28 May 2024

“A commitment to transformative adult learning”: the AONTAS Annual Report 2023

Image reads Annual Report 2023, showing two women smiling against a green background

Ahead of our AGM this Thursday in Dublin, we have just published our Annual Report for 2023. It is full of all the latest updates from the adult and community education sector, as well as new AONTAS research findings and impacts from our advocacy and campaigning, working to make adult learning accessible and realistic for all.

The report focuses on our new Strategic Plan, “Leading Collection Action for Social Change”, which centres around AONTAS stepping further into a leading role as a voice for change in adult learning across the island of Ireland and across Europe.

“Leading Collective Action for Social Change” is based on the understanding that adult learning has proven benefits for the personal and professional development and wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society. However, existing social inequalities prevent people from participating in adult learning.

In turn, this means that people are not aware of or are not being afforded the chance to reach their learning potential. This has an impact on the wider community, and means that disadvantage and social exclusion are perpetuated.

Writing in the new Annual Report, AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless states:

“Our colleagues in adult learning must not only provide opportunities for inspiring curious minds, building critical thinkers, and instilling a passion for learning. They must also grapple with the rise of fear-fuelled hatred, misunderstanding, and division in our society. Yet, I believe that our AONTAS community is filled with people who pour their hearts into their work and recognise their personal investment as a means for action and achieving change.”

Highlights from 2023

Last year, AONTAS lobbied Government departments across the island of Ireland to recognise and invest in adult learning. We attended political party conferences and engaged with Ministers, representatives, and policymakers including now Taoiseach Simon Harris and First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

In our advocacy work, we engaged in consultations and created 11 evidence-based policy papers, including a consultation from SOLAS on their midterm review of the National FET Strategy.

We’re proud to be a member organisation, with 376 members in 2023 (this has now risen to over 400). We continue to represent the needs and issues raised by our members, with learners as our focus, to seek positive change for the adult learning sector. In 2023, we represented members at 27 different steering committees and advisory groups. This is where important decisions are made about issues like funding and resources for the adult learning sector. AONTAS has a seat at the table in these decisions, and we work to influence decisionmakers to actively recognise the value of the adult and community education sector.

Our CEO sits on numerous working groups including oversight group for the “Funding the Future of Higher Education”, which explores the cost of higher education.

This high-level policy group was chaired by then Minister Simon Harris TD. The 5 key areas of focus for these discussions included enhancing student participation and success, with a focus on under-represented groups, and addressing cost as a barrier to higher education and improving student support.

We also sat on the steering group for the National Access Plan, which supports inclusion and diversity. And we’re on SOLAS “Fostering Inclusion” advisory group, which seeks to ensure that supports are available to allow any individual, regardless of background or formal education level, to have an opportunity to learn and develop. We’re part of many other advisory groups and committees – check out the Annual  Report to find out what we’re doing to advocate for issues concerning our members on a daily basis.

Another highlight from 2023 was our annual Adult Learners’ Festival, which reached 24 counties with 128 local events and two national events from AONTAS. The theme, “Create Your World”, continued our focus on creating a culture of lifelong learning in Ireland and offering opportunities for people to find out what’s happening in their local area and how they can get involved. We held an event focussed on influencing policy for community education, entitled “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots”, after which we published a post-event policy paper with recommendations for change to better support community education across Ireland. 

A key development from “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots” was that Assistant Secretary in DFHERIS William Beausang stated that he would bring the Learner Voice format of the day back to colleagues in DFHERIS, with the goal of replicating it at future events.

As a result, in June 2023, we were asked to coordinate 20 adult learners to attend and contribute to DFHERIS’ estimates process for Budget 2024. This event involved a speech from Minister Harris and contributions from policymakers, as well as roundtable discussions with learners. For the first time, learners had the chance to speak directly with department officials and Minister Harris about their concerns and asks for Budget 2024. The Learner Voice process is now embedded in events and structures, as we continue to see with DFHERIS and SOLAS, and we continue this work into 2024 and beyond. 

Also in 2023, we launched the 2023 Adult Learner Journal, the only peer-reviewed journal for adult and community education in Ireland. The journal is packed with new research findings and perspectives from leading voices in the adult and community education sector. It is an invaluable resource to anyone working in or studying adult learning.

Raising awareness of the value and benefits of adult and community education remains a priority for us. Our communications activities in 2023 reached over 9 million people. We also strengthened relationships with our adult and community learning colleagues in Northern Ireland, through the first Northern Ireland census of community education. This is an essential piece of research for any groups advocating for increased funding and resources for community education in Northern Ireland.

Our Community Education Network continues to go from strength to strength, and last year we launched a new map of community education organisations, showing the breadth of the work across the country. This was dubbed “an invaluable tool to increase visibility and inform policymakers and for research for learners” by then Minister Simon Harris TD at our “Window to the World” Adult Education Summit in November.

The Summit was our biggest event of the year, with a media reach of over 2 million people. It brought together colleagues and learners from across Europe to discuss key issues and share new ideas in adult education. Our keynote speaker Professor Kathleen Lynch spoke about the urgent need to create the right conditions to make adult education possible and realistic for learners, including affordable accommodation, childcare, public transport, and financial supports. She spoke about the need to move away from viewing learners as customers, and to reject the neo-liberal view of education in Ireland. 

These issues have come up again and again in our advocacy and research work, our conversations with educator providers and staff, and our feedback from adult learners. In 2024, we will soon launch a national campaign on what is holding adults back from their educational goals, with a focus on people from under-resourced communities and increasing financial supports.

Our research continues to be the cornerstone of our organisation and, alongside our membership, is the basis of our advocacy work. Learner Voice is at the heart of our work, and we continue to prioritise learners’ perspectives. In 2023, we partnered with 13 Education and Training Boards to develop new research findings in Further Education and Training from across the country. Collaboratively, we delivered the National FET Learner Forum and provided a space for learners to share their voices and connect with others, as well as to gain new data and insights into FET across Ireland at the moment. Many of the learners involved have gone on to speak at a range of events in the promotion and awareness-raising of adult learning.

An important finding from our research last year was based on our report on “FET Learners and Mental health in Ireland”, conducted in partnership with Jigsaw. We found that 1 in 3 adult learners report that mental health problems affect their ability to learn or study. This research, which we published on World Mental Health Day, resonated with audiences across the country. We continue to use research findings such as these in our advocacy and representation work, to ensure that learners and providers’ perspectives are consistently highlighted with decisionmakers and funders.

We are grateful to all our members, adult learners, the AONTAS Board, our Chair John D’Arcy, and everyone who continues to work with us to make education accessible to all throughout their lives. Take a look at the Annual Report for more.

We hope to see many of our members at our AGM this Thursday. Find out the details here.