Great outdoors provides the key to life after the Leaving

A residential course in Donegal aims to teach children the skills needed for life after school


What has clinging onto a rock face looking for a toe-hold got to do with a teenage student completing first year at college? Or paddling a canoe with making a new set of friends after leaving school?

The link may not be obvious initially, agrees the director of the Gartan Outdoor Education and Training Centre in Gartan, Co Donegal, Ursula MacPherson. But she believes that outdoor education is invaluable for developing the physical, mental, social and personal skills needed to cope with transitions in life.

She had been thinking about devising a course to help children cope with the jump from primary school to secondary school but then her focus switched to those taking the leap into a post-Leaving Cert world. In a happy coincidence, an international school consultancy, Consilium Education, based in Letterkenny, had been exploring similar ideas and approached the Gartan centre.

The result of their collaboration is a pilot “Leaving School Successfully” course to run this summer, designed to help students prepare for moving on from second-level, be it into college, an apprenticeship, the workplace or even a gap year.

Drop-out rates

Recognising the dependent structures that operate within most secondary schools, MacPherson believes outdoor education is “ideally suited” to addressing some of the factors at play in the high rate of drop-outs among first-year students at third level. According to research published by the Higher Education Authority last January, one in six students doesn’t progress to second year.

“We deal with factors such as decision making, communication, motivation and resilience – all the areas that we talk about within outdoor education are things that they learn through experiential learning,” she says. “In the outdoors, if you make a decision to do something or not to do something, it has very real consequences immediately.”

The successful transition from school to third level is a big issue not only in Ireland but also for international schools abroad, says Andy Homden of Consilium Education. These schools have to work harder on it because they have children of many different nationalities who have the expectation to go to universities all over the world, he says.

What particularly interests him are the academic challenges students face in being expected to be independent learners, who can apply analytical and critical skills to their work, after years of hand-holding at school.

This three-day residential course at Gartan, aimed at students aged 15-20, will combine classroom learning on skills such as essay-writing and good communication, with outdoor activities.

Already a great believer in the value of outdoor education, Homden couldn’t believe his eyes when he came across the Gartan centre, sitting on 87 acres of woodland on the shores of Lough Gartan, and wondered how he had never heard of it; he doesn’t think many local people realise what a world-class facility it is in such a beautiful place. He decided to try to work on something with the team there.

“We had the same sort of objectives but were coming at it from a different point of view,” he says. “When I was overseas I always tried to get somebody like Ursula on the team.”

Homden believes that few schools, here or abroad, provide the right kind of structural support for pupils. They tend to be preoccupied with cramming students for final exams, knowing it is on those results their success as a school will be judged.

Styles of teaching

Teaching styles need to change in the last two or three years of school, he says, to give children the survival skills for academia. “In my experience, kids are perfectly capable of thinking and writing analytically if they are taught the right things to do.”

He recalls advice given by Scottish-born training and development consultant Alistair Smith at a conference of international head teachers some years ago. When he asked the assembled principals what they thought their most significant duty as a school head was, getting children through their exams was the most common response.

He said, “No, that is not your prime responsibility, your job is to get them through university – your influence has gone when they go to university but, without your influence in the right kind of way, they will not swim. If you do the right thing, they will swim and pick up all the other stuff that they need.”

However, as we know, the school “league” tables measure how many students go on to third level, and not how they fare when they get there. Criticising the “artificial divides” between stages of education, Homden says it is wrong that secondary schools are rewarded for meeting an end-of-job target and not recognised for how well their pupils do afterwards.

Acknowledging the “massive” social and personal upheavals involved in going to university, particularly if teenagers are living away from home for the first time, Homden believes students are more likely to take that in their stride if they are coping with their course work.

“When you have the feeling that ‘I can do this stuff’, then the social/emotional stuff begins to fall into place,” he says. “If you give them control over the things that they can control, then the things that are out of their control are dealt with much better.”


MacPherson believes it is the combination of academic and social/emotional challenges that students struggle with after leaving school. They are thrust from a place where everything is timetabled and tailored towards exams, and find themselves in a world where there are big choices to be made with no structure around them.

“They are making big decisions and on a rock climb you will make a decision you need to reverse. It has got direct correlation.”

She also stresses the need for resilience, without which they can’t cope with all the changes that are happening. “Outdoor activity in wild landscapes does develop that without a doubt,” she says, and it has also been proven to enhance the ability to learn “be it for academia or work”, she adds. “That’s not anecdotal anymore.”

Meanwhile, Carmel Brennan, who was appointed retention officer at the Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) last February, is very familiar with the issue of first-year students “withdrawing”, as she terms it, and it is her job to do something about it.

“A lot of colleges at the moment are looking at putting somebody in to either look after the first-year experience or to look at student engagement and retention. It is being done differently in different colleges but I think it is a sector-wide concern.”

While there has always been some level of “attrition” among first-year students, she believes it is a growing problem in colleges everywhere. The problem is complex and, typically, there would be several reasons for an individual leaving.

“The most common reason given for withdrawing is ‘wrong course choice’ but in reality when you dig deeper that means multiple things and different things,” she says. It might mean they didn’t get their first preference course or they didn’t research the course properly, it’s not what they expected, or they are not prepared academically and are struggling with more than one subject.


She points to cutbacks in career guidance at second level since 2012 as one likely reason why course choice is the most common stated cause of dropping out, followed by finance and family/personal circumstances.

Generally, first-year students can struggle with the changed educational environment, where there are different expectations for both learning and assessment. Socially it can be quite a challenge too, says Brennan.

“We expect them to be more independent thinkers, to question, analyse and research independently. Typically these are skill sets that they are not overly familiar with from their previous education. We have to educate them to become familiar with those techniques.”

Simple things such as time management can be problematic too. There is a high level of continual assessment and course work so students have to be organised to meet their deadlines.

The widespread shortage of accommodation also has an impact. If they fail to find anywhere to live and end up couch-surfing or having a long commute, this affects their academic performance, as does working jobs with long or late hours, beyond what is traditionally regarded as part-time employment.

GMIT offers a “first year experience” package, which includes a five-week induction programme, a “learning and innovation” module to give new students the skills they need at third level, and a mentoring system. There are also centres for maths support and academic writing, both of which will provide one-on-one tuition.

This year the college is also going to focus on providing more information to students between the time they accept a place and before term starts, “so they can feel a little more confident walking in the door”, Brennan says.

“They are excited and nervous. We want to capitalise on all the enthusiasm” before the other distractions of life at third level kick in.

“Leaving School Successfully” runs at Gartan Outdoor Education and Training Centre from June 27th-29th and August 23rd-25th; cost €270. For more details, see, #bridgingthegap

What can parents do for school-leavers?

When too much parental involvement is cited as one of the reasons some students flounder at third-level, it would sometimes seem that the most constructive thing parents can do is back off. Ideally, that process would have started a few years ago but if you feel that your school-leaver needs a crash-course in life skills and independence before college, these summer months are the time to do it.

Other tips for parents from those working with school-leavers include:

  1. Have a conversation about CAO choices before the July 1st deadline for change of mind. Clarify their expectations, says Dearbhla Kelly, a guidance counsellor and author of Career Coach. Sometimes choices have been made on the basis of friends, trends and potential end salaries, with little regard to whether they are suitable to a field of study and work and would actually enjoy it. It’s not too late to find out more about a course or visit a college, says Carmel Brennan, retention officer at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.
  2. Listen to teenagers at this crucial turning point; try to ask the right sort of questions and look for opportunities when they might want to ask about things. “Be with them in the right kind of way; that is what I was always hoping for parents,” says Andy Homden of Consilium Education. “Listen to what your children like doing and don’t try to make those decisions for them.”
  3. If they are disappointed with their Leaving results and/or college offer in August, empathise but also stress there are always other routes to what they want to do in life.
  4. Be a supporter rather than a rescuer and let them come up with their own solutions, whatever their future plans, says Kelly.
  5. It might be time to renegotiate the house rules, where sons or daughters are going to continue to live at home. “Parents have to learn to switch off and let go,” says Kelly. If the student had gone away to college, their parents would be blissfully ignorant of the late nights and even later mornings. While it’s not a parent’s job to chase a student out the door to lectures, it might be worth repeating a quote attributed to Woody Allen: “80 per cent of success in life is just showing up”.
  6. A budget for the year ahead also needs to be discussed, be they living home or away.
  7. Some teenagers are not ready to go to college and there needs to be honesty about that, says Kelly. They should take a gap year but plan for it rather than drifting through, and do a PLC course, or work in an area that they love, or travel with a view to improving ability in a foreign language perhaps.
  8. Recognise that the first six weeks for a “fresher” are crucial. Encourage them from afar to attend orientation sessions and to join clubs and societies to foster friendships and a sense of belonging.
  9. Keep a watchful eye during first year at college for signs that your teenager is not coping, be it socially, personally or academically. In such scenarios, parents should encourage their son or daughter to seek help within the college because all the supports are there, says Brennan. It “never works” if parents take it upon themselves to try to fix it.
  10. Finally, give yourselves a break, says Susan Hayes Culleton of Teen Academy summer camps. Parents can feel guilty and helpless if their offspring’s post-Leaving ambitions seem to be going off the rails. “Reach out to your own parental networks. Not every parent of a teenager has this sorted.”

Savvy teens leave camps with greater confidence The Savvy Teen Academy is another summer teenage camp designed with an eye to preparing youngsters for life after school. With a focus on careers, communication and confidence, it is targeted at those going into fifth or sixth year. The academy’s co-founder, economist Susan Hayes Culleton, says teenagers left the inaugural camps last year “with greater confidence, stronger communication and a greater understanding of the real world of work”.

The participants are encouraged to get involved in things that interest them and make sure they add them to their CVs.“It’s being aware of the softer skills that are required in the workplace and thinking how you are demonstrating those at these early stages of your life,” says Hayes Culleton. She sees the “spoon feeding” that goes on at school as being driven from three sides: “The teachers want good results; the teenagers want the CAO points; and parents want the best opportunity for their kids.”

This results in “systemising” the syllabus but it is very hard to measure creative thought, or to assess one pupil against another when it comes to creative thinking and problem solving, she says, “so it’s as fair a system as you can get - without it being fair at all”.

The Savvy Teen Academy runs in Leinster College, Newbridge, Co Kildare, June 27th-July 1st and in University College Cork, July 18th-22nd. Cost €499. More details:

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