Empowering Learners across Ireland The AONTAS “Learners As Leaders” Programme

14 Nov 2022
When people share their stories about returning to learning, people empathise, they listen, and sometimes they get inspired. How can we empower people to share their experiences?

At AONTAS, we show people that their experiences of learning are important – whether it is a Level 5 course in healthcare, or learning to drive, or learning about gardening. Sharing the stories about how and why they decided to do a course or a class, or take up something new, and the impact it has had on their lives, can be very inspirational and encouraging to others. It can help someone overcome their fears.

The first step back to learning is the hardest. No one is a better advocate for this than learners themselves.

When learners speak about the benefits and value of learning, people listen and change happens.

The Learners As Leaders Programme

This programme has been running for several years and we have worked with around 30 learners every year. It is funded through the (New) European Agenda for Adult Learning, for which AONTAS is the national co-ordinator in Ireland. This means that such programmes are happening all across Europe.

Hands resting together on the trunk of a leafy tree
Through the programme, learners develop skills in areas like critical thinking, communication, and creative problem-solving, and they learn how to advocate for themselves and others with similar experiences.

There are two Learners As Leaders programmes each year. We typically run three workshops or discussion sessions during each programme. Learners have an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, highlight issues, and talk to each other as well as to the AONTAS team.

As with all of our Learner Voice work, AONTAS is committed to raising the experiences of learners with policymakers, education providers and Government representatives we meet, with the goal of making education more equal and accessible for all.

2023 Programmes

"You Have the Means" - October and November 2023

Our latest programme focuses on the funding, grants, and finances needed to return to and stay in education. Adult learners are joining us online and in person from across the country, to discuss what they think needs to change in terms of funding for adult and community education to make it more equal and fair across Ireland. 

We're delighted to be partnering with advocacy and campaigning expert Kathleen O'Meara for a session to develop learners' skills in how to design and develop an advocacy campaign. We'll also meet the learners in person in Dublin and share an introduction to research and communications for campaigning.

Learners will be invited to participate in our "Window to the World" Adult Education Summit in November. 

Learners will also be invited to keep working with us at AONTAS as we develop a national campaign into 2024 on the cost of adult education in Ireland and what needs to change to make access more equal for everyone.    

2022 Programmes

“Together in the Telling” – November 2022

This Learners As Leaders programme was called “Together in the Telling,” focussing on the experiences of migrant women and how they can tell their story, be part of a community and inspire others through their courage.

There were three sessions, taking place in November and December. The end result wasx a new radio programme with Near FM and a podcast, which will see the voices of these women elevated so that people can hear about their learning journeys and feel it is possible for them, too, to return to learning, in whatever form that takes.

“Creativity Takes Courage” – July 2022

This iteration of the programme, which borrows its title from French artist Henri Matisse, focussed on an online painting class and how it takes courage to join a class or course, to show your creativity, to be vulnerable, to open up to the possibility of “getting it wrong.”

According to one participant, “You learn more by getting it wrong.” It helps developing your curiosity and, he said, “getting outside your comfort zone is a good thing.”

These sessions also linked with the broader European focus on the digital divide, and the challenges and benefits of learning online for older people – or “later-life learners” – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The programme also featured research from Age and Opportunity, who looked at the differences in access for older people to technology – and thus, to learning – across the island of Ireland.

Read our blog post about the Creativity Takes Courage programme.

2021 Programmes

In July 2021, we partnered with Development Perspectives on a programme specifically linked with the EU Sustainable Development Goals, which includes the goal of Quality Education for all, as well as other goals like Good Health and Wellbeing and Reduced Inequalities. The programme brought learners together and encouraged them to think about ideas for tackling the root causes of poverty, inequality, and climate change through transformative education and active citizenship. Learners were encouraged to reflect on their own lives and communities, think critically, and consider next steps for how to integrate the SDGs more into adult education.  Read our blog post about the Development Education programme.

In March and April 2021, we ran the “Nothing About Us Without Us” campaign, in association with Ability@Work from the Cope Foundation in Cork. The campaign focussed on inclusivity and learners with disabilities – or different abilities – to have a say in how their education is organised, and their rights and opportunities for employment. Read about one participant’s experience in the programme.

For more information on the Learners As Leaders programme, contact EU Projects Officer, Ecem Akarca at