Twelve year old Rebecca has a hole in her heart. It is a congenital defect and it may cause her problems in the future. But it is not by a long way her biggest challenge in life. Rebecca's parents are both heroine addicts and they have abandoned her to her granny who is now in her eighties.
Granny does her best for Rebecca but raising a child at that age is an enormous challenge. And recently Granny and Rebecca got some terrible news: Granny has cancer. It is not yet known how badly or how quickly it will affect her health, but even the knowledge of having it is weighing heavily on her ability to cope.
Rebecca attends a school near where she lives in Dublin's south inner city. The school is designated as a disadvantaged school, a term which fails to convey the immense difficulties faced by both its pupils and teachers alike. Many students have acute learning problems. Some, like Rebecca, have attention deficit sydrome. Many more are hyperactive or have low self esteem. Some can barely read or write. And still more have behavioural issues which flow directly from family environments which are chronically dysfunctional. Then there are those who barely attend. One of Rebecca's friends, Natasha, attended for only one month over both terms last year.
Her teachers say Rebecca tries as hard as she can despite her ADS. But often she retreats from learning and finds it impossible to stay focussed. Even if Rebecca had one to one tuition, one teacher said, it would be a huge challenge to keep her from leaving school and to get her to Junior Cert level. As it is, with twenty others in the class, there is little hope that Rebecca will obtain a successful Junior cert.
Teachers in most shools are charged with the task of covering the maths or geography curriculum and getting their pupils to obtain reasonable grades in Junior cert. But in Rebecca's school the mission is of a wholly different order. The school's role is more social than educational. One major aim is simply to keep the children in school for another few years, so that they aren't on the street all day, every day. Another aim is to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills which are normally associated with the early phase of primary school.
It is tempting to think that the state ignores the plight of schools such as Rebecca's. In fact, the state has made enormous efforts in recent years to help children in disadvantaged schools. Through the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme, disadvantaged schools have been identified and targeted for extra resources.
Rebecca's school has a much lower pupil teacher ratio than the average; there are extra resource teachers and special needs teachers; the school gets much higher capitaion grants and has state of the art facilities in terms of teaching equipment and classroom kit; and the pupils, many of whom would otherwise be malnourished, are provided with a lunchtime meal.
Yet the teachers in Rebecca's school face almost insurmountable challenges. Some of their pupils will drop out, get addicted to drugs, or fall pregnant. Parental support is often absent. A neutral parent is considered a bonus - a small number of parents have threatened teachers physically for reprimanding their often difficult children.
Some pupils who stay in school will be seen to make little progress. One teacher felt disheartened and said she sometimes wondered if all the effort and resources weren't a waste of time. But of course, we know we have to try. If society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then it will fail miserably if it doesn't attempt to help these poor souls who are given such a terrible start in life.
The trouble is that the school is being expected to do far more than it can ever hope to achieve. The problem is not educational, but a breakdown in how society has provided for its citizens over the long term. Teachers in Rebecca's school deserve admiration and respect for facing up to a problem that wider society and its political masters have created. The lesson must be, try hard to help Rebecca make a better life for herself, whatever the odds, but try far far harder to build a more inclusive society where there are fewer and fewer twelve year olds in Rebecca's predicament.