Youthreach helps early school leavers to access further education, training and employment

Launch of Youthreach report with Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, June 2019

Shane McElroy (Youthreach Co-ordinator, Galway), Andrew Brownlee (Executive Director, Solas), Selina McCoy (Associate Research Professor, ESRI, and an author of the report), Joe McHugh (Minister for Education and Skills), Liane McCarthy (past Youthreach learner) and Ian Power (CEO, Spunout) at the launch of the report on 17 June 2019. 

The Youthreach programme helps young people who leave school early to have a positive experience of teaching and learning, supports the development of their personal and social skills, and offers many of them the qualifications to access further education, training and employment.

New ESRI research, funded by Solas, examines the effectiveness of Youthreach, which was set up in 1989 to offer second-chance education to young people who leave school before the Leaving Certificate.

Rates of school completion in Ireland have increased rapidly in recent years. Young people who now leave school early are therefore more likely to have complex needs, with higher rates of mental health problems, emotional problems and learning difficulties. Without Youthreach or another suitable programme, many young people can be out of school for protracted periods of time. This can lead to negative consequences for their mental health and increase the likelihood of being involved in substance abuse or crime.

The study finds that over two-thirds of young people complete the programme. Of this group, 45 per cent progress to another education or training course and 28 per cent go straight into employment. Overall, one-in-six completers are unemployed after leaving the programme, a rate that compares favourably with unemployment levels for the early school leaver population as a whole.

Learners reported that participating in the programme boosted their self-confidence and gave them a purpose in life and hope for the future. They were very positive about their learning experiences, contrasting them with their more negative experiences in mainstream school. They reported liking the individualised support of small group settings, a pace of learning suited to their own capacities and a focus on project or portfolio work rather than exams. The use of more continuous assessment reflected the fact that the majority were taking QQI Levels 3 or 4 courses, though a small number studied traditional Junior or Leaving Certificate programmes. Learners reported that positive relationships with staff were the cornerstone of their positive learning experiences.

However, the study identified a number of ways the programme could reach more young people and address their needs more effectively.

Whether a young person can access the programme depends on where they live as the location of centres largely reflects historical legacy rather than the geographical distribution of early school leavers. The kinds of supports available vary across Youthreach centres. While additional funding has been given to some centres under the Special Educational Needs Initiative (SENI), many centres where learners have complex needs are not receiving the resources needed to provide psychological and learning supports. The report concludes that the funding a centre receives should reflect the needs of its learners, with more funding given to centres with a concentration of complex needs.

Young people usually enter the programme because they heard about it through word of mouth from their parents/guardians, family and friends. This means that some groups of young people, especially those from migrant backgrounds, may lack the networks to become aware of, and access, the programme.

Many young people continue to leave school without any follow-up because they are above the legal school leaving age. There is a need for a tracking system so that young people who leave school early are followed up and offered a place in Youthreach (or another suitable programme).

Staff and learners see the programme as having a negative perception in the community overall, indicating that Youthreach may benefit from investment in rebranding and publicity to communicate Youthreach as a positive learning choice for young people.

Emer Smyth, one of the authors of the report, commented: ‘It is important that in celebrating improved school retention, we do not forget about those young people who have had a negative experience of school and left early. The study findings show the importance of positive relationships with staff and access to psychological and learning supports in re-engaging young people in learning and helping them plan for the future.’