Community Education in a Time of COVID-19: responding and building back better together for community education

15 Oct 2020
On Monday, 12th October, over 110 participants across the lifelong learning sector gathered online to take a ‘virtual visit’ of community education, highlighting the vital work that is taking place across Ireland. We were delighted to have Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS), Simon Harris TD and Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS in attendance, giving them an opportunity to hear first-hand the unique contribution that community education groups are making at a local level.

Learners shared their experience of community education, showcasing how it effectively responded to their needs, in a safe and supportive environment. The event also provided a platform for AONTAS to highlight key asks in the AONTAS Pre-Budget Submission, calling for immediate action to address the severe impact that COVID-19 is having on disadvantaged individuals and communities across Ireland. We also launched the AONTAS Community Education Census, a vital research project that will support us to document the impacts of COVID-19 on the AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN).

A ‘Virtual Visit’ of Community Education

The event, originally due to take place in Longford Women’s Link, was moved online due to current COVID-19 restrictions and included a range of participants from AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN) members, Education and Training Boards (ETBs), adult learners, policy makers and union representatives. While the event was specifically focussed on the work of the AONTAS CEN, the discussion groups focussed on how we can collectively work together to achieve educational equality.

AONTAS Chairperson Tara Farrell welcomed attendees to the event and asked them to share what community education means to them, responses included: opportunity, empowerment, diversity, inclusion and learner centered.

Tara invited participants to come on a virtual tour of community education organisations from across Ireland, to #ExperienceCommunityEd with us. We shared a video that highlighted the work of AONTAS CEN members, 20 years since publication of Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education

What is needed for the AONTAS CEN - AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly

AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly delivered an input focused on what is needed for the AONTAS CEN, highlighting how the innovation of community education organisations in Ireland is evident, and how they have adapted to ensure that they can continue to provide vital supports to learners during COVID-19.

Niamh outlined that the Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education 2000, found that community education groups were experiencing an inadequacy of financial and other resources, the short-term nature of much of their funding was a challenge, as well as the multiplicity of funding sources and differing demands of the respective funders. These challenges still remain 20 years later and must be addressed.

Niamh also shared the key asks of the AONTAS Pre-Budget submission 2021, calling for immediate action to address the impact this crisis is having on disadvantaged individuals and communities across Ireland. Niamh stressed that in order to prevent the impact of exacerbated inequalities, support for community education is vital.

Niamh finished her input launching the AONTAS Community Education Census which aims to gather key data on the impact of COVID-19 on provision across the AONTAS CEN, helping us to create educational opportunities for all. For more information please visit:

Learner Voice - #ExperienceCommunityEd

A highlight of the event included a powerful learner panel from adult learners Winnie Coakley, Dublin Adult Learning Centre (DALC), Soyna Fitzmaurice, Longford Women’s Link and Rosemary Kunene, An Cosán. Chaired by AONTAS Head of Advocacy, Dearbháil Lawless, the women, who have now become advocates and leaders in their communities, described the impact that community education has had on their lives. Winnie described her experience with DALC as non-judgmental, providing safety, support, respect, understanding and a cup of tea and the simple question, 'Where are you at?'. Rosemary described how An Cosán gave her confidence & courage, allowing her to move forward and use education to bring about change in society. She also called for a commitment to educational equality and equity. In talking about the accessibility of community education in Longford Women’s Link Sonya said: "It was right on my doorstep."

Both Winnie and Rosemary took part in the Learners as Leaders Peer Mentoring Programme. The programme, which is part of the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL), trains adult learners to become peer mentors.

I Have a Dream

The brilliantly talented Sophie Jacobsen of The Blue Teapot Theatre Company in Galway treated attendees to a beautiful musical performance of the song "I Have a Dream" during the event, showcasing the diversity of community education provision in supporting people to discover their talents.

