‘I was scared and anxious’: How the formal education system fails some students

An alternative provider says up to a fifth of children don’t fit well in mainstream schools

Ryan Sharpe (16), a student at the Cork Life Centre. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Ryan Sharpe (16), a student at the Cork Life Centre. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision


Ryan Sharpe recalls being about eight or nine when he first started hiding under his duvet in fear on school mornings.

“I was so scared,” says Ryan (16). “I was being bullied. I felt so out of place in school. I was very anxious and stressed. I just wasn’t myself.”

He was, by his own admission, shy and introverted. If anything, he says, it got worse at second level. Much of the anxiety was linked to pressure he was putting on himself to fit in.

“I wasn’t close with people, so I felt I’d got to make people like me. It had this social pressure to it, the pressure to fit in with the other students. It was also trying to get on the good side of teachers.”

While there were individual teachers who were hugely supportive, it felt like the wider education system wasn’t set up to care, and he fell through the cracks.

“Some were great and really took an interest ... but there is a power dynamic that others take advantage of. I didn’t feel like there was respect there a lot of the time.”

He left his secondary school after his Junior Cert when the pressure became too much – but he feels blessed that he was able to move to a very different type of education setting.

A proper welcome

In the hallway of the Cork Life Centre is a mural that reads: “Welcome – may all who come as guests leave as friends.”

Teaching staff greet students as they arrive at the door. If anyone is worried, upset or hungry, they are taken aside first and their needs are met. Classes and teaching can wait.

The centre is run by a voluntary organisation that offers an alternative learning environment to young people who have been excluded or have dropped out of mainstream education due to a range of personal circumstances.

The centre – staffed mainly by volunteers – offers students support in small classes in Junior and Leaving Cert subjects.

“In the public mind, people think of young people who fall out of education as being troublemakers or in the care system, but we don’t see many of them,” says Don O’Leary, the centre’s director.

Cork Life Centre director Don O’Leary. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Cork Life Centre director Don O’Leary. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

“We see far more young people with anxiety, mental health issues from all kinds of social classes ... Leaving school for them isn’t an event, it’s a process.”

O’Leary believes 10-20 per cent of children don’t fit easily into the mainstream Irish school system.

“These children can be highly intelligent, they may have additional learning needs, they may have difficult backgrounds, or they may come from very privileged families.”

The key to supporting them, he says, is building a relationship with each young person and “really listening” to them.

“A good school makes children feel they belong and gives them a sense of community. Staff and students learn from each other.

“As far as possible, students should have some control over the subjects they do. When you ask young people what subjects they like, they often choose those where they really liked the teacher.

“Our staff meet kids where they are, but we don’t have to worry about the points system. If a young person has mental health or personal issues, or they’re hungry, you need to deal with that before you ask them to focus on maths class.”

Culture shock

For Ryan, his first day at the centre was a bit of a culture shock given his previous experience of school.

“I called a teacher ‘Miss’, and she said, ‘No, you can call me by my name ... It was so different. There wasn’t that power dynamic. It was more like you were on the same level. Everyone was treated with respect.”

Teacher Freda Kearney with student Ellie Tague at the Cork Life Centre. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Teacher Freda Kearney with student Ellie Tague at the Cork Life Centre. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

He now feels transformed by the settings. He is focusing on subjects he has a real passion for – such as music – and feels at ease in school for the first time in years. It’s largely down to being in an environment where, he says, relationships are built on trust and respect.

Cork Life Centre is just one of a number of alternative education settings that are helping students overcome barriers to education.

Many, however, are not formally recognised and lack a sustainable funding model; staff are often employed on short-term contracts and have to sign on in the summer.

One argument against these settings in the past has been the lack of data on their performance and outcomes.

However, a number of alternative education projects have been recently assessed by researchers at the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway.

In addition to the Cork Life Centre, these include Trinity Access 21; An Cosán Virtual Community College; Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities; Aspire2; Citywise Fast Track Academy; and iScoil. All have been the recipients of funding from Rethink Ireland’s social innovation fund for education.

The team, led by Dr Cormac Forkan, looked into how they supported learners. Researchers found that education completion rates were comparable with the mainstream system, with 54-94 per cent completing QQI-level qualifications ranging from Junior Cert to Advanced Certificate level.

Formal recognition

The research team also estimated that for every €1 invested into seven awardee projects, there was a social return on investment ratio of 1:9, meaning €9 was achieved.

The report recommends that the Department of Education should formally recognise alternative education providers and fund them in the same way as the formal system.

It also proposes the creation of a forum for mainstream and alternative education providers to exchange evidence-based knowledge and experiences to support all learners.

In addition, it suggests organising a showcase where the learning about actions and processes used by the awardee projects to tackle education inequality can be shared with mainstream and alternative education providers and with broader society.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said recently that her department was finalising a review of “out-of-school” education provision, which will inform future policy in the area. It is due to be published soon.

For students such as Ryan at the Cork Life Centre, no policy document is required; the need to ensure students have access to alternative education settings is an open-and-shut case.

“I’m flying it, absolutely flying it,” he says. “I’ve been doing the best ever in school. I’m able to get up in the morning, I’m coming out of my shell. I don’t have that fear of the day ahead.

“I look forward to it. School shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of … it should be the making of you.”



Alternative education
The Cork Life Centre and the XLC Project in Waterford are just some of the alternative education projects that offer places to those who have left mainstream. There are also Sudbury schools in Wicklow, Sligo and Cork that focus on self-directed learning.

This is a non-profit online learning service that offers young people a pathway to learning, accreditation and progression. It has an enrolment of more than 180 students is the largest out-of-school provider for under 16s in the State. It only takes referrals from Tusla's educational welfare officers.


School completion programme
This programme overseen by Tusla aims to help students from disadvantaged areas stay in school to complete their Leaving Cert. Each project provides a tailored programme of in-school, after-school and holiday time interventions.

Back to Education Initiative
This provides opportunities for second-chance education to adult learners and early school leavers who want to upgrade their skills. The initiative builds on existing schemes such as Youthreach and Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme.

This is aimed at unemployed early school leavers aged 15-20 and is intended to help young people return to learning and prepare for employment and adult life.