The Cork Life Centre has been supporting children to continue their education outside mainstream school settings for 20 years, with students going on to third level, post-Leaving Cert courses and employment.
It is a voluntary organisation offering an alternative learning environment to marginalised young people.
The Centre and its staff offer students 1:1 tuition in Junior and Leaving Cert subjects and support them in their preparation for these State Exams, with a holistic approach to education that focuses on social development as well as academics.
The Centre is not officially recognised as an alternative educational setting by the government and therefore is minimally funded.
After 20 years of supporting students across Cork and further afield for whom mainstream education was not working, Cork Life Centre director Don O’Leary said it is about time the Cork Life Centre and the alternative education sector gets the funding and the recognition it deserves.
Speaking to The Echo ahead of Budget 2021, Mr O’Leary said:
“There needs to be an acknowledgement and recognition of alternative education.
“Schools are underfunded and have been underfunded for years.
“But the alternative education sector has been left to wither,” he added.
“It’s not even acknowledged that there’s an alternative sector at all in many ways, particularly the academic strand of it.
“If you’re outside the government funding, you’re not even in the circle for funding when it comes.”
Mr O’Leary highlighted the positive impact that the alternative education sector can have and the importance of having a safety net to catch those who slip through the cracks of the mainstream system.
“The figures for Ireland show that 10 percent of our kids are early school leavers,” he said.
“The last census showed there were 900,000 young people in education.
“If 10 percent of those leave education, that’s 90,000 kids,” he explained.
“Although that’s over the educational life span, it’s still a massive amount of kids and there has to be something there for them.
“These days, the bare minimum people have to have going forward is the Leaving Cert or Fetac level equivalent but young people aren’t being allowed or supported to get there.
“Money ends up being spent on catch-up whereas it should be spent on organisations like our own which supports those early school leavers in the first place.”
However, the lack of funding for the alternative education sector at present is making it difficult to ensure it is available for everyone who needs it, Mr O’Leary said.
“I’ve had to refuse more than 150 kids per year over the last three years because we just don’t have the places or resources,” he said.
“We’re already almost full for 2021.”
At present, the Cork Life Centre receives around €77,500 in funding per year from the government, along with some cooperation hours to support several part-time staff positions.
The Centre currently has around 70 staff including three or four full-time positions, several part-time and dozens of volunteers.
Mr O’Leary revealed that the Centre has submitted a proposal to the Department of Education seeking funding that would help ensure the future of Cork Life Centre, and allow for future planning.
“We have a proposal before the Department of Education because we’re looking for proper recognition for ourselves and for funding,” he said.
“We are looking for €50,000 and funding for the employment of 12 staff and the continuation of cooperation hours.
“That’s instead of the €77,500 or so we get at the moment,” he added.
“Being funded as suggested in our proposal would mean greater security for the service.
“At the moment, we’re getting the funding and using it to run the service for a year but there’s no certainty we’ll be able to run the following year.
“We’re taking in first year children and telling them that we will support them up to Leaving Cert but we don’t even have the money ensured at that stage to take them into second year.
“As well as that, having a cohort of 12 staff would be crucial as it would mean continuity and consistency, a big thing for the kids we see here.”
Mr O’Leary explained the funding being sought by the Cork Life Centre is relatively small when compared to funding provided for mainstream education.
“For every child that goes into secondary school, the cost to the state is €9,000,” he said.
“The Cork Life Centre gets around €70,000 from the state and some cooperation hours yet we have 55 kids here.
“If I was to get €10,000 per kid, that’s up towards half a million euro,” he added.
“So the funding we’re looking for is fair and it would safeguard our future meaning we’ll be there for kids who need us in future.”
Mr O’Leary called for education funding to be viewed as a child’s education fund rather than money for schools.
“There are systems in the UK and other countries where the local authorities look after school funding,” he explained.
“If a child moves from one school to another, the funding moves with them.
“That should be the case here in Ireland because it would ensure the funding stays with the child, no matter where they seek their education and what’s best for them,” he added.
“If that child wants to pursue their education in the alternative education sector - one that has proven itself like we have - then the money should go there.
“Then it’s not a case of extra money being spent, it’s the money that was already there being spent where it should be.”
The Cork Life Centre has impacted the lives of hundreds of children for the better over the past two decades, often with a lack of funding, and Mr O’Leary said it is time for that to be recognised.
“These kids often have a lack of self-esteem and relationship issues, and we’re trying to cater for that and other aspects of their mental health,” he said.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve had kids from here go onto university, post-Leaving Cert courses and employment.
“That’s proof in itself of what this staff, management and volunteers can do even on a very, very tight budget,” he added.
“Twenty years on, we are entitled to recognition for both our students and staff.
“I’ve always believed that our students are entitled to the same as every other student across Ireland.
“Yet, they’ve been left without the same level of funding, without the school bus passes and other supports that we have had to fight for.”
It is the right of every child in Ireland to be able to access education, explained Mr O’Leary.
“Nowhere does it state that you have to pursue that education in a certain setting,” he added.
“The State has no problem finding money for the detention centres.
“We should be putting that money into education and that includes alternative education - it should be going wherever it needs to prevent children ending up in detention centres,” he added.
“That money should be used to support children to get to the Leaving Cert, learn a trade or gain employment.
“If it doesn’t go there, we are condemning people to the dole or poverty.
“Why would we do that when targeted funding in early education, schools and alternative education can prevent that?” asked Mr O’Leary.
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