Adult Education in Ulster - Reconnect, Reflect and Reimagine

20 Dec 2021
On Tuesday, 30th November 2021, AONTAS hosted a meeting to bring together adult learning organisations from across the Ulster region. The goal of the meeting was to provide a space on how collectively we can improve the quality of learning experiences for all adult learners, and to build a supportive culture of lifelong learning.

The meeting was facilitated by AONTAS’s newly-elected chairman John D’Arcy, Director of the Open University in Ireland, and brought together adult learning organisations from across the Ulster region. The group reflected on some of the challenges resulting from the impact of COVID-19, explored solutions, and considered how AONTAS can provide support to organisations and advocacy groups in order to ensure educational equality for all.

John D’Arcy praised the work conducted in the area of adult and community education during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the “flexibility and agilty” of the groups and organisations’ collective efforts. He spoke of the importance of “building good educational practices”, and having structures in place which “keep people engaged” and “keep people on board”.

Discussion Sessions

The meeting featured an open discussion, during which various members gave feedback about their organisations’ experience of providing, facilitating, or supporting online learning during the pandemic. Themes emerging from this discussion included the challenges of planning for the long-term and adapting to a constantly changing environment. The effects of the pandemic on socio-economic and educational disadvantage were also discussed, as COVID-19 has exasperated existing inequalities. Attendees also described how the reach of online learning can be limited, depending on the needs of learners. 

Deirdre Quinn of the Women’s Resource Development Agency in Belfast, shared her concern that there would be a lot of challenges if another lockdown is pending in 2022, and that the pandemic and online learning “heightens the inequalities already out there”. It was agreed that it is difficult to plan for the long-term and adapt to a constantly changing environment.

Cheryl Ball of the NOW group, which supports people with learning difficulties and autism into employment, stated that actually there were some positives to online learning or a blended approach (i.e. some sessions online and some face-to-face). Cheryl noted that, with online learning, there was a “greater geographical spread” and that people from different areas across the region could come together in a way that was never possible before. “Some people are more comfortable learning from their own homes,” she said.

AONTAS Member Engagement

Martin Flynn of the Open College Network (OCN-NI) shared some of their work, and also mentioned the benefits of being a member of AONTAS, including the valuable opportunity to share best practice, to develop networks and to increase the visibilty and impact of community education in Northern Ireland. Learn more about OCN in this video.

AONTAS – An All Island Organisation

AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly provided an overview of AONTAS’s work in Northern Ireland, and noted that, AONTAS, as an organisation, “listens to our members and to the people on the ground to determine what we should be doing”. Niamh spoke about the opportunity to support community education in the Ulster region and about the group’s collective commitment to education equality across the island of Ireland. She raised the question of how AONTAS can be beneficial to education and advocacy organisations across Ulster in order to meet the needs of their learners:

“AONTAS has been running for over fifty years, and we have a body of knowledge and expertise to draw on across further, higher and community education.”

Niamh mentioned existing links with Ulster, including AONTAS’s work with Rosemary Moreland, editor of the Adult Learner Journal and co-ordinator and lecturer at Ulster University. AONTAS seeks to continue to build further relationships with organisations across Ulster. According to Niamh: “It is about collective action for social change and educational equality.”

Colin Neilands, of Communitis and the Forum for Adult Learning in Northern Ireland, gave an overview of recent research findings on supporting educational equality in the adult learning sector in Northern Ireland. Colin presented research identifying the needs and concerns of Northern Ireland organisations including funding, recognition, visibility, support, collaboration, and voice.

He pointed out, for example, that in Northern Ireland there is a lack of promotional campaigns around adult education, or a Festival of Learning in support of lifelong learning, and that greater visibility is required in order to further goals of educational equality and access to adult education across regions and communities.

Some of the key takeaways from the event include:


Following discussion session, participants shared suggestions of ways that AONTAS can help to support adult learning organisations in Ulster. These include: 

AONTAS would like to thank all of the organisations who engaged in this valuable discussion. We will focus on outcomes of this event in 2022 and formulate a strategy for further supporting groups in the Ulster region.

For more information, please contact Barry Dolan, AONTAS Communications and Membership Officer at:

Learn more about the Shared Island initiative.