Early education vital in tackling city’s inequality

Delighted to see enduring inequalities in our education system highlighted in the Evening Echo recently(27.12.2017) by journalist Grainne McGuinness and to be featured in the article along with Dr. Tom Cavanagh a huge supporter and advocate for educational opportunities for all.


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Dr Tom Cavanagh speaking at the official opening of the newly refurbished Dochas Ward and Chroi at Fermoy Community Hospital. Picture: Richard Mills


KNOCKNAHEENY and some other areas in Cork inner city found themselves highlighted for all the wrong reasons in November but that only tells part of the story of communities who are putting tremendous energy, creativity and talent into their local area.

The Pobal Deprivation Index categorised parts of Knocknaheeny as ‘extremely disadvantaged’ and a number of areas in Mayfield, The Glen, and Togher as ‘very disadvantaged’.

These are the far ends of the scale calculated by the government agency, which used a number of factors in its assessment, including unemployment rates, educational attainment and single-parent households.

By contrast, other areas in the city were classed as ‘very affluent.’

Following the report, the Evening Echo sat down with Tom Cavanagh. The retired businessman has devoted considerable time and energy working with community projects.

“I’m not a bit surprised by the continued inequality, that you have extremely disadvantaged and very affluent all in one city,” Mr Cavanagh said.

“Maybe many might say that the report just highlights something we already knew. So, do we just put it to one side and say to ourselves this is something for the state, politicians, City Hall to deal with? Or, should we be challenged to do something? We are repeatedly hearing that the gap is widening. It doesn’t fit with our Christian culture.”

He emphasized that the majority of people in the areas classed as deprived were doing their very best for themselves and their families.

“The good ones are very good, and they are the majority, but it is the groups who aren’t so good who pull everything down,” he said.

One of his major concerns is that the housing mistakes of the past will be repeated in the rush to solve the current housing crisis. Clumping social housing together can stigmatise areas and Mr Cavanagh would prefer to see mixed developments where a percentage of social housing is built alongside homes to be sold privately.

“The first thing not to be done is to repeat the same mistake – to build large numbers of social houses on cheap sites with limited social amenities. Cities all over the world are not going to repeat the ghettos – whether they be of race, class or religion,” he said.

“They aim for small numbers of social houses next to similar numbers of private housing with central schools, social amenities hopefully shared by all as tends to happen in a provincial town where there is only one GAA, soccer, hockey club and just a few secondary schools, etc. They are not just building houses, they are building communities where people are more likely to share interests and become community activists.”

His fear is that with the current emphasis on housing, politicians and other interested parties will emphasize getting numbers built quickly rather than focussing on long-term needs.

“The planning of these should be left to town planners who have been educated specifically for the job, not to businesses – be it builders, banks, etc – or the politicians who are under pressure to build quickly,” he said.

For Mr Cavanagh, the attempts to address inequality will only work if there is early intervention.

“I believe that focusing on the education of the young in the less affluent areas will continue to change things. Children born on both sides of the divide are on average blessed by the Lord with same levels of potential skills, energy levels and importantly intelligence.

“But it is how their talents are developed, that is the difference. That creates the divide.

“There is greater emphasis on the importance of education in the affluent areas – from an early age the bar is set at a higher level. Children absorb that they are expected to aim for success. Their brothers and sisters grow up in the same environment as do the kids next door.

“In the less affluent areas, the bar is at a lower level – some families down the street may even be of the opinion that little value attaches to formal education. The ultimate results are not as good but hopefully can be improved and a lot of good things are happening.”

Mr Cavanagh was keen to point out the many positive initiatives taking place around the city and used Terence MacSwiney school as an example. Principal Phil O’Flynn said two programmes, in particular, were having a tremendous effect.

“For several years, we have been sending fourth-year students abroad with the Hope Foundation. They go to help poor communities in areas like Calcutta, painting orphanages and home. It is life-changing for the students, an opportunity they would not normally get,” she said.

“We have also been running shows for the last three years, to introduce drama and musical performance and show off the talent and creativity of our students. It has given the area such a lift.

“It is hard to always have your area shown in a negative light, we want to break away from the ‘disadvantaged’ tag. There is so much to us and so much is being done.”

Mr Cavanagh has also been involved in bringing guests to give talks in schools in the city and it is something he would like to see more of, particularly past pupils.

“Another thing schools can do is bring in motivational speakers, ideally past pupils who have been successful,” Mr Cavanagh said.

“They can be from different walks of life. It is being done spasmodically but more would be great. There are successful people from these areas all over the place and most of them will be willing to do it.”

While raising aspirations and normalising achievement are important, schools also have a role to play in creating the basic building blocks of a healthy life. He gave the examples of free breakfast programmes and education programmes about health eating.

“This is something that can be helped without money but it involves the parents, and pupils and the schools working together. Exercise is free and makes a big difference and to try and establish the exercise habit for life makes a big difference.”

Mr Cavanagh would like to see more schools and GAA clubs follow an example on the north side.

He said, “St Vincent’s have a programme where they bring pupils from a number of schools up to the clubhouse and play games with them. They bus them up and back and it is mostly done by volunteers. It is a very low-cost thing but is a very good start. The kids like it and the teachers are all for it. That is one of the things that is happening.”

Sport and education in healthy eating are positive developments but young people’s health and lifestyles face a major challenge in their teenage years, with alcohol a major issue, according to Dr Cavanagh.

Regular drinking from a young age can lead to other substance abuse and further abuse of alcohol later in life, he added.

Mr Cavanagh said there were many other examples of excellent programmes and work being done in the city, including the Happy Talk programme and the work of the Cork Life Centre.

But he said it is often a struggle to get funding. Solving the inequality in the city is not as big a priority with many as he would like it to be.

“It is one of the things I am disappointed with, sorting out the divide is not something that is spoken of much in the restaurants and bars in the South Mall or on Patrick’s Street. It is not the topic of the day. They might talk about homelessness and that kind of thing but this isn’t on their mind. It is not that they are indifferent to it but I think they should be more active.”

Cork Life Centre a vital, alternative form of education

The Cork Life Centre is a voluntary organisation which offers education to young people who have dropped out of mainstream education. They are a wide variety of reasons why this happens and Tom Cavanagh said the Centre provides a crucial alternative for young people not suited to mainstream education.

lcEntertainment at the Cork Life Centre Christmas Lunch on December 16.

He praised Director Don O’Leary, who he said has fostered an environment in the Centre that schools do not currently come close to emulating, and in which young people thrive.

Mr O’Leary told the Evening Echo that the work they do will benefit the young people in question for years to come and this has a knock-on benefit for society in general.

“If you want young people to succeed in life then they have to be given an education. At the moment, 10% of our youth population are deemed as early school leavers. They haven’t got to the Leaving Cert and many of them left well before that.

“We all know how important education is, we keep talking about how we are a smart economy, with computers and gaming. But unless young people have got the qualifications then that work is not available to them. And instead of being net contributors to society, they won’t be able to get employment and the state will need to be supplying them for a good part of their lives.”

Mr O’Leary said the reality of the young people he deals with is very far from the cliche of the uninterested, lazy dropout.

“There is no alternative education sector in Ireland, it needs to be looked at. We have young people in here who come for lots of different reasons. I don’t like using the term early school leavers because it puts the onus on the young people, that they are at fault. But in fact, there are lots of different reasons.

“Mental health issues is a big problem, particularly social anxiety which is growing and growing in the years I have been here. You have young people who have suffered trauma for many different reasons when they were kids. We have young people in care coming to the Life Centre and young people who may be in the juvenile justice system. There is no one situation that portrays a person who leaves school early. Lots of people try to look at some way of blaming the young person.” He pointed to their outcomes as proof that the young people in their care are still open to education.

“Last year we had 11 young people sitting their Leaving Cert here. Four of them went on to third level and the others went to PLCs. When people hear about early school leavers they talk about people who don’t want to learn. These students want to learn, but they learn in a different way and we need to look at that.”

Happy Talk programme teaches reading at a young age

ANOTHER programme which involves early intervention and, Tom Cavanagh believes, shows excellent results for a low cost is the Happy Talk programme.

“What the programme addressed was reading skills, which you can measure fairly easily. This programme is being delivered into primary schools, to make these kids better at reading.”

By working to engage children, the programme saw swift results when first introduced a number of years ago.

Dr Cavanagh said, “It is an easy enough thing to do, if you can get the right books, kids will read them.

“The end result after six months of the programme is instead of being bad at reading, they were better than the national average.

“So from being deprived, now they were better than children in other schools.” Parental involvement is encouraged.

“You get the parents to come in as well and encourage them to read with the kids and a lot of the parents who came were great,” Dr Cavanagh added.

“Plus if the parents got involved and started reading with this child, they were more likely to keep it going with other children, it was repeated.” The success of the programme has led to it being extended to work with children up to junior infant level.

Parents of young babies are supported by Happy Talk through the Public Health clinic system.

Parents bringing their babies for their regular 7-9 month development check up, are offered an additional session with a Happy Talk speech and language therapist.

During the session, parents are given advice about how to support early language development.

The Happy Talk programme is also working with creches and preschools in the city, to address development of toddlers from 10 months to three years.

Programmes include coaching sessions for créche staff and a short summer course for parents who had specific concerns about their children’s language development. It covers communication and language, with therapists coaching individual parents alongside children and creche staff.

At the next stage, Happy Talk has provided training and speech and language support for preschool staff. This course covered topics that enabled the staff to support the communication of all children including those with speech and language difficulties.

As with the junior infant programme, coaching is a key element of the programmes. Staff and parent coaching sessions are run in each of the preschools participating in the Happy Talk project.

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