Community Education Census

Gathering Evidence, Demonstrating Benefits

First Northern Ireland community education census aims to support learning providers

We’ve launched a major new research initiative aimed at transforming adult education in Northern Ireland. The first-ever census of community education in Northern Ireland will provide evidence of the huge benefits of this particular type of education for communities and families.

This can be used to help demonstrate the need for reliable, sustainable funding and political support for the sector.

Together with our partner organisation FALNI (the Forum for Adult Learning NI), we’ll share results of the census this September.

Speaking about the launch of the census, AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless said:

“This is an exciting piece of work which will provide an evidence-base for advocacy. This project is bringing groups together from across Northern Ireland by sharing practice, building knowledge and forging solidarity in the sector. This research will show the value and impact of front-line service provision and tell us about the needs of local people, in local communities.”

Colin Neilands from FALNI said: “This is a chance for organisations in the voluntary and community sector to show the power of their voice to demonstrate the scope of their contribution to our society.”


You can access the survey at:


What's It All About

Adults across Northern Ireland who are returning to education currently access most of their learning through local community organisations, but the impact of the voluntary and community sector’s role in education for adults has long been under-researched. This means it is under-resourced and its impact on people’s lives and communities is not actively recognised by policymakers and politicians.

We have been working with community learning organisations in Northern Ireland over the last year to develop the ideas behind this census, so that adult education will become an important part of Government strategy once the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is restored and fully functional.


[Connection and Common Ground among Community Learning Groups in Belfast]


From the conversations we’ve been having with colleagues in Northern Ireland, there’s a real need for better collaboration across the Stormont departments, including Education, Communities and Health, to improve the opportunities and experiences of current and future adult learners. We want to strengthen the research and evidence behind the benefits of community education in Northern Ireland and support providers to advocate for more funding and resources, and to get recognition for the important work they do.


[Supporting the Community Learning Sector: Getting together in Derry]


Sandra Bailie, Head of Organisational Development in NICVA (the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action), said:

“We fully support this initiative which is providing support and strengthening the adult and community education sector. It will be an important evidence base to lobby decision-makers, encourage collaboration, and demonstrate the undoubted value of community education. We urge all organisations supporting adult learning to fully engage and take part. Their voice is essential in shaping services for the future.”

This NI census follows a similar one carried out by AONTAS in the Republic of Ireland in 2020, which led to improvements in funding and resources for community education.


[AONTAS Calls for a More Sustainable Funding Model for Community Education]


Get Involved

The online survey is open to all organisations in the voluntary and community sector who deliver adult learning. The census gathers details like the numbers of learners involved in programmes, the type of courses, whether they are accredited or non-accredited, funding arrangements, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis on the sector. The impact of a learner’s socio-economic context and educational experience – as well as value of holistic, non-accredited provision – is central to AONTAS’s view of community education, in addition to accreditation, employment, and progression to further education.

We’ll be holding focus groups from March to May of this year, to delve deeper into the issues that come up in the survey responses. The overall results of the census will be shared in September. We also have an NI Consortium, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to community education in Northern Ireland.

Deirdre Quinn, Training Development Manager from the Women’s Research and Development Agency (WRDA), which is one of the organisations supporting the census, said:

“Ultimately, we hope this mapping of adult learning across the community and voluntary sector will highlight its pivotal role and the challenges it faces to access funding for this provision. This piece of work will help us to build collaboration with those involved in adult learning from all sectors, to both improve provision for adult learners throughout Northern Ireland and to advocate for statutory recognition and funding of learning for all ages.”

Start the survey here

For any queries or further information, contact AONTAS Senior Research Officer Dr Eve Cobain at


AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN) Census 2020

In 2020, we launched a report on the results of a survey of community education providers across the Republic of Ireland, which showed the breath and diversity of community education provision across the country among members of the CEN.

It demonstrated the extent of the work ongoing on the ground among community education providers, and highlighted the real impact of community education on people in their own communities, including benefits to people's health (mental and physical), a sense of belonging and identity, a system of support, wraparound care including help with technology, particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic and remote working and learning.

It also identified issues with funding streams and a lack of recognition of the impact of the work. People returning to education often do so through community education, and a welcoming environment that is led by the needs of learners themselves is a large part of that. Community education plays an essential part in the broader tertiary education system and in equal access to education. 

The data gathered was for the period of September 2019 to August 2020 and is a great snapshot into the sector at the time. We continue to use this data in our advocacy work. 

Click here to read the AONTAS CEN Census