There is an urgent need for ringfenced, multi-annual funding if community education is to provide a truly supportive learning environment that will address long-term needs in Northern Ireland. That’s according our new research report, the AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census. We launched the census at a special event in Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Friday 8th September.
This report is the first of its kind, with feedback from sixty organisations across the Voluntary, Community & Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector in Northern Ireland. The findings from this report show community education to have a profound impact for a huge number of learners in Northern Ireland. The survey, which was concerned with the academic year from 2021 to 2022, revealed that these 60 participating organisations delivered almost 800 courses to over 50 thousand people. This is part of AONTAS’s ongoing work in collaborating with community education providers in Northern Ireland.
The report focuses on how the sector could be better supported and made more sustainable. It found that the VCSE sector is particularly strong in engaging with people with limited access to mainstream or traditional education, including women – perhaps single mothers or carers – and people who live in areas of high unemployment and poverty. Community education can offer these groups of people not just skills – such as digital or literacy skills – but also a network of supports and a way of building confidence and connection with others.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
We will continue meeting with groups from the Voluntary and Community Sector in Northern Ireland, as well as high-level stakeholders and policymakers.
Our NI Consortium will continue to meet 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.”
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.