Back To School

Male University student in library

Yesterday, in Ireland, those who have completed their final exams at secondary level (known as the Leaving Certificate – or ‘the Leaving’) received news of whether or not they were being offered their most preferred course at third level. For many, it’s a day of relief, joy, and pride. For others, it’s a disappointment.

I’m not about to launch into the predictable ‘I failed my Leaving and I’m doing grand’ or the ‘Your Leaving doesn’t reflect who you are as a person’ or even the ‘Don’t worry you’ll be grand – you’ll find your way’ spiel that many others are expressing.

And I’m certainly not going to tell young people that it doesn’t matter. Because if it matters to you, then it matters.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about returning to education as an older person. I was 32 when I started my first degree. I was a lone mother, who had escaped abusive marriages, and had two children under the age of four.

I’d done my own leaving at 16 – and studied Drama (which I adored and which still touches on everything I do, including my further thinking around narrative, and the power of our stories). I didn’t have an opportunity to further my education until I was in my thirties, and I was equal parts excited, and trepidatious. Excited becasue I was about to start something new, and have the opportunity to do something I’d never had the chance to do before. Trepidatious because I was terrified I’d fail – that I’d be asked to leave because I simply wasn’t good enough.

I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t uncovered as an imposter. I wasn’t told I had no business being anywhere near the hallowed halls of learning. I wasn’t told that those places weren’t places for the likes of me.

I’m now finishing up my fourth degree – having completed that first honours degree in Psychology and Sociology, an MA, and an LLM – and aim to have a PhD by the end of next year.

Along the way, I’ve learnt a few things, and I’d like to share those things with you now.

First of all, it’s important to note that for women, and especially for women with caring responsibilities, returning to education is hard – but it’s worth it. Learning to protect your time is not easy. Doing something that other people in your household don’t understand is difficult. Being unavailable to people who are used to your availability requires an adjustment on their part – and on yours. That said, few things that are worthwhile are easy. If you are interested in further study, then you really should go and do it.

Secondly, education is an end in itself, it’s not just a means to an end. If you want to study something purely for the love of it, then that’s enough reason to do so. There doesn’t need to be a clear, linear, trajectory from your chosen course to job, or a promotion. Studying something because you want to know more about it; because you want to immerse yourself in a subject you’re passionate about; or to prove to yourself that you are capable of undertaking further study, are all valid reasons for choosing to return to education.

Thirdly, education is not just reading books. So much more happens when we return to study than merely the information we glean from between the covers of books, or journals. Education is also training in a specific discipline – reading books on psychology won’t make you a therapist for example. Education is also the conversations we have with other students, and the learning we get from each other – viewpoints that challenge our own, different perspectives that aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but ‘different’.

Fourthly, education brings confidence. My own confidence – in myself, in my thinking, in my opinions, and in my position on various issues – has been enhanced by the fact that I have had the opportunity to learn at third level.

Finally – it’s great fun! Learning is lifelong, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to continue to stretch your mental muscles, to have the opportunity to keep evolving, and to have the chance to reach your full potential. If you’re considering returning to education, find the supports available to you, take full advantage of them, and go for it!

The Lack of Provision for the Special Educational Needs of Children of Gifted Intelligence in the Republic of Ireland is a Breach of their Human Rights.


I know, I know, it’s a mouthful.

It’s also the title of a paper I presented at the SLSA (Socio-Legal Studies Association) Conference in Lancaster in 2016. If you want to read it (with the added bonus of my slides attached!), you can do so here. 

Leave It Out!

Yesterday, 58,466 students received the results of their Leaving Certificate Examinations in Ireland. Cue the usual messages and platitudes on all forms of media – social and mainstream – telling those who had received their results that  they are more than the pieces of paper sent to them by the Department of Education and Skills. Posts popped up on Facebook and Twitter reassuring those who had received their results that they (the posters) had not been asked how they did in their LC since nineteen-splat. People posted stories of their own devastation, and gave jolly, positive endings to those stories.

Experts were heard on the radio telling parents how to deal with their children’s stress, disappointment, and changes of heart. There were also other experts discussing how to ask for a paper to be marked again, as well as how to cope with the financial issues that stem from having children going to college.

Pat Kenny, in the lead-in to introducing a guest and discussing the differences in the Irish and UK systems,  boasted ‘Stress? We’ll show you stress!’ as though having more than 58,000 (mainly) young people stressed over exams, and their results was a good thing.

I was struck by how, in this instance, Irish society seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. We spend at least two years instilling in our young people that this exam is the most important thing they will ever do; it is the focal point of the final two years of school. They are prepared and primed and goaded and scolded and lectured and cajoled into thinking and feeling that the result of this examination defines them and their futures. Then, once the results are out, the tune is changed significantly and the song is ‘You are more than the sum of your points‘. If you’ll pardon me for saying so, I think it’s a case of ‘too little, too late’ if you’re giving kids this message at this point in time.

Those who defend the current system cite our points-system as a ‘leveller’ – that the only thing that will get you into a course is having enough points. I disagree, however; students who struggle and who don’t get the help they need in school have to pay for help. Only those who can afford to pay for this help can access it; so there is a distinct advantage to students from more affluent backgrounds and the idea of a ‘level playing field’ goes out the window.

Why would we want to put our children through this much stress, worry, anxiety, and fear? As parents, educators and concerned members of society, why are we doing this to our young people year after year? People who complain about the Irish education system – from ‘having’ to get their children christened in order to get them into the local school (because it’s Catholic-run), to ‘having’ to put up the system that stresses, upsets and worries their children (and them) – but I do wonder why. There are alternatives. Scoring well in the leaving certificate is not the only way to get in to college or university in Ireland. Mainstream school is not the only option. In fact, in Ireland, we are very lucky to have a constitutional right to educate our children whenever and however we see fit. It’s time, I think, that more people explored the different options; time that more people thought outside the strictures of the Irish curriculum (which discourages critical thinking, philosophy, and ignores the needs and rights of gifted and talented children); and time that more people they wanted more for their children.  More for them than the stress and anxiety and worry – and the poor standard of education – that the current system provides.

More on Poverty & Education

My piece yesterday on education and poverty struck a nerve with many of you. I received a slew of messages here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on my phone, from women who found themselves in similar situations. Women who tried desperately hard to educate their way out of poverty. Women who tried to grab life by the scruff of the neck and gain an education for themselves so they could lift their families out of poverty.

Some of us end up pursuing more than one degree in an effort to improve our circumstances. Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you want to pursue a second degree that is not higher on the NFQ than one you already have, you will not receive state funding. That means that if you find the MA you have isn’t enough to secure employment – and you can’t, for whatever reason, pursue a PhD – you will have to self-fund. This is what I ended up doing. My intention was to use the money from a settlement for sexual abuse to pay my fees (and for the therapy I need as a result of the abuse to keep me mentally healthy).  The problem is that one of the brothers who raped and otherwise sexually abused me decided not to honour the settlement. In desperation, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign explicitly, exclusively and entirely to ensure that I stay fit enough to parent, and that I can finish my degree and graduate.  And, then, maybe – just maybe – get a job somewhere. Anywhere.

It struck me earlier today how gendered this all is. The men walk away from their financial obligations, and abuse the children they have decided not to support. They further abuse the women to whom they don’t pay child support because they know that (most) mothers will go hungry before they allow their child/ren to suffer.

The structures of our society and our legal system are patriarchal and allow men who do not wish to support their children, to walk away from their obligations. The women who are then responsible for every aspect of raising the children are then vilified by the society that does not men to account. This, in turn, enforces the belief that many of these men (and, to be honest, I am thinking of specific men; not necessarily men in general) hold; that women deserve to be abused. That women who stand up to the men who bully them need (in my ex-husband’s words) ‘to be taught a lesson’.

Even before I became a mother, I knew one thing; no woman creates a child on her own. Not even those who have virgin births or those who claim impregnation by entity. To continue to promulgate the myths around mothers who are forced to raise their children on their own shifts the focus from those who are doing nothing for their families to those who are doing everything they can for their families. Those who are doing all they can to make their lives, their children’s lives and, therefore society better.  Ironically, we are frustrated by the very society we are trying to improve as we are trying to improve it.

Ireland may no longer lock up lone mothers and sell their babies, but it has a long way to go before it can become in any way congratulatory over the way it does treat them.



Educated Poverty

Yesterday, I read this piece in the Journal. I didn’t write it – but I could have.

Those of us who parent alone – and the vast majority of us are female – experience the highest rates of deprivation: Nearly 60% of those in single-parent households live with the lack of basic necessities. And, according to the CSO, more than half a million people live in one parent families. That’s a lot of lack.

Like many poor people, lone parents are blamed for their circumstances and for their poverty. In spite of the fact that many women are married, or in stable relationships when they have their children, they are judged as feckless ‘young wans’ whose only desire is to ‘sponge off the state’. May of the comments on the piece I’ve linked to above demonstrate this. One of the things that bothers me about nasty comments and judgements aimed at single mothers is the fact that those who deride them are picking on the wrong parent. They are picking on the parent who is actually parenting. They are picking on the parent who didn’t abandon their child. They are picking on the parent who is doing their best, in spite of the odds, which are stacked against them.

For the longest time, the accepted narrative is that the only way out of poverty is education. Sadly, that’s only half the story. As a woman who has been parenting on my own in Ireland for nearly 12 years, I have direct, personal experience of this. I returned to education when my eldest was 3.5 years old, and my youngest was just 16 months old. Four years later and I was able to put the letters BA (Hons) after my name. Now I had a degree, I was sure I’d find (or make) work for myself.

Sadly, I was wrong. I graduated in 2009, when the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes. Few places were hiring. Even fewer were hiring new graduates. Even fewer would even acknowledge an application from a single parent of two young children. After a year of trying to secure gainful employment (and giving many, many hours for free to NGOs and charities and publications), I returned to education. In 2012, I added ‘MA’ to those letters after my name. Now, surely, someone would hire me.

Again, I was wrong in thinking that I would be offered a job by a company in Ireland. To add insult to injury, several of those employers who deigned to employ me had no difficulty accepting my services for free before they had ‘openings’ for which I applied. Repeatedly, when applying for jobs I was already doing for NGOs and other agencies for whom I had done volunteer work, I was told that I lacked the ‘law piece’. So I applied, and was accepted, to the Law School at Queen’s University in Belfast.

In between finishing my MA and starting my LLM, I was accepted on to a PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin. I did the first year ‘off books’ (a term meaning that – while I was studying – I hadn’t paid fees, so I wasn’t technically registered, and my access to certain things was restricted). When it came time to start my second year at Trinity, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t commit my kids to another three years of poverty. I opted to go to Queen’s instead, thinking that I was better off to spend a year studying intensely and get myself a degree at the end of it, than spend a year studying intensely and still only be part way through a degree. Even if that degree was a PhD. So far, the idea that a primary degree and two Master’s degrees will open up employment opportunities has proved unfounded – but I live in hope (because, frankly, I have little else).

Tertiary education, to me, means being hungry. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. When I’m studying, I can’t afford to eat three meals a day. So I don’t. I drink a lot of coffee (that I bring from home), and insist that it’s all in a good cause. And anyway, I can afford to lose a few kilos. Plus, I’ll get a job at the end of it, I tell myself on the days and nights when the gnawing in my stomach distracts me from the words on the page. That last, so far, has proved to be a lie.

No matter how highly educated you are in Ireland, you can’t be sure you’ll get a job. I think part of the reason for that is a lack of ability on the part of Irish employers to recognise, and understand, the value of transferable skills. The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis – financial juggling, multi-tasking, fire-fighting, negotiating, prioritising, communicating with government departments, healthcare, etc. etc. – are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that people can retrain, change direction, and bring their previous experience with them. The Irish way is that you have a box that you have been put in, and you must stay in that box forever. Especially if you are a woman. And most especially if you are a woman raising children on your own.

Education, on its own, won’t help lone parents lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a start – but it’s not the complete solution. We need access to jobs once we’ve graduated – and access to quality childcare, and employers who understand that we are no less committed to our jobs than our childfree colleagues. In short, we need support from the state and the society we’re living in. We need the opportunity to put our expensive educations to good use.


Home Schooling Mother Sent to Prison

Last night, when I should have been in bed, I saw a Facebook update from a friend of mine. The update was about my friend’s friend and a woman I have known about for nearly 20 years, a woman who – on the occasions I spoke with her – inspired me.


Monica O’Connor was very active in the HBA for many years and is a homeschooling mother of her own children and the children she fosters. So I was really taken aback to learn that she’s due to be ‘welcomed’ through the gates of Mountjoy this morning.


