Friday 9 December 2016

Breaking the mould on college thinking

This is the week to forget any misgivings and explore all routes to a qualification

Published 24/11/2016 | 02:30

Eibhilín Hennessy (bottom right) and other apprentices who started in GSK Cork in September - (standing l to r) Daniel Horgan (mechanical), Eric Desmond (electrical & instrumentation) and Cian Aherne (mechanical), and (seated l ) Doireann O'Connor (pharmaceutical technical)
Eibhilín Hennessy (bottom right) and other apprentices who started in GSK Cork in September - (standing l to r) Daniel Horgan (mechanical), Eric Desmond (electrical & instrumentation) and Cian Aherne (mechanical), and (seated l ) Doireann O'Connor (pharmaceutical technical)
Sarah Vanderpool in the Irish School of Farriery, which runs an apprentice programme

Every year, about three in four Leaving Certificate students apply to the CAO for a place in higher education. Many other school-leavers pursue further education, usually a Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course, either as an end in itself or as a stepping stone to college.

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Among these are many who start a course, lose their way and lack confidence about finding a route back. Thousands more do not pursue any form of post-secondary education, either immediately after school or ever.

College Awareness Week (CAW), which is running until Friday, aims to encourage people from all walks of life, whether school-leaver or older, to consider the benefits of further and higher education: obvious ones are career satisfaction and higher earning power, which, in turn, generally make for happier and healthier lives.

While Ireland has one of the highest school completion rates in the EU, inequality persists in terms of going to college. School-leavers from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are still far less likely to pursue higher education than teenagers from financially better-off families. Postcodes tell a lot: a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report a couple of years ago showed that 99pc of young people in well-to-do, Dublin 6 go to college, compared with 15pc-16pc in disadvantaged communities in the city.

Sarah Vanderpool in the Irish School of Farriery, which runs an apprentice programme
Sarah Vanderpool in the Irish School of Farriery, which runs an apprentice programme

As well as trying to raise college participation among young people in lower socio-economic families, another focus this week is on encouraging mature students to consider college for the first time, or to go back to re-skill to meet the needs of the modern workplace

One of the CAW organisers is the NAPD, the representative body for second-level principals, whose director Clive Byrne says that "this year, in particular, we are reaching out to people who do not believe that further or higher education is an option for them".

He notes that Ireland also has low participation rates in higher education by more marginalised groups such as people with disabilities, those from ethnic minorities or members of the Traveller community.

Much of the information around college entry is delivered in education settings such as schools and the message is reinforced at home for students whose parents are motivated about education.

But, not everyone has ready access to such advice and encouragement, and one way the campaign aims to break down barriers is by raising awareness and providing information in community-based settings, such as libraries.

There are about 1,000 such events taking place around the country this week.

Under-representation at third level is also evident in other ways. Sometimes, it is not the fact of going, or not going, to college that it is the issue, but an inequality between the genders in terms of course choices - and for no good reason.

The dominance of females in primary teaching courses is an example. A recent report highlighted a general lack of diversity in primary teacher ranks, with those from lower socio-economic groups and the non-Irish under-represented.

Dr Anne Looney, interim CEO of the HEA, stresses the important contribution of teachers to college awareness activities, not just this week, but every time they stand in front of a classroom. In particular, she says, when a teacher comes from a community where college participation is lower, they can be a powerful role model for students in considering further or higher education.

Gender imbalance also works in reverse, as the overwhelming majority of male students on courses in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) area attests. There is an ongoing push to encourage more girls to consider these options.

Breaking the moulds that surround college entry now also require a shift in traditional thinking about what is meant both by a college qualification, and the routes to same. This is the time of year for college open days and, as part of CAW, the further education and training authority, Solas, is also getting the message out about what is available in its sector, including apprenticeships: a number of education and training boards (ETBs), as well as bodies such as Horse Racing Ireland are having open days this week.

A recent Kerry ETB survey found that one third of adults who take up one of its full-time further education courses are going straight into employment, while almost half of its PLC students go on to higher education.

With most of the learners on Kerry ETB's Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) courses aged over 41, Owen O'Donnell, Kerry's Director of Further Education and Training, suggests it is playing a vital role in up-skilling/re-skilling and providing second-chance education for early school-leavers or people who need their skills updated.

There is also new buzz around apprenticeships .

Economic recovery has opened up traditional apprenticeships, such as in the construction and engineering trades, again, and the same earn-as-you-learn approach is being expanded to fields such as financial services and medical devices.

This new era brings with it the possibility for apprentices to go well beyond the traditional qualification and go on to attain a degree, or even higher, in their chosen field.

Apprenticeships are another area where not enough females are putting themselves forward and Solas is undertaking research to find out why.

Why Eibhilín, a 500-plus CAO points school-leaver, opted for an apprenticeship in the traditional male world of engineering

With more than 500 points in the Leaving Certificate earlier this year, Eibhilín Hennessy was a shoo-in for her top CAO choice - an honours degree course in mechanical engineering.

But even before that offer landed in August, Eibhilín had already made up her mind that she would prefer to take a different route to her dream career.

At school, in St Augustine's, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, she was passionate about physics and design and communications graphics.

"I knew I wanted to study something in engineering, product design or technology because they were all about problem solving and thinking outside the box," says Eibhilín (19). Having submitted her CAO form, a chance remark by her dad, who works with the global healthcare and pharmaceutical company, GSK, in Dungarvan brought Eibhilín's attention to apprenticeship opportunities within the company.

The combination of study and hands-on experience appealed and Eibhilín applied for an engineering apprenticeship. She went through an aptitude test, a day-long practical assessment and, in April, was offered a place, subject to achieving certain grades in the Leaving Cert.

In September, she started as an electrical and instrumentation apprentice and has the distinction of being GSK Cork's first ever female apprentice.

As well as doing the four-year apprenticeship, Eibhilín will also take advantage of the company's fully-funded, study programme to pursue a Level 7 engineering degree at Cork Institute of Technology, at night. It means that, in five years, she will have two qualifications and the possibility to go to honours degree level and beyond. And she's getting paid!

Eibhilín is delighted with the path she has taken and says "it is going brilliantly".

GSK is a leader in apprenticeships and, this year, has expanded its programme to include non-craft areas: pharmaceutical technician in Cork and business and supply chain in Dungarvan.

Irish Independent

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