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23 Jul 2020

Community Education is gaining greater prominence in new EU lifelong learning policies

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Sam O’Brien-Olinger, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer gives a brief overview of some of the most important new EU policies relating to adult learning including recent AONTAS advocacy activities at EU level. Sam also outlines aspects of the new Skills Agenda, the recent renewed commitment to the European Agenda for Adult Learning and why these are important for Ireland, AONTAS members and adult learners across the country.

COVID-19 has created further educational disadvantage for marginalised and vulnerable people. The Upskilling Pathways Recommendation, the European Pillar of Social Rights and lifelong learning policies are vital in addressing this social issue and creating active citizenship in Europe.

Non-formal education and inclusive models of adult learning including, community education in Ireland, have previously proven to be successful in meeting the needs of these groups which is why AONTAS welcomes the recent renewed commitment to the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL). Here, Sam O’Brien-Olinger, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer gives a brief overview of some of the most important new EU policies relating to adult learning including recent AONTAS advocacy activities at EU level.

The new European Skills Agenda says that it will prioritise non-formal, life-wide learning, intergenerational, intercultural and community learning; it also highlights life skills as a key pillar of adult learning (for more detail click Here). Also welcome is the inclusion of community education in Action 8 of the Agenda, the ‘Skills for Life’ dimension is an area where adult and community education can have the most impact and benefit the greatest.

For the last decade perhaps the single most important European level policy as it concerns adult learning has been the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL). In the late months of 2019 and early months of 2020 there had been concern in Ireland, and amongst our partner organisations across the European Union, that the EAAL wouldn’t continue past the end of 2021. Through advocacy and lobbying from AONTAS, our partners at the European Association for the Education of Adults and partners in other EU member states we have successfully ensured that the EAAL will continue.

For those who may not be familiar with the EAAL, the EAAL seeks to raise awareness and increase participation in adult learning. The EAAL is delivered as individual national projects developed by each State depending on the needs of each respective country. National Coordinators collaborate a minimum of three times per year through Peer Learning Activities and National Coordinator meetings with the European Commission. These facilitate growth and understanding across the sector in Europe. It is funded by the KA3 Erasmus+ programme of the European Union and co-financed by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science through SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority. Since 2014 AONTAS has led this project in Ireland as National Coordinator. AONTAS is one of only three NGOs or non-ministry organisations across Europe with the responsibility for the EAAL as the National Coordinator of the programme.

Our current project ‘Adult and Community Education: Supported Learner Pathways’ (from January 2020 to December 2021) aims to develop innovative and community-based methods, identify the needs of learners, and develop policy recommendations for engaging vulnerable and marginalised adults in adult education.

Priority Areas include:

During past projects AONTAS has made sure that community education providers can take advantage of the learning opportunities available through the EAAL. This is important as community education providers often struggle to engage in professional development due to the cost of courses.

In Ireland, the EAAL facilitates strong connections across the adult learning sector including all of tertiary education and NGOs utilising the Project Advisory Group as a learning and collaborative space. This includes the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, SOLAS, QQI, ETBI, ETB’s, NALA, St Vincent de Paul, Maynooth University, Teachers' Union of Ireland, Northern Ireland Impact Forum and others.

Practitioners

Another benefit of the EAAL is the bringing together of professionals from across the adult and community education sectors in Ireland. There are few if any other platforms where experts in the field of adult education from providers, to academics, to NGOs, and public servants from many different agencies and the Department of Education and Skills collaborate and discuss best practice. They collectively identify opportunities for strengthening and supporting quality adult and community education.

Learners

In addition, learners engaged through this project have advocated for adult learning and shared their personal educational experiences both at national and European level with Government representatives, policy makers, educators, researchers, academics, and other stakeholders. Learner voice is utilised and shared as best practice across Europe through the EAAL directly.

Lobbying

Ensuring the continuation of the EAAL came down to the support and action of several groups that deserve thanks:

 1) All Irish MEPs were contacted by AONTAS during our advocacy to ensure continuation of the EAAL and several responded to us and expressed their support for the EAAL and offered to help advocate in Brussels. The MEPs who expressed their support included:

MEP Barry Andrews submitted two questions in July 2020 on behalf of AONTAS to the European Commission. A written response is expected from the Commission within 6 weeks of submission. The questions are as follows:

i) How will the European Commission support member states in implementing Skills for Life, especially by investing in community learning?

ii) How will the European Commission ensure a close link between Skills for Life and the European Education Area?

2) The European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) led the charge amongst advocacy organisations and adult education providers across the European Union to ensure the continuation of EAAL. Their leadership was critical to ensuring a unified voice.

3) Without engaged and supportive allies within the European Commission, including a base of support from public servants, the continuation of the EAAL and support for non-formal learning into the future may not have been secured.

Key areas of EU policy for Community Education  

The new European Skills Agenda says that it will prioritise non-formal, life-wide learning, intergenerational, intercultural and community learning and highlights life skills as a key pillar of adult learning (for more detail click Here). According to European Commission, the Agenda pursues a paradigm shift in skills to take advantage of the green and digital transitions and support a prompt recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, by:

Outlined is how the Commission, together with Member States, will work on new priorities for the European Agenda for Adult Learning to complement the renewed European cooperation framework in education and training and to support the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a member of Coalition 2030, AONTAS very much welcomes this news. Also welcome is the inclusion of community education in Action 8 of the Agenda, the Skills for Life dimension which presents adult and community education with an opportunity to bring about the most positive impact on the lives of learners and their communities.   

The European Skills Agenda sets four ambitious objectives to be achieved by 2025, based on disaggregated quantitative indicators. AONTAS welcomes the move to set participation targets based on the attainment level of learners. As we know from the Matthew Effect, those who benefit most from formal education are far more likely to engage in lifelong learning due to a range of reasons. These include having the learning to learn skills, self-confidence and support from an employer.

 The new European Agenda for Adult Learning

The extension of the European Agenda for Adult Learning will continue to define the focus for European cooperation in adult education policies. This policy highlights the need to increase participation in adult learning of all kinds (formal, non-formal and informal learning) whether to acquire new work skills, for active citizenship, or for personal development and fulfilment. Click here for the executive summary of a report produced by the Education and Training Working Group on Adult Learning 2016-2018 outlines many of the achievements under the previous iteration of the European Agenda for Adult Learning (2011- 2018) and identifies areas that could be prioritised for the future. It also presents key developments in adult learning at European level across the EU countries since 2011. 

Action 8: Skills for life

Action 8 falls within the broader European Skills Agenda. This programme, along with the previous EAAL, is underpinned by the Recommendation of Upskilling Pathways 2016 which aims to help adults acquire a minimum level of literacy and numeracy. Digital skills and/or acquire a broader set of skills by progressing towards an upper secondary qualification or equivalent (level 3 or 4 in the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) depending on national circumstances).

In addition, it will be connected to the European Pillar of Social Rights to deliver new and more effective rights for citizens. It has 3 main categories:

Our current project information can be found here. For more information or to get involved, please contact EU Projects Officer Dearbháil Lawless dlawless@aontas.com.