Larkin College - A totally revolutionary project
Making service providers accountable to the people
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
In 1982, Dublin's North Inner City was first promised a community college. Now, 18 years down the road, James Larkin College is at last about to open its doors to some 300 secondary school students in Dublin's North Inner City, who at the moment attend Parnell Square and Coláiste Conghaille in the North Strand, when they do go, which for most of them is by no means every day.
The figures tell the story, one of educational disadvantage. Forty per cent of the local population only went as far as primary school. Nearly half the people in the area left school before 15. In some parts it's 72 per cent. Last year, the much feted Minister of Education, Mícheál Martin, recently passed on to the health portfolio, announced that all students by 2003 would be doing the Leaving Certificate. Hello reality. With literacy figures in Ireland amongst the very worst in the EU, with at least 1 in 10 of the population unable to read, and an incredible 1 in 4 with very poor literacy skills, Ireland would seem to have a lot of catching up to do. Do they know how? The local people, organised through a multiplicity of community groups, in the network of ICON are trying to teach them.
One hundred per cent of school leavers doing the Leaving Cert may be unlikely. Even less likely is the possibility that the Inner City population will derive any great benefit from the dramatic social and economic changes which have taken place in this area, from the International Financial Services Centre down the road, or the Customs House Dublin Docks Development. The 42 per cent unemployment figures for 15- to 24-year-olds in this area is a direct consequence of the failure of the educational system.
``They have to recognise, the Department of Education, the VEC, that their schools have failed, that their education system does not match the needs of the people here,'' says Helen Maher of ICON (Inner City Organisations Network), one of the people most involved with the development of the new community college There is a perception that there is only one system of education. How can the same educational system respond to the different needs of areas with entirely different social economic backgrounds - everything that goes with social disadvantage. They had to learn this.''
The development of this college has been unlike any other. Helen describes the project as totally revolutionary. No part of the development of the school went ahead without community involvement. The community and the myriad of community groups that make up ICON have been involved at every stage in the development and planning of the school.
ICON has become something of a touchstone for successful community involvement, a network of community organisations which has grown out of the increasing social deprivation in the area that followed the collapse of employment in the 1960s and the subsequent drugs, housing, and jobs crises.
Developing the college has been a partnership between the providers and the users. Mary Friel, who as the local TUI (Teachers Union of Ireland) representative was one of those involved in the ICCCAG (Inner City Community College Action Group), talks of how hard this was for the `providers', in this case the Department of Education and the VEC (Vocational Education Committee): ``They thought we were commies or druggies. They really weren't used to having to consult with people or be accountable to them.''
``Even now, they can't get to grips with how the community works - that we are not hierarchical organisations, but democratic and responsive to people,'' says Helen Maher.
Integrating the service providers
``But the failure of education system for the people of the area is not an isolated problem, any more than, for instance, the drugs problem, which has ravaged the inner city, is just a problem about drugs. It's not. It's a symptom of the underlying problems which have caused disadvantage, or inequality,'' Helen Maher explains.
``If a kid doesn't come to school there could be a hundred different reasons why. Perhaps the mother is not there to get him out to school or there is just too much of a crisis at home to ensure he goes off with his lunch box on time. And it concerns all of the service providers, the government departments..
``All the groups which compose ICON, the youth clubs, the homework clubs, single parent support groups, the Drugs Task Force, community training schemes, the young mothers' group, child care groups, groups for the elderly, tenants' groups, education and training groups and sports groups. And every group impacts on the work of the others. We all face the same problem. It's inequality, injustice. ICON, which networks all these groups together, represents this political reality.
``Equally all the departments dealing with all these different aspects of disadvantage have to work together. The service providers can't treat themselves in isolation from each other, any more than the problems can be treated in separation from each other,'' says Helen.
The integration of services is intrinsic to the political development that is happening in Dublin's Inner city. The different departments not only have to be made accountable to the people, but accountable to each other. This is the project that ICON has taken on.
``It becomes an endless bureaucracy of buck passing between departments if one department works without co-ordinating with the others,'' says Helen.
A new school
Principal Noel O'Brien describes with excitement the plans for the school, which will be ``caring, and demanding''. Every subject on the curriculum, a variety of teaching methods and options; no streaming or differentiating between students; the involvement of the community in school management.''Every child must have the opportunity to `find their own genius','' says Noel O'Brien. That is undoubtedly the ethos of the new school.
There is a pilot group of 20 `chronic attenders' among the first year's intake. The principal talks of support mechanisms such as individual time-tabling and a same-day response if the kid isn't in, ``just to let him know that we missed him,'' and perhaps a community care worker calling up of a morning to help out and enable the kid to get to school.
Already, after starting this scheme, figures show the new first-year intake to be above the national average in attendance rates. These are the essential beginnings of an education system that may work in an area of generational deprivation.
Trinity College and the Dublin Institute of Technology are involved with Leaving Cert students in a mentoring programme. The college is considering a similar project whereby the students in the college themselves would mentor the local primary school kids. There's a creche for the student group and a magnificent gym, which is to be a community resource rather than by outsiders as a cost covering exercise for the VEC. There is a tie-in with job providers in the area, potential scholarships to college, and specific job training programs to meet local employers' needs.
A Different Curriculum?
Noel O'Brien says the students will all be doing Junior and Leaving Certificate, but we'll approach it using different and flexible methods of teaching. If a student can't abide the three Rs approach but perhaps has a great enjoyment of art, or ceramics, which we might find out through his involvement in a youth group, then we'll try and work through that, by altering his personal timetable to suit his abilities and interests. We will all work together to give that student a chance to get an education.''
There is great support for the new school in the community, amongst the parents; it's brilliant'', says Principal Noel O'Brien. ``It is because of the way the school has emerged. The school is a resource for everyone. The adult education programme will develop as these needs emerge.
``The VEC have been very co-operative; they even got a phone number ending in 1913 for us. Just a little thing, but it shows their commitment to the project,'' says Noel O'Brien. But as Mary Friel points out: ``The Department of Education still hasn't recognised that to compensate for all the disadvantages, you need classes of ten or less. They've not given extra allocations to the school. despite all the Ministerial talk of helping the disadvantaged.''
The students in Parnell Square had nothing. No science lab whatever - no playground or yard where they could go out for break. ``The Home-School Liaison Office was downstairs with a hole in the floor which was an open sewer,'' Mary Friel recalls. This was the school system which, for 18 years, was on offer to the children of the North Inner City.
``It took 18 years to get this school,'' says local councillor Christy Burke. ``How can you forgive them for that? A whole generation has lost out.''
Perhaps it took all these hard years for the community to grow strong enough to force the service providers to be accountable to the people and to take an integrated approach to the social economic problems of the area.