26 May 2023

“Adult learning is a social justice movement": the AONTAS AGM 2023

Attendees at the AONTAS AGM sitting around a table and discussing the Language of the Heart

“Adult learning is a social justice movement, it's about creating social change. AONTAS will be a catalyst for change.”

That was the main message from our CEO Dearbháil Lawless at the AONTAS Annual General Meeting for 2023, which took place in Dublin and online, on Wednesday 24th May.

Dearbháil was presenting an outline of the new Strategic Plan which will be published shortly. She also presented a video review of the previous Strategic Plan for 2019 to 2022, and the 2022 Annual Report. The AGM also featured a roundtable discussion about how we use language in the adult and community education sector; a fascinating panel of education providers and adult learners; and a keynote speech by Dr Katriona O’Sullivan, lecturer in Psychology at Maynooth University and author of new memoir Poor which she launched this week. We were delighted to have Katriona join us at such a busy time for her.

Talking from the heart and being open was a big focus of the day. The roundtable discussion centred on “The Language of the Heart”, a phrase used by President Michael D. Higgins to represent language that focuses on people and experience – in contrast with the more formal and sometimes inaccessible language often used in policy documents or funding applications. Participants were invited to review some real-life examples of “policy” language, to consider how we use language in our day-to-day work, and how the words we choose can include or exclude people. Reflecting on the examples, one participant said, “The language is often only accessible to people in the sector. It is not accessible to most people.” Another noted, “Education needs to wrap around the individual and not the other way around.”

This was underlined in the Learner and Practitioner Voice Panel, expertly facilitated by Lilian Nwanze, Doctoral Student and Associate Lecturer at the Department of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University and AONTAS Board member.

The panel members were Daragh Forde and Estelle Kelly from the Cope Foundation in Cork, and Fiona Dowd and Sinead Mahon from Women’s Collective Ireland (Ronanstown) in Dublin. The Cope Foundation focuses on supporting people with disabilities or “different abilities”, and Daragh spoke about the importance of equality and respect for everyone in learning environments:

“Advocacy is about empowering people to speak out for themselves and their peers,” she said. “You can’t help without empowering them to help themselves.”

She noted that historically people with different abilities had been placed in institutions and segregated, and that there is still segregation in our education systems.

Estelle spoke about her own experience as an adult learner with different abilities, who is now working in a busy hotel. She said that when people with different abilities are consulted in relation to their own education, “We feel like we’re involved and heard – it makes us feel we want to learn.”

Discussing the experiences of women in adult and community education, Sinead spoke about consciousness raising and class inequalities. “We believe women’s community education is a catalyst for change,” she said.

Fiona, a learner at Ronanstown, spoke about the factors that affect women’s capacity to return to or stay in education as an adult, including cost and self-confidence:

“Empowered women empower women,” she said. “Ronanstown is a place where they mind the minders.” 

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan echoed the need to recognise the impact that poverty has on people’s capacity to learn and stay in education, and to place care for people at the core of the education system.

In a moving and inspiring speech, Katriona spoke about her own experience of growing up in relentless poverty in Ireland and the UK, of being surrounded by addiction, of having a love of learning, of the teachers who helped her to value herself – and of those who didn’t. While she is now “an award winning academic [with] grants, publications, a loving family and a full heart!”, she emphasised that the journey had not been easy. Specific support such as university access programmes had helped her to gain an education, but these supports are not always available to today’s learners.

To the audience, most of whom are educators or adult learners, she advised, “keep going, even if you change one life, it’s enough – because my whole family’s life has been changed by this experience.”

It's this kind of transformative change that is at the centre of the new Strategic Plan, which deliberately uses the word in each of its overarching goals:

In her presentation, Dearbháil outlined how AONTAS will work with members from the adult learning community and with policymakers and funders to make access to and experiences of education more equal for all. The Strategic Plan is currently being finalised and will be published in the coming months.

This AGM was Dearbháil’s first since taking on the role of CEO after Dr Niamh O’Reilly stepped down last year.  After her presentation of the 2022 Annual Report, which highlights work including the Adult Learners’ Festival, STAR Awards, evidence-based research in Learner Voice through the National Further Education and Training Learner Forum, policy recommendations, and lifelong learning research, AONTAS Chairperson John D’Arcy paid tribute to Dearbháil and the entire staff team for the contribution to adult education in Ireland.

In his presentation of the 2022 Annual Accounts, Chair of the AONTAS Audit and Risk Committee Martin Flynn expressed “our sincere gratitude to our funders and members” for the support AONTAS receives, which has enabled the organisation to help educators and learners across the country.

Read the 2022 AONTAS Annual Report here.

If you’re interested in becoming a member of AONTAS, contact Brian at