, the centre had issues with the Covid grant. Some funding was secured but-----

Mr. Don O'Leary

Some funding was secured after we went public on that. That is all important but our students are not entitled to the transport grant. Our young people are not entitled to transport to school and we have young people coming from rural areas. Either we try to make the payments if the parents cannot or the parents come up with the money. It is a child's rights issue. They should be entitled to that. They are in education.

Next will be Deputy Ó Laoghaire followed by Deputy Colm Burke, who is standing in for Deputy Alan Farrell.

I thank Mr. O'Leary, Mr. Wooten and Ms Cotter. Anyone in Cork who has engagement with the education sector knows how important the Cork Life Centre is and the extraordinary work it has done over the past two decades. A great tribute is due to Mr. O'Leary, his staff and all who have supported them and the students.

The submission is very detailed but it seems to me that the ask of us is clear. The centre needs sustainable funding. The route seems to be that we need the Minister to designate the life centre as a centre for alternative education. The message to take away today is clear: we need to pursue the Department and do everything we can as a committee, as individuals and collectively to deliver that. That is something we should all commit to.

I will ask Mr O'Leary a question or two and he can answer them together at the end. Is it fair to say that our perception of second chance or alternative education is narrow and clichéd at times and that there is a much wider spectrum of people who need services and centres such as the life centre than we sometimes imagine? Second, if a solution is not found in the next six months or a year, what is the situation for the life centre? Can it continue as is or is the future of the centre under threat? What are we looking at in the next year or two if the Department does not do what I believe - and I am sure Mr. O'Leary believes - needs to be done?

I thank Mr. Wooten and Ms Cotter for their testimony. They were outstanding and a credit to Mr. O'Leary, the centre, themselves, their families and their communities. It is obvious that the centre has meant something very different from their experience in mainstream school. What is the secret? Why does it work? Is it the size, the ethos or the socialisation?

Mr. Don O'Leary

I think the Department of Education is still looking at early school leavers. I do not like the term "early school leaver" because it is a loaded term which puts the blame on the young person and that is wrong. Young people cannot fail a system; the system has to fail them. There has been a change in how we view early school leavers. This is what appears in newspapers: a young person of 15 years of age on a street corner with a can, smoking hash and in trouble with the guards who does not want to be in school and comes from a one-parent family in a disadvantaged area. Some young people are like that in the centre but I have young people from upper-class families who do not attend DEIS schools, have mental health issues and are out of education. The reasons for being out of education have multiplied.

The Department, when it looks at alternative education, is looking at vocational as opposed to academic. That is grand and not every child has to go to university. However, if a child wants to go to university, then he or she should be entitled to do that. A child being out of education does not mean he or she is not interested in academics. It can be due to trauma, bullying or abuse. We forget that. Where does a child in that situation who is not from a disadvantaged background or in a DEIS school go to? Such children are further marginalised because they do not fit the niche to be involved in alternative education or to be seen as early school leavers. That is a big worry.

I have 55 children in the centre this year. I am full for 2021. This year, I have refused 155 kids. That is not just in Cork. If there were life centres in Dundalk, Drogheda and other areas, there would be similar numbers. We still have 10% of young people ending up as early school leavers, which is a terrible term. That is not good enough and we should be trying to protect them.

On funding, in the past couple of years we secured philanthropic funding, which will run out. That will result in serious problems in relation to keeping the service going. I get €77,500 from the Department of Education to work with 55 kids. Each kid going to a secondary school costs €9,000. If they were going into a community training workshop, it could be as much as €15,000. If they were going to a youth encounter project, it is €17,000. We are not looking for new money. The money is already there for the kids' education. Let it follow the child.

I thank Mr. O'Leary. The next speaker is Deputy Colm Burke, who is to be followed by Deputies Ó Cathasaigh, Ó Ríordáin and Gould.

Could the delegates address my question when answering other questions?

No bother, but I must call on Deputy Colm Burke now. I am very conscious that Deputies need to get to the convention centre.

I thank the delegates very much for their presentation. Mr. O'Leary and I go back quite a long time because we got elected together on the same day in the same electoral area in 1999. Therefore, we have a long connection. Mr O'Leary was involved in a project I was involved in. It involved young people who dropped out of school. Mr. O'Leary carried out good research showing that the project was working very well. It is important to realise that many of the people in the project we were involved in - this does not apply in Mr. O'Leary's case now - were referred to our facility by the Garda. It is also important to realise that it costs more than €150,000 per annum to keep a person in Oberstown. In the project in question, less than €1,250 is being received per student. It just goes to show the inadequacy of the funding.

I thank the delegates for their presentation and for the work they and all the others in the centre are doing. Many have worked in Cork Life Centre voluntarily. I have referred a few people to Mr O'Leary. He took them on to work and they suddenly found a pathway regarding what they want to do, not just as students. They discovered their pathway from working in the centre voluntarily. That is important to recognise.

Where students drop out of an educational facility and enter Mr. O'Leary's facility, Cork Life Centre, I understand that the school continues to draw the capitation grant. Has that changed since I was last speaking to Mr. O'Leary?

Mr. Don O'Leary

We are now registering children with Tusla because that is the way we register them. Before, they were not being registered because there was no one to register them. I suspect, however, that the money has been paid for the year in respect of the returns. The capitation would have been paid for the year.

To the other school, even though Cork Life Centre would be looking after the student?

Mr. Don O'Leary

Yes, because it is paid in October.

Mr. O'Leary said this morning that his centre now has 55 students for this year. In total, how many students have come through Cork Life Sector in the past 20 years?

Mr. Don O'Leary

It is coming up to 500. When we started, there were six students. We only took junior certificate students. It was only in 2008 that we brought leaving certificate students on board. The young people wanted that.

From his knowledge of the people who have come through the centre, is Mr. O'Leary satisfied that the vast majority are doing reasonably well outside the educational setting?

Mr. Don O'Leary

Yes. The number of young people who come back to us is amazing. Some of them are in apprenticeships and some are away. They are all doing really well. That is part of the advocacy we do. When we took on the leaving certificate, we had to do so on the understanding that dropping out from third level happens in first year. Therefore, we have someone who touches base with our former students when they are in first year at third level to make sure they are doing okay and to get them over the hump.

Mr. O'Leary stated his organisation is getting €77,500 from the Department. What is the total cost?

Mr. Don O'Leary

I do not have the exact figure to hand but it is running at about €334,000.

Senator Aisling Dolan took the Chair.

So the balance has to be raised in some way by the centre itself.

Mr. Don O'Leary

In some way.

In addition, there are the voluntary people.

Mr. Don O'Leary

Yes.

Is my time up?

I apologise but it is. Is the Deputy finished?

Is it okay with Senator Mullen if we let the Deputies go first?

I call Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, who has four minutes.

The presentation very much reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson's comment that our school system really started based on a 19th century factory model. That is in no way an insult to our schoolteachers and others in the mainstream system, who do superb work with many children and others. It must be acknowledged by this committee that one size does not fit all, however.

It is not long since I spoke for the first time in the Oireachtas. I remember how nervous I was. I compliment the delegates. In making their opening statements, they have been an absolute credit to themselves, their schools and families. Very well done.

All of us here probably have a very good understanding of what a normal secondary school day looks like in terms of timetabling and all the rest of it. Could Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten help me to understand what a normal day in Cork Life Centre looks like? When they walk in the door, what can they expect in their day?

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

Right now, because of Covid, we go in and get our temperature taken. We get our timetable and our packs with our books and all the stationery we need. We then go to our classes. The classes last half an hour each. After class, we go to lunch. Each room has four to five people for lunch so we get to stay with our friends or we can go outside with whoever we want to go outside with. Then we come back for class after half an hour for another three classes, and then we go to get our phones and go home.

All masked up, as usual, like everybody else in the country. Does Mr. Wooten wish to add anything to that?

Mr. Rhys Wooten

As a former student or as a member of staff?

