An Cosán is ‘beacon’ of education and confidence for Tallaght locals

Further education centre in Jobstown helps many for whom doors of learning had shut

An Cosán grew out of "The Shanty" which was co-founded by Dr Katherine Zappone and Dr Ann Louise Gilligan in 1985. Since then it has transformed the lives of thousands of people, particularly women, once dependent on social welfare.

 

Twelve years ago Sinead Kelly arrived in Old Bawn, Tallaght, as a 21-year-old single parent. She moved out to the suburb in southwest Dublin because “no where in Crumlin would accept rent allowance at the time”.

Miles away from her family and friends, and unable to secure affordable childcare to allow her to go back to work, Kelly recalls being “quite down at the time”.

As a result, she quickly enrolled in a programme specifically designed for young female lone parents at An Cosán, a further education centre in Jobstown.

Classes included basic computers, drama, personal development and parenting, while her daughter Megan was looked after in the centre’s childcare facility for five mornings a week.

“I had this big realisation that I wasn’t the only one,” she says. “You’re sitting with all these young mothers and you would have been quite isolated before that. All of a sudden you’re talking about your kids and the similarities, like ‘oh my God, your baby does that too?’ Even that in itself stops you from going insane.”

Sinead Kelly: “After I started in An Cosán, it changed everything. I became really aware of education and got really passionate about it.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Sinead Kelly: “After I started in An Cosán, it changed everything. I became really aware of education and got really passionate about it.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Kelly completed several courses at the centre and became the first person in her family to get a degree: a BA in leadership and community development. Today she is working as an IT co-ordinator at An Cosán while also studying for an MA in teaching and learning.

“It’s been such a journey,” Kelly says. “I wasn’t great in school. I dropped down to foundation level for the Leaving Cert and didn’t go on to third-level. After I started in An Cosán, it changed everything. I became really aware of education and got really passionate about it.”

Kelly’s story is similar to many of the 6,000 or so people who have done courses at An Cosán on the Fortunestown Road. “An Cosán is a beacon of hope in our community,” says chief executive Liz Waters.

Shadow of protests

For those living outside Tallaght West, it’s known mostly as the site of a demonstration against water charges in November 2014, when then tánaiste Joan Burton and her assistant Karen O’Connell were surrounded in their cars by protesters. Burton had been invited to speak at a graduation ceremony for about 60 mature students at An Cósan that day.

Sitting in its library, over three years later, Waters says it was “a disappointing incident”.

“That was a day when we were going from this building to the church, where this community could celebrate their residents achieving higher education. Now we support protest and social action, and we knew there would be a protest . . . It was just a pity the way it went.”

Originally established as “The Shanty” by the late Dr Ann Louise Gilligan and Minister for Children Katherine Zappone in Brittas in 1986, the centre was designed to provide education programmes for women living in Tallaght West. In 1999, it moved to a new building in Jobstown and The Shanty was renamed An Cosán (meaning “the path”), catering for about 500 adults, men and women, every year.

Jennifer Wickham at An Cosán: “I didn’t think I could amount to anything. A few weeks after coming to An Cosán, it changed my opinion of myself and my confidence has grown ever since.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Jennifer Wickham at An Cosán: “I didn’t think I could amount to anything. A few weeks after coming to An Cosán, it changed my opinion of myself and my confidence has grown ever since.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It now offers a range of courses, from basic to further and higher education at NFQ (national framework of qualifications) levels 2-8, and has its own childcare centre and counselling service.

Computer use

When Jennifer Wickham, now 36, first turned up there in 2014, she was unable to use a computer and “completely lacking in confidence”. Having left school in Killinarden in Tallaght at 15, Wickham had grappled with homelessness and an abusive relationship for over a decade.

“I remember that first day coming up, it was terrifying,” she says. “I had no computer skills and hadn’t been in education for 20 odd years. I was the only one that had never used a computer, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was shaking, I couldn’t focus or think of anything other than ‘I want to leave, I want to leave.’”

But Wickham stuck it out, completing the “young women in technology programme”, doing level 5 and 6 courses, and three years later she has begun a degree in applied addiction studies and community development. She also works part-time as a digital co-ordinator at An Cosán.

