AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation, has welcomed a dedicated Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Fund of €8 million, announced as part of Budget 2021. This fund will be used to support community education provision and will directly impact on disadvantaged learners most in need.
In supporting an effective method to reach learners in community education, AONTAS developed a Proposal for a COVID-19 Community Education Support Fund published in July 2020. Key features of the funding distribution for community education groups, outlined in this paper, include: grant funding, strategically focussed, learner-centred and linked to an effective reporting process.
AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly said: “COVID-19 has highlighted educational inequalities and we must act now to engage learners. We know returning to education can be so daunting, remote learning is even more challenging, retaining learners and supporting their participation during this time is essential.”
AONTAS is committed to delivering on our vision for educational equality for all adults and has long argued that community education is the most effective way to engage the most educationally disadvantaged learners, including Travellers, migrants and lone parents. The AONTAS Pre-Budget submission called for immediate action to address the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on individuals and communities across Ireland.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable groups have experienced an exacerbation of disadvantage. Additionally, those with lower levels of qualifications are most likely to have lost their job, have poorer health and have fewer resources to engage in the shift to remote learning. Challenges impacting on learning are complex and are negatively impacted by poverty, poor housing, domestic violence, isolation, mental health, marginalisation and lack of essential supports.
We also know that there has been a significant reduction in disadvantaged adults participating in education, particularly accredited programmes at the early levels of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). Compared to 2019, in 2020 there was an average reduction of 50% in QQI Major Awards attainment at NFQ levels 1-4. However, AONTAS members report a demand for community education courses, but due to restrictions, not all learners can be accommodated on-site in centres or learners do not have the IT devices necessary to engage in learning remotely. This is particularly a challenge for non-accredited programmes.
This newly announced fund will go some way to giving greater opportunities for those who are not currently engaging in learning.
Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group (MED Group)
AONTAS is represented on the DES COVID-19 Tertiary Education Steering Group. Niamh O’Reilly, AONTAS CEO, chairs the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group (MED Group), identifying key issues and challenges facing marginalised learners across community, further and higher education which is documented in a range of papers. Many of the recommendations have been acted upon: from access to IT Devices, to the newly announced SUSI review to include part-time students.
Collaboration - Build Back Better, Together
We must use this opportunity to collaborate across the education system to tackle systemic issues of disadvantage to create a fairer, more inclusive Ireland. Further education and training offers clear routes to education and employment, and is also inclusive and accessible. A vital part of this is community education, which effectively engages people who are most socially excluded in a local, supportive centre that is committed to addressing the multiple forms of disadvantage that learners experience.
Our collective effort should now focus on using this funding to work together to create a coherent, cohesive approach to learner supports that is also cognisant of the diversity of learners across the system.
We thank Minister Harris, and his team in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for their commitment to social inclusion. Additionally, as a membership organisation we would like to thank our members for their continued engagement and support to ensure we are an authentic voice of adult learning, as we advocate for educational equality.
AONTAS’ Pre-Budget submission is available at: https://www.aontas.com/knowledge/publications/