The Unteachables: School of life

An inspiring new documentary looks at a Cork school for teens who’ve dropped out of mainstream education, writes Catherine Shanahan
The Unteachables: School of life

Students at the Life Centre, Cork City. 'The Unteachables' starts tomorrow night at 9pm on Virgin Media One.
Students at the Life Centre, Cork City. 'The Unteachables' starts tomorrow night at 9pm on Virgin Media One.

In this era of lockdown, when home entertainment is king, a decent bit of television amid all the coronavirus noise, is a godsend.

One such piece of TV is about to be begin on Virgin Media One tomorrow night. The Unteachables is a two-part tale of a school “like no other” featuring teenagers that “others gave up on”.

It’s the story of children who have run out of road vis-à-vis mainstream education but for whom possible salvation is at hand high on a hill in Sunday’s Well at the Cork Life Centre.

There are a number of contenders for star of the show in this uplifting documentary made by independent company Frontline Films

The school’s director, Don O’Leary is one. “We operate from what I call ‘a philosophy of ignorance’,” he says. “That means when it comes to the kids, I don’t know them until I know them.”

“Our second philosophy is of listening. We can be good at hearing the noise but not what the kids are saying.

“And the third approach is of respectful intervention. When you are communicating with young people, you have to accept where they are coming from.

“A lot of them are being told from an early age that they are not going to succeed. Our ethos is to try and engage them in a way that they want to engage. Every child has a passion and some of the children have buried it so deep down, that we have to go mining to find it.”

The “mining” takes time. Some kids are so traumatised by their life experiences and so troubled by issues like addiction, anxiety and bullying, that the challenge seems almost insurmountable.

Yet the patience of Don and of his staff and their willingness to always engage generally finds a way. We see one lad in his teens, who smokes hash before coming to school, agree to go into rehab at the end of Part 1.

We see 13-year-old Caoimhe, crippled by shyness initially, blossom into a young girl confident enough to talk on camera. When she first arrived at the Cork Life Centre she had to be coaxed out of her mother’s car. She has since spoken at an international conference on climate change.

We see John, an academically bright young man, who finds it difficult to deal with stress, often reacting with anger when he feels he is letting himself down. At one point, during an exam, he locks himself in the bathroom and refuses to come out and the concern among staff for his wellbeing is palpable.

A lot of the students are extremely vulnerable. As Don points out: “Success to me is that some of those kids are alive at the end of the year, because we have lost a couple of young people to suicide over the years.”

Tragically it was the suicide of Shane Griffin, a 33-year-old social care manager whose own traumatic childhood had inspired him to become a champion for children leaving care with no supports, that ultimately gave rise to this documentary.

Kim Bartley, the documentarian who filmed The Unteachables, first visited the Cork Life Centre when making a documentary about Shane’s life — which ultimately didn’t get funding. Don had invited him to speak at a conference about children in care in 2017.

Aoife Kavanagh, producer of The Unteachables, said Kim was “really taken by the place” to the point where she returned to Don with the idea for this documentary. Over time, they built up a good working relationship and the idea gained momentum.

“The idea was to do an observational documentary, not to dictate the action,” Aoife said.

To this end, Kim spent days in the centre, with herself and sound operator Colm O’Meara doing their best to be invisible in the room.

Agreement to allow filming only came after Don had first secured the agreement of parents and then the kids themselves.

“I wasn’t going to put us in a position where it caused problems afterwards,” Don says. “So I sat with the parents and they gave permission, and I sat with the kids and they gave permission.

Don O'Leary
Don O'Leary

“We built a relationship with the crew over three years, this wasn’t just decided on the day. We have kids who are in care as well and that all had to be looked at.”

Aoife says they were very conscious of not exploiting the kids.

“We took a very ethical approach, there was no manipulating. We did a lot of one-on-one interviews with them. We also made it clear from the beginning that they could change their minds all the way through up to edit.”

The crew was in the school for the bones of a year, under the watchful eye of Don whose background is in youth work. In the 1990s, he was a Sinn Féin Cork City Councillor, but his passion was always for teaching.

“It wasn’t an option with 11 of us at home,” he says.

After a series of jobs, he did a degree in Youth and Community work and his life changed when he was contacted by Brendan O’Brien who asked him to run a programme for young people out of mainstream education at St Kevin’s Youth Educational Project. O’Brien was director of St Kevin’s at the time.

This experience ultimately led in 2006 to the offer of the job of director at the Life Centre, formerly a monastery for the Christian Brothers.

Initially it was for children out of mainstream education up to Junior Certificate level but in 2009 the Leaving Certificate programme was introduced. The demand for a school place is huge — there are just 55 places and about 160 applications that had to be turned down this school year.

The school, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is not formally recognised by the Department of Education and receives less than €80,000 a year in department funding, depending largely on philanthropy. It’s currently doing its best to deliver courses online as its students are also at home due to the pandemic.

The documentary, narrated by well known Cork actress Eileen Walsh (Catastrophe, etc) opens with the line: ““At the heart of Cork city, overlooking the Lee, is school like no other.”

The Unteachables certainly lives up to this billing. Don’t miss it.

  • The Unteachables begins at 9pm on Virgin One Monday, April 13 with the second episode airing on Monday, April 20.

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