“The idea is that in supporting a mother to empower herself and her family, you lift a family out of poverty forever.” – Maria Flanagan, An Cosán 

By Kathy Masterson

FROM an idea born at a kitchen table, to a nationwide network that has empowered 20,000 learners, An Cosán is a powerhouse that continues to transform communities.

The organisation was founded in 1986 by Katherine Zappone and her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan in The Shanty, their home in the Dublin mountains overlooking Tallaght, where its main base is located.

From its humble beginnings, it has continued to grow and evolve to meet the needs of the communities it serves, and now operates seven centres around Dublin, as well as working with a network of community partners from Donegal to Wexford.

In October, An Cosán launched its ambitious new strategy ‘Vision 2026: Transforming Lives Together’, which announced its goal to reach a further 20,000 learners by 2030. 

Changing Ireland spoke to Maria Flanagan, An Cosán’s Community Partner Lead, to find out what sets the organisation apart from other education providers.

Wraparound supports 

One of the ethoses of Katherine and Ann Louise from the very beginning would have been ‘Listen to the community’. So we respond to the needs of the community. We operate a learner-centred holistic approach to education, where the learner is at the centre of everything.

“When we design programmes and courses, they are done around the needs of learners and the time of the day that suits them. An Cosán started as a feminist organisation; we are open to all but we have a special focus on women and children,” she explained.

An Cosán is not just an adult education provider, however. It offers its learners ‘wraparound supports’, such as childcare, advice on financial supports, and digital skills training to give them the tools and confidence to complete their chosen courses. 

“A big part of the ethos is what we call the scaffolding of supports that are provided to learners and people who use our services. So An Cosán is a safe space for learners to come into the community, in Donegal or Waterford or elsewhere, we have our community partners who provide that space,” said Maria.

An Cosán operates six Early Years Education and Care services for learners and people in the local community. 

“Katherine and Ann Louise identified very early on that in order for people to be able to access education, one of the big barriers was childcare, and people couldn’t afford childcare, so they wanted that to be part of the solution. They wanted to build this presence where people could get childcare and education together.”

Unique ethos

Hospitality and nourishment is another of An Cosán’s key values. “In order to be able to engage the mind, you have to have a nourished body. So when our learners come to our centre in the morning, they get a cup of coffee and a scone, and the little ones get breakfast. So that’s a really important part that you don’t get in other education organisations,” Maria added.

At the beginning of each lesson, An Cosán’s tutors perform an ‘opening circle’, a short ceremony where they read an extract or quotation, and allow the learners some quiet time to reflect before the class.

Says Maria: “The purpose of that opening circle is to allow time for learners to have pause before they go in to learn. We do it in our staff meetings as well, and it’s nice because maybe your head is frazzled, you’ve got kids at home or whatever, and everyone just sits back and it gives you that moment to pause and be present before you go on to do your class or your meeting.”

The ‘flipped classroom’ model is another innovative aspect of learning at An Cosán. “You get your materials in advance of your class. So when you go into your class, you’re already half full with knowledge. Your tutor guides you through the material and you engage in discussions. There’s discussion boards, there’s breakout rooms, and it’s very much about bringing your life experience to it as well because as an adult learner, you have life experience.”

Counselling, mentoring, digital skills training, a family resource team, and a laptop loan scheme are just some of the other supports available at An Cosán. 

In the classroom, both online and in person, there are technology moderators to help students with any technical issues, and classroom facilitators, for those who may need some extra support. 

An Cosán staff, learners and parents at the recent launch of their new strategy

Transforming communities 

“All the barriers that are out there – physical barriers, financial, not having access to a laptop – the biggest one is the invisible one and that’s confidence for a lot of people. When people become confident in all those things like digital skills, the counselling, their overall confidence lifts and then they want more learning, and they become empowered. They start speaking out when they didn’t speak before and they start doing things in their communities,” revealed Maria.

“If we engage in education, we are becoming learned actors and we are becoming more participatory in our community. We’re not just affecting ourselves, but we’re transforming ourselves and our families and the community around us, because we’re going to be more actively engaged, get involved in community issues. We’ll be social actors in our community. 

“People talk about transformative education, it’s about people being empowered to transform themselves. So many people have amazing ability, they just don’t realise it or recognise it, and they maybe have never been given a voice before. In An Cosán the learner voice is very important; you’re being heard, you’re hearing from a different group, that maybe hasn’t been given a platform.”

Blended learning 

Courses range from access courses to further education with a QQ1 Level 5 or 6 award, up to certificate and degree level. 

An Cosán has fostered links with South East Technological University, so students of its higher education courses have access to SETU’s Carlow campus and the facilities and supports available there.