As both. The information would be very helpful.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

I was a student before Covid. I believe the classes were 40 minutes long. At the time, we had to sign in to adhere to fire safety regulations. We handed in our phones, went to whatever room we wanted and rested until our classes. Now, because of the regulations, students have to go to the room they are timetabled to be in. When staff go in, they get their temperature taken and sign in. They also have to fill in a Covid form. I cannot remember what it is called but it basically requires staff to confirm they have no symptoms before going to class. After every class, desks, books and everything else have to be sanitised. At the end of the day, the entire classroom is sanitised. The morning students are in from 9.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and I believe the afternoon students are in from either 1.30 p.m. or 2.30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

I thank Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten. I want Mr. O'Leary to have an opportunity to tell us about his centre's educational outcomes. When I am talking about educational outcomes, I am not talking about the number of H1s. I am seeking Mr. O'Leary's perspective based on the incredible work his centre is doing. How do his students fare?

Mr. Don O'Leary

The one thing students have in common when they come to us is that they are children. Second, their self-esteem is at rock bottom. Some of the young people who come to us may be two years out of education, perhaps through ill health. They may be in care or may be in detention. It is the building of that. I will outline what we do that is different from what is done in a secondary school. I am not knocking the formal education system because teachers do a great job but we are able to give each student an individual education plan. If a child wants to do a subject, we have the subject. There is no science block in the centre but if a student wants to do science, we borrow a science block so he or she can take the subject. This is what it is about. If a child is doing something he or she likes, he or she is going to buy into it. The subject choice is open to the student. It can be all academic. We have some students in this category. Many do both academic and hands-on subjects.

Mr. O'Leary might forward more information to the Deputy on that query. I am conscious of the time so I apologise. I am trying to keep the timeframe tight. I ask Deputy Ó Ríordáin to contribute next.

I thank the delegates for their presentations.

I am sure I speak for everybody on the committee when I say that the political day can be quite long. In my own case, I will be here until 11 p.m. or midnight. This presentation will be the highlight of my day. I mean that sincerely. We are now looking at the education system in a different way because of Covid. It has exposed many things that do not work. One of a few things that gets me extremely wound up is the annual league tables. Having taught in school myself, as many people here have, it is no reflection of what success is. Success for some students is being in school every day. Success in some cases is being able to interact with somebody, to speak and to raise one's chin when addressing somebody else, to listen and be respected, and to show that respect to somebody else. That is why I am critical of it.

In this committee, we might have the opportunity to form a new education system. If Ms Cotter was given the opportunity to start again, with all the money and opportunity in the world, what would she do with it? Mr. O'Leary is thinking about it and it might be a lot to throw at him. Is there an international comparison to the school that he has in Europe or the OECD or another comparable education system, into which the Cork Life Centre would fit neatly? The joke about the Irish education system is how many people in the Department of Education it takes to change a lightbulb, and they will answer by asking "Change?" As in, it does not change things, it has received things this way and they will always be thus. How has this system worked in other jurisdictions? How would Ms Cotter like to see things change if she had a blank sheet?

Mr. Don O'Leary

We operate under an international model called the Servol Model. It came from the Caribbean, South America and central America. It is in the process of being recognised by UNESCO. We are in tune with that. There is no definition of it in further education. Last year, two of our students were away in Denmark for a month, in an alternative education setting. One job that they took on while there was to sit with their peers and come up with a definition. This is our 20th anniversary. Research is being done and launched, and there is a definition from children of what alternative education is. Internationally, there are life centres in Trinidad and Tobago and across South America, but not in Europe.

Would Ms Cotter like to speak on that?

It is a big question.

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

It is a good question.

Ms Cotter could come back to the Deputy at a later stage.

I thank the witnesses for being here. I live on Cathedral Road, which is around the corner from the Cork Life Centre on Blarney Street, and I know it well. I know the unbelievable work that goes on there and people who went there. Their families have told me how it has changed both the student's life and the parents' life. They were under pressure as children and when they were in mainstream education they could not settle in; they did not feel included or that they were part of the education system. The Cork Life Centre offers to have somebody listen to every child and take their qualities and interests into account. It is fabulous work.

