22 Dec 2021

Season’s Greetings from the AONTAS Team at the end of 2021

hope, courage, resilience

A reflection on the work of AONTAS from Dr Niamh O’Reilly, CEO

Resilience and commitment are the two words that come to mind when reflecting on the achievements of the adult learning community over the course of 2021.

The outstanding effort made by educators and learners across our members – from community education groups, Education and Training Boards and higher education institutions – has continued to inspire our work. I would like to extend a warm thank you to all AONTAS members, adult learners and stakeholders across the lifelong learning system who were part of our work in 2021.

As a national, civil society organisation focusing on social justice within an adult learning context, we sought to deliver on our responsibility to reduce educational disadvantage. We sought to lead the way in proactively responding to the challenges and opportunities presented over the last year, and to do so in solidarity with our members and partners. In grappling with the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on adult learning participation rates, AONTAS focused on delivering impactful communications, grassroots-informed research for social and political change, expanding capacity-building activities for members and effective advocacy for community education.

Given this focus on reducing educational disadvantage, AONTAS was delighted to welcome, at the close of the year, the announcement by Minister Simon Harris TD that the Mitigating against Educational Disadvantage Fund (MAEDF) will be a “regular feature of our education system”. Through engagement with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS), SOLAS and Minister Simon Harris TD, AONTAS has been advocating for this fund throughout 2020, and again in 2021, as per the CEN Census 2020 research, the report “Making an Impact: A Reflective View of the Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund (MAEDF)”, the COVID-19 Community Education Support fund for 2020/2021, and the Pre-Budget submission for 2021 and for 2022. This positive advocacy outcome will mean the provision of vital ongoing support to community education and adult learners across Ireland. 

As a learning organisation, this year we sought to improve our delivery of our Strategic Plan online, resulting in many firsts, such as a fully-online Adult Learners’ Festival, including the STAR Awards and Policy Day.

Throughout 2021, we continued to offer a range of online events, from our AGM, Lifelong Learning Conference, and launches of our first CEN Census research report, the National FET Learner Forum annual synthesis report and the Adult Learner Journal. We are thankful to Minister Harris for participating in three of our national events.

Our members debated, discussed and shared learning at Community Education Network (CEN), communities of practice meetings and 21 membership webinars. Their contributions were reflected in our policy submissions for 2021 which helped to shape a range of EU and national policy documents. Key outcomes include the inclusion of community education in the latest QQI Statement of Strategy, Irish Aid’s Global Citizenship Education Strategy (2021-2025) and the 10-year Adult Literacy for Life (ALL) strategy.

Working with ETBs, we sought to empower learners through the Learners as Leaders programme, and ensured that adult learners were authentically represented across our work.

As an all-island organisation, we deepened our engagement with members in Northern Ireland through meetings and a research report, building the foundation for further Shared Island work in 2022.

At an international level, we continued to promote the expertise of the adult learning community in Ireland at the Slovenian Presidency conference on adult learning, the UNESCO CONFINTEA regional conference, and we advocated with the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) for a new European Agenda for Adult Learning, announced in December. 

At our AGM, we were delighted to welcome our new Chairperson, John D’Arcy who was recently elected to the AONTAS Board, along with Imelda Gaffney, Irish Wheelchair Association; Louise Mullins, IACTO; Martin Flynn, Open College Network Northern Ireland (OCN-NI); Martina Needham, Donegal Education and Training Board; Pamela Latimer, Longford Women’s Link; and John Buttery, Limerick Community Education Network (LCEN).      

All of this work is a collective effort with our members, adult learners, the AONTAS Board and the brilliant AONTAS team. We thank you for your continued engagement in our work, wish you a restful Christmas break and look forward to working with you in 2022 in making educational equality a reality for all adults. 

In support and solidarity,

Dr Niamh O’Reilly,