There is a petition here that people can sign to register their support for Monica and her husband Eddie.  I can only begin to imagine how she must feel – there isn’t a bad bone in her body, yet she’s about to be criminalised by this state. There’s something wrong with that.


And here, I hesitate, because – and, sure, it’s semantics and maybe I should just get over myself – the introduction to the petition states:

However, the Child and family Agency under the Education (Welfare Act) 2000 deems that parents have to ‘apply’ for their children to be placed on the national register of home educators. We argue that this is unconstitutional and families should not have to ‘apply’ for a ‘right’.


From my reading of the Act, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. There is no mention of ‘homeschooling’ per se in the Act. Any place  ‘other than a recognised school’  is treated the same – whether that place is the child’s home or a school set up but not (yet) recognised by the State – in terms of children who attend it needing to be registered.  It’s not about ‘applying’ for a ‘right’. It’s about applying to be registered.


I have homeschooled (and would do so again). I have a child who attends a place ‘other than a recognised school’ (one of my girls attends the Rye Institute one day a week during term-time). And I think it’s only right and proper that we need to register the fact that our children are being educated.  There is an onus on the State to ensure that children are being educated, and children either need to be registered in a ‘recognised’ school, or registered as receiving their education somewhere else. What registration does is ensure that someone – whether that’s the principal of a state-recognised school or the principal of a non-state-registered school – takes responsibility for the education of the child. This does not undermine the right of the parent to choose where and how their children should be educated. There is no special mention of home-schooling in the law. There is only mention of places other than recognised schools. Homeschooling is lumped in with every other type of schooling that is not ‘recognised’ as a school. So, homeschooling is treated the same as a school set up by – for example – a particular religious sect, a school set up for children of exceptional intellectual ability, a school for children who have dyscalculia, a school for children who are emotionally disturbed, a school for exceptionally talented ballet-dancers or any other type of school or learning institute someone might like to set up.



Could you imagine the outrage if people set up (say) a special yoga school, but didn’t teach anything other than yoga? Imagine the amount of outrage if people got hold of the story that children were going to school and learning nothing but yoga? Imagine the finger-pointing that would take place if you had graduates of a yoga school who couldn’t read, write, research, add etc. ? People would ask why no one from Tusla investigated the place, people would ask why the children didn’t have to register as being schooled in that particular place. If people didn’t have to register, and didn’t have their teaching tools and methods open to scrutiny, there is a possibility that children would receive no education at all.  You could have a situation where people simply ignored their children’s needs and didn’t teach them anything at all.  At least we have the right to home-educate. Some people – like the Dutch – don’t have that right at all.


From my understanding, Monica and her husband Eddie registered their foster children as home-schooled, but didn’t register their own children as home-schooled. For not registering their own children, they were fined €2,000 thirteen months ago. They have refused to pay the fine. For that, Monica is being imprisoned this morning.  She’s not being jailed because she homeschooled her children, she’s being jailed because she refused to pay the fine.  For the record, I think it’s a terrible thing that anyone be jailed for non-payment of a fine. I find it very upsetting to think of Monica going in to Mountjoy.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad that we have to register our children as home-schooled. I don’t think it undermines our right to educate our children in line with our own beliefs and values. I think I’d rather register than not be allowed to homeschool.


Photo: My children, busy being educated at home

More Kite Flying?

It’s that time of the year when the Irish government indulges in the sport of kite-flying. Unlike Makar Sankranti, however, there’s little pleasant about the sport as played in Ireland.

Charged with the unenviable task of shearing millions from their budgets, the ministers of various departments ‘leak’ money-saving ideas to the media.  Then – based on the reactions of citizens – they gauge whether or not the cuts they are proposing in these leaks will be easy to implement. If the public outcry is deafening, the minister will quietly shelve the ‘kite’.

Kite flying isn’t just for Ministers, though. Any TD can get in on the act by suggesting cost-cutting measures.

Today’s kite was even less well-thought out than they usually are. Independent TD Denis Naughten has suggested that the government could save millions by scrapping the Child Benefit Payment and, instead, introducing a ‘School Attendance Payment’.

On the face of it, it might seem like a good idea – put paid to truancy and stop the flow of money out of the country in the form of child benefit at the same time. The article in today’s Journal  suggested that the European Commission might have a problem with any tampering with CB in order to deprive migrant workers of the payment.


