New UNESCO report is a ringing endorsement for community education

18 Dec 2019
In this blog AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly, focuses on specific areas of the recently published Global Report on Adult Learning and Education which relate to community education.

Community education featured strongly in the fourth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 4) which was published by the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning on 5th December, 2019. It was heartening to read in the report that community education plays a hugely important, albeit a generally overlooked, role in the adult learning and education landscape across the Globe.  However, the lack of data on participation in, and funding of, community education is a clear data gap at a Global level.

AONTAS has recognised this issue at National level thus over the course of the next AONTAS Strategic Plan, we will carry out an annual Community Education Census so that we get a clearer picture of community education across the Island of Ireland: where it happens, who participates and how it is funded.

GRALE 4 provides a clear and comprehensive picture of the state of adult learning and education (ALE) around the world. The GRALE report makes specific reference to the Belém Framework for Action (BFA) adopted by Member States at the sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI) in 2009. AONTAS were part of the official CONFINTEA VI delegation that travelled to Belém, Brazil in 2009 and will continue to work with our colleagues in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales through a new regional collaboration called the Network for Adult Learning Across Borders (NALAB) to ensure that learners’ voices from these jurisdictions are represented at the next conference in Morocco in 2022, CONFINTEA VII. 

Finally a clear place for Community Education within the Global education landscape

In 2015 UNESCO Member States made a landmark decision when they adopted the Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE). RALE reflects a vision of Adult Learning and Education where its vital importance and role is defined by how ALE can best meet the contemporary educational, cultural, political, social and economic challenges of this era. The RALE identifies three broad categories of adult learning and education in its typology. AONTAS members will be happy to see that community education is finally gaining a clear position in the lifelong learning landscape. As discussed in GRALE, the third category is described as liberal, popular and community education (active citizenship skills) which it reports “can no longer be neglected” (p.96). AONTAS has continually advocated for community education that is offered by community groups and which is very much in keeping with that described in the Report as being “frequently offered by various NGOs involved in ALE”.

AONTAS members have discussed the importance of community education, particularly given the current political and environmental context, and this was very much a focus of our recent Lifelong Learning Summit. GRALE offers a Global hook to hang the broad concept of adult learning that underpins the work of AONTAS and our members which is based on UNESCOs four pillars: Learning to Be, Learning to Do, Learning to Know and Learning to Live Together. We welcome the clear, accurate description of the role of community education that is outlined in this international policy document, particularly in Chapter 9 of GRALE.

The third RALE category, liberal, popular and community education (active citizenship skills), focuses on the promotion of skills that enable active citizenship. It seeks to equip people with a readiness to engage actively with social dimensions such as poverty, democratic participation, the rise of fake news, intergenerational solidarity, justice, equity, exclusion, violence, unemployment, environmental protection and climate change. On a personal level, those skills assist in terms of health and well-being and in other ways that contribute to personal development and dignity. (GRALE 4, p.95)

This is hugely significant for the Irish context as it specifically identifies community education as one of the three core learning domains in ALE, alongside literacy, numeracy and basic skills; as well as continuing education and professional development including vocational skills. However, disappointingly but perhaps unsurprising given the low level of visibility in education policy and indeed funding for what is termed ‘liberal, popular and community education’ there is little data in the report on community education. In the development of the GRALE 3, only 20 of 139 countries noted information on this third category of adult learning and education. Most of which are from Latin America or the Nordic countries, which it cites as widely known to be the two centres for popular and liberal education.

Increasing literacy levels and promoting employability are the main policy goals of countries in relation to ALE, which are of course important, however citizenship education receives rather marginal attention in ALE policy development. Unfortunately, the Europe and North America report squarely situates ALE in the skills agenda and in neither case is attention given to liberal, popular and community education. The privileging of formal learning in service to economic priorities and its neglect of non-formal learning and ‘liberal, popular and community education’ for essential life skills that serve social and political empowerment, such as active citizenship and human rights awareness is short-sighted.

GRALE 4 notes the role of community education to address the challenge of adult learning provision in rural areas, to engaging marginalised groups, and meeting the needs of the increasing number of older adult learners (p. 143). Other key themes which echo much of the policy positions and submissions made by AONTAS, and as voiced by our members, include the following vital role of community education for health, culture, personal development, political engagement:

Of particular interest is the role of community education to support migrants and refugees. As GRALE states that:

Addressing literacy and basic education and vocational training is not enough; both the newcomers and people in the host society can benefit from what liberal, popular and community education (active citizenship skills) has to offer, particularly in respect of active and informed citizenship (p. 138).

