“IN that time, it was OK to be an early school leaver, because most people were early school leavers.”
Noelle O’Regan, Community Development Officer at We The People, Knocknaheeny’s Community Development Project, left school at 15. Noelle, who grew up on Nash’s Boreen, wasn’t unusual in leaving school to get a job, in her case originally in the Sunbeam factory in Blackpool and later in Youghal Carpets. Marriage and six children followed for her, and it wasn’t until years later, when her youngest child started school, that Noelle returned to education.
Starting with courses in flower arranging and upholstery, the education bug bit hard for Noelle, and in 2005 she graduated from CIT with an Honours Degree in Community Education and Development.
Now, her job as Community Development officer allows her to indulge her passion for education in a community setting, where she develops programmes in conjunction with local residents looking to further their education.
“Not everyone learns the same way, and I think that’s what’s great about community education,” she says. “It gives people the freedom to start exploring the things they want to learn about. We do taster programmes on a whole list of things.”
Unlike some early school leavers, who may have had a negative experience in the education system, Noelle had always enjoyed school.
“I was the eldest of 12 in my family,” she says. “I was six before I went to school. I went to Blackpool school, and I don’t ever remember a bad experience, even though I know others had a different experience to me, but I loved school and I loved learning.”
Higher Education Authority figures show that in Ireland, if Dublin’s figures are anything to go by, there are still glaring socio-economic barriers to third-level education — 99% of students from the affluent Dublin 6 area access third-level education, a 2014 HEA report showed, while just 15% of students from Dublin 17, which has high concentrations of social housing, do so.
Some attempts to redress this balance in Cork have included the Higher Education Access Programme (HEAR), the UCC+ initiative and the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) initiative at CIT.
But Noelle says that attitude problems for communities without a tradition of third-level educational achievement persist.
“A lot of the time, if you don’t come from a family that goes to college, you don’t know the ropes and you don’t understand how the system works,” Noelle says.
“Often it’s about letting children know that there are options and choices. If you come from an area where you don’t see a lot of people getting jobs, it’s easier to feel that there just aren’t as many options.”
In Noelle’s case, one thing that made a difference was her ability to access education in a community setting; she took a Non-Formal Guidance course in Knocknaheeny, developed by Cork City Partnership and UCC, and followed it up with a secretarial course in the local secondary school, Terence McSwiney Community College.
Later, she was one of a group of women who developed a diploma course in Women’s Studies. The course was so popular that, Noelle says, laughing at the memory, they had to knock through a wall in the Knocknaheeny Community Building to accommodate the class.
“We had 21 people apply,” she says. “They ranged in age from 20s to 68, and lots of them went on to do further education.”
One of the members of that course was Deirdre O’Regan; the two women, not related, have more in common than a surname. Deirdre also left school in her teens to work and raise a family.
“I left at 16 when I found a job in Shoemasters making shoes,” Deirdre, from Knocknaheeny, says.
“All I wanted to be was a hairdresser, but you get used to having money then: I went from job to job doing loads of different things, but I always came into the centre here to volunteer, and the opportunity came up to do the diploma in the women’s studies. I had no interest in going back to college; I thought it wouldn’t be for me.”
Deirdre was surprised to find that she enjoyed handing in assignments and getting her grades.
“After that I said, ‘yeah, I think I’ll go to college’. Now I’m in my last year of a degree in Youth and Community.”
As for so many women, the pressure of raising a family and, in Deirdre’s case, maintaining part-time work while doing so, means educational opportunities are off the cards for many years.
“It wouldn’t have been easy for me to go back when my kids were small; I don’t think I would have been able to do it,” Deirdre says.
But as it happens, waiting until her children were older came with an unexpected twist; Deirdre ended up going to college the same year as her eldest child, daughter Amy.
“I was delighted that I went back and did my degree,” Deirdre says. “I’ve met loads of people who’ve said, ‘fair play, I couldn’t do that,’ and I always say, ‘but you can do it.’”
Deirdre works alongside Noelle as the project administrator at Knocknaheeny CDP, where she also tutors in baking, crochet and knitting; following years of volunteering, she applied for a Community Employment scheme with the project. She hopes her degree will help her fulfil an ambition to do more youth work.
“I love working with kids, and I love being here and getting the general feel of everything that goes on in the community,” Deirdre says.
“This is really such a hub. Everyone comes in to see Noreen; they might have very small problems or very big ones, but she’ll do anything she can for people.”
The CDP aims to provide as much access to education as possible, and sometimes the key to that, as both women can testify, is in providing an informal environment, lots of practical support and a sense that the courses are learner-led. The project even provides a typing service and courses in basic computer skills for learners whose skills in those areas don’t match their learning abilities and who struggle to hand in assignments.
“There are so many people after coming through the doors here who have gone on to do something else after the achievement of a course,” Noelle says. “People can get back into it, but it takes encouragement.”
“You need to provide a comfortable, safe environment where people can move at their own pace, get involved at a level they are comfortable with, give their own opinions and share their experiences.”
Noelle and Deirdre are amongst 650 participants at UNESCO’s Third International Conference on Learning Cities. Cork is the first European city to host the conference, which is in Cork City Hall from Monday, September 18 to Wednesday, September 20.