"Brunch and Learn" with AONTAS and SOLAS

9 May 2024
We at AONTAS have long promoted the power and impact of adult and community education, and we were delighted to be invited by SOLAS this week for a “Brunch and Learn”, to speak about the impact of our work and how adult and community education changes lives for the better.

Organised by former Head of Communications at AONTAS Katie O’Rourke, who is now Communications Manager at SOLAS, this “Brunch and Learn” session brought together a mixture of team members from AONTAS and SOLAS, educators, and adult learners.

Katie opened the session with a few words about her commitment to ongoing collaboration with AONTAS and she spoke fondly about her experience of working with us for 12 years.

A significant focus for us is Learner Voice. 

Group of people standing in a row, with a pop up that reads SOLAS in the background
We continue to work with different education stakeholders across the country to embed Learner Voice into any decision-making processes and systems.

Our Policy and Development Officer Conor spoke about the Learner Voice Training we are running across the country, empowering Education and Training Boards, and adult learners, to build Learner Voice structures as part of education programmes. This means that learners have a say in how their courses are managed and how their education centres are run – making them more likely to continue to engage.

According to Conor, “learning should be guided by those who learn and not just those who teach.” Through the training, we share the message that Learner Voice is “a process that creates an environment of listening and respect.”

Speaking about a particularly successful example of embedding Learner Voice into their system at Cork Education and Training Board, he said that “they are really focused on the needs of the learners and representation of diversity across the ETB.”

More and more ETBs are making this part of their day-to-day functioning, and we want to keep working together to make this a reality for all learners.

We also spoke about the annual AONTAS STAR Awards, which takes place every years as part of the Adult Learners’ Festival, and celebrates the very best in adult learning from across the island of Ireland.

Joining us on the day were two STAR Awards nominees from this year’s event. The Community Food Club, a pilot from Dublin Northwest Partnership, is a programme that gives people affordable access to nutritious food. We heard from Community Food and Nutrition Worker Áine Coleman and adult learner Ben Coffey, who both spoke fantastically about their experience.  

"By the last week all you could hear was the laughter, the talk and the energy," Áine said, referring to the change in people as a result of the course.

Education as well as the social side was a real focus for them. “That’s so important to us,” she said. “We really wanted that connection.”

Ben spoke the impact of the club on positive mental health and getting involved: “It brings you out of yourself and into society,” he said. “And teaches you how to cook an egg!”

Courses like this help people, not just in skills development but as people who need to feel they belong and have a purpose. “It woke me up,” Ben said. “It made me realise that maybe there is a life out there for me.”

Kathleen Ryan, Programme Coordinator from the Advanced Manufacturing Technician Traineeship run by Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, told the group about how the traineeship actually won in their category at the STAR Awards this year. She said their course is not just about skills and training but also “about social justice”. She told the group that they are giving opportunities for people coming from under-resourced communities to get the qualifications they need to move “into the tech industry.”  

Simon Murray, a learner on the course, said that he felt “very supported”. Speaking about getting a job in the tech industry, he “never expected myself to be going into this.”

In response to a question from the audience, he said he had not heard about courses like this, when he was leaving school. “I wish I did see it sooner,” he said, “because I would have jumped on it straight away.”

We’re grateful to SOLAS for the invitation to show the impact of adult and community education, and the power of Learner Voice. We will continue to work with SOLAS and advocate for change in the tertiary education system so that everyone can access learning, regardless of their experience or circumstances.

Read about our CEO Dearbháil's appointment to the SOLAS Board here.