About this time of year the Leaving Cert ‘hype ‘ begins again. The so called ‘league tables’ with their questionable selection criteria have been published. Last year’s high achievers have been celebrated and we await we baited breath the ‘How I got maximum points articles‘ in the newspapers. Last year’s post Leaving Cert foreign holidays are but a hazy memory while this year’s crop prepare for the Mocks.
We already have the reminders to put in the CAO forms by January, the ads for the grind schools, the revision courses at Easter, the ‘how not to get stressed’ advice for both parents and pupils, the ‘if you are not stressed at this late stage - you should be’ admonition to pupils who have left it late, the ‘what food to eat’ advice, the detailed analysis of past papers, the daily forensic detailed analysis of the exam papers at exam time and on and on. Ireland is the only country in Europe, if not in the world, that has such a hype surrounding exams and there is significant research data to back that up.
What’s it all for? Is all this publicity responding to a genuine need or has it created an artificial need? I strongly suspect the latter and that it has more to do with selling newspapers and producing TV and Radio programmes than anything else.
Isn’t it about time we reduced the pressure on our young students rather than increase it? I have long felt that the pupils, parents and teachers are more than adequately equipped to cope with the Leaving Cert pressures. Could we not try, for one year, to allow them, just to get on with it themselves.
And while all this is happening, many of those young people whom we meet through the Society, wonder what all this is all about. Research has shown that the vast majority of 3rd level entrants come from the better off sections of society. There are many reasons for this – poverty, tradition, isolation, struggle to survive, lack of opportunity etc. And while I remain convinced that the Leaving Cert exam itself is fair, transparent and the same for all, we all know that the better off can afford the best exam preparation for their sons and daughters be that in the shape of positive home support, materials, extra tuition if necessary, finance, equipment etc. This support continues into 3rd level. All of this costs money and that is the commodity that is in short supply in the homes of those students we engage with through SVP.
We in SVP Limerick are committed to supporting those who come to us who want to go on to third level and are short of resources and lack the necessary financial or material resources. We have long felt that a third level qualification is a priceless passport to those who want to better themselves in life. While many may argue that it shouldn’t be the sole requirement, the reality is that in modern society with the decline in apprenticeships, the demands of employers etc. such is the case. As to whether you need a 3rd level qualification for everything – that is a worthwhile discussion for another day!
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul 3rd level Grant Committee in Limerick currently support over 75 students in 3rd level colleges all over the country. In most cases they are referred to us by a local conference through a completion of a detailed application form and conference endorsement. The application form will include personal details in support of the request for assistance, proof of course registration, any other grants already applied for, income if any, what SVP assistance will be used for etc. A team of interviewees with educational backgrounds have interviewed all applicants who are requested to come to the interview with student card, proof of course registration , employment details, if any, and SUSI correspondence, if any. We insist on this level of detail because we want to ensure that the support goes to the neediest and to make the process as accountable and transparent as possible.
The maximum grant available is determined by the finances available and the particular needs of the applicant. A Conference can award €500 but if they feel the candidate needs to be interviewed with the possibility of a higher grant, he/she is referred to us. In order to ensure that the money is used for what it was applied for, we have arrangements with local suppliers to supply goods through a voucher system. We also have a supportive direct line assistance with SUSI who are always available to assist us when we need to contact them having satisfied the strict SUSI FOI regulations.
Only in very exceptional circumstance do we assist with payment of fees. This, in practically all eligible cases, is done by SUSI.
Our SVP support is always given on the basis of ‘a leg up rather than a hand out’. We would hope that as the applicant progresses through college and the economy improves, she/he will begin to stand on her/his own two feet and may not need the same level of ongoing assistance. We request copies of results on an ongoing basis from applicants.
The above is just a brief summary of what we do to try in a small way to alleviate the inequality in the 3rd level system. No doubt it is imperfect in places and we would be happy to learn from other regions who similarly assist 3rd level students. Similarly we are also available to assist SVP members who wish to learn from our experiences.
Like many of you, through my involvement in SVP I have experienced a gamut of emotions - satisfaction, frustration, anger, helplessness, etc. On the other hand to experience the appreciation of those you assist in their progression to 3rd level is personally reassuring. To see the self confidence blossoming in young people from difficult environments as they progress through 3rd level is very satisfying. To see their sense of achievement and affirmation in acquiring a qualification equal to everyone else, which no one can devalue, is memorable.
To conclude, from two letters of appreciation we got recently I have chosen two short sentences: “Thank you for assisting my sons. We are the forgotten ‘squeezed middle’ and all your help is much appreciated” and “A big thank you and I truly appreciate what you have done for me. You have brought me a lot closer to my goal than I ever anticipated or could imagine”.
Was it Mandela who said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world!“
By John Hurley