Community Education – Working Together to Address Educational Inequality

25 Mar 2022
“The power of adult learning, especially community education, cannot be underestimated in its potential to transform people’s lives” – Minister Simon Harris TD speaking at the AONTAS Policy Event as part of the annual national Adult Learners’ Festival.

This online policy event was part of the national Adult Learners' Festival 2022 and took place on 11th March 2022. It was a discussion about the community education sector and a reflection on the Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund (MAEDF).

This fund is the result of AONTAS advocacy work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in recognition of the urgent need to support people experiencing the most disadvantage and marginalisation in Ireland and to help them return to, or continue with, education.

Learner Panel on Zoom at Community Education Policy Event as part of the National Adult Learners' Festival 2022
The event coincided with the publication of the new AONTAS MAEDF policy paper, “Community Education – Working Together to Address Educational Inequality”. The paper centres on the results of a new survey conducted by AONTAS with learners and community education providers who received funding through the MAEDF.

“This policy paper is about effecting change,” says Dr Niamh O’Reilly, AONTAS CEO.

The voices of adult learners and providers are central to AONTAS’s advocacy work, and form the basis for recommendations to the Government for improvements to future iterations of the MAEDF.

We take what you say very seriously,” Dr O’Reilly states, “and it’s going to drive our advocacy work.” 

The MAEDF was allocated to the sector by the Government through the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The first round of funding in 2020 was €8 million and the second round, in 2021, was €6.85 million. The fund was specifically directed towards community education groups around Ireland, as community education has been shown to help the most disadvantaged learners.

Minister Harris announced in December 2021 that the MAEDF would be “a regular feature of our education system”. 

In a message at the policy event, Minister Harris said that, for everyone who wants to continue learning, at any age, “in keeping with the theme of this year’s Festival, you can ‘Learn Your Way’. There’s no right or wrong way to do education, there’s just different ways. And community education is an important component of this. It provides a safe space for people to take that first step back into our education system.”

The Voices of Learners

As well as a panel discussion with community education providers, the event also focused on hearing the voices of learners themselves. Clara O’Connor from Dublin Adult Learning Centre, Pamela Stokes from Limerick Community Education Network, and Deborah Oniah, an adult learner from University College Cork and Maynooth University all shared their experiences of returning to learning in a discussion chaired by Dearbháil Lawless, Head of Advocacy at AONTAS.

The main ideas discussed during this panel were the transformative power of adult learning and community education, and the ongoing barriers to lifelong learning for adults.

“It can be quite daunting, but it’s brilliant,” Clara said of returning to education. “I’ve no doubt I will continue on my education journey, because learning never ends.”

Deborah shared that education “gave me choices. It gives you a new identity. Education can be very empowering. You have a sense of belonging and it just changes everything.”

Pamela echoed the sense of empowerment and community derived from adult learning, but she acknowledged that “it’s hard to think of me first, when I usually think of my children first.”

All three panelists emphasized the need for stable funding for the sector. “Education is for everyone,” Pamela said. “It’s for all of us, and should be funded appropriately.”

Deborah highlighted the importance of childcare, especially for women who wish to return to education, and Clara echoed the need for “funding and accessibility”.

The recent research conducted by AONTAS found that 76 community education organisations are being funded by nine different Government departments, through 51 different funding streams. These organisations support about 15,000 adult learners across Ireland. This means that organisations are providing a huge level of support for lifelong learning and education, while also dealing with a lot of confusion and administrative burden to obtain and maintain their funding. 

COVID-19, Burnout, Childcare, Transport and other Issues

These issues were reflected in the break-out sessions which took place during the event. Attendees discussed the impacts of COVID-19, and the problems of returning to in-person teaching and learning after so long. Burnout is a significant problem, both for providers and for learners. Mental health supports are essential, particularly as we try to collectively recover from the pandemic. Access to childcare and adequate transport services is essential in order for people, on a practical level, to actually go to classes and courses. The MAEDF categories could be expanded to cover these issues.