The new AONTAS annual census

The new AONTAS annual Community Education Census is timely and necessary. AONTAS has identified this need for action and heeded the call. Building on its previous research milestones and in scaling up its advocacy work for increased recognition and resourcing of adult and community education, AONTAS is developing a Community Education Census in 2020 that will contribute new valuable pieces of knowledge to complete the picture given in GRALE 4 to help decision-makers understand community education.

There are good systems of data collection on lifelong learning in place. The EU Labour Force Survey gives a measure of lifelong learning participation from which EU202 has set a target of 15% by 2020. Ireland has set a national target in the National Skills Strategy of 15% by 2025. With a current lifelong learning participation rate in Ireland is 12.5%, things are looking to be on track and this is welcomed. However, we do know from the Adult Education Survey (AES) that there are stark inequalities. If you leave school early and have (primary/less than the Leaving Certificate) as your highest level of education you are 7 times less likely to participate in formal (accredited) education than if you have a Degree (2% compared to 14%). However, it is not to say that people are not engaging in adult learning: 23% of early school leavers chose to engage in non-accredited education. We need to understand who is participating, and what is happening, in community education that attracts and retains people who are educationally disadvantaged.

Current large scale data collection is not giving us those answers. GRALE notes the challenges of a range of broad scale data sources, such as PIACC, as it tends to privilege formal learning. Importantly, in terms of understanding how we can create a more inclusive equitable system of adult education we need to understand what works for adults. GRALE clearly notes that:

“The information collected on non-formal ALE does not allow for a closer analysis of how well different providers and particular provisions serve vulnerable groups (Boeren, 2016; Desjardins, 2017). With regard to the three key domains of learning and skills identified in RALE, PIAAC provides a quite detailed account of formal programmes related to literacy and basic education; it presents information on continuing education and professional development (vocational skills), but fails to address the third category, liberal, popular and community education (active citizenship skills).

In 2020, AONTAS will initiate a survey of community education providers to understand who participates in community education and how that is supported. Based on the GRALE report it would appear that this approach will be quite unique but most definitely needed so that we can create approaches that support participation of people who are most marginalised.

PIAAC, as a household survey, does not collect any information on policies related to ALE nor any administrative data on ALE. Consequently, the system of ALE is more or less treated as a black box from which information is provided on participation, but it is difficult to get a handle on how the ALE system impacts on participation or what policy initiatives may have impacted on the participation structure.” (GRALE, p.101)

Additionally, the National FET Learner Forum provides vital information that helps us to understand what learners need to support access, retention and ultimately learner success. Ireland is ahead of other countries in seeking to understand what improvements are needed from a learner perspective.

The need for research into community education

While there is plenty of evidence supporting individual and government investment in ALE for economic reasons, its potential to contribute to democracy and citizenship is less well understood.” (GRALE, p. 171). AONTAS will seek to fill some of that evidence gap that will support our claims that adult learning provision in its broadest sense is vitally important. We acknowledge that research is needed to substantiate our claims which is challenging as “the economistic position that is driving much of the investment in ALE globally is rooted in a long, and, among most policy-makers, highly respected, tradition of economic theory.” (GRALE, p. 171). Yet, it is reassuring to see that the GRALE report echoes much of the work that AONTAS is carrying out as part of our Strategic Plan.

This final note in the GRALE report rings true for our work and speaks to the views of AONTAS members in that adult learning, and particularly community education, is essential for addressing the complex societal challenges we face:

The democratic justification for ALE, as expressed in the RALE ambitions, is supported by a recent and still developing knowledge-base. This knowledge base must be further developed in order to exploit the potential of ALE to engage citizens so that they are well placed to contribute to the fundamental challenges facing all regions, such as rising inequalities, democratic deficits, poverty and climate change. It is, therefore, not enough for international organizations to fund sophisticated programmes on skills strategies: resources should also be allocated to bring about a better understanding of the role of ALE in combating these challenges. (GRALE, P.171)


Niamh O’Reilly  

Chief Executive Officer of AONTAS

Useful link:

Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE)