The university of life

Cork Life Centre offers a second chance of education to early school leavers, writes Noelle McCarthy

DON O’Leary is sitting at a wooden table with the city spread out behind him. “It’s very easy to generalise about kids who leave school early, but the truth is, early school leavers are out for a huge variety of reasons. You can’t say they’re all from one section of society. All we can say for certain is that formal education isn’t working for them.”

We are in the kitchen of the Cork Life Centre, where O’Leary, a well-known community activist and sometime local politician, has been the director for six years. The kitchen, a bright airy room with a magnificent view of Cork city, is where the young people who use the centre, and the volunteer staff who teach them, cook and eat together every day. “This is the life and soul of the place,” says O’Leary. “This is where we build an open atmosphere. The kids who use this centre have to see it as somewhere they feel safe.”

Over his shoulder is the full sweep of Cork City, landmarks from St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral to the Mercy Hospital and, snaking through it all, the green river.

Sitting in the kitchen of The Life Centre, it’s impossible not to feel connected to the city. Connection is a big part of what’s on offer here.

Some 32 young people attend here. Officially, it’s a centre for early school leavers, under the trusteeship of the Christian Brothers, whose ethos of community service informs the whole project.

Next week the Cork Life Centre will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Edmund Rice with a week-long programme of events, including a keynote speech by former Governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan. They will also be celebrating their own existence in the face of increasing financial constraints.

The young people who go to the Centre range in age from 12 to 21, and have different reasons for being there. “‘This is not a school, it’s a centre for education,” says O’Leary. “The emphasis here is on social interactions, not just on sitting exams. The formula for mainstream education — and no disrespect to it at all — is to get results, and that formula just doesn’t suit all young people. It could be the size of the class that’s an issue, it could be problems with hearing, or literacy. It could be many things. Here, we try to find out what’s going on for that young person. We never assume that we know.”

Is it fair to say that most of the students at the Life Centre have been referred there by social service agencies?

“Yes,” says the director, but not always. “Our kids come to us through probation offices, education welfare officers, or the health board makes contact in some cases, but we also have kids who have knocked at the door, as have their parents, in the past.”

Don doesn’t care how they got there. “It doesn’t matter... if a young person wants an education, we’ll try to place them. We’ve had kids in the past who’ve only been able to register for eight hours a week here, and they’ve done that, they’ve achieved that, they’ve started preparing for exams on that; these are bright, innovative young people who want to do exams for themselves.”

The kids currently attending the Life Centre are split into part-time and full-time programmes, attendance at which is mandatory. Anyone who arrives more than 15 minutes after classes have started is sent home. Of the 17 kids doing full-time hours, six will do their Junior Cert next month. Most of the others are working towards doing the exam next year, and the centre has Leaving Cert students after the success of a pilot scheme last year.

All of the teaching is one-on-one, and all of it is voluntary. O’Leary has enough money to pay one full-time staff member, and three unsecured part-timers from the VEC.

But when you add in volunteers, the staff roster comes to 52, a total he says is a credit to the Cork community.

“‘It’s sad that we can’t pay teachers, but in a way the economic situation has helped us with that. Teachers come to us when they can’t get work, and we’ve been so lucky with the UCC and CIT students who have come to us on placements.”

The centre is very different from a conventional teaching atmosphere, says O’Leary: “Teachers are judged on results, our staff are judged on patience.”

* Cork Life Centre Conference 2012 takes place on May 14-19 at Edmund Rice House, Winters Hill, Cork.

Sheila’s story

I’m from Cork City and I’m in fifth year at the Life Centre. I’ll be doing my Leaving Cert next year. I don’t really have good memories of mainstream school. I did have one great teacher though.

History was my favourite subject, although I despised the teacher. In school I always felt about two feet tall.

When you were given out to, it was in front of everyone. But really, there were loads of reasons why I left. There was stuff going on in my head, and with my family. I was asked to leave, but I kept coming back just to annoy them. I’d come in at 2, or 3 in the afternoon. I was just a rebellious teenager, school wasn’t a priority for me.

But people are good here, I always doubted all sorts of education before.

Here, they treat you like an adult, but you still get down to business, the difference is that you want to do the work. There have been times when I really didn’t want to come, but the people here are so good to you, you don’t want to let them down.


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