It is a shame that the State, Government and Department of Education have failed the centre. We hope that by having the witnesses here today and we, as legislators, listening to the stories, we can finally put a funding stream in place. Mr. O'Leary and others are begging and borrowing to educate children. That should not be the case. Credit is due to the volunteers and people who have supported the centre for keeping it going for 20 years. Deputies Ó Laoghaire, Conway-Walsh and I and all the Deputies and Senators here, would support it. A frustrating thing for me is that every politician who speaks about the Cork Life Centre says that it is brilliant and the work it does is unbelievable, yet we cannot get it any money. I am a new Deputy and I hope, with others, to change that. How does it feel for Mr. O'Leary when politicians pay lip service to the work that the centre does then let it down afterwards? Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten spoke about other young people, like them, and, as Mr. O'Leary said, 150 people did not get in this year. If they were among those children who did not get in this year, how bad would they have felt?

Mr. Don O'Leary

I am normally really positive. The centre has kept going. It took us 20 years to get to this point and I am grateful that we are here and are meeting the Minister, but we need support at this stage. For me, this is a children's rights issue. Every child has a right to education. Parents might not like this but my children are entitled to the same rights as those attending formal education.

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

One could not guarantee that I would still be here today without the Cork Life Centre. I cannot imagine what it would be like for kids who could not get in. It would be awful. I felt guilt when I started attending and taking up a place. Even though I was getting along in mainstream school and surviving, I was running myself into the ground. Had I not got a place there, I would not be alive today, and I do not say that lightly. I felt extremely guilty because in my mind, I was depriving someone who needed the centre of his or her place.

I am sorry if that was very personal. It is important that people understand the difference that the Cork Life Centre makes for young people. That was brave of Ms Cotter and I thank her.

I thank Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten. We appreciate their feedback. We need more supports as well as what is in the mainstream system.

I add my words of welcome and wish to say how grateful I feel, along with other members, for what the witnesses have come to tell us today. Something impressive and beautiful is going on in the Cork Life Centre. It is a customised response to educational need which cannot be met in what is called the mainstream system. I thank the witnesses for what they have said. We want to help in any way that we can. We do not hold all the levers of power but we do our best. I was reading about it and the vision of Edmund Rice is something that I have great respect for. I was reading about the centre's approach, the philosophy of ignorance, attentive listening and respectful intervention, which all point to the same thing, that one has to listen to people, see where they are and what they need to try to respond to it. The approach is clearly customised to what Mr. O'Leary has been saying. The Edmund Rice Schools Trust does great work in mainstream schooling. Has there every been any connection or support between it and the Cork Life Centre? Is it thought to be beneficial to the trust's vision of education for the centre to do its particular skilled work?

In describing alternative education, is the secret sauce the one-to-one aspect of it? Would Mr. O'Leary highlight more things where the life centre gets in to reach places that others cannot reach, to use the phrase from the ad?

Mr. Don O'Leary

Our trustees are the Christian Brothers. The building we use was a monastery and prior to that was the house of the first lord mayor of Cork. The Christian Brothers gave it to us and they are our trustees. We are not directly connected with the Edmund Rice Trust because that covers the schools element and we are not a school.

I believe alternative education takes a more holistic approach. For me, the academic and the socialisation aspects are equally important. Fitting the individual needs of the young people is a priority for us. We certainly need smaller numbers, but it is a priority for us to keep the kids going. It is bigger than just one-to-one.

I thank the three witnesses for coming in. I spoke to Mr. O'Leary on the phone some weeks ago and I have since spoken to many people along the west coast about his work. I was struck by what he said about surviving in mainstream school, but life is so much more than survival. It is about thriving and being able to engage with the community. That is what education is about. He very eloquently outlined the benefits he is getting there. It is not just about academic involvement, but about many different things.

When the system of education in this country is compared with other systems of education, I accept we have different patron bodies in secondary school, but it is really all the same and there is nothing else outside that. I have spoken about my experience in alternative education. We really need to throw our support behind the work Cork Life Centre is doing. It is about that specific school and we do not want to dilute that in any way today. I thank Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan for bringing it to the table.

