‘It caught me when I was falling’: How remote learning is helping young people who drop out of school

Online service iScoil offers 13-16 year olds a pathway to learning, accreditation and progression

By her own admission, 16-year-old Ashleigh O’Neill was struggling at school. The peer pressure was difficult to deal with. The volume of teachers and subjects felt overwhelming. After a while, she dropped out of school altogether.

“School was hard for me,” she says. “I think a lot of young people struggle with it.”

Her mother, Catherine, was consumed with worry.

“We were freaking out and stressed out about it all,” she says. “There are students out there, and the system isn’t for them. They don’t fit the mould. They’re made to feel like there’s something wrong ... I thought, ‘there must be another way’.”


An alternative came in the form of a service neither Ashleigh nor Catherine had heard of before: iScoil.

It is a non-profit online learning service that offers young people who have disengaged with mainstream education a pathway to learning, accreditation and progression.

iScoil allowed me to be my true self. It’s all about what you can do with them, not what you can’t do

—  Ashleigh O’Neill

Participants, who are referred via Tusla, the child and family agency, may have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons such as anxiety, mental health issues, additional needs or other factors.

Students can work at their own pace from home or from a local blended learning centre.

“It was like iScoil caught me when I was falling,” says Ashleigh. “They allowed me to be my true self. It’s all about what you can do with them, not what you can’t do.”

Her school day happens online, from her own home, mirroring a school schedule but with a flexibility to suit her needs.

“It puts me in a good mood. I’m buzzing for it. The tutors and my mentor are so nice. They never put me down. They give me targets and make suggestions but it’s so much easier. It’s a much more relaxed way to learn,” she says.

Like other iScoil students, designed for young people aged 13-16, Ashleigh is working towards a QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) qualification.

Alongside mandatory courses such as communication and maths, she also completes projects on topics that interest her.

She has a tutor for each subject and wakes up to a tailored lesson plan every morning, with comments from the day before.

At the end of this year she will have completed a QQI level three qualification, equivalent to her peers’ Junior Cert. Progress certificates are posted to students every week and the focus is always on encouragement.

“I look forward to it every day. I’d like to study psychology eventually. I’m doing a project on discrimination which is teaching me a lot about how people think,” she says.

Despite learning from home, Ashleigh says she doesn’t feel isolated.

“There is plenty of opportunity to socialise with other students through iScoil too. There are online book clubs, a movie night and we have the option to complete Gaisce,” she says.

iScoil’s approach is so positive and encouraging. It is always at the learner’s level, at their pace, to fit their strengths and needs

—  Cathy McDonnell

Emily McDonnell is also learning with iScoil from home. Her mother Cathy says the sense of relief in their home is palpable.

“I’m just so relieved that she is continuing with education without all the stress that she felt before. Mainstream education certainly isn’t for everyone. iScoil’s approach is so positive and encouraging. It is always at the learner’s level, at their pace, to fit their strengths and needs. It gives students far more autonomy,” she says.

More parents need to consider alternative forms of education if mainstream isn’t working for their child, Cathy says. The Government also needs to do more to secure children’s right to education, as enshrined in law.

Emily is completing a project on Minecraft as she has an interest in gaming and is keen to do another about music.

“I’m generally online every day but if I can’t manage it one day I can catch up in my own time,” she says. “I missed two years of school but now I feel so much happier; I love how enjoyable this type of school is.”

Catherine O’Donnell, a School Completion Programme co-ordinator working in Ennis, Co Clare, partners with iScoil to provide alternative provision for young people.

While much of Catherine’s work is about keeping children in school, iScoil helps her respond to those who have stopped attending altogether, for various reasons.

“Some would have been expelled or excluded. Some may have been out of school for a period, maybe due to high anxiety or because of their specific needs. Some students may not have transferred on to secondary. They have all left school and have been referred to us by the Educational Welfare Officer as part of Tusla’s Education Support Service,” she says.

Before iScoil, the town had nothing to bridge the gap for teenagers. The three students who Catherine works with attend a local youth service building in Ennis on a set timetable. She describes it as the most exciting programme she has ever had the pleasure to work with.

“Each child is individual, and they make their service fit the child. My job is to supervise, to keep them motivated and engaged. Their online tutors make it so individualised; their commitment makes it the success that it is,” she says.

Brian Fitzsimons, iScoil’s chief executive, says its remote teaching is different from that experienced by many students during the pandemic.

“What we do is vastly different, as the programme is tailored and adapted every year,” he says. “Technology allows us to focus on the individual learner. It allows [us] to run continuous assessments, show progress charts and provide face-to-face online support.”

The key success of the programme, however, is down to the people involved, he says.

“Our tutoring and mentoring team is fabulous. They come from a variety of backgrounds including teaching, youth work and educational psychology. They are highly trained in engaging our learners, whatever their needs,” he says.

We are big fans of school for most young people. We cater for those who simply can’t attend

—  Brian Fitzsimons

Fitzsimons says the need for an alternative provision is undeniable. More than 90 per cent of students in iScoil have been out of school for more than one year.

“This is not a general service. We are a specialist education support service. Students can’t simply opt out of school, and we certainly don’t want to set ourselves up as being anti-school. We are big fans of school for most young people. We cater for those who simply can’t attend.”

The demand is there, he says, but they cannot keep up with it. iScoil works with close to 250 young people, but it has had to refuse anywhere between 55 and 100 referrals from Tusla in a given year. It relies heavily on donations to keep going, though he says the Department of Education has been “brilliant”.

“When we started it was often children with additional needs that required the home provision, now we see far more mental health related needs. It’s wonderful to see these young people continue with education. Some will go on to Youthreach. Some will continue with QQI level four or return to complete the Leaving Cert. We always prioritise getting them back into their communities. It just depends on their needs.”

Out of school: in numbers

1,497: number of students who dropped out of mainstream school before the Junior Cert.

364: students with school phobia or depression and anxiety in receipt of home tuition.

277: students granted home tuition due to a medical condition likely to cause big disruption to their attendance at school.

162: students approved for home tuition scheme because they were expelled and unable to secure a school place.

Source: Department of Education’s Review of Out-of-School Education Provision, 2022.