1 Dec 2023

“Humans are Carers”: Focus on the Care and Power of Adult Education at AONTAS “A Window to the World” Summit 2023

Representatives from Inishowen Development Partnership

Writing by Kate Smyth, AONTAS Strategic Comms Officer

Mental health, community, belonging, inclusion, equality, democracy: these are the areas where adult education can have the most impact and is most needed.  

That’s what emerged most strongly from the 2023 AONTAS Adult Education Summit: A Window to the World, which took place at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 15th November. The subsequent, shocking events in Dublin just over a week later have only underlined how crucial a role adult education has to play.      

A central theme that came through from this gathering of policymakers, educators, and learners from across Ireland and Europe was the fact that education is a human right and must be available to all.  

Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, told the audience of over 150 people about his passion for making education accessible to everyone across the country, and the vision from his department for an education system that is responsive to what people really need.  

Panelist Michelle McGoldrick, Minister Simon Harris, and panelist Alan Anthony Quinn

“We’re human beings and not robots,” the Minister said. “We all learn in different ways.” He stated that education must be flexible because “we know that life doesn’t run in a straight line.” He emphasised that anyone should be able to drop into learning at any time of life and “we need to drop the ageist view of education”.

"Why is education for sale?"

In a fascinating and outspoken keynote address, Professor Kathleen Lynch from University College Dublin, talked about the growing “tendency to reduce students, and citizens, to customers. She stated that in Ireland in recent years we have been privatising necessary public services like childcare”, meaning that “many people can’t access education because they can’t afford it.” She suggested that because we have “changed the definition of a citizen from a person with rights to a person who buys services”, this means we are deprioritising services that are not market relevant, like mental health.

Professor Kathleen Lynch from University College Dublin

In his address, Minister Harris stated that “there’s still the reality in Ireland that marginalised learners are still the least likely to participate”, and for them we need “tailored supports”. He said that “community education is the cornerstone of lifelong learning, because of an approach to learning that is based on caring for the person, and supporting them to go back to and stay in education while perhaps coping with difficult circumstances.

Minister Harris also referred to AONTAS’ new Community Education Map (link to web) as “an invaluable tool to increase visibility and inform policymakers and for research for learners”, raising awareness of the impact of and options available in community education.  

This kind of support is a necessity if we want equality in Ireland, because not everyone has the same kind of access or privileges when it comes to education. This point was also strongly emphasised by AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless in her address. “Why is education for sale?” Dearbháil asked, quoting an adult learner who had been unable to finish a nursing degree due to the financial demands it had placed on her. “It shouldn’t be.” 

New research shows essential role of tutors 

AONTAS’ new Head of Research Thomas Murray launched the 2023 “Learners’ Voices Across Ireland” report, based on surveys and interviews with thousands of adults across Ireland who are in Further Education and Training. Many have gone back to education after negative or challenging experiences. A consistent and striking theme in the research was the essential role that adult education tutors play in supporting learners, as well as educating them. Thomas 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.” 

"Adult Learning and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): How Can Adult and Community Education Providers Contribute?" workshop participants

Looking Ahead 

In a subsequent panel discussion chaired by Valerie McConville from Chief Officers 3rd Sector in Northern Ireland, experts including Professor Emer Smyth of the ESRI, Fergal Finnegan from Maynooth University, Ciarán Kennedy from Tipperary Education and Training Board, chaired by Valerie McConville from Chief Officers 3rd Sector reflected on these findings. They talked about the need for collaboration across the Education and Training Boards, of including policymakers in research from the outset, and of planning more longitudinal studies to really demonstrate the intergenerational impact of adult learning.

Fergal observed that the report captures “the small things which very often go hidden or unremarked upon”, while Thomas underlined that “we wouldn’t be aware of the challenges unless learners brought them to our attention.” Referencing a wheelchair who had to drop out of a course because of the lack of a lift in the education centre, he asked “How many other people is that learner speaking for?” 

The New European Agenda for Adult Learning: A Window to the World 

In a second panel discussion facilitated by Dr Mags Crean of Maynooth University, we focused on the transformative power of adult learning. AONTAS is the National Coordinator for the New European Agenda for Adult Learning (NEAAL) in Ireland, which seeks to strengthen the place of adult learning in the participating countries across Europe. Two learners and advocates – Michelle McGoldrick and Alan Anthony Quinn – spoke about their experience and made recommendations for change. Their ideas were considered live on stage by policymakers Nessa White of SOLAS, based in Ireland, and Klara Engels-Perenyi of the European Commission 

Mags observed that “Today’s event is called ‘A Window to the World’. We need to make sure that if we’re opening windows, we’re opening doors as well.”  

Klara stated that “Europe is facing huge skills shortages and this needs to be addressed. But we’re also looking at learning for all, education and lifelong learning as human rights.”  

“Invigorated and Energised”  

In closing reflections, adult education learners and providers spoke about the importance of the Summit in their work. One remarked that it helped them “frame and solve issues in adult learning” and another commented that the “Excellent key note speakers, panels, stands, etc made me feel invigorated and energised back to practice!”. Another provider wished to meet more “groups from Europe using a philosophy of adult education which guides their work as a frame of reference”, which is an area AONTAS will explore further in future events.  

"Creative Arts and Adult Learning: What's It All About?" workshop participant holding their charcol drawing

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The AONTAS Adult Education Summit was supported by SOLAS, the Government of Ireland and the European Commission.