Thursday, 29 June, 2017

History and Development of AONTAS


AONTAS, the National Association of Adult Education was established in 1969, following the first National Adult Education Conference, held in Athlone in May of that year. The name AONTAS is an acronym in the Irish language, Aos Oideachais Naisiunta Tri Aontu Soarlach, meaning 'national adult education through voluntary unification'. The word AONTAS itself is also the Irish word for 'unity' or 'union', so the intention of the original group of interested individuals was that the Association would be identified by its inclusiveness.

When launching AONTAS in 1969, the then Minister for Education, Mr Brian Lenihan TD, also announced the establishment of a committee to examine the nature of adult education in Ireland and to make recommendations regarding its future structure. The committee published the first report on adult education in the history of the State in 1973. The Murphy Report, as it was subsequently known, recognised the value and importance of AONTAS and concluded that 'it has the potential to become an effective National Association'.

Getting Started

A voluntary committee drew up a constitution for AONTAS, which was ratified in 1970 and re-drafted in 1978. Since then, the organisation has amended its constitution over the years to reflect the changing nature of adult education, and is currently reviewing it again.

With its constitution in place, AONTAS established itself as a company limited by guarantee and as a registered charity. It received a major boost to its fortunes in 1974 when PJ Carroll and Co. Ltd. made a donation of £75,000 to support it over a period of five years. This funding, an extremely generous amount at that time, was used to establish a secretariat for AONTAS, to undertake a research project, and to sponsor an International Conference for Adult Education in Ireland. The funding firmly established AONTAS, and the first Director of the organisation was appointed in 1974.

Growing the Organisation

During the 1970s, AONTAS established itself as a coordinating body, a clearing-house for ideas, a creative and innovative centre, and a think-tank for adult education. AONTAS never considered itself an agency involved in the provision of courses. Rather, it organised conferences, produced journals of adult education, undertook research, circulated newsletters to members, and organised exchange visits to other countries, mostly in Europe. Its members, in particular the Vocational Education Committees, provided the actual service (i.e. courses) for adult learners - often with very limited resources.

AONTAS has been affiliated to the European Bureau of Adult Education, now the European Association for the Education of Adults, since 1970. In 1976 AONTAS received its first Government grant-in aid of £10,000.

One of the most important issues for AONTAS during the 1970s was the issue of adult literacy. Since the Murphy Report identified literacy as a possible problem area, AONTAS had set up a working group to explore what could be done. In 1976, AONTAS took a decision to establish the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), which would be an independent and autonomous body. AONTAS also agreed to make a grant of £5,000 available to the Agency to support local projects. The inaugural meeting of the National Adult Literacy Agency was held on 29 April 1977 in the AONTAS head office.

Meeting new Challenges

During the 1980s, AONTAS had to contend with major cutbacks that affected all the partners in education. However, the Association survived and the membership began to grow very quickly.

The biggest expansion in membership came from the newly emerging women's community-based groups, which had taken it upon themselves to organise their own education provision at times and places that suited women. These groups spearheaded the development of community education and looked to AONTAS for recognition and support for their work. AONTAS supported its women's group members throughout the 1990s with European and national funding. This work culminated in the establishment of the National Collective of Community-based Women's Networks (NCCWN) in 2003.

An Era of Change

In 1997 AONTAS undertook a review of its work and direction and, in 1998, adopted its first Strategic Plan, A Vision for the Future. In this Plan, AONTAS defined its policy focus, and took the opportunities presented by the publication of the Green Paper on Adult Education, Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning (1998), to lobby Government to develop the Adult Education Service. When the White Paper, Learning for Life, was published in August 2000, AONTAS devised its second Strategic Plan, Moving Forward, to focus on the implementation of the recommendations contained in the Paper. In 2004, AONTAS adopted its third Strategic Plan, Sustaining Growth and Development, which focuses on maintaining, and improving on, recent boosts to the sector. The subsequent Strategic Plan Policy, Promotion, Practice, Partnership ran from 2007 to 2010.

AONTAS, as a membership organisation, has continually lobbied for additional resources for adult and community education. Up until 1997, only 0.01 per cent of the overall education budget was spent on adult education, and lack of Government funding constantly hampered initiatives to develop it. In 1997, the Government - shocked by findings from an OECD report that 25 per cent of Irish adults did not have adequate literacy skills - decided to invest heavily in literacy provision. Since then, funding for adult education has increased, but it still falls far short of what is really required.

Moving Forward

Following the OECD findings in 1997, the Government published a Green Paper in 1998, with proposals for developing adult education. After a wide-ranging consultation, the Department of Education and Science published a White Paper on Adult Education in August 2000. This was a blueprint for the development of the adult education service, with a policy framework aimed at improving access, quality and flexibility in the provision of adult education.

Since the publication of the White Paper, AONTAS has worked consistently towards the implementation of its recommendations. The elements that have been implemented so far include the National Adult Literacy Porgramme, the Back to Education Initiative, the Adult Educational Guidance Initiative, and the recruitment of Community Education Facilitators. Resources allocated to the sector since 2000 have, for the first time, promoted growth and development. Investment in the adult education service increased to almost three per cent of the overall education budget.

AONTAS believes that national policy objectives, both social and economic, can be achieved, in large part, through investment in adult education. Huge progress has been made in the adult education sector over the past decade. What we need now is expansion of the existing successful programmes, development of new programmes and services, and a proper structural framework to reflect our changed environment.

Learning through the Recession

Budget 2009 saw cutbacks across all government departments to respond to the changing economic climate. In relation to adult and community education, the Budget confirmed the disbandment of the NALC, along with the Educational Disadvantage Committee, and outlined a number of cutbacks including a reduction in the number of BTEI places. Meanwhile, the government has identified upskilling and retraining as a key factor in future economic growth.The recession has seen an unprecedented level of demand for adult education and training.  

AGM 2009 - Celebrating 40 years of Adult Learning in Ireland

In May 2009 AONTAS celebrated its 40th Birthday. A timeline was especially constructed for the AGM to showcase the organisatoins history. The timeline is organised in 4 decades, each year of a decade shows:

  • the political context
  • the developments in Education
  • Key milestones in Aontas work 
  • important events in Ireland and in the world

To view the timeline, click here.