The draft Programme for Government “Our Shared Future” was agreed on 15th June 2020 by leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. As with any Programme for Government a commitment of resources, and a prioritisation of actions, to enable implementation will be critical to seeing the aspiration laid down in writing now come into reality. On initial reflection there is much to be hopeful for in terms of educational equality and with respect to community education. In going forward, subject to formal agreement of the Programme, AONTAS will monitor the implementation of this Programme and proactively engage with Government to keep the rights of all adults to quality learning on the political agenda. It is within that vein, that in supporting our members, we offer an outline of key areas in relation to lifelong learning.
As a social justice organisation we welcome statements made in relation to equality, a word which features 28 times in the document. Additionally, the value of collaboration and a focus on ‘equality within society’ is positive.
In this Programme for Government, we are asserting our ambition to meet these challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted by the pandemic, and take the renewed spirit arising from these challenging times and translate it into action – action that can deliver a better quality of life for all, equality within society and a deeper sense of connection to the natural world around us, and each other (page 6).
It is also heartening to see mention of ‘equality of opportunity’ in the opening statement:
Some of the biggest tasks include achieving social solidarity and equality of opportunity, reaching ecological harmony and economic equity, securing good livelihoods from our land and housing for all, and embracing our cultural diversity (page 6)
Educational equality can only be achieved as part of renewed social contract that ends poverty. As such we welcome the statements on access and affordability of ‘health care, housing, education, childcare and disability services, as well as a living wage, upskilling, and a dignified retirement’ which will be ‘founded on the principle of equality and ensuring that every citizen can achieve their full potential’. We also welcome the statement that ‘Policy decisions throughout the course of the Government will consistently seek to improve living standards for the most vulnerable in society. Particular attention will be paid to refugees and asylum seekers, the homeless and people living on low incomes.’ (p.74)
The proposed Recovery Fund has three elements, one of which is:
(b) Reskilling and retraining: Expenditure measures to help those who have been made unemployed by COVID-19 and are unable to return to their previous employment, to receive training and upskilling to enable them secure new opportunities.
The proposed National Economic Plan, due to coincide with Budget 2021 announcements, notes Education, training and reskilling as one of its five key levers.
AONTAS welcomes a renewed understanding of measuring wellbeing and progress beyond ‘existing economic measurements’. We further welcome the acknowledged limitations of economic measurement as they ‘overlook equality of opportunity, distribution of wealth and income and only value public expenditure on the basis of the inputs used, not the outcomes achieved.’
AONTAS would welcome involvement in creating ‘A set of wellbeing indices to create a well-rounded, holistic view of how our society is faring’, as wellbeing is a fundamental aspect of engagement in adult learning.
AONTAS welcomes an evidence based focus on education policy development, and would encourage learner voices and qualitative research forming a significant part of this work: ‘Establish a new Education Research and Policy Section within the Department tasked with ensuring that education policy development in Ireland is informed by a strong evidence base, is outcomes focused, and cognisant of best international practices’.
Within the section Primary and Post-Primary Education, reference is made to tackling disadvantage from an early age and fosters a love of lifelong learning. In terms of access and progression to tertiary education it states that in preparing for post-COVID education: ‘Government will ensure that as it develops reopening plans, students and parents are included, that schools have the time to implement required changes, and that students transitioning between education levels are supported.’
We welcome the statement relating to ‘An Inclusive Vision for Education’ whereby: ‘Inclusion in and access to education is the foundation for a more just and equal society. In welcoming everyone to participate in education, they deserve to be treated fairly’ (p.96).
Additionally, a focus on making tertiary education opportunities accessible to all is encouraging: ‘Higher and Further Education have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis and we will support the sector through these challenges to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society’ (p.97).
AONTAS supports the focus on the public funding of education, taking a holistic and lifelong approach to tertiary education and the focus on building connections across the education system. We believe this will support a more equitable approach. Additionally, the reiteration of focusing on specific on marginalised groups is welcomed.
We are committed to addressing the funding challenges in third-level education. We want a Higher and Further Education sector that sees education as a holistic and life-long pursuit. We will continue to build strong connections with other education sectors and wider society, while recognising our global and environmental responsibilities. It is vital we invest in our Higher and Further Education sectors so we can continue to tackle inequality based on race, gender, and socio-economic background (p.97).
Finally, we welcome the new ‘Anti-poverty, Social Inclusion and Community Development Action Plan framed around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, underpinning sound community development practices, and reflecting a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on poverty and social inclusion’. AONTAS sees community education playing a significant role within this Action Plan.
For the benefit of AONTAS members we have highlighted key areas that relate to lifelong learning, educational equality and particularly community education. Omissions do not reflect a lack of support or comment, rather analysis will be an evolving process again with the proviso that the Programme for Government is subject to approval.
Click the image below to download AONTAS' Key Highlights in the Programme for Government.