Another subject raised was the need for support for those from marginalised communities. One of the main aims of the MAEDF is specifically to support the learners experiencing disadvantage, including older adults, refugees, Travellers, people in receipt of social welfare, people with additional needs or disabilities, lone parents, people experiencing mental health challenges, and many others. Such supports are all the more essential now, with the horrific war in Ukraine and the Ukrainian people seeking refuge in Ireland, but also the refugees who have been and are currently in Direct Provision without access to education at the moment.

Attendees also discussed the need for further support for learners with disabilities, and for greater awareness of the variety of options available for everyone beyond the Junior and Leaving Certificate educational routes.

Collaboration, Sustainable Funding, Autonomy and Equality

These issues were also raised during the next panel of the morning with the community education providers. Jimmy Prior, Co-ordinator at Southill Family Resource Centre (FRC) in Limerick, Siobhán O’Dowd, Co-ordinator at Ballyphehane Togher Community Development Practice (CPD) in Cork, Tara Farrell, Deputy CEO of Longford Women’s Link, and Denis Leamy chief executive of Cork Education and Training Board gathered to discuss what was needed for the sector, in a panel chaired by Suzanne Kyle, Senior Community Education Officer at AONTAS.

Tara Farrell stated the need for sustained and strategically planned resources for the sector: “We have to look at what’s already happening in the sector,” she said, “and to look at the resources that are needed.” She echoed the comments from the learner panel, stating that “education is for all of us”, and we must consider education in terms of equality.

According to Denis Leamy, this is one of the valuable aspects of community education: “It provides support for people that meets them where they’re at, that in their community.” But he pointed out that the core capacity of providers needs to be effectively resourced and supported in order for them to continue their work. He noted that we need “accountable autonomy” of community education providers across the country, and that this is important in order to build good relationships between providers and ETBs.  

A big issue discussed was the digital divide, as highlighted by both Siobhan O’Dowd and Jimmy Prior. This has come all the more urgent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MAEDF was specifically targeted to help with this, and 76% of the funding was used by community education providers to provide laptops and iPads to learners, so they could continue to access their classes and groups while learning from home. According to participants in the breakout sessions, the technical or IT skills often required for learning is something that providers should be aware of, and how to best support learners as they progress.

The panel discussed the importance of flexible learning options, and of continuing the values of learning for life, wellbeing, family, confidence and finding one’s voice – not always for jobs or progression to higher level education. The need to maintain these values was also explored, and the practical knowledge gained by different community education organisations and providers, especially as individual practitioners retire. Jimmy Prior noted the need for collaboration across the community education organisations and groups, and this was reflected in the breakout sessions. Participants there spoke of the importance of improving collaboration between groups in the North and the South, and to strengthen connections between providers across the island of Ireland. 

Attendees spoke of the need to hold on to the knowledge, expertise and ethos of an organisation in a sustainable way. Sustainable funding is also essential in order to offer stable roles to providers and to retain people, and the precarity of employment was recognized as a barrier to continuing community education provision. As one attendee noted, “people might love the work but that won’t pay the rent.”

What's Next 

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS, closed the event by suggesting four key themes, namely lost learners and new learners, a cross departmental approach, capacity-building, and what all of this means for the forthcoming Community Education Framework.

“The Community Education Framework is a big priority for SOLAS this year,” he said. He emphasized how important feedback from learners and providers is, and that SOLAS will implement change based on this feedback.

“We are serious about things like simplifying PLSS forms that make it harder for learners to engage.”

He said they are committed to ensuring that community education is a core focus, and that the MAEDF is part of mainstream funding. It is a fund, he said, “that will be happening this year and in subsequent years.”

In the MAEDF policy paper, AONTAS has provided recommendations for improvements to the next round of funding under MAEDF, including: 

Given the scale of the challenge of achieving educational equality for all, particularly as we recover from the pandemic, AONTAS is calling for a commitment to an equitable, sustainable, multi-annual funding package that empowers community education organisations to address the needs of learners and local communities.

Our challenge for the future,” according to AONTAS Chairperson John D’Arcy, “is to make the support for adults who want to learn even better.

Click here to read the new MAEDF Policy Paper on the AONTAS website.

Written by Dr Kate Smyth, AONTAS Communications Officer