11 Sep 2023

Community Educators say ringfenced funding is ‘urgently required’ to address inequality, according to new AONTAS NI Community Education Census

Four people stand in a line holding copies of the new AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census, with the lobby of Parliament Buildings in Stormont in the background. From left to right: Dr Colin Neilands, Dearbháil Lawless, Dr Eve Cobain, John D'Arcy

There is an urgent need for ringfenced, multi-annual funding if community education is to provide a truly supportive learning environment that will address long-term needs in Northern Ireland. That’s according our new research report, the AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census. We launched the census at a special event in Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Friday.

This report is the first of its kind, with feedback from sixty organisations across the Voluntary, Community & Social Enterprise (VCSE) Sector in Northern Ireland. The research was conducted between 2021 and 2022, and during this time these organisations delivered almost 800 courses to over fifty thousand people. The report focuses on how the sector could be better supported and made more sustainable.

The people involved shared that there is a real, urgent need for a single strategy for adult learning that will address the issues of securing ringfenced funding, investment into impact management and, ultimately, better outcomes for adult learners across Northern Ireland.

The report states that community education must be embedded in local and regional policymaking to ensure that the needs of community learners are central to decision-making.

Speaking at the launch, Chairperson of AONTAS, John D’Arcy outlined how community education providers are addressing long-term societal needs but stressed that their impact is being greatly restricted by a reliance on variable and short-term funding that comes from a range of sources.

Mr. D’Arcy said: “The community educators who contributed to this report are on the frontline of every major societal issue in Northern Ireland, including addiction, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, isolation, and a lack of meaningful learning opportunities. They are whole-heartedly committed to improving not just quality of learning, but quality of life for people.

“Without exception, the organisations surveyed called for stronger relations with statutory providers and policymakers in order to improve provision and progression for learners. There needs to be a mechanism to facilitate this relationship-building.

“Practitioners also called for further investment into impact measurement which would establish best-practice measures and consistent reporting structures among funders, a measure which would significantly ease the burden of reporting on an already stretched workforce.

“This report highlights opportunities and potential to support emerging policy priorities on a cross-departmental basis to improve the quality of people’s lives across Northern Ireland.”

Our CEO, Dearbháil Lawless, echoed the importance of community education to individuals and society: “The impact of community education and learning goes far beyond employment skills or accreditation. It’s life-changing and it’s lifelong. It develops learners’ confidence and self-esteem, which is often the most important change that people experience, allowing them to mind both health and relationships.”

As one learner puts it in this report:

“Community education has saved the Government a fortune not having to treat me for mental health.”

According to Valerie McConville, Chief Executive of CO3: “The AONTAS NI Community Education Census provides a comprehensive overview of the vital role of community education, giving more than 50,000 people appropriate and worthwhile learning opportunities each year – often for the first time.

“Education is key to economic security and better employment options, but the impact of community education is not restricted to just educational attainment or enhanced employability – it places learners on the road to finding their passion and fulfilling their potential in a supported environment.”

This report is a huge milestone in our ongoing work with community education organisations in Northern Ireland to build networks for providers of community education and facilitate changes to policies and systems so that providers get what they need. We will continue to work with community education organisations and policymakers in Northern Ireland so this can become a reality.

Read the full AONTAS Northern Ireland Community Education Census report.

For more information, contact Eve at