“I didn’t think I could amount to anything, be anything. A few weeks after coming to An Cosán, it changed my opinion of myself and my confidence has grown ever since.”

Caoimhe Kerins and Liz Waters of An Cosán: “There is a digital divide in places such as Tallaght, where people do not have the access or the skills to use a computer.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Caoimhe Kerins and Liz Waters of An Cosán: “There is a digital divide in places such as Tallaght, where people do not have the access or the skills to use a computer.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

While Wickham says An Cosán has “changed my life in so many ways for the better”, she is unsure whether she will be able to complete her degree due to financial reasons. “It’s very hard to juggle your home finances and pay to study. I think that’s the main struggle for me at the moment, but if you’re committed you’ll find a way,” she says.

Problems with fees

An Cosán has a collaborative partnership in place with IT Carlow for its degree programmes. While students attend and are assessed at An Cosán, students have access to the college’s virtual resources and its library on campus.

“They will be accredited through IT Carlow’s academic processes,” says Waters. “However, because all of our learners are part-time, you get no grants for it and often our learners can’t pay the fees. So we have to all the time try and create bursaries or scholarships to really support them through that. The vast majority of the classes would apply for those.”

The fees for a degree programme are €2,200 for each of the three years. An Cosán currently receives funding from the Department of Social Protection and Department of Education, through the Education and Training Boards as well as Tusla.

When Mary Delaney (64) began studying at An Cosán, her 35-year-old son lay in a coma in Tallaght hospital, having suffered a serious brain injury. She had left school at 16, following her Inter Cert. Now the Tallaght resident describes herself as “the eternal student”.

Delaney first went back to repeat two subjects at Greenhills College in 1992 and subsequently completed her entire Leaving Cert at the age of 40. She did a diploma in accountancy in IT Tallaght and then took business, economics and social studies at Trinity College for a year, finally ending up at An Cosán in September 2015. She has just started a degree in applied addiction studies and community development.

‘No judgment’

“It’s a different way of learning,” she says. “There’s no judgment. Every one of us has problems, issues, whether it’s money or whatever. But when you come in here, there’s no distinction. You’re just you. I could come up here and leave it all at the door for those few hours. They support you.

“It didn’t matter whether you were there or not in Trinity. It didn’t matter in that lecture hall if you turned up or not; they [lecturers] put up the slides, you handed in your assignments and did your exams, there wasn’t that kind of connection. An Cosán takes the whole of you, not just the academic side.”

Imelda Hanratty: works at An Cosán. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Imelda Hanratty: works at An Cosán. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The latest census shows that just over one-third of households (34 per cent) in Tallaght West do not have a personal computer. This figure drops to 28 per cent for Tallaght as a whole.

Caoimhe Kerins, education and training manager at An Cosán, says “it can’t be taken as a presumption here that somebody has ever used email”.

“There is a digital divide in places such as Tallaght, where people do not have the access or the skills to use a computer.

“Our experience is that the households that do have a device, it’s often due to someone doing their Leaving Cert or a son or daughter gone to college. Even if a computer is there, it doesn’t mean the rest of the house have access to it in any sort of meaningful way.”

As a result, An Cosán has developed its own “tech army” to bridge that digital divide. It is made up of students who have come through one of the centre’s courses and who now provide digital-skills training and workshops.

Jennifer Wickham, Sinead Kelly, Liz Waters, Caoimhe Kerins, Eithne Dunne, Lily Ward, Imelda Hanratty, Elaine Vince O’Hara and Deirdre Bannon. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Jennifer Wickham, Sinead Kelly, Liz Waters, Caoimhe Kerins, Eithne Dunne, Lily Ward, Imelda Hanratty, Elaine Vince O’Hara and Deirdre Bannon. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“Through the ‘tech army’ we want to absolutely challenge that divide,” says Waters. “People in the ‘tech army’ are people from Tallaght who have come through a programme. The thing about An Cosán is, we’re part of the community so there’s a sense of ‘That’s a space that I belong in, and they understand me.’”

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