I can see how long Cork Life Centre has struggled to get to this point and we do not want things falling at this point. The centre has my party's support and it is clear that it has considerable support around the room. Deputy Gould asked some pertinent questions that highlight what the place means for Mr. O'Leary. I believe he has said it all. Because I have spoken at length to Mr. O'Leary, I know he is looking for a sustainable funding stream to avoid having to live from hand to mouth every year. The work Cork Life Centre does is amazing. It is about what people go on and do in society. It has that radial effect that impacts us all with the kinds of lives that people lead. I do not want to apply pressure because we are all doing our best.

Mr. O'Leary might like to come back to the Senator after the session. I thank her for her comments.

Having listened to the past and current students, I recognise that Cork Life Centre offers a lifeline for young people in Cork who do not belong or do not fit into the educational system. Other Deputies and Senators have asked the questions I had. For me it is simple, and I am anything but naïve. Cork Life Centre needs to be recognised and valued for the work it does. I am just a Senator; I have no power. The members of this committee have the power to write a letter as a collective to the Department of Education to ask that this life centre be recognised as an equal part in our educational system.

Based on my experience coming through the educational system, I know that not one shoe fits all. I always say that I was as thick as a plank when it came to the academic side of it, but on the social side of it, I was extremely intelligent. That is the education system - no fault to it. I came through secondary school and the educational system worked for me. However, we need to acknowledge it does not work for many young people. It would be very positive for the Department of Education to recognise Cork Life Centre and to fund it; to break down all the barriers.

Speaking to the students outside the door they told me that they get no student passes and no grants for going to the education centre. The life centre works with children from ethnic minority groups as well as children from working class areas - Traveller children, refugee children and children with disabilities including learning disabilities. If we could take one positive action before this horrible year ends, I suggest that the committee could write a letter to the Department and end 2020 on a positive note. Cork Life Centre creates a lifeline for young people and it should be valued. I thank the witnesses for presenting to us today.

We need to look at other measures as well as academic excellence. We need to look at our primary and post-primary sectors in that regard.

I thank Rhys, Caoimhe and Don for the presentation, which was very informative. Based on my involvement with Youthreach, I am aware that mainstream education does not suit everyone. There is space for the life centre, which has a huge role to play. Awareness of available options is a big issue. If people do not know it is there, they will not necessarily consider it. How did the witnesses become aware of it as an option? Were they given referrals? How did they choose it?

I agree with Senator Flynn that the committee should write to the Minister to establish how she proposes to recognise Cork Life Centre and put it on a sustainable footing.

It would be worthwhile for the committee to examine the scale and nature of early school leaving and the gaps in policy on that.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

There was a television show a few years ago called "The Secret Millionaire" and the life centre featured in one of the episodes. I do not remember the specifics of it, but I know that was how my mother became aware that it even existed. Fortunately, it was there for my brother who is younger than me, but he went there first. Through that we saw the good it did for him. My mother saw how poorly I was doing. She contacted Mr. O'Leary and he called me in for an interview.

It happened perchance as a result of seeing it on television.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

Yes.

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

I was lucky. Three of my older brothers were already in the centre.

One of them was there before I was born and two of them were still in there at the time. I have known Don since I was a baby. I was practically already there before I was even attending the school. It was fairly easy to find.

Mr. Don O'Leary

The referral pathways into the centre are normally through educational welfare officers, CAMHS and social workers, and sometimes through the Probation Service. I would prefer if it was not through the Probation Service, although I have nothing against it. However, I want children to attend the centre because they want to be there and not because they have been told they have to be there. All of the State agencies in Cork can get to my door and do so regularly. Schools would also be part of this.

I thank the witnesses. I will raise the points they made with the Chairman, Deputy Kehoe, for whom I am deputising. I very much support the idea of the committee sending a letter to the Department of Education seeking a response on this issue. We heard earlier from a witness on the issue of early school-leavers.

Will the letter be sent to the Minister?

