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28 Jun 2023

Learner Voice Training: AONTAS collaborates with Education and Training Boards across Ireland

Conor and Karyn from AONTAS with ETB colleagues from City of Dublin ETB in Finglas today. Screen in the background reads Learner Voice Training for ETB Staff

Since 2020, we've been working with staff and learners in Education and Training Boards (ETBs) across Ireland to develop Learner Voice as a process that is embedded in Further Education and Training (FET). Learner Voice is a concept in education underpinned by the idea that learning should be guided by those who learn, as well as those who teach.  

The Learner Voice model is now being taken up by ETBs across Ireland. We continue to work with ETBs to make it easier for learners to share their feedback and experience of learning at their ETB, with the view to improving structures and services for everyone.  

We currently offer staff training on the foundations and practice of Learner Voice work. We also offer workshops for learners on leadership, advocacy and planning. The goal is to listen and be responsive to what learners need, and encourage and facilitate more learners to return to and stay in Further Education and Training. 

Background   

In 2020 and 2021, Education and Training Boards across Ireland were going through a quality assurance review with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). Given that AONTAS have expertise in the area of Learner Voice, and given our history of research and learner engagement through the National FET Learner Forum, we were asked by ETBs to hold online training sessions with adult learners to prepare them to take part in quality assurance reviews with QQI.  

In 2022, we began to develop this work, focusing on supporting people to gain more confidence and skills in leadership and self-advocacy. We held sessions with learners from six ETBs, with a total of 167 learners taking part. These sessions focused on communicating to people that voicing their experience and sharing feedback on their courses and on interactions with their ETB can be integral to creating positive change, both for their own experience of learning and for those who come after them. This process can help identify important issues and how to address them, fostering a learning environment that has been co-created by the learners and staff. If learners feel heard and respected, it is more likely that they will stay engaged.  

Current Learner Voice Work 

We are now working with individual ETBs to expand Learner Voice structures in their centres, supporting, for example, the establishment of Learner Councils or Working Groups. Several of these structures have already been set up. The Tipperary Student Council, through Tipperary ETB, seeks to create positive change for adult learners and improve experiences and outcomes. In March 2023, we offered a training workshop to the members of the Tipperary Student Council on understanding advocacy, identifying issues and solutions, and planning an advocacy campaign. Participants all wanted to make change happen, but sought help identifying the issues to focus on. The training workshop got people talking, planning, laughing, and working towards a clear message, while identifying the decision-makers who need to hear their message. One participant said, “I feel like I can do something about what we care about.” 

Another training session took place in April, this time with Cork ETB and the Cork ETB Learner Voices Group. This group’s members are all adult learners in Further Education and Training. They are a very diverse group of mixed nationalities and ages. What they have in common is that they have all experienced some degree of educational exclusion, and they are seeking to make things better for all learners in Cork ETB. According to their website, they “work on the Lundy Model of Participation, where we provide a safe space for learners to find their voice and express their views. It is also about ensuring that these voices are listened to and responded to in your Centre or Campus and by Cork ETB.” 

As part of the AONTAS training, we offered guidance on how to better understand ETB structures, how to make change happen within these structures, and how to plan for next steps. The key to this session was connecting with the participants’ own experiences and previous knowledge. In order to provide the best experience possible for the people doing the training, we make it 85% experiential and 15% new information. 

We are also developing a handbook and have created some guidance videos for ETBs on how to aid the establishment of Learner Voice groups or councils. We’re doing this with support from Cork ETB, and are developing plans and ideas on how to embed learner capacity-building projects in FET.  

Today at City of Dublin ETB in Finglas

Today Conor and Karyn from the AONTAS team headed to Finglas to offer this training to ETB staff. As part of the training, the group used DIXIT cards, asking participants to pick the cards that represent a positive and empowering adult education system and then discuss why. 

The group picked symbols that they felt represented the learners they work with and their experience in the Cabra and Finglas centres of City of Dublin ETB.  

They talked about how returning to education is "not just about certification - it’s about participation in something meaningful". They said that many learners "feel hope. Seas may still be choppy and the landscape of their everyday lives may not have changed but now [with returning to education] there is a sense of hope". They also talked about the Adult Education service as "guiding people on their path", and about the ETB as a place to "shelter from the storm" and "a sense of connection with this centre and with other learners".

We are grateful to all ETB staff who get involved in working to make the experiences of learners a core part of their approaches. 

Next Steps 

We’ll complete the staff training resources this year, and share them with ETBs to support their Learner Voice work. We will also continue to offer training to ETBs and Learner Voice groups across the country. A central part of this is establishing and maintaining partnerships between AONTAS and ETBs.  

If you work for or with an ETB and would like to learn more or get involved, contact Conor Thompson, Capacity Building Officer, at cthompson@aontas.com