“Cosán means pathway, and no matter what level you’re at there is a place for you to join that path back to education,” said Maria.

In 2014, An Cosán developed its blended online learning model (which was piloted with a small number of community organisations around the country) to reach learners who couldn’t access its base in Jobstown. 

It was officially launched in 2016, and Maria came on board that same year to help grow An Cosán’s reach nationally and develop relationships with other community organisations. 

Community partners

Each area brings its own unique challenges.

Maria said, “Distance is a big challenge for a lot of people. I remember meeting a woman from Falcarragh in Donegal. Letterkenny IT was an hour away, but there wasn’t a public bus route that would get her there on time for college. She had a car, but had to give it up because she couldn’t afford the insurance, so she was very distanced.”

An Cosán’s online learners are offered the same wraparound supports as those attending in-person courses.

For example, since Covid, counselling services became available online for all students. 

An Cosán’s community partners also help to link learners with supports and services in their local areas. 

What sets An Cosán apart from other online education providers is the level of support available to learners, and the determination of tutors and support staff to see learners succeed and complete their courses.

“Pure online is not new, it’s been around for many years. But for the learners that we work with, it might be very difficult for those learners to stay engaged, because you do need to have a lot of self-motivation, you need to have all the tools to be able to do it, you need to have the resources,” said Maria.

“Whereas, if you bring people together for that face-to-face model of blended learning, you’re supported. You get to meet your tutor, you get to meet the other people, you build up trust, which is very important, and that community of learners as we like to call it.”

An Cosán graduates Michelle Lynch, Sarah Sheppard, Selina McClean and Tanya Shields.

The power of education 

The objective that underpins everything at An Cosán is lifting people, women in particular, out of poverty through education. 

Maria said that by “supporting a mother to empower herself and her family, you lift a family out of poverty forever. It changes the trajectory of a family. 

“If a mother is studying and the child sees that, the child is more likely to continue in education. With an education you can be be uplifted and empowered to get better jobs, to get quality employment and that’s important, because there are a lot of people who may be in employment but they’re on very low salaries and they’re just about surviving.”

An Cosán graduate Senator Lynn Ruane, speaking at one of the organisation’s past events said that An Cosán allowed her to ‘be’ before she had to do.

Maria remarked: “I thought that was really powerful in a very short sentence. It’s that whole holistic model – you are a person, you come with all the challenges that life presents, you’re not just here to learn, and we try to help in all the other ways that we can.”

Speaking about the power of education and the effect it has on learners, Maria said: “It’s transformative; you see people come in one day with their head down and they’re not too sure, and then you see them brightening. They have so much to offer and so much to contribute, and when they realise that themselves then, it’s a wonderful place to be part of, to see that happening.”

An Cosán learner stories

An Cosán graduate Dolores O’Sullivan

 Dolores O’Sullivan from Blessington, Co Wicklow, received a QQI Level 6 Award in Early Childhood Care and Education in September 

She said: “The two years I spent at An Cosán have been more beneficial, rewarding and enjoyable for me than the 14 years I spent in mainstream education. An Cosán gave me belief in myself that I could go back to study and get a qualification.

“Before I started, I was given all the information I needed about the modules involved and about the financial and other supports An Cosán offers. 

“An Cosán has had an enormous impact on my life. It is a special place with very special people who are making a significant impact on people’s lives in the most positive and nurturing way.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have an amazing lecturer and mentor in Christina. Christina went above and beyond for each of her students, always guiding us on our educational journey. Christina is, without doubt, the reason I’m now pursuing a BA degree programme,” she said.

Njabuliso Moyo at her recent graduation ceremony

Njabuliso Moyo recently graduated from An Cosán with a BA Degree in Applied Addiction Studies and Community Development, which she completed via their online blended model. Njabuliso now works in addiction services for the Peter McVerry Trust.

She said: “I’m from Zimbabwe, I was a teacher by profession, but teaching was really a stepping stone for me. It never really gave me the chance to bring the change to the community that I wanted to. 

“When I came here, somebody introduced me to addiction studies and I realised that was what I really wanted to do all along – to play a part in giving somebody a chance to improve their life, to bring change to people who are faced with stumbling blocks. 

“I work in the stabilisation centre in Phibsborough. The work is mentally challenging, you are working with people from a lot of different backgrounds. 

“When I started the course, I was living in Kerry in a direct provision centre; it was a very challenging environment. Most of my fees were paid for with a grant; An Cosán helped us to access the grants. I also got counselling support, and a laptop grant.”

To anyone thinking about returning to education, Njabuliso says: “It’s never too late. I was 49 when I started the course. Just take it one step at a time; it has the potential to change your life.”