I see a bigger problem with it, though. If you only pay child benefit to parents of children who attend school, you’re ignoring the fact that children don’t have to be sent to school in order to be compliant with the law in Ireland. Parents have a constitutional right, under Article 42, to educate their children where they see fit.


Of course, that could be circumvented by ‘allowing’ parents who register to homeschool to keep their Child Benefit payment. But – it can take a while to register and be approved. What are parents who rely on the payment to assist with household bills to do in the intervening months?


Then, of course, there’s the fact that Child Benefit is payable from when the month after a baby’s born. If the payment is to be linked to school attendance, and children don’t legally have to be in formal education until they are 6 – what happens to payments for the first six years? Are they to be abandoned? Or is Mr Naughten proposing that the payment be made for the first six years and then parents must re-apply? Can you imagine the chaos? The disruption? The upset to families who rely on the payments? Not to mention the extra administraion required?


Linking the payment to school attendance also means that home-schooling parents would lose out on child benefit – the same way they currently lose out on dental, optical and other health check-ups that are administered through schools.


Paying Child Benefit only to parents whose children attend school is one kite that simply won’t fly – no matter how much money it might potentially save.

Kite Flying

With the budget closer than Christmas (which, apparently, is very close), the Irish government is engaging in a series of ‘kite-flying’ exercises. This is where our beloved leaders ‘leak’ information to the media and then sit back and see what public reaction is. If they get away with an idea without too much flack, then the idea makes its way into the budget. If the ‘leaked’ information results in a veritable shit storm of apoplexy (pardon my mixing of metaphors and medical conditions) then they quietly shelve it, claiming it was never being considered in the first place.


Last week, they mooted the idea of fiddling with the universality of universal child benefit. This week, it’s withdrawing funding from fee-paying schools. This talk worries me. I live on the edge. I am a loan parent bringing up two girls who have special educational needs. I have no help – practical, financial or emotional – either from a former husband/partner or my family of origin. My children cannot get the education they need in a ‘regular’ neighbourhood school. I tried that and ended up with a seven year old who, in her own words ‘just wanted to die’ because of how she was treated at school.

In Ireland, if you have a child who doesn’t fit into the expected box, they do not receive an education.  Let’s take a look at what I mean by that. When talking about education, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says:

“Article 29

1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

Irish schools don’t do that. Unless you hover around ‘average’ you won’t do well in the mainstream Irish educational system. they only hoope you have is to seek out an institution tat will work with you and your child/ren and educate them. Or you can homeschool.  I did the latter for a year and, at the beginning of this academic year, my girls started at a different school. This school is more than 20kms from home and lessons start at 8am, necessitating a 6.50am departure from home. It’s a lifestyle change, but one that we decided, as a family to make. Nearly two months later, we have no regrets.

My children are happier than they have ever been at school. They are in small classes with teachers who are there for the children – not the holidays. also, this shcool caters fro the fact that my children are Hindu; which is important to us.

The good news is that this school has a secondary school attached to it. The bad news is that the secondary school is fee-paying. In spite of that, I am determined to do all I can to ensure that my kids – when the time comes – attend that secondary school. Going to a main-stream government run institution just isn’t going to work for my girls, I’m afraid.

Part of the reason that this school can exist is the money it gets from the government – in the form of (some) teachers’ salaries and capitation grants etc. The fees parents pay goes towards providing hot dinners during school hours to all students, to providing additional teachers and to providing other educational opportunities to the students. If the government took back the money it pays to these schools, I would absolutely not even be able to think about affording sending my girls there. It would be out of the realm of even my dreams. We’d have to emigrate (education is, to me, the most important thing I can give my children – after food and shelter).

I know it’s probably a bit daft of me even to suggest it – but how about the Minister for Education, instead of taking money away from fee-paying schools gives more to non fee-paying schools and brings up the overall standard of education in this country? How about the Minister looks at the services and extra educational value fee-paying schools offer and then implements them throughout all schools in Ireland? Then, by all means, withdraw funding from fee-paying schools.

Until he does that, though, a fee-paying school is the only way my children will get an education that fulfills the terms of Article 29 of the UNCRC. And aren’t we supposed to be finally legislating to bring our laws in line with the CRC?

That is, after all, the only thing on my Christmas wish list. You can keep your kites.