Dr Katriona O’Sullivan grew up in poverty. Both of her parents were heroin addicts and her earliest memories are of them injecting.
“Day to day, we did not know what would happen,” she says. “I was often hungry, which has a really big effect on how you develop as a person. It’s hard for a child to concentrate when they are hungry.”
O’Sullivan lived with her siblings and parents, both of whom were Irish, in a multicultural part of Coventry in the UK. Social services regularly visited the family home.
“I think Mam and Dad had their own traumas and mental health difficulties, and we were born into it,” she says. “It wasn’t working class: we were an underclass.
“In school, then, some of my teachers expected me to behave like a child from a normal household. They didn’t see the girl in front of them who was struggling, but who was academically talented. One of them screamed at me for not having pencils, but sure I didn’t have breakfast. I was smelly because I wasn’t washed, and I was ashamed.”
For all this, however, O’Sullivan points out that there were happy and productive parts of her childhood.
“There was vibrancy, music and lots of free thinking that contributed to who I am. My dad, who grew up in Ireland, had been adopted from Goldenbridge when he was five, and he was very well read. He taught me to read at a young age and instilled a love of books in me. I learned life skills that have stood to me.”
Through her childhood, there were kind teachers who made sure she was fed, including Ms Arkinson, an Irish woman living in England.
“She was a light who taught me and fed me; she was kind and believed in me, so I wanted to do well for her.”
Free school meals in the UK meant O’Sullivan always had lunch. This intervention is one of several that ultimately saves the exchequer money, with less spent on welfare, prison, adult education and health services.
O’Sullivan left school at the age of 15 when she became pregnant.
“I felt ashamed, like I was fulfilling a destiny set out for me. But I was in Ireland and it was during the boom times, so there was investment in services including community programmes for lone parents, drug addicts and people who wanted to upskill.”
By chance, O’Sullivan met a friend who was studying law in Trinity College, and had got in through the Trinity Access Programme (Tap).
“The only people I knew in Trinity were there to rob bikes. But I thought: if she can do it, so can I. So I marched over to Tap and asked to be admitted. I told them about my love of reading ... I got in.”
O’Sullivan went on to secure a psychology degree and pursue a doctorate. She is now in Maynooth University, where she lectures in digital skills at the Assisted Living and Learning Institute at the Department of Psychology. She is widely regarded as one of the best academics in her field and has published widely.
Senator Lynn Ruane is another Trinity graduate who was admitted through Tap.
“When it was introduced 30 years ago it was really innovative,” she says. “Like a lot of people from my community I was an early school-leaver, as I didn’t get on well in secondary school. This was not because I wasn’t capable, but because I had a lot going on.”
When she was 16, Ruane signed up to An Cosán, a pioneering community education programme based in Tallaght, in west Dublin. She did several courses, including addiction studies, and got on well.
By her 20s, as Ireland was gripped by austerity following the 2008 crash, she says she felt politicised and keen to progress. She applied to Tap and spent a year doing taster modules and completed the one-year foundation programme; O’Sullivan was one of her Trinity lecturers.
“I really wanted this; I had given up a job I love – working in addiction services ... I loved it, but I wasn’t blind to my differences, or the class system, or the things stacked against me as a single mother ... but I recognised that I brought perspectives to a classroom of upper- and middle-class students, too, particularly around poverty and morality.”
Although Ruane valued the opportunity, she says that she was lucky to have family support that helped her though college, and that programmes such as Tap do not address wider, more systemic issues.
“A whole community has to be able to transcend its economic conditions, not just small portions of that community. There is only true equality if people choose to go to university and they can access it without barriers.”
Ruane says access programmes are valuable but, alone, they are not enough.
“It’s an add-on. Like an educational charity, it’s not radically addressing the Leaving Cert ... or literacy, and it keeps a separate category of ‘access students’. An open-access first year, for instance, would be a way of ensuring all students who want to go to college can – it would be like putting transition year at the end of school – and people could focus on subjects they like and would like to study. We need to look not just at education but at poverty and society more widely.”
O’Sullivan says the access course gave her confidence and is grateful for the chance, but she still felt different from the other students.
Today, she points out, access students get the same results in college exams but remain underrepresented in higher-paid professions such as law. At Maynooth, she runs the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Stem Passport for Inclusion programme, working with 1,000 girls to encourage and support them into college.
“Wherever they are, access courses can be like a charitable endeavour: ‘Look at what we are doing to save some of these poor kids from this awful life, they should be grateful.’ So while they gave me the best education, it also opened my eyes to how messed up this system is. I am clever and capable, and I succeeded, but that was in spite of a system that militates against people like me.”
‘I got first-hand experience of how college would feel’: Colleges explore new ways of narrowing the class gap
Universities are exploring different ways of boosting the proportion of students from underrepresented groups.
UCD, for example, has a successful access programme, led by Anna Kelly, director of access and lifelong learning. It also has a school of education, where a team of academics is focused on widening educational participation.
Prof Judith Harford is leading Power2Progress, a pilot programme run with support from Zurich Ireland and devised with input from school principals and guidance counsellors.
The programme provides laptops, on-site additional tuition for students in two subjects of their choice and has a strong focus on career guidance.
Students on the programme have attended career talks in areas such as law and many were brought to UCD to experience campus life, and learn more about scholarships and supports.
Sheu Oluwa, a Leaving Cert student at St Mark’s Community School in Tallaght, is taking part in Power2Progress. He chose to get additional tuition in Spanish and maths, meeting his tutors once a week.
“The lessons have helped me immensely. The dynamic is different from the classroom, possibly due to the small numbers. The tutors have time to engage in conversation about our interests,” he says.
“One very important element of the programme: we all got a laptop, and this gave us the sense that someone was really committed to our education. Visiting UCD was also a valuable experience for me, as I got first-hand experience of how college would feel.”
Power2Progress is being evaluated by a PhD student so Harford and her team have strong data on what works.