Like most of his classmates at Youthreach in Kilbeggan, Paul O’Neill (18) from Tyrrellspass left school after his Junior Certificate and had little or no interest in returning to education.
His disillusionment with education was down to a number of factors, some his own doing, he says.
“When I was in school, I really didn’t like it. It wasn’t the place for me. I knew it. I was constantly going around in a bad mood. I’d go but I’d complain the whole way. Then I came here and I actually wanted to come in.”
An education, training and work experience programme for early school leavers aged between 15 and 20, Youthreach provides young people like Paul with a second chance to progress with their education outside the mainstream system that for whatever reason didn’t suit them.
Rayon Farrell is the co-ordinator at Kilbeggan Youthreach. She says that when many pupils come to Youthreach their self-esteem is low due to their negative educational experiences. She and her colleagues take a holistic approach to building students’ self-esteem and improving their educational prospects.
“Our learning environment does not just focus on academics – we believe that our students’ social aspects are just as important so we have a number of non-academic programmes that we run which work wonders in building confidence, self-esteem and, most importantly, makes our students believe in themselves.
“This centre is open to young teens who want an education but are finding the mainstream school setting difficult. There are other routes into college (a number of former pupils have gone on to third level) and this is something parents and students need to be aware of.
“We promote positivity on a daily basis, we are all about self-directed learning. “We teach students how to learn, which is a skill in itself.
“With every single thing we do, our aim is to take students out of their comfort zone, every move we make is strategic with the intention of getting the best of our students.”
Aspiring musician Paul says that smaller classes and the self-directed learning approach adopted by Youthreach has reignited his interest in education, something he had never thought possible.
“School – I was never suited to it. This place is better as you can get help on a one-to-one basis. The work you do here is generally team-based, which is good for because I would rather work in a team than on my own as I have better concentration. The staff are all great – you think of them as friends rather than teachers.
“In school you’d be constantly worried about homework or tests that are coming up and exams. Then the pressure of that would make you fall behind and when you fall behind in a big class, it’s easy to get left behind at the back.
“That’s what happened with me. It was very hard for me to learn that way. Then when I came here, that all changed. I wanted to learn. You can’t really get left behind here because they motivate you to keep going.”
The staff at Kilbeggan Youthreach are obviously doing something right. Following a Department of Education inspection in 2016 they were praised for the quality of their teaching, promoting “learners’ mental and physical wellbeing and to increase levels of self-esteem and confidence” and fostering “very positive and mutually respectful relationships”.
In addition to their Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI) Level 3 and Level 4 courses, which are the equivalent of the Junior Cert and Leaving Cert, Kilbeggan also recently became one of the first Youthreach centres in the country to be given permission to run a QQI Level 5 General Learning Cert.
Ms Farrell says was further confirmation of the good work her staff are doing.
“This was a massive compliment to us as there are not many if any other Youthreach centres throughout the country conducting the full Level 5.
“We are also planning to run an early intervention within the centre for students who are having difficulties with literacy and numeracy, this will be based around the QQI Level 2 programme. Our hope is to progress them to a Level 3 standard and either work with the schools to integrate them back into their setting or they can decide if they would like to stay within our learning environment.
“Our aim is to work with the schools in the near future for the best interest of the students as I am sure we both want to see them succeed.”
Ms Farrell acknowledges that the Youthreach programme is viewed by some as a glorified babysitting service for teens who left school early. Her staff want to change the negative perception that many have about Youthreach and the services it provides.
It may take a different approach to mainstream schools, but Youthreach Kilbeggan is primarily a place of learning, she says. Unless a would-be pupil demonstrates that they want to learn and better themselves, they will not be offered a place.
“Although we are second chance education, not all young individuals want to learn and therefore could have the intention of attending the centre for the wrong reasons.
“Our job is to educate, we are not a social scene and this is something we make quite clear to students who attend interviews.
“We have a process here to gauge whether we will benefit potential students and whether they will benefit the centre. All students are assessed before they are offered an induction, and this gives us the opportunity to get a better understanding of their literacy and numeracy levels. Students who are at the level that we can provide are offered an induction.
“During the induction students will attend the programme we feel they are capable of completing, it is extremely important that we are not setting students up to fail and this is why we conduct assessments and run an induction. It is down to the students during their induction to convince us that they want to be here – it is paramount that they want to be part of the centre, as that is half the battle.
“Some students are not offered placements as they make the decision that Kilbeggan is not for them or they are asked to leave as we feel that this learning environment may not benefit them, but in both cases, if they are willing, we work with them to find other potential courses.”
Paul says that not only have his future prospects significantly improved since he joined Youthreach in 2016, he also has a much more positive outlook and has learned valuable life skills such as cleaning and cooking.
As for some people’s negative perception of Youthreach, he says that if they visited the Kilbeggan centre for an hour, they would change their minds.
“To people who have those opinion – come and find out. I recommend it to any of my friends. If they are talking to me and saying that they are struggling in school I say
‘Would you not consider coming to Youthreach?’.“There’s respect here. You get the respect that you give. You don’t judge anyone. You just change for the better.”