Response from Minister Simon Harris TD

We were delighted to have Minister Harris in attendance at the online event. In responding to what he had heard Minister Harris said:

"I believe passionately in the role of community education, you tailor make your programmes to suit the needs of the learner rather than the other way around."

– Minister Simon Harris TD

He continued by saying that the powerful learner stories he heard highlighted the importance of accessibility in education provision, something community education delivers with services provided linked up to local community needs.

He committed his support for community education and said he was struck by the benefits of community education beyond accredited education.

Discussion Sessions

Minister Harris attended a discussion session with 7 groups representing the AONTAS CEN, spread across Ireland and providing a range of services to learners:

This session offered a fantastic opportunity for these groups to speak face to face with the Minister. The participants showcased the vital work of community education organisations around the country, discussing the unique contribution that their organisations make at a local level. They also appealed to the Minister for greater investment in community education.

The additional breakout-room discussions, included a range of stakeholders, from ETBs, academics, adult learners, community education organisations and NGOs. Their discussions focused broadly on how we can work collectively to achieve educational equality. AONTAS members highlighted the need to work together to support those people facing severe inequalities, including those living in Direct Provision. The importance of collaboration was a key theme as members stated that a collaborative approach will help to recognise the complexity of the issues faced by vulnerable learners including poverty, childcare needs and discrimination. There was agreement that collaboration needs to happen at grassroots level and link in with other local support services/agencies in the local community.

Participants discussed some of the benefits of collaboration which included: sharing of skills and knowledge, additional funding streams, attracting a new cohort of learners, utilising volunteers and provision of accreditation/ certificates which gives an added value for learners. Groups also put forward suggestions on how we could better collaborate at local level. Ideas included: a centralised network of community education practitioners to provide advice and help administrate collaboration, promotion of services to a greater audience, more information on courses and opportunities for learners but also to external services who interact with adults, and utilising community venues such as schools and community clubs for classrooms and facilities.

It is clear that groups are still facing challenges during COVID-19 and many voiced their ongoing concerns with reaching hard to reach and isolated learners during this time. A collaborative approach to lobbying for community education groups, a need for a specific structure for drawing down funding, additional support for learners, such as childcare, and greater access to IT and training were all mentioned as needs for the sector.

Learners also took part in a discussion session where they shared what community education meant to them. Responses included how it recognizes passed skills and abilities, it’s learner centred and empowering and provides an informal setting. Most importantly it can adapt to suit the needs of your community, whatever they may be. Learners were also asked what community education needs and access to IT devices was the overwhelming response, as well as unrestricted funding for community education groups and the need to hold on to the wider benefits of learning, and provide a social space for learners during COVID-19.

Educational Equality – Prof Tom Collins

Prof Tom Collins delivered a thought-provoking input on education equality in our current context. He fully supported AONTAS in their Pre-Budget ask for a: Commitment to Educational Equality Establishment, by DFHRIS, of a specific structure dedicated to social inclusion and educational equality, but would like to see it go beyond DFHRIS to include the Department of Education and Skills. He said that this approach would allow us to capture education inequalities and identify solutions to address this.

Response from Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS also responded to participants, drawing attention to how COVID-19 is significantly impacting those already experiencing educational disadvantage. He continued that he was immensely interested and inspired by what he had heard at the event and highlighted the importance of funding and collaboration to ensure that community education is an integral part of pathways to education for learners in the future.


Tara Farrell, AONTAS Chairperson, closed the event thanking all of the participants for their valuable contributions.

We look forward to continuing to work with Minister Simon Harris TD and all his colleagues at the DFHERIS, to ensure that social inclusion remains a key focus of their department. AONTAS looks forward to supporting all efforts to make our vision of educational equality a reality for all.

AONTAS was delighted to see the announcement of dedicated Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund of €8 million, as part of Budget 2021. You can read our full response here:

Read the AONTAS Pre-Budget Submission here:

Find out more information on the AONTAS Community Education Census here: