CEN Census 2020 Launch - Community Education in a time of COVID-19

12 Jul 2021
On Wednesday, 30th June, almost 100 participants from across the lifelong learning sector, including community education organisations, Education and Training Boards (ETBs), Higher Education Institutions and NGOs, gathered online for the CEN Census 2020 launch event. AONTAS implemented this broad-scale mixed methods research project, drawing on qualitative and quantitative data, to build a robust evidence base demonstrating the need to effectively fund community education. This online event provided an opportunity for participants to discuss key findings and recommendations from the first Community Education Network (CEN) Census report, “CEN Census 2020: Community Education in a time of COVID-19”. Taking an evidence-informed advocacy focus, the event aimed to share with policymakers and stakeholders some of the key issues facing community education providers, particularly during COVID-19.

Pictured to the right is Mary McDonagh from Exchange House Ireland National Travellers Service featured in The Irish Times “Images of the Day”.

AONTAS Chairperson Tara Farrell welcomed attendees to the event by reflecting on the commitments made for the sector in Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education (2000), which focused on the importance of recognition and resources. Tara described how findings from the report show community education’s vital role in supporting educational equality, which is central to our COVID-19 recovery.

“The purpose of the census was to establish a real and true picture of community education in Ireland. Above all, the census examines the impact on learners across this island.”

- Tara Farrell, AONTAS Chairperson and Longford Women's Link CEO



Welcome from AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly

AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly welcomed attendees to the launch event and provided some background on the implications of the CEN Census research on future policy. Reflecting on the census findings, Niamh detailed AONTAS' call for an equitable support plan for community education as part of a national tertiary education wide approach to educational equality.

 “Based on the findings of this report and the evidence base that we have now, AONTAS is calling for a support plan for community education as part a tertiary wide education response, ensuring that we have equity of access, engagement and participation right across the tertiary education system.”

- Niamh O'Reilly, AONTAS CEO


Pictured above are just some of the community education groups featured in the CEN Census 2020 research.

Virtual Message for Minister Simon Harris TD

We were delighted to have a virtual message from Minister Harris at the online event. The Minister talked about the focus of his department on educational equality, the value of community education in improving lives, and the vital role community education will play in an inclusive recovery, particularly in supporting those who’ve been hardest hit by the pandemic. The Minister also congratulated AONTAS and its members for this novel piece of research that will help to inform future policy decisions. 

“The picture of community education that emerges from this report is one of dynamism in responding to learners, inclusiveness in terms of learner cohort and challenges in relation to funding. More than anything, it is so clear that community education improves lives.”

- Minister Simon Harris TD

Report Findings

Dr Eve Cobain, AONTAS Senior Research Officer, and Dr Akisato Suzuki, AONTAS Research Officer, delivered a presentation on the key findings of the report which included:

Challenge arising from COVID-19 such as:

Given the exacerbation of educational disadvantage arising from COVID-19, AONTAS is calling for an equitable support plan for community education as part of a national tertiary education wide approach to educational equality. To accompany the CEN Census report, AONTAS published a   detailing why educational equality is central to Ireland’s recovery, post COVID-19.

Panel Discussion

AONTAS Chair, Tara Farrell, invited four expert panellists – Andrew Brownlee (SOLAS CEO), Ruth Griffin (Adult Education Officer with Cork ETB), Cathleen McDonagh Clark (Manager at Exchange House Ireland National Travellers Services), and Liam McCarthy (Senior Training and Development Officer with the Social Health Education Project) – to answer the following questions:

  1. What do the findings and recommendations of the CEN Census 2020 mean for your organisation?
  2. What is needed to maximise the potential of community education?

The panellists’ answers were strongly reflective of the need for sustainable and multi-annual funding for the community education sector, as demonstrated by the CEN Census report’s findings around the complexity of current funding structures.

In response to Tara’s questions, Cathleen McDonagh Clark highlighted the community education sector’s commitment to engaging marginalised and vulnerable learners. Cathleen further detailed the vital impact of the Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund (MAEDF) for learners during COVID-19, specifically referencing the significance of laptop provision for learners.

“We don’t just provide education, we create a space where people are supported to engage.”

- Cathleen McDonagh Clark, Exchange House Ireland National Travellers Service

Ruth Griffin also commented on the value of the MAEDF at a local level and detailed the good collaboration between ETBs and community education groups in meeting the needs of learners. Ruth shared how the research will serve to underpin Cork ETB’s work going forward and described how the insight provided through the report will lead to informed decision making, clarity, focus, productivity and meaningful change. Ruth positioned the CEN Census research as a catalyst for future positive change, and spoke of the importance and value of community education in supporting marginalised learners:

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

– Ruth Griffin, Cork ETB

Liam McCarthy provided insight on the role of the community and voluntary sector as part of a “cloud” of local provision, responding to local need and broader challenges in society. Liam situated the report as a reminder of commonalities within the community education sector, and the value of collectively connecting with the bigger picture – that is, recognising the value of community education. Commenting on the CEN Census findings, Liam described how he was able to take great encouragement for his programme:

“We feel joined into a movement of effort to bring a story which is true to a wider picture”

– Liam McCarthy

Andrew Brownlee commented on the contribution the CEN Census will provide in the response to the fallout from COVID-19. To demonstrate the impact of the CEN Census on policy, Commenting further on the Census’ relevance to the work of SOLAS, Andrew said:

“It reinforces something that SOLAS is doing and also that the ETBs are working on – actively enforcing and enhancing the role that community education has in society”

– Andrew Brownlee, SOLAS

To read the AONTAS Policy Paper, based on the key findings from the CEN Census 2020 report please click here.

To read the full CEN Census 2020 report please click here.

AONTAS warmly thanks all who participated in the launch event and those who contributed the CEN Census research.

For more Information

For more information on the CEN Census 2020 research please contact Eve Cobain, AONTAS Senior Research Officer at:

Click here to view a full recording of the CEN Census 2020 launch event on the AONTAS YouTube page.