iScoil: A virtual school for a new class of student

Pupils aged 13-16 for whom mainstream school hasn’t worked out can join online education tool iScoil, which is tailored to individual students’ interests and needs

The students can log in and work any time from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They can work from home or they can go to a local, blended learning centre instead. Photograph: Getty Images

The students can log in and work any time from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They can work from home or they can go to a local, blended learning centre instead. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There’s more than one way to tackle the Leaving Cert, but there are fewer options when it comes to the Junior Cert. An online education community called iScoil provides an alternative route for young people aged 13-16 for whom attending school is near impossible.

“It’s not really fair to say that there’s any one iScoil student type,” says Marianne Checkley, chief executive of the service.

“What the students have in common is that mainstream school hasn’t worked for them for whatever reason. It could be due to anxiety, a social phobia, behavioural issues or an illness. It may also be that education in a mainstream setting and being able to fit in with the routine of it just doesn’t work for them.”

Since 2007, iScoil has offered a home to about 56 early school leavers each year. They are referred by Tusla’s education welfare officers after all other efforts to get them engaged with mainstream education have failed.

The Presentation Sisters, whose ethos is grounded in education, are the sole funders of iScoil and have invested €3 million since it began.

 

Equivalent of a Junior Cert

What iScoil offers is unique in an Irish setting. It’s an online education programme, tailored to students’ interests and abilities that, on completion, earns them a QQI Level 3 award, the equivalent of the Junior Cert.

The students can log in and work any time from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They can work from home, but for some, who might be in chaotic or otherwise unsuitable environments, they can go to a local blended learning centre instead.

There, students have the added support and company of up to four other young people on the iScoil programme, along with the centre’s staff, who may be from a regional youth service, a Garda youth diversion project or a resource centre. After teens have completed their iScoil tasks, the staff work with them on a group or community-based project, which helps their personal development and skills.

Regardless of which setting they are in, all students take four core modules: communications; maths; personal and interpersonal skills; and computer literacy. They then complete two other modules chosen from career preparation, personal effectiveness and digital media.

Using Moodle, they work through each module’s tasks, achieving various learning outcomes along the way. These outcomes build into completed subjects, and a portfolio of students’ work is put together for examination and accreditation by QQI.

“It’s a very personalised programme,” says Checkley. “In the beginning we assess them and get to know their strengths, weakness and interests. We then set their learning plan accordingly. As they are not working towards an external exam or curriculum, they can do project work based on their interests.

“For example, the content of the communications module can be adapted for someone who is really into cars. So you’re learning the skills of reading, scanning, skimming and differentiating between bias and genre, but the material is all about cars, rather than Shakespeare. They can read Shakespeare too if that’s what they are interested in. It’s all down to what they will connect with.”

Students log in at various times during the day. Some will log in for 30 minutes in the morning and complete their tasks, others for a few hours in the afternoon.

There is support available online or by phone from five core staff in the Dublin head office, along with online support from six remote tutors and mentors.

 

Buddy system

“We all are online to help the student, but the tutor is the person in charge of a particular subject,” says Karen Kelly, a remote mentor with iScoil.

“Tutors set the content, correct the subject and get the portfolios ready for QQI. Mentoring is more like a buddy system. We make sure our 11 or 12 assigned students are getting on okay . . . I’ve had 40 new emails in over the past three hours; that’s 40 pieces of submitted work. As it’s QQI level 3, I can see straight away if something is wrong.

“If it is, I’ll put on the learning plan, ‘Great attempt at question one; maybe just look at that question again’. Then I’ll flag it with the tutor and say, ‘X is struggling with this. Can you put in some tasks to help them?’ We’ll both liaise throughout the day and then I’ll check that everything has been done and set up for the next day. The learning plan has to be updated daily and it has to be done right. If students log on and there’s no work, they’d get very frustrated.”

Kelly mentors students of various abilities. “Every year I have a mix of kids. Some will complete their entire learning plan in two hours and won’t get off the computer until the whole thing is finished. Then others might do 20 minutes a day to get the learning plan completed each week. So you have both sides of the spectrum.”

 

Anxiety or phobias

Students can enrol with iScoil at any stage between 13 and 16 years of age, at any time of the year. The amount of time they spend on the programme and what pace they have to work at to achieve their accreditation can vary.

Many will also be getting help from other agencies or counsellors for issues such as anxiety, depression or social phobias, and if they feel ready they can leave iScoil and return to school.

Once they are coming towards the end of the programme, iScoil will help the student figure out where they want to go in life and outline the various options available to achieve it. The top three routes chosen by students after their QQI Level 3 award include going on to further education and training with Youthreach or Solas, and returning to mainstream school.

The demand for the programme is high. At the beginning of September, iScoil had 23 students on its waiting list.

“At the end of September we look at our places,” says Checkley. “There might be some young people who haven’t come back properly yet. Maybe they were trying somewhere else that worked out, and we can say, ‘Right, they are back in school or maintaining in Youthreach’, and we can take them off the list. We are very much limited by resource, not demand.”

 

 

LAURA’S STORY: ‘I WORKED HARD AND LOGGED ON DAILY’

Laura Freeman (22) is a former iScoil student

When Freeman first heard about iScoil, she had been out of secondary school for two years. “I had been badly bullied in school. I suffered from depression and I had anxiety issues as well. I loved how iScoil was so learner-focused. You weren’t just given a curriculum and told to do it.

“There was a different mentality; you were working together with mentors and tutors. It wasn’t a hierarchical relationship like school. It was much more interactive. I had always thought I was terrible at maths, but working with your tutor and mentor, you have more freedom to ask questions and you feel like you’re being listened to. I realised that I could actually do maths and even had a passion for it. I worked hard and logged on daily. You didn’t want to let your mentors down.”

After finishing iScoil at 16, Freeman did an Open University course in psychology and went on to a post-Leaving Cert course in culture and heritage studies. Her 10 distinctions secured her a place in psychology in Maynooth University. She has completed two years and is currently taking a year out to work.

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