The True Value of Education

27th November 2018

Posted In: The Interview

Liz Waters attended college, but, as she’ll tell you, her education in real life began when she started teaching at St Patrick’s Institution for Young Offenders.

Words: Áilín Quinlan

Her speciality was the area of personal development, mindfulness and reflection, and her work with young men aged from their late teens and upwards was to shape the way she perceived life: “I met so many bright young men who had no educational achievement whatsoever!  I never met a middle-class child in prison, which led me to face lots of questions about life,” she recalls.

Liz had always been committed to social justice, she says; at the age of 16, she joined the youth anti-apartheid movement: “I was always very socially conscious. However, working in the prison taught me about the real power of education.” Seeing what its absence spelled out for the very bright young men she was dealing with, gave her pause for thought, she says. Now CEO of An Cosán, the community education centre that has served the community of Tallaght West for over thirty years, and of An Cosán’s Virtual Community College, Liz, who is also a psychotherapist, is deeply passionate about the opportunities that education offers.

When she joined The Shanty Education Project – founded by Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan in the mid-90s – Liz recalls that she straightaway knew that she was ‘home’. Needless say, she stayed. The project gradually evolved, expanding to such an extent that the state stepped in and provided support for the construction of an attractive purpose-built building for the project, which is now known as As Cosán. It provides a wide variety of educational programmes for all age groups, including early years education and care, and community education, to empower through education and support social transformation.

“I absolutely believe education is the only fast track out of poverty,” she declares, adding that the key element to this is what she calls “the one-generation solution”: “If  you can educate a young women to degree level, she can earn 67% more than her contemporaries who have not got a degree. “The most important element of that is that she gets a job and exits poverty – and her children will themselves have expectations about going on to third-level education or into an apprenticeship programme. “Therefore, you have changed the cycle of unemployment and educational disadvantage,” says Liz, the 2018 winner of the Newstalk WMB Female Social Entrepreneur Award.

And many people, when offered the opportunity, are ready to give it a go – she points to the fact that more than 17,000 people have come through the doors of An Cosán since the facility first opened its doors: “We offer everything from basic education to degree level education, because we have a unique collaboration with IT Carlow,” she says. In designing the offering of educational qualifications, she points out, An Cosán took into account what the community of West Tallaght felt it needed, so there’s a strong emphasis on the themes of leadership, community development and addiction studies.

In 2014 the decision was made to scale up the work being done at the college, and offer it to a wider audience: “It was the middle of the recession and there was no money,” she recalls. However, Liz decided to harness technology, developing An Cosán’s Virtual Community College. This facility uses technology to bring higher education right across the nation: “We are the only organisation offering programmes to disadvantaged communities,” she observes. “Our mission is to work with those who are further from education and employment and support them in accessing higher education which can be difficult in terms of the costs of childcare cost, access or transport: “Our programmes are part-time courses geared towards people who have other challenges in their lives.”

Poverty, as she points out, brings with it many challenges – from social exclusion to a sense of isolation and early school leaving: “Educational disadvantage really impacts on people in their lives,” she warns, adding that for many people, part-time education is the ideal form of education to suit their needs. On the downside, however, she observes, the Tallaght facility is not funded in the same way as mainstream, full-time, third-level institutions. “About 90% of people in Dublin 6 go on to third-level education, but in communities where we work this figures can go as low as 13%,” she points out. “We try to offer a form of higher education that is cost-effective.

“We have wraparound support for all our learners in terms of counselling, mentoring, tutorial and academic support. And we are open to anybody.” Women in particular engage in education very well, she says: “If we can educate women, we can change all sorts of things. “Changing the gender issue in terms of investment in women’s education – particularly investing in the education of lone parents – is one of the keys to addressing that imbalance from a social injustice and a gender perspective. “If there’s anything I want to get across, it’s that if you educate a mother you educate a family. That’s as true today as it ever was.”

One of the key elements which holds back people who are disadvantaged, she says, is fear: “They are full of fear and don’t see themselves at full value.” But she herself can fall prey to it, she admits: “I am thinking of applying for a State board and I wonder if I’m off the wall to try and do it! “I won’t get it – partly because of who I am and what I represent, and also because I am female. “However, the only way to manage fear is to acknowledge it and to say it’s ok to be full of fear, but you manage it. “You take a deep breath and steel yourself as my mother used to say. “And then you get on with it, despite the fear.”

This has been relevant to the many initiatives she has engaged in at An Cosán over the last two decades or so: “Every time I start something I am full of fear, so it’s about learning how to manage the fear and then to take the risk knowing that you might fail – but also knowing that in the failure there is a very useful lesson. “There’s a key learning from anything we fail in. Yet we are so afraid of failure. “It’s about being able to look at it, to really experience the fear but not to let it stop you.”

She knows the courage it takes for a woman to come through the doors of An Cosán: “Our biggest job is to get women to understand that they really have a lot of experience and knowledge in the first place that they are bringing to anything they do. “It’s about them finding the courage to see their value and find their voice, so that we can support them through an educational pathway to high quality education and employment. This is my passion!”

To find out more about the work of An Cosán you can visit here>>