On 29th July, AONTAS held its 50th Annual General Meeting (AGM) in a hybrid format; both online via Zoom and with AONTAS staff and board members present at our office in Dublin. This marked the first time in AONTAS’ history that the AGM did not take place fully in person. Over 60 attendees were present at the online AGM, including representatives from Education and Training Boards (ETBs), community education organisations, and adult learners.
The AGM offered AONTAS members an opportunity to reflect on the achievements over the past year as we celebrated 50 Years of AONTAS. It also provided a space to discuss ways that AONTAS can support adult learning in a time of COVID 19. Through this hybrid format, members received an overview of AONTAS’ key activities and outcomes over the past year; including our communications reach, European work, national representation of members, research publications, policy submissions, and staff presentations.
Members were able to discuss the most pressing issues facing community and further education providers as we approach a return to learning in the Autumn; namely supports around back-to-work protocols, access to IT devices, and inclusivity. AONTAS was also delighted to welcome new member Estelle Webb, Irish Association of Community Training Organisations (IACTO) to the AONTAS Board.
AONTAS Achievements and Outcomes in 2019
AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly opened the AGM by welcoming members and reflecting on the celebratory nature of last year’s AGM, which marked 50 years of AONTAS. The past year has brought significant challenges for adult and community education providers, not least of which is the unprecedented disruption to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Niamh gave an overview of the key areas of our work in 2019, highlighting the importance of events such as the 2019 Adult Learners’ Festival, which showcased over 300 events around the country, and the STAR Awards, which saw 170 people celebrate the amazing work of the 27 shortlisted Adult Learning Initiatives and the nine winners. Focusing on our advocacy work in 2019, Niamh emphasised the potential for AONTAS events, such as our 2019 International Women’s Day Policy event: The Impact of Community Education on the Lives of Women, to have a direct impact on the development of policy by connecting policy-makers directly with representatives from community education and women’s groups. Members had a chance to see the impact of our extensive communications work, which reached over 4 million people in 2019, and to understand the key role that communication plays in raising the profile of our members and the important work they do. Our research activities and publications in 2019 centred on the promotion of authentic learner voice, with the National Further Education and Training (FET) Learner Forum, the largest piece of learner voice research in Europe, expanding to reach over 1000 learners, resulting in 15 reports which represent the views of FET learners in Ireland. In addition to this nationally-focused work, AONTAS led and partnered on six European adult learning projects in 2019; including KA1, KA2 and KA3 projects, and the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation – Upskilling Pathways Recommendation (BLUESS).
Members responded to the CEO presentation by referring to the impact AONTAS’ work has had on policy. Moira Leydon (ASTI) remarked that AONTAS’ in the National FET Learner Forum has been influential in the focus on social policy in the new FET Strategy. Members also raised questions about the role of AONTAS, other advocacy organisations, and community education groups in ensuring that the inclusivity and outreach focus outlined in the new FET Strategy will be fully implemented and realised.
The final part of the AGM allowed members to discuss their organisation’s response to COVID-19 and the support and advocacy needs for community education as we move out of the COVID-19 pandemic and into a potentially hybrid learning environment for the next academic year. After a presentation on AONTAS’ response to COVID-19 by Chairperson Tara Farrell, members entered breakout rooms, where they discussed the biggest challenges facing further and community education providers, tutors, and learners as the Autumn return to learning approaches. In breakout rooms, members discussed how their organisations are managing back-to-work protocols. Some members responded that, based in part on the success of AONTAS’ hybrid virtual and in-person AGM, plans to adopt both socially distanced in person meetings and virtual meetings will form part of their reopening procedures in the Autumn. Hybrid forms of learning were welcomed by a number of participants, who stated that they plan to incorporate this model into their learner outreach plans for the Autumn. Responding to the focus on social policy and inclusivity in the new FET Strategy, members also highlighted the importance of a commitment to inclusivity in the classroom in the Autumn. One problem area for inclusivity that members identified was digital skills and accessibility; there is still a large percentage of learners who may be excluded from hybrid learning models if they lack the devices and/or digital skills to participate in online learning. In order to bridge the gap between digitally confident learners and those lacking in IT skills, community education groups require greater access to funding sources in order to provide devices and IT training, and more knowledge about the different funding sources available. The commitment to inclusivity in adult and community education, members emphasised, must also be extended to persons with disabilities and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Despite a shared desire among AONTAS staff and members present at the webinar to meet in person, attendees found the hybrid format very successful. Members shared their views that, although the virtual AGM was different to previous AGMs, it enabled them to get an in-depth understanding of AONTAS’ work over the past year and to consider how adult education practitioners can best be supported moving forward in a post-COVID educational climate.
AONTAS would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of our members and guests who participated in this hybrid event.
As a membership organisation we draw on the strength of our members and meaningful relationships with adult learners to advocate for the rights of all adults to quality learning through their lives. We do this based on a grassroots, authentic understanding of lifelong learning that benefits the social, personal and skills development of adults, their family and community.
To view or download a copy of the AONTAS Annual Report 2019, or AONTAS Strategic Plan, 2019-2022: A Vision for Educational Equality visit our publications section on our website here.