2023 Highlights from AONTAS

18 Dec 2023
2023 will soon be drawing to a close and we're getting ready to close up the AONTAS offices for the holidays and head home for some mince pies. A lot has happened this year! Let's take a look back at the highlights.

Click here for a quick look at our Highlights from 2023


Create Your World: The Adult Learners’ Festival 2023 

This year we celebrated our annual Adult Learners’ Festival with the theme Create Your World. Because life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. The national festival featured 128 adult and community education events from all across the country, with everything from art classes to photography to finance.  

We also held two big events in Dublin. To kick off the Festival we discussed education policy at “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots: The Versatile and Enduring Strength of Community Education” in the Richmond Centre. 

Adult learner jumps into the air holding a STAR Award
And to finish out the festival we had the AONTAS STAR Awards in Croke Park, recognizing and celebrating adult learners and educators from across the island of Ireland, with 10 fantastic groups winning on the day. 

“These people are planting the seeds, they’re changemakers. This is a transformative project.” 

Take a look back at the Adult Learners’ Festival 2023 


The Care and Power of Adult Education at the AONTAS “A Window to the World” Summit 2023 

Our biggest event of the year was the AONTAS Adult Education Summit, which took place in the Aviva Stadium. The event celebrated the resutls of the New European Agenda for Adutl Learning and featured a keynote from Professor Kathleen Lynch from University College Dublin, who spoke passionately about the growing tendency in education “to reduce students, and citizens, to customers”.  

We were delighted to have Minister Simon Harris TD, who spoke about how “we’re human beings and not robots,” and how “we all learn in different ways.” He told the audience that education must be flexible because “we know that life doesn’t run in a straight line.” 

The event featured a showcase of Community Education Partners, and panels with educators, learners, and policymakers from across Ireland and Europe. We also had interactive, immersive workshops on issues like sustainability and creativity in education. Take a look for more on the “Window to the World” Adult Education Summit.  

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan on poverty and education at the AONTAS AGM 2023 

Katriona’s keynote speech focussed on her memoir Poor and her experience of growing up in poverty in Ireland and the UK, while also having a love of learning. To the audience, most of whom are educators or adult learners, she advised, “keep going, even if you change one life, it’s enough – because my whole family’s life has been changed by this experience.”  

We also tackled inclusive/exclusive language in adult and community education, and explored how our sector should use “the language of the heart” rather than the language of business and the labour market.

We also announced our new Strategic Plan, and the idea of AONTAS acting as a “catalyst for change”. There’ll be more on to come on this very soon. Look back at our AGM.   


AONTAS Research 

Learners Voices Across Ireland: new research into Further Education and Training 

New results from the National FET Learner Forum, AONTAS’ long-running mixed-methods research project, show that learners are benefitting most from incredibly helpful and supportive tutors, and are suffering most due to the lack of proper supports and infrastructure to facilitate their learning, like affordable childcare and reliable public transport. Read the full “Learners Voices Across Ireland” report. 

Lifelong Learning Research: What Affects People’s Access to Education in Ireland? 

New AONTAS research found that people from more privileged or economically wealthy backgrounds, with greater access to education, are more likely to continue in education or return to it later. Find out more about the Lifelong Learning Research project. 

Ringfenced funding highlighted as urgent issue in new AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census 

This year we launched the results of the first ever census of community education in Northern Ireland, which found that there is an urgent need for multi-annual funding if community education is to provide a truly supportive learning environment that will address long-term needs in Northern Ireland. Find out more about the AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census. 

1 in 3 adults say stress and anxiety affects their ability to learn: Mental Health Research published  

Also published this year – new research into mental health in Further Education and Training (FET) in Ireland. The results show that learners experience a high rate of mental health problems. High accommodation costs and issues with transport access can hinder people’s ability to take part in their courses, and add to mental health difficulties. Read our research into FET Learners and Mental Health in Ireland.   

Adult Learner Journal 2023: “We need to understand adult learning better rather than only to measure it” 

We launched the 2023 of the Adult Learner and it’s packed with new insights and ideas from experts in the field of adult and community education, from Ireland and across Europe. Read more about the 2023 Journal. 


AONTAS Advocacy 

Funding for Part-Time Students in Higher Education  

This year, Minister Simon Harris TD announced funding for part-time higher education students, starting from September 2024. AONTAS have long-advocated for more flexibility as, for many people, including those with caring responsibilities or disabilities, full-time education isn’t possible. We will continue to advocate for more flexibility and supports across the education system. Read about the announcement here.   

Review of the Learner Data Collection (PLSS) Process 

AONTAS members continue to tell us of their frustration around the data collection (PLSS) form, which can be invasive and a major barrier for many learners trying to return to education. 

Dearbháil took the opportunity of her new position as part of the national ESF+ Oversight Group, which discusses all EU funding programmes and policies, to call for a European and national review of data collection for adult education programmes. We maintain that, while some data collection is necessary, there must be a reduction of the data being collected and a more suitable process. More to come on this in 2024.   

FET Learners Influence 2024 Department Budget 

We facilitated learners from across Ireland to speak at an event in May held by the Minister Simon Harris TD and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science on the allocation of funds for Budget 2024. The learners, through our “Learners As Leaders” development programme, shared their perspectives and experiences, and informed the Department’s 2024 allocation of funding for the 2024 budget. We’re now working on a broader campaign, with these learners involved, on the financial barriers that impact access to FET, which will be a major focus for us in 2024.  

Raising our Members' Issues at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis 2023 

2024 will be a year of elections, and we’re continuing to work with all political parties across the island of Ireland to ensure adult learners’ experiences and opinions are at the heart of education policy. We headed to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis to speak to representatives about what our members need, and we’ll continue to work with all parties to advocate for positive change for adult learners in Ireland. Find out more.  

AONTAS as SDG Champion 

We were delighted to be appointed as an SDG Champion by Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan TD, to help progress the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We’re one of 26 organisations selected to raise public awareness of the SDGs. Our CEO Dearbháil was also elected as co-chair of the Coalition 2030 group, an alliance of 70 civil society organisations working together to deliver the SDGs by 2030. More to come on this in 2024! 


AONTAS Community Development and Support 

Voter Education Tutor Training: Free two-day residential programme from DALC, with €800 support from AONTAS 

We’re partnering with Dublin Adult Learning Centre (DALC) to run a free two-day residential experiential training programme on voter education. This unique training programme is exclusively for Community Education Network Members and will run in Maynooth University on 2nd and 3rd February 2024. We’re then offering €800 towards delivery costs of your own programme with adult learners, to raise awareness of why people should vote and how it makes a difference. Learn more about this voter education tutor training.  


Learner Voice Training: Collaborating with Education and Training Boards across Ireland 

Learner Voice is now being taken up as a model of best practice by ETBs across Ireland. This means adult learners guide their experience of learning and are recognised as experts in what is needed to make adult education better. We offer staff training on the foundations and practice of Learner Voice work. We also offer workshops for learners on leadership, advocacy, and planning. The goal is to listen and be responsive to what learners need, and encourage and facilitate more learners to return to and stay in Further Education and Training. Read more about our Learner Voice Training.  


Closing the Digital Divide: “Later Life Online”  

We were back at the Richmond Centre in May to bring together Irish and European colleagues in adult and community education to work towards closing the digital divide. “Later Life Online” featured a discussion from An Cosán on new findings adult learning for getting older learners online, and new teaching tools and tips for educators. Read about Later Life Online. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“On the Road” with the Community Education Network 

As part of our Community Education Network, we frequently travel to meet and chat to community education organisations and groups across Ireland. Find out more on our blog 

We also held events this year to respond to the needs of the Community Education Network, including looking at the need for funding for educators. More on this to come in 2024.  


“Put Yourself On the Map” for Community Education on the island of Ireland 

95 community education organisations have so far “put themselves on the map”. This is a new resource for everyone working or interested in community education in Ireland and Northern Ireland. People working in community education are going above and beyond to help people get back to lots of different kinds of learning. The map is a way to say, “community education is here”. At the “Window to the World” Summit, Minister Harris directly acknowledged the map as an invaluable tool for learners, educators, and policymakers to raise awareness of the breadth and impact of community education. Learn more about the Community Education Map.  


Learners As Leaders: “You Have the Means” 

We’re committed to facilitating adult learners to raise their issues and ideas policymakers and Government representatives with the goal of making education more equal and accessible for all. The Learners As Leaders "You Have the Means" programme focused on the funding, grants, and finances needed to return to and stay in education. We partnered with advocacy and campaigning expert Kathleen O'Meara and also held a workshop on introduction to research and communications for campaigning. Some of the participants spoke at our "Window to the World" Summit and at the launch of the Adult Learner Journal. Learners will be invited to keep working with us into 2024 as we launch a national campaign on the financial supports needed for further education and training. 


European Projects and Visits  

We’re continuing to work with our colleagues across Europe to explore how we can make adult learning better for everyone. Learn more about our EU work.  


Visiting Our Members 

We’re always interested in visiting our members and learning about what’s happening in your education centre or organisation. Here’s an example from Threshold Training Network in Tallaght in Dublin. We’ll have lots more member visits coming up in 2024, and we’re committed to raising awareness of the fantastic work our members do every day for adult learners across the island of Ireland.  

 We have lots of exciting things to come in 2024 so keep an eye on and find us on Twitter/X, FacebookInstagram and LinkedIN for the latest updates.

From all at the AONTAS team, wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy start to the New Year.