Yes. I am very impressed that Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten have come in here to speak. It is difficult to speak publicly. An earlier witness spoke about the importance of having more education outside the mainstream to encourage students and pupils to develop other aspects as well as the mainstream academic focus. That is probably lacking in many of our mainstream schools. Our DEIS schools are there to support people with special needs. We are seeing more of these at primary school level. At secondary level, we probably need more also. There seems to have been a great need in Cork and Mr. O’Leary stepped up in a setting where there is significant disadvantage. The area I come from, Ballinasloe in east Galway, also has significant social deprivation. If Ms Cotter and Mr. Wooten were looking back to the mainstream schools, what additional supports would be of benefit to them? Would creative arts, music, drama and public speaking programmes also be of support to students in the mainstream?

Mr. Don O'Leary

I am firmly of the belief that one size does not fit all. When we are talking about formal education, classrooms of 30 students are too big. A teacher is judged on how a student does in an examination. That is how the system works. That can leave a teacher with five children who are acting out and five who are acting in. They are the ones who tend to disappear. Smaller classrooms and more flexibility around the curriculum would help. We provide career guidance but we should have counsellors who deal with mental health issues because that is a very significant problem. Schools should have counselling available. We have to listen to children. My presence today does not matter but hearing the testimony of young people and how education impacts on them is the strongest voice we can hear and we should listen to it.

I thank Mr. O’Leary. Would Ms Cotter like to contribute on that point?

Ms Caoimhe Cotter

In my old school, everything was set in stone. We had to be prim and perfect and have our hair tied back in a particular way. It was super weird for me, as I was never like that. That was just crazy. When I came into the Cork Life Centre it was super relaxed, especially that we did not have to have our hair tied back. That was really weird to me. I am fairly sure the counsellor at the school was a CSPE teacher. We had to pay for our lunch every day. I went to a school in a disadvantaged area where no one had the money to pay for lunches twice every single day. They did not have free lunches. We had to spend thousands of euro on books, which was awful because I left after three weeks. It was very strange when I came to the centre that it was so chilled and relaxed. It was awesome. I wish more mainstream schools were like that.

There was more space for the individual and the students themselves. Would Mr. Wooten like to come in there?

Mr. Rhys Wooten

I struggled a lot to adapt to the centre because I am a highly anxious person and like routine. There was no fixed timetable so we needed to check after every class.

This is about structure and routine and there was more spontaneity there.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

Another thing was that I am conditioned to use "Sir" and "Miss" and this is not done in the centre. I have still trouble calling Don by his name and not "Sir". In mainstream school, students cannot enter a classroom unless they are invited in so they have to stand in a hallway getting crushed up against a wall. That is not the case in the centre where children are told to go into a classroom, it does not matter where, and to find their space. Granted, my space was in a corner on the floor.

This was not so much of an academic issue but a social one in my school report because I was fine academically but needed to do much work on a social level. In mainstream schools the emphasis is only on the academic.

We need more ways, then, to develop students to become more confident and gain self-esteem. In that way, Mr. Wooten developed to his maximum potential.

Mr. Rhys Wooten

Yes, together with emotional intelligence.

Yes, it is always good to have a look at that.

By way of an update, members can agree that the Chairman will send a letter to the Minister requesting that the centre be looked at and reviewed in terms of second level education as an urgent priority. I will also ask the Chairman to circulate the letter to members.

I thank everyone for their contributions, which were very impressive. I wish we had more time and I apologise for rushing. Members are welcome to engage with the Cork Life Centre and I ask that Mr. O'Leary provide responses to the questions that have been asked.

I thank everyone for attending. I am sure this has been a moment of great pride for Mr. O'Leary, Mr. Wooten and Ms Cotter, who have been very impressive. The discussion has been very beneficial and informative for the committee and I thank our witnesses for sharing their experiences with us. As these are very personal issues, it is often very hard to speak about them and we can become very emotional doing so. The witnesses' contributions were excellent. The Cork Life Centre has had a profound impact and I wish it every success in the future. I commend the staff at the centre and Mr. O'Leary on his commitment and pioneering work. This is very much in evidence in the calibre of the students here today. They should all be proud of their achievements. I look forward to engaging with them again through the committee when we will, I hope, have a little more time.

This committee will meet again at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 January to discuss the 2021 work programme, the 2020 annual report, and the draft report on the impact of Covid-19 on primary and secondary education. I wish everyone a lovely break for Christmas and a very happy and safe new year.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.38 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 January 2021.