This post is part of the VET Gazette 2
Mary Flanagan
Family Learning



During the autumn term of 2020, the Home School Coordinator in a designated disadvantaged primary school in Ennis, wanted to encourage the local community to use the River Fergus next to the school for water sports. Many of the children here would never have an opportunity to try water sports. In October after making some contacts he was able to provide a kayaking experience for the three senior class groups in the school, children aged 9-12 years. Limerick and Clare Education and Training Burren Outdoor Education and Training Centre provided support with instructors, access to kayaks and equipment.


Parents attended to watch their children as they went out on the river. A number of Traveller dads mentioned to the Coordinator that they would like to try kayaking as well. They would be very interested if a similar course was on offer. The Coordinator contacted Family Learning staff in the ETB’s College of Further Education and Training, and funding was agreed. It was decided to have four morning sessions on the river in November. Many Travellers are early school leavers with unmet literacy needs. It can be challenging to engage the community in lifelong learning activities.

Introduction to Kayaking Course

In late October six fathers started and the course was very successful. A Family Learning tutor who is a very experienced kayaker, two trainers from the ETB’s Burren Outdoor Education and Training Centre, the Home School Coordinator, six dads, along with two members of staff from the school went on the kayaking course each week. Training teaching staff alongside the dads provided an equality to the learning; all learning something new and working towards a qualification. Having the Family Learning tutor as the link between the learners and educators, helped the dads to learn new vocabulary, have confidence to talk in front of others, work as a group with teachers. Having someone who is very aware of unmet literacy needs, the tutor was able to step in at any stage to help the group feel comfortable and explain things if they felt unsure. She was able to help them to write their own story and capture their voices and words. A good rapport was built up over the weeks, improving relationships for everyone and having fun together. 

Evaluation by Dads

Our kids go to Scoil ChrIost Rí, Cloughleigh School. It’s beside the River Fergus. We saw kids kayaking and we asked Joe the Home School Coordinator could we do it. He is an absolute gentleman. He organised it with the College of Further Education and Training in Clonroad, Ennis, and the Burren Outdoor Education and Training Centre lads. We felt very safe while we were out on the water. They taught us loads and minded us well. We learnt to respect the water and people who’re in our groups. We learnt a few rules too! We felt privileged to get the opportunity in these weird (covid) times to be out. It helped our mental well-being. It gave us something to look forward to on a weekly basis. It was great for to clear the head and feel that we’ve some normality. We are really grateful and thankful.

Dad’s voices: 

‘’Meeting up with people (settled people) making friends of all types. Good experience of being on the water, the lake and the sea. Great experience and discipline. I’d like to learn how to swim/breathe properly so I could stay in water longer.’’

Evaluation from School 

‘’I cannot emphasise enough how valuable this experience has been, in providing positive role model experience to some of our students.’’   Home School Coordinator.

Such was the enthusiasm within the school community for kayaking after the initial children’s course, it was decided to seek funding for a parent’s course. Five Dads turned up, with two primary school teachers from the school and the Family Learning tutor, headed out on the water with the instructors. Almost two hours later, a weary but exhilarated group returned to shore. None of the five had kayaked before. Four of the five dads are members of the Travelling Community, where there is little or no history of water sports participation. 

Quotes from the Home School Coordinator:

‘’Many of the teaching staff here at school have commented on how the kayaking has made such a positive difference to their relationships with the parents involved. Kayaking has become the “bridge” which has encouraged dialogue with, and interest in, all things school related.’’

‘’Their sense of belonging and self-value has increased ten-fold and when one considers that all six were most fearful of the water at the beginning, one gets a sense of just where this journey has brought them. He spoke of how proud he was of himself that he had completed this “great adventure”. ‘’

Evaluation from Family Learning (Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board):

The excitement that this course caused amongst the families at home and children in school as well as the positive relationship building with school staff was an excellent outcome from one initial course. After the first four weeks the group started to work towards a Level 1 Kayaking Competency Certificate which was achieved in December.

Dads requested progression onto more courses in addition to Kayaking: Welding, Woodwork, and a Traveller history linked to the local heritage using outdoor pursuits course, such as hiking/climbing/kayaking to holy wells/abbeys/castles, and Introduction to Swimming. While the fathers were enjoying their course, their wives requested time out for themselves to learn something new. They attended both a Beauty course and a Cooking for the Family course before Christmas. Due to COVID-19, the 7 mums who signed up for an Introduction to Kayaking 4 session course completed the course in Spring 2021. The importance of listening to people and responding to what parents want to do is key to engagement. The ripple effects of one exciting course on the families has been an unexpected outcome from the children’s first dip in the water to numerous requests for further courses. On our own, none of the partners could provide this course. A primary school, Core Skills/Adult Literacy Service and the Burren Outdoor Further Education and Training Centre, working together has really proven that interagency work is vital to maximise the potential reach to those least likely to engage in lifelong learning.