At the Cork Life Centre we spent the most extraordinary day yesterday sitting with our young people as they opened results most had never dreamed of achieving. Most of these young people in fact at many stages had given up on the idea that they would ever complete Leaving Certificate due to their life experiences and their experiences in the education system. Don our Director was interviewed on 96fm yesterday morning and very succinctly and eloquently explained-‘Our students have had to climb mountains and were then asked to do a 100 yard sprint at the end’ We sat with 11 young people yesterday who had not coped with, had struggled with or had been rejected by Ireland’s mainstream education system. Having effectively been let down by the system you can imagine the privilege it is and the pride we take in showing these young people most importantly but also those who might have doubted or overlooked them that they do matter, that they’re capable and that there is so much they can achieve and contribute.
In our work we promote balanced and measured views about the importance of the Leaving Cert. Far too often, and for far too many young people the Leaving Cert becomes associated with a ‘year of hell’ with being the ‘ultimate decider of one’s future’ with being the only ‘measurement for success’. The success in examinations our students celebrated yesterday is just one among many ways in which they have been successful during their journeys with us and often-times not what they will remember or take with them as they move on through their lives.
The number of the day for us yesterday was 11 and the feeling was joy. But as we and our students got to grips with the new Leaving Cert grading system yesterday I started to think about the Leaving Cert in numbers.
58,543 students received Leaving Cert results yesterday across Ireland. Most of these students will have spent 6 years in a system leading them to one set of exams that measure their accomplishments out of a score of 600. We used to have letters and numbers to indicate achievement –A1’s, B2’s, C3’s etc. This year we got numbers ranging from 1-8.
But let’s look a little deeper at these numbers and think about some of the numbers that often get less focus:
This figure of 58,543 represents those students who complete their secondary education. And we focus on them because they are the majority. But we have another somewhat stubborn figure in our education system-It is 10-representing the 10% of children and young people who do not complete their education and receive the ‘Early School Leavers’ tag and label. We never hear about them on Leaving Cert day but they were very much on our mind at the Cork Life Centre.
We were proud of the achievements of our 11 young people who very likely could have remained uncounted on August 16th-Leaving Cert Results day. But we were disheartened by another number that keeps haunting us-the more than 120 young people we had to refuse placements to this year due to lack of capacity to cater for them.
For too significant a proportion of children and young people our education system just doesn’t add up to meeting their needs. Some children can’t play this numbers game-they get too tired, too lonely, too sad, too frustrated.
I’m thinking of the children that don’t manage in school because they are seen as having too many difficult behaviours and how these children often can’t find anyone to search for or understand the meaning of their behaviour. I’m thinking of the children lost in the sea of the numbers of other children around them-they simply cannot cope with Ireland’s large class sizes-they can’t keep up, they are too anxious-they need more help, more support, more care than our system can provide. I’m thinking of the children that are already facing so many challenges and obstacles in their personal or social lives that algebra, comprehensions, essay-writing become just insurmountable-without having some other needs met first.
I’m also thinking of the children and young people who come to Ireland under the most difficult circumstances to seek asylum, enter the Irish education system-a culture, curriculum and climate they are not familiar with, sit their Leaving Cert in a language often not their first or their own only to find they cannot enter third level education. Because to do so would require large finances-the number here is 10,000. These young people would need 10,000 euros minimum to pursue their education at university level.
Here are some more much smaller but related numbers:
5 is the number of years an asylum seeking child needs to spend in the Irish education system to quality for third level education in spite of the fact that their families will have often fled their country of origin for fear of death.
4 is the number of applicants who were successful in the last two years in accessing 3rd Level education via the governments scheme for allowing asylum seekers access to higher education.
I return again to the number of 58,543 which our Department of Education and our Minister for Education were happy to speak about and celebrate yesterday. But we did not hear about the 10% of young people who have fallen through the cracks of our education system. We did the maths quickly. If 58,543 represents the 90% of young people who complete their Leaving Certificate and finish school then we can put a rough figure on the number of young people who didn’t get there at 6504.
6504 young people we don’t recall hearing anything about yesterday. And the government will argue they have taken alternative routes-Youthreach and other training programmes. I commend the young people who have done so and encourage that there be alternatives available to young people. But a large percentage of the above figure will have ended up with no opportunities to progress in education and will become part of another number, another statistic-NEETs.
NEET’s are young people aged 16-21 years not in education, employment or training in any given country in any given year. In 2014 Ireland’s percentage of NEET’s was 21% with the EU average at 15%. These numbers must be part of the Leaving Cert story also and their relevance recognised.
What seems clear as we look at the numbers and do the maths is that our Education system continues to fall short-we need a new formula, new numbers, a new equation that works for all children and young people and leaves no child behind.
We would like to return to the number 11 that we started with-a number which might feel small and insignificant to some but for our community represents so many life-changing journeys and achievements . We would like to thank the 11 wonderful young people we handed results to yesterday for letting us into their lives, allowing us to know them, struggle with them, learn from them, encourage them and celebrate with them. When you choose to work with stories as we do rather than statistics the outcomes, the joy, the satisfaction is truly immeasurable. You just can’t put a number on it.