Students with mentors in poorer areas more likely to plan to go to college – study

Trinity study highlights importance of roles models in boosting third-level participation

Secondary students in poorer areas of Dublin are three times more likely to plan to go to college after being assigned a mentor, according to a new research project.

A report by Trinity College Dublin has assessed the impact of an outreach programme for 1,100 students attending 11 schools in the Dublin area over a three-year period.

Starting in 2014, when the students were in their second year at secondary school, the Google-funded programme involved pairing students with mentors, enhanced teacher training along with other outreach activities such as university visits and projects involving the development of leadership skills.

The research found those who were assigned a university-appointed mentor were more than three times more likely to plan for a degree than their peers.

Students also displayed increased confidence and recorded better attainment in English and mathematics when compared to students who were not participating in the Trinity Access 21 (TA21) project.

The programme has three constituent parts: mentoring, leadership through service, and pathways to college.

Programme director Cliona Hannon said mentoring had a “huge impact”on participants.

“There are a limited number of role models in their communities that have been to higher education,” she said.

“One of the things that is really evident from the research is that having a young person from their area who went through similar things as them and who sounds like them and looks like them - but got into Trinity, got through Trinity and out the other side, has an enormous impact,” she said.

‘She just made it fun’

Katie Browne, a fifth year student at Mercy Secondary School in Inchicore, said her first mentor, a former pupil at the school, "really opened her eyes" to the options available to her.

“My first mentor was Amy, and she just made it fun. I had no clue about how to get into college,” Ms Browne said.

“I think that without TA21 I still wouldn’t. I come from a family where I don’t think any of them would have gone to college until recently.”

She said engaging with the project not only helped increase her awareness of the options available to her, but offered her fellow students an opportunity to improve their skills and change the atmosphere in the school.

“Our first leadership project was one of the biggest TA21 had seen at the time. We converted a room into a 21st century learning space. It was a derelict room, nobody used it, and we said: ’You know what? Let’s use it and make it [INTO]something we want it to be’. It’s still in use today and I think it changed the atmosphere in the school.”

Ms Browne has yet to decide on what she will study after the Leaving Cert but says she “definitely” wants to go to college.

“I think TA21 has shown that I can do anything. I can go to college and do anything I want.”

‘Opened up to new pathways’

Michelle O'Kelly, deputy principal and former guidance counsellor at Mercy Secondary School, said the vision was to create a college-going culture in the school.

“It’s an area where the socio-economic group would have low progression to the workforce, where they may have many social factors that may influence their decisions after second level such as family circumstances, addiction and it not being the norm at home for students to want to go on to university,” she said.

“Our community at times would be very reliant on services whether they be social services or social welfare.”

Ms O’Kelly said the impact on the students was very evident.

“They have been opened up to new pathways that I have never seen students in this school being opened up to. They have developed networks and through mentoring have met people that are working in jobs or that are in college that they wouldn’t have met before.

“And so they are setting their sights now on jobs that might not have been familiar to them before because they are just not jobs that people in our area would have worked in.”

Brendan Tangney, professor in computer science and statistics and co-director of Trinity Access 21, said the project related well to the junior cycle reform process, and other strategies and policies in the area of tackling access and educational disadvantage.

“I think that what we are doing aligns very well with those departmental initiatives and in some cases it informs them. These are problems that the whole country has to work on. We need joined up thinking if we are to address the problems that our society and education system are facing. That’s what the project exhibits.”

‘Very, very capable’

Some 400 teachers have participated in the project to-date and of these 320 have completed a Level 9 postgraduate certificate in 21st century teaching and learning accredited by Trinity College Dublin.

The intention now is to extend the TA21 project beyond the Dublin area over the next three years.

Project co-ordinators are hoping to reach 30,000 students, 2,000 teachers and 100 schools and to partner with other higher education institutions and Education Training Boards during that period.

“The level of teacher investment in their students across the country was extraordinarily high and you don’t often see that or hear it,” said Ms Hannon.

“We have had teachers from 23 counties get involved with this in the last three years and if you think of the number of class periods they have a week, they are reaching thousands and thousands of young people and the teachers themselves are more energised, invested and convinced that they can effect change in schools that have recurring issues of low progression.”

“If they have the right intervention they can take over the world. They are amazingly confident and they are very, very capable,” Ms Hannon added.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.