30 Sep 2022

Connection and Common Ground among Community Learning Groups in Northern Ireland

Attendees of the Northern Ireland Census of Community Learning meeting, on the rooftop of the Open University Offices in Belfast

AONTAS recently held a meeting in the Open University offices in Belfast, offering a chance for adult and community educators from across Northern Ireland to come together. This is part of the new Census of Community Learning in Northern Ireland.

‘The context is different, but our challenges and experiences are the same.’

This was the clear message from the diverse range of groups delivering learning in communities across Northern Ireland, who joined us on a sunny morning in Belfast to share perspectives, reinforce knowledge and strengthen relationships in the adult and community sector.

Tutors, managers and co-ordinators from organisations large and small, new and well-established, found they shared common ground as well as some common obstacles.

Whether working with small groups of women in a local housing estate or with over 1,000 adult learners though the University of the Third Age, practitioners emphasised that the shared strength of community groups lies in direct connection. Community groups can be truly in touch with what’s happening in people’s lives, and can respond fluidly to their needs.

A sense of Purpose and Wellbeing

There was also common recognition of the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose and wellbeing, as highlighted in a presentation by Bill Vaughan of Mental Health Ireland. He guided practitioners on how to regularly and honestly check in on their own wellbeing, as well as that of learners, as they respond to societal and personal challenges.

Perhaps the most frequently-mentioned of those challenges were access to funding, and recognition of the high-quality work involved. As one participant put it, ‘We are considered “third sector”, and that sometimes feels like we are considered “third citizens”.’

There was also frustration at the focus on ‘economic activation’ in adult learning, where training for the labour market is prized above learning for quality of life.

These are particularly familiar issues to those involved in AONTAS’ Community Education Network, and in fact led to the development of the Community Education Charter, as our Senior Community Education Officer Suzanne Kyle detailed.

Attendees also shared ideas on the need for greater collaboration and cohesion among community groups in Northern Ireland. Limited funding can lead to competition.

To help address these common challenges, AONTAS is currently gathering data on the strength and capacity of community learning organisations across Northern Ireland, as a tool to advocate for greater inclusion in policy.

This will include a planned ‘Census of Community Learning’, conducted for AONTAS by Colin Neilands – a long-time advocate for adult learning in Northern Ireland. As Colin put it, 'The more groups we can encourage to take part, the better the base for our advocacy’.

If you would like to learn more about the Census of Community Learning, join a future event in Northern Ireland, or become a member of AONTAS, contact Membership Engagement Officer Barry Dolan.

Written by Charis Hughes, AONTAS Communications Manager.