Learners’ Voices Across Ireland: New research findings from 2023

19 Dec 2023
The latest findings from our research into Further Education and Training show that what benefits people most is the care and respect shown to them by tutors. This is in contrast with common experiences of learning at school, which can be more authoritarian, or experiences of learning at university, which can be more hands-off.

Our ongoing evidence-based research project, the National Further Education and Training (FET) Learner Forum, explores people’s opinions about FET and has been running now for seven years.

In that time, we’ve spoken to over 12,000 adult learners from across the country. We hold focus groups with learners, and we also collect surveys of their opinions about their courses and education centres.

People standing together around a table looking at documents
We’re an independent voice, offering feedback on what’s working well and what needs to be improved in FET. We work with the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and SOLAS to make learners’ opinions central to any policies or decisions.

This idea of Learner Voice is a concept in education that means that learners should have a say in decisions about their own education. It means that those who learn, not just those who teach, should influence the educational experience.

We launched this year’s research at the “Window to the World” Adult Education Summit in November 2023, through the “Learners’ Voices Across Ireland” report.

As has been the case over many years, a major result from the report is how learners have consistently praised tutors for facilitating them to gain new knowledge while also showing them respect and kindness.

When announcing the results of the new report at the Summit, AONTAS Head of Research Thomas Murray said that this support is “something that cannot be taken for granted; it’s essentially care work. It is absolutely essential to value tutors. This will be part of our focus for 2024.”

Learners also report the positive effects of learning in FET on their mental health and relationships.

1 in 3 learners feel that stress and anxiety affect their ability to learn.

But a supportive environment can help to counter that. Many reported that their mental health improved through learning in FET, especially in relation to self-confidence, and a sense of belonging and community.

In terms of what needs to improve, learners spoke about issues with facilities at their education centres.

This includes parking, heating, and canteens, and a lack of inclusion and mental health supports, which can make it very challenging to continue with their courses.

Thomas emphasised the need, for instance, for a consistent and committed approach to accessibility to buildings for people with disabilities. According to one learner, Thomas said, there was no elevator in the building where their FET course took place.

The learner, cited in the new report, stated: “I have a disability, and I stopped doing the course because I wasn’t able to go up and down stairs.”

Thomas pointed out that this is one story that we know about, but there are many other learners whose stories we never hear, who can’t access education due to issues and inequalities like this.

Speaking about the new report, according to Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, “learners can trust this will feed directly into future policy planning and advocacy.” He stated that “the report demonstrates the options for autonomy over [people’s] own learning, and learners’ openness to consulting with their ETBs to find practical solutions on issues such as timetabling and the scheduling of assessments and work placements.”

Some areas across the country are much better served than others, so learners’ experiences of FET are inconsistent. This is especially the case in relation to mental health supports like access to a counselling service.

The research also found that some groups, like people living in Direct Provision, Black or Black-Irish learners, and Youthreach learners (mainly people who left school without doing the Leaving Cert), reported lower rates of physical and mental health than the general learner population. Some of these groups experience less satisfaction in terms of services and supports and less respect from tutors and ETB staff. However, the research also shows that these learners benefited from their FET course through feeling more connected and having a great sense of community and belonging.

One of the major findings from the research is the serious issue of a lack of reliable, affordable public transport, especially in rural areas. This is a major barrier to learners doing FET courses. The research also shows that there is insufficient funding for travel, and that many learners are travelling long distances to get to their education centre. They are also contending with rising costs-of-living and inflation.

Speaking about the research findings, AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless said:

“There are two principal narratives emerging from this year’s report – that education has a hugely transformative impact on learners’ lives, particularly those returning to education later in life – and that issues around local infrastructure and facilities are creating inequalities and barriers for learners across the country to access, or take full advantage of, those transformative experiences.

“Without affordable, reliable public transport, people in rural areas and people living in poverty continue to be at a disadvantage in accessing education and training opportunities.”

The funding and financial support needed for FET learners will be our main advocacy focus for 2024. We’ll be launching a national campaign on this in the new year, with learners themselves directly involved. The campaign will focus on creating real change that will directly impact people trying to access Further Education and Training.

Read the full “Learners’ Voices Across Ireland” report.

Find out more about AONTAS Research.

 We have lots of exciting things to come in 2024 so keep an eye on and find us on Twitter/X, FacebookInstagram and LinkedIN for the latest updates.