Easing the pressure and keeping on track
Education and training centres across the country act as a valuable safety net for stressed students, writes Katherine Donnelly
It is the time of year when Leaving Certificate students can feel overwhelmed by the pressure of upcoming exams. The high-stakes nature of the assessment, concerns about their CAO choices and, indeed, whether a straight move to higher education is even the right option weigh heavily as the final term looms.
Psychologists and support staff at the National Learning Network (NLN) say that the first week back to school after Easter sees an upswing in enquiries from parents wondering what is next for their child.
In fact, Claire Picard, liaison officer at Portlaoise NLN, says a lot of parents have contacted her since Christmas because their children didn't want to go back to school. They may be fifth or sixth years, or even younger.
"Parents are crying in our office, they've no idea what to do. Some of these students are anxious, depressed and self-harming," says Picard.
She says that when asked what aspects of the school system their current students found hard, they said they struggled with workload, exam pressure and large class sizes. Another issue was the access they had to an SNA or extra support in school - a resource they feared might not be available to them in college.
These students often have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), mental health or learning difficulties, or live with a disability. It means they may need extra supports to learn or just aren't ready for the traditional third-level environment.
NLN's principal psychologist Suzanne Allen says "with the right environment and the right supports, students can flourish". She says they often encounter students with great academic potential, who are held back by mental health issues and not having these needs addressed.
NLN has a network of 50 centres around the country, catering for 16 to 65-year-olds, and offering qualifications on the national framework as well as specialist training programmes. Students pursue them as an end in themselves and a route to employment, or as a way of remaining in education but taking some breathing room from the more conventional channels.
What is particularly valuable is that each centre has its own psychologist and other resource staff, and students work at their own pace to a learning plan tailored to their individual needs. Intake is on a rolling basis and there are no more than 12 in a class.
Mason Moore (above) of Prosperous, Co Kildare, studied science in college after the Leaving Cert, but began to suffer mental health issues. While repeating third year, he was diagnosed with psychosis and admitted to St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin.
"I felt I was a bit of a failure. At the same time, I was quite young and knew there was lots of time to go back and get a degree. I had to prioritise the mental health issue." His recovery took two years. After St Pat's, he moved to an outpatient service in Naas where the occupational therapist told him about the NLN. He started there in September 2017 and describes it as an "absolutely fantastic" experience, with small classes being one of the big benefits.
He felt his old self coming back. His concentration levels went "way up" and having to deal with a continuous intake of new students to the programme meant he overcame his shyness.
Mason (26) says the purpose of doing the course was to go back to third level and, within a year, he was ready. This time he wanted to study finance and applied to Maynooth University as a mature student. His NLN instructor helped him to prepare for the interview.
Now approaching the end of first year, Mason is really enjoying it. "I'm more focused, I know my strengths and my health is perfect," he says. At the end of the three-year programme, he says he may pursue further study in quantitative maths.
Hugh Doheny, from Mountrath, Co Laois, hated school. He has a learning difficulty, which allowed him a reader and scribe in State exams, and was a victim of teen bullying. "I started mitching and not going in until 11.30am or 12, and I would miss out on exams, work and classes," says Hugh.
But his resilience shone through.
"I'm not the type of person who wants to sit on the sofa. I knew I had to do something, so I stuck school out."
He got through his Leaving Cert last year when he was 17, and was thinking of joining the Army, but wasn't the required 18 years of age.
Then his mother told him about NLN. He sampled it, liked it and started a two-year transition programme in the Portlaoise centre last September.
"I've met loads of nice people; one friend is like a brother. I get a lot of support from my tutor. In a big classroom, I was shy - here, I feel more comfortable asking for help," he says.
Hugh hasn't dismissed the idea of a career in the Army, but says he wants to give college a try. "I would probably study computer skills or mechanical engineering."
His mother, Marie, is overjoyed. She recalls the worry last year and how the tide turned after receiving a call from one of Hugh's teachers telling her about NLN.
"I jumped at the opportunity," she says, and now sees a visible difference in her son. "Hugh has had a big boost to his confidence and his literacy skills have really improved. He has loads of friends. The college is marvellous - it meets people where they're at and the support is mind-blowing. It was my worst nightmare that he would reach 18 and say 'that's it' with education and drop out. I knew he had potential."
For more information on National Learning Network's training programmes and support services, see nln.ie.