I’m a FET Learner: Celebrating Learner Voice from the National FET Learner Forum

20 Jan 2021
On Wednesday, 16th December, AONTAS launched a new publication: the "I'm a FET Learner" booklet. The booklet captures the experiences of ten Further Education and Training (FET) learners who participated in the National FET Learner Forum over the course of its existence from 2016 to 2020. Since its launch the Forum has reached 3,791 learners and helped to provide important learner feedback into the future planning of FET. This booklet showcases the individual impact of the Forum according to learners who have taken part and showcases the diversity of voices and experiences captured by the event. For many, the Forum is a stepping stone to further, deeper learner voice engagement and the booklet celebrates each learner’s journey and the empowerment they gained from sharing their voice.

The launch was a learner-led event attended by 100 guests, including learners, policy makers, public representatives, and stakeholders from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), SOLAS, and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHREIS). Learners who featured in the booklet hosted, facilitated discussions, and ran speaker sessions.

Learners raised critical issues facing adult learning, including questions on how to best support mature learner access, how to increase educational access to learners in direct provision, what role National FET Learner Forum plays in supporting quality assurance, and how to improve digital access for adult learners in times of COVID-19. 

The event also reflected on how to best ensure that learner voice remains central to policy development. It highlighted clear examples of how recommendations raised through the Forum have impacted policy and planning at regional and national level.


Adult learner, Una Buckley, a former facilitator at the National FET Learner Forum and a member of the National FET Learner Forum Advisory Group, opened the event by welcoming guests and asking everyone to reflect on what the Forum meant to them in a single word. She then introduced AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly, who spoke about AONTAS’ continued commitment to sharing authentic learner voice and keeping learners at the heart of our research into FET provision.

Minister Simon Harris TD

Una then introduced a video message from Minister Simon Harris TD, in which he reaffirmed his Department’s commitment to supporting access to quality lifelong learning for all in the community education and FET sectors. Minister Harris reflected on some key learner statements from the booklet which had captured his attention, highlighting learner Noeleen Watson’s story about how her journey into adult learning helped her to share her voice and to overcome the feeling that “for years I thought I was a nobody”. Minister Harris also celebrated the progress that has been made in education in Ireland over the past several decades, voicing his agreement with learner Nancy Poynton that the attitude of “if you don’t understand something, just keep your head down and go with the flow” is in the past. Minister Harris thanked AONTAS for our commitment to lifelong learning and advocating for keeping learner voice central to FET.

“There are so many opportunities and there are so many ways to go back to education. Years ago, the attitude was ‘if you don’t understand something just go with the flow, keep your head down, say nothing’. That attitude is gone now a days. The more questions you ask, the more it broadens your mind. There’s no guilt, there’s no shyness.” – Nancy Poynton

The next segment of the event featured a learner Questions & Answers session with CEO of SOLAS, Andrew Brownlee. First, the audience heard from Nancy Poynton, who asked Mr Brownlee to reflect on the value of learner voice in adult education in Ireland and the need to support mature learners with continued access to education. Mr Brownlee reiterated SOLAS’ support for, and belief in the value of keeping learner voice at the centre of FET policy, and shared SOLAS’ commitment to supporting the mature learner in a post-COVID-19 learning environment. Next, we heard from learner Innocent Iroaganachi, who highlighted the difficulties faced by learners in direct provision with regards to digital supports, device access, and study space.

“At first, I was thinking ‘I hope I don’t go there and I’m the only person from a different background,’ but that was not the case. The Forum provided an avenue for me to know people of different cultural background, to know about the progress they have made amid uncertainties in their lives.” – Innocent Iroaganachi

Following the Q&A, learners who featured in the booklet – Niamh Becton, Noel Hanrahan, Liam Shortall and Kevin Hanly – shared their personal experiences of attending the National FET Learner Forum and what learner voice means to them. Each of these learners brought their own unique perspective to the experience of taking part in the National FET Learner Forum and the development of their capacity to share their voice as a learner. Each of them spoke about the immeasurable benefits of returning to education.

Learner Daniel Kenny then chaired a panel featuring John Kearney, CEO of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB), Roisin Morris-Drennan, Senior Quality Officer at QQI, Phil O’Flaherty, Principle Officer at the DFHREIS, and Innovation, and Maud Baritaud, a tutor at Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board. Daniel’s questions sparked a discussion on the role of the Forum in contributing to quality assurance, education policy, Education and Training Boards planning, and FET learner experience.

AONTAS Board Member, Joy Tendai-Kangere reflected on the benefit of the National FET Learner Forum beyond policy change, discussing the positive impact the Forum has on individual learners and communities across Ireland. We then heard from learner Noeleen Watson, who read her poem “Voice”, inspired by learner voice and written for the 2019 AONTAS AGM.

To close the event, AONTAS Chairperson, Tara Farrell thanked everyone for attending and spoke about the value and continued impact that these ten learner stories will have on future learners and FET provision. Una drew the event to a celebratory close by asking us to revisit what the Forum meant to us in a single word.

As the closing event of 2020, and also the last National FET Learner Forum event of 2020, it was a positive way for AONTAS to end the year. To read the ten learner stories featured in the booklet and to find out more about the how the National FET Learner Forum shares learner voice, download the booklet here. If you would like to receive a print copy of the booklet, please contact Kalianne Farren, AONTAS Projects Officer at: