Reflections on the AONTAS Adult Learners' Festival 2023

28 Mar 2023
At the AONTAS Adult Learners' Festival, we celebrate learning. This week-long festival happens every year in March, and we bring people together from all over Ireland. This year's Adult Learners’ Festival took place from 6th to 10th March 2023. Let's take a look at the highlights of the week.

By Dr Kate Smyth, AONTAS Communications Officer

This year’s theme was “Create Your World”, reflecting that life isn't about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself! We invited everyone, all across the country, to join us in learning new things this spring.  

Learning as an adult can mean different things to different people. It can mean getting an education or improving your education, getting a job, or learning new skills for your job. It can also – and just as importantly – mean meeting new people, feeling happier in yourself, gaining more confidence, or recovering from challenging times.

In the Community 

Every year as part of the Adult Learners’ Festival, educators and providers across Ireland go above and beyond for the adult learners they work with. This year, there were 130 events across 24 counties. 

STAR Awards winner jumping into the air in celebration with her trophy at the STAR Awards ceremony on Friday 10th March
The events covered everything from introductions to yoga, finance, or IT training; to meet ups and discussions over coffee. We created a brand-new website to help people share and find events, with filters to help people find the right events for them.  Take a look at the 2023 Adult Learners’ Festival website.  

In the run-up to the Festival, we held an online information session on 14th February called “Fall in Love with Learning” (for the day that was in it). We brought people together to discuss ideas for the festival and for local events, and shared information about what to expect and how we could help.

We offered free posters and resources to anyone holding events, as well as free graphics to use on social media. We also offered €50 vouchers to the first 50 community groups to register an event on the website. Many groups used the voucher as a prize for adult learners at events or raffles.  

We sent out packs with bunting, pens, mugs and other tokens to create a festival atmosphere, including seed bombs that can be planted to create beautiful wildflower plots, all in keeping with the springtime theme of Create Your World.  

The most popular events were information sessions, taster sessions, and workshops – suggesting that people want to know more, to get stuck in and get involved.  


Stepping Stones and Stable Roots: Community Education and Policy 

In Dublin, AONTAS hosted two large events during the week of the Festival. We kicked off with “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots”, which focused on the role of community education in Government policy. Taking place on 6th March at the Richmond Education and Event Centre in Smithfield, the event featured speeches and inputs from policymakers, adult learners, education providers, and tutors.  

Chaired by John D’Arcy, chairperson of AONTAS, the event began with the launch of the new Lifelong Learning Participation report, presented by our Head of Advocacy Barbara Nea. This research project, conducted by AONTAS, focussed on people who have struggled to access education. We held discussion groups with people who have had to drop out of courses, or who have wanted to do courses but can't or feel they don't have access. The results demonstrate the ongoing and wide-ranging barriers still faced by many people who are trying to access education in Ireland. The research findings also show the impact of local learning in communities, which is focussed not just on getting people into employment, but also on helping people to feel happier, supported, safe, and healthy. Learn more about the Lifelong Learning Research here.  

This discussion of the research was interspersed with a lively and dynamic discussion with adult learners themselves, Niamh Murrary, Catherine Gore, and Deborah Oniah, facilitated by EU Projects Officer Ecem Akarca (pictured below).  

“I want others with learning disabilities to know that they can continue to learn. Having a disability doesn't mean you're not able to do something. You might just need a little extra support,” Niamh Murray said, speaking about the power of community education. 

“I had no support before, but through BRIO at SAOL, the amount of support is unbelievable. Everyone is welcoming. Sometimes I just come for a cup of tea and chat,” said Catherine Gore, speaking about BRIO at the SAOL project, who help people who have been affected by addition to recover through education. “Education saved my life,” Catherine said. 

“Education brings us together. It’s important to create spaces and tell stories,” Deborah Oniah said. 

This led to the keynote speech with William Beausang, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, who stated that "difference needs to be valued and respected, which is very important for community education.”  

This was followed by a lively panel with key stakeholders in community education and policy: Dr Fiona Maloney, Director of the newly-formed National Tertiary Office; Dublin City University President Dáire Keogh; Melíosa Bracken, a Community Education Facilitator at City of Dublin Education and Training Board; Tara Farrell, CEO of Longford Women’s Link; and our CEO Dearbháil Lawless. We finished with a roundtable discussion across the room and closing remarks and a response to the key points of the day from SOLAS CEO Andrew Brownlee. All discussions from the day will become essential components of AONTAS’s policy recommendations relating to the new Unified Tertiary Education System in Ireland, and how best to serve adult learners and educators through and within this system, particularly in local communities.  


The STAR Awards 2023: Celebrating Adult Learning 

The STAR Awards ceremony in Croke Park on Friday 10th March was the culmination of the week. With 26 shortlisted groups and over 100 people in attendance – despite snowfall and frost – the gathering was a testament to the passion and joy of the adult and community education sector across Ireland. “These people are planting the seeds, they’re changemakers. This is a transformative project,” said an adult learner about “The Whidden Workshops: It’s Kushti to Rokker,” a winning initiative that links people from Traveller and Roma communities with peers from their own communities to help increase access to university. The same could be said for all the nominees, who are making a massive difference to people’s lives and having a real impact in their communities.  

Established in 2006, AONTAS’ STAR Awards acknowledge adult learning groups and projects that are really making an impact on people’s lives and in communities across the island of Ireland. 

There were five categories of nominees, all adult learning groups and initiatives who helped people in relation to Health and Wellbeing; Third-level Access and Engagement; Social Inclusion; Global Citizenship Education; and Learner Voice. The event was hosted by Irish international footballers Stephanie Roche and Áine O’Gorman, and kicked off with music from the Forever Young Chorus from Finglas. Read more about the STAR Awards 2023 and to see the winners. 

Adult Learners from winning group "The Whidden Workshops: It’s Kushti to Rokker” celebrating at the STAR Awards ceremony in Croke Park  

Co-host of the awards, Ireland footballer Stephanie Roche said: “It’s fantastic to see so much inspiring work happening in communities right across Ireland helping people to find a new passion or hobby, to build new skills or even to gain new qualifications. There’s so much available through adult education, there really is something for everyone! A huge congratulations to all the winners and to all the nominees of this year’s AONTAS STAR Awards.” 

Co-host and teammate, Áine O’Gorman added: “When we think of education, we might automatically think of gaining qualifications and for many, that may be what they want from an adult education course. What we’ve seen from the nominees and winners today, is how many learners also gaining something very personal from adult education - through sport, dance, craft and wellbeing initiatives. Whether that’s a new hobby, meeting new people, or healing from something in their lives. Well done to everyone who’s shared their story!”


We are grateful to our members, stakeholders, and to all the adult learners for your enthusiasm, energy and hard work in helping us to make this year's Festival a huge success. 

Learn more about the Adult Learners’ Festival and how you can get involved next year.  

For further details contact Charis Hughes, AONTAS Head of Communications, at