7 Mar 2023

“Stepping Stones and Stable Roots”: A Fascinating and Comprehensive Discussion of Community Education and its Relationship to Education Policy in Ireland

AONTAS STAR Awards 2023 hashtag STAR Awards 2023

AONTAS kicked off the 17th Adult Learners’ Festival with “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots”, focusing on the role of community education in Government policy.

Taking place on 6th March at the Richmond Education and Event Centre in Smithfield, Dublin, the event featured speeches and inputs from policymakers, adult learners, education providers, and tutors.

Chaired by John D’Arcy, chairperson of AONTAS, the event began with the launch of the new Lifelong Learning Participation report, presented by AONTAS Head of Advocacy Barbara Nea. This was interspersed with a lively and dynamic discussion with adult learners themselves, Niamh Murrary, Catherine Gore, and Deborah Oniah, facilitated by EU Projects Officer Ecem Akarca.

“I want others with learning disabilities to know that they can continue to learn. Having a disability doesn't mean you're not able to do something. You might just need a little extra support,” Niamh Murray said, speaking about the power of community education.

“I had no support before, but through BRIO at SAOL, the amount of support is unbelievable. Everyone is welcoming. Sometimes I just come for a cup of tea and chat” – Catherine Gore, speaking about BRIO at the SAOL project, who help people who have been affected by addition to recover through education. “Education saved my life,” Catherine said.

“Education brings us together. It’s important to create spaces and tell stories” – Deborah Oniah

Providing the keynote speech, William Beausang, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, stated that "difference needs to be valued and respected, which is very important for community education." He also highlighted the input from adult learning advocate Kayla Dibble at the launch of the new Unified Tertiary education model. Kayla has been supported and encouraged by AONTAS through the Learner Voice process and at the launch, Kayla stated:

“People shouldn’t be made to take one educational route that only suits one type of student. This diversity should be celebrated, and people’s achievements should be seen as equal regardless of the routes they take.”

William Beausang’s speech reflected this perspective, and repeated the statements by Minister Simon Harris TD that community education remains a priority for the Department.

In a fitting follow-up session, during a lively panel with key stakeholders in community education and policy, Dr Fiona Maloney, Director of the newly-formed National Tertiary Office, affirmed the importance of "parity of esteem" for adult learners across adult and community education, further education and training, and higher education. The latter often is awarded greater prestige, something which AONTAS has long argued is damaging to people across Ireland, especially young adults involved in the “points race” and the Leaving Certificate.

Speaking about Community Education and the Unified Tertiary Education system launched last year by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Dublin City University President Dáire Keogh stated that the unique value and model of community education should be protected, and that "a unified system shouldn't mean a uniform system," that we "need to meet learners where they are," something that community education does well, in local areas.

Melíosa Bracken, a Community Education Facilitator at City of Dublin Education and Training Board, said that we need a tertiary education system that "values all learners' goals - whatever they are - credited or unaccredited."

Tara Farrell, CEO of Longford Women’s Link, called for explicit naming of Community Education and recognition as model of education in its own right in new education policy, resourcing of community education providers, and recognition of the barriers to returning to learning – like inadequate access to childcare or public transport – and plans on how to implement changes to address these barriers.

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS, stated that the inconsistency of support for Community Education across Ireland is something that - with the new Community Education Framework that is currently in development - "we really need to address." The event was brought to a close by AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless, who called for “the Government to recognise the role of Community Education in creating positive social change in Ireland."

The Lifelong Learning Participation report launched at the event is a research project conducted by AONTAS and focussing on people who have struggled to access education. We held discussion groups with people who have had to drop out of courses, or who have wanted to do courses but can't or feel they don't have access. The results demonstrate the ongoing, diverse array of barriers still faced by many people who are trying to access education in Ireland. They also display the impact of local learning in communities, which is focussed not just on getting people into employment, but also on helping people to feel happier, supported, safe, and healthy.

The research included women affected by addiction, people affected by imprisonment, lone parents, people with disabilities, older adults, and migrant women.

Read the Lifelong Learning Participation Research report here.

We would like to thanks all speakers and participants at Stepping Stones and Stable Roots for their invaluable, honest and well-informed contributions. These insights will feed into the development of a full policy paper, to be published towards the end of March.

Written by Dr Kate Smyth, Communications Officer


About the Festival

The Adult Learners’ Festival, happening this year from 6th to 10th March, is a nationwide celebration of adult learning. It offers organisations and groups the chance to promote the value and benefits of lifelong learning for communities, families and workplaces. It is a chance for groups to reinforce existing partnerships in the community, and to establish new ones. This year’s theme is Create Your World – because life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself. Visit this page for more details about the Festival

For more information, contact Charis Hughes, Head of Communications at 

#ALF23 #CreateYourWorld