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28 Jan 2020

General Election 2020 Key Priority 3: Recognise and resource lifelong learning to improve social, civic, environmental, and economic sustainability

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In this blog, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer Sam O’Brien-Olinger discusses the importance of adequately funding adult learning and community education in 2020.

If the next government ring-fenced funding for adult learning that supports social, civic, environmental and economic sustainability what would the immediate benefit be for everyone in Ireland?

One important area of Irish life that would be positively affected would be social cohesion and intercultural relations; insulating ourselves, our society and our democracy from the rise in various forms of populism witnessed across the globe.

The clear and increasing levels of racism and xenophobia that have been amplified and harnessed by right-wing politicians does not need to infect Irish life. This epidemic can be contained and combated through non-formal and informal, accredited and non-accredited, education where adults from all social and cultural backgrounds come together and are empowered to tackle the kinds of personal and social challenges everyone faces. Adult and community education provides a vital space for organic social ties to grow within and across local communities. If the next government and 33rd Dáil follows in the footsteps of their predecessors and fail to fully recognise and resource adult learning, particular through community education provision, then not only will learners, their families and local communities miss out; Ireland as a whole will have missed a golden opportunity to avoid the devastating mistakes seen elsewhere in the world; mistakes that have contributed to deepening social division and worrying political regression.  

Can local community-based adult education increase social inclusion, improve civic engagement, as well as fight racism and xenophobia?

In short, yes. It can and does every day in community centres and adult education courses across the country. Furthermore, it has been for decades despite being under-resourced and under-valued by successive governments.

Community education provides a unique opportunity for the most marginalised members of our society who have recently arrived to the country and made Ireland their home to feel at home, to integrate, participate and engage fully in Irish society. For example, given the array of problems associated with Direct Provision that include mental health, social isolation, barriers to accessing employment and not least rising xenophobia and racism; there is a clear and urgent need to create more spaces for intercultural understanding, developing mutual respect and trust, and for positive relationships to flourish. This is particularly important in relation to people from ethnic migrant backgrounds, such as asylum seekers and refugees, and developing closer ties with the ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ members of their local communities. It is generally taken-for-granted that getting involved in local sports teams is a proven formula for building and strengthening important social bonds. However, getting involved in local education is another tried and tested way which receives too little attention. Learning together, regardless of whether this takes place in an ETB training centre’s English Language class, a university lecture theatre or in the local community centre, is a winning strategy for recognising the strengths which diversity brings in enriching everyone’s lives. Furthermore, learning together in a supportive, non-threatening environment where every learner is valued equally enhances everyone’s sense of belonging not just to their learning group, class or college but also to their local community and wider society. 

Why Should Election Candidates Support Adult and Community Education?

Whether they are elected to the 33rd Dáil or not, any candidate that is concerned about social justice, eradicating poverty, fixing the housing crisis, fighting racism and xenophobia should also be concerned about the under-resourcing of community-based adult learning in all its forms.

The more marginalised and vulnerable people are, the more they require supportive learning environments that appreciate diversity and champion equality. The Provision of courses and programmes that are, be design, flexible to learners’ needs, and aware of the challenges that come with their unique circumstances, deliver on policy goals across a range of government departments and strategies. From the Migrant Integration Strategy 2017-2020; and the new National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2018-2021; to the Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: A five-year strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland 2019-2024, community education contributes to their goals and targets. These can often take the form of improvements in mental health, fighting social isolation, increasing self-confidence and building vital life skills; as well as obvious areas such as increasing English language skills and promoting meaningful intercultural integration. Participating in community education not only encourages individuals to return to and progress their level of education, which enhances their ability to find decent and dignified employment, but it also contributes to the their overall wellbeing and to that of their families and wider communities with an inevitable and predictable positive impact on everything from reducing crime and improving local economies to creating better health outcomes.

Through its advocacy work for over 50 years and coordinating the Community Education Network since 2007, AONTAS continues to promote adult learning in all its forms as a powerful catalyst for positive self-development and a collective force for bringing about progressive change within and across communities. Adult learning that takes place within and across diverse communities has huge ripple effects for wider Irish society. Successive governments have neglected and ignored the value and potential of community-based adult learning despite the publication of the policy shifting White Paper in 2000 Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education. This persistent inability of decision-makers to fully appreciate the unique and multi-dimensional contribution made by community education over the past decades is fundamentally and clearly at odds with the White Paper’s statements pronouncing that Government will place adult education firmly on the country's educational agenda and introduce ‘for the first time, systematic and comprehensive provision for lifelong learning’. We are now 20 years on from the White Paper which understood the vital role of adult and community education in progressing human rights, equality and intercultural understanding; and given that we are in the midst of a General Election where racism and xenophobia sadly feature, it is incumbent upon Ireland’s current and soon-to-be decision-makers to use every policy weapon at their disposal and back adult learners by resourcing adult and community education properly.

For more information about the other key election priorities go to AONTAS Election Priorities 2020; to learn more about how you can engage with your local candidates during the General Election Click Here.