AONTAS welcomes the latest figure for adults participating in lifelong learning* in Ireland at a rate of 8.9%. The value of lifelong learning is far-reaching, from the perspective of civic, social, economic, health and well-being benefits to increasing tolerance, trust, and community engagement. Current debate on lifelong learning for employability centres on the need for all adults, regardless of educational background, to be continually engaging in learning in an attempt to keep up with the incessant rate of change. As an OECD business brief stated: “Being educated is no longer about how much you know, but about having the skills and motivation for lifelong learning so that you can learn new knowledge whenever you need to.”
Although the new rate of 8.9% is based on a changed process for collecting data through the new Labour Force Survey (rather than the Quarterly National Household Survey, QNHS) and occurred at a time of data gathering for the much anticipated and imminent Adult Education Survey (AES), the reported increase in adults participating in learning is welcomed. The Action Plan for Education’s (2016–2019) goal of increasing the lifelong learning participation rate to 10% by 2020 and 15% by 2025 appears possible. Comparisons to our European neighbours are common, with our closest neighbours, the UK, at 15.7 per cent, Denmark, Sweden and Finland generally at a rate around 30%, so we are still lagging behind the European average of 10.9 per cent (Eurostat). However, it is important to look behind that number of 8.9%, to explore who actually participates in lifelong learning. Based on past trends, such as those outlined in the EU Education and Training Monitor (2017), it is unlikely that all of the population are engaging in lifelong learning at that rate, in 2017 degree graduates were at least three times more likely to participate in lifelong learning than those who left school before attaining a Leaving Certificate (circa 2.5%). That is despite reports that early school leavers benefit far greater from adult learning engagement (BeLL, 2014).
At a time of economic recovery we cannot afford to continue a trend of widening inequalities. The latest OECD policy brief sets out a roadmap for ‘inclusive growth’ (OECD, 2018) highlighting the need to ensure opportunities for all, including to lifelong learning.
The Bigger Picture
The recent ESRI (2018) evaluation of the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP) programme highlighted the necessity to capture intensive work carried out by community development programmes with vulnerable groups more accurately, with the proposal of the oft-cited ‘distance travelled’. This is true for adult learning – the distance travelled by each learner varies, particularly for those who left school early. Quantitative assessments of lifelong learning participation mask the bigger picture, offering no insight into the people participating and their stories. Each learner has a unique experience and success means many things, from overcoming fears of school by taking a step into adult learning, to receiving a minor QQI award to being able to help their children with homework.
AONTAS continually shares learner stories, highlighting the real life experiences, both the challenges and successes, of returning to learning. No different to the time we all need when starting something new, the most educationally disadvantaged learners need time and support when they return to learning. Although their engagement with learning may take more time and therefore be slower to push up the lifelong learning participation rate, they must be the policy focus if we are to ensure an inclusive society. In Ireland we are fortunate to have a proven method to engage those learners, community education builds the capacity of learners to fulfil their educational aspirations in a supported environment. Community education needs state investment, it needs to continue to have the ability to offer accredited programmes, and it needs to have the outcomes of its work measured in a way that accurately reflects its impact beyond only labour market outcomes.
AONTAS welcomes greater participation in lifelong learning but it’s not a race to increase the participation rate, rather, we should strive to widen participation across the board. Our concern is the very low lifelong learning rate of people who left school early (circa 2.5%).
Shouldn’t that be our focus? Wouldn’t addressing this issue be a more effective measure of successful lifelong learning initiatives and policies?
* Lifelong learning data refers to the share of adults aged 25-64 who participated in formal and/or non-formal (not informal) learning activities in the preceding 4 weeks