13 Mar 2024

We need to make it realistic for people to stay in education, says AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless on Kildare FM

AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless speaking at a podium, looking out into an audience with an AONTAS sign in the background

Writing by Dr Kate Smyth, Strategic Comms Officer

Our CEO Dearbháil Lawless was interviewed Kildare FM recently talking about our “Who Does It Cost?” policy discussion as part of the Adult Learners’ Festival.

Dearbháil spoke to Eoin Beatty on “Kildare Today” about the link between adult learning and poverty, and the need for more financial supports for people from working-class backgrounds to go back to education.  

The discussion is grounded in an article Dearbháil recently wrote for The Journal, where she stated that “if Ireland really wants to lead the way in education, if we really want a more equal society, we need greater investment in adult learning.”  

Eoin goes on to quote a line from the article that reads:  

“Research shows that people who go back to education through Further Education and Training (FET) are more likely to have been exposed to societal inequalities and are more likely to be living in poverty.”  

“This is something that’s very close to my heart,” Dearbháil says, “having grown up in a working-class community and lone parent family. There are so many wonderful things happening [in the education sector], but at the end of the day if we don’t make it realistic for people to actually be able to stay in education and complete the programmes without putting them through mad stress levels, it’s not going to work.” 

When asked if there are more barriers in the way of people in adult education and FET, as opposed to people in traditional forms of education like third-level university, Dearbháil says:  

“Your average person in FET is from a more diverse community.” And she says this includes Travellers, people with disabilities, from lower income families. “There are so many people in that area of education that have come from all walks of life.” 

She challenges claims that people are “lazy” and don’t want to try. “People really do want to make a change, they want a better life for themselves and their families.”  

She says that “we need to create better conditions,” and that this is why AONTAS are calling for greater investment in adult learners to strength Irish society.  

Eoin asks her about people who think they are too old to go back to learning, if they think they have missed the boat, or didn’t finish their Leaving Cert.  

Dearbháil says it is heart-breaking to hear people say “that’s not for me.” 

“Everybody is intelligent, we’re just all good at different things.”  

She says that AONTAS meets thousands of learners every year to conduct this research, which shows that people often choose to go back to education because they want a job, or to change jobs.  

“But the number one thing they always say that has the biggest impact is on their self-esteem and confidence,” Dearbháil says.  

It can be difficult, she says, to step back into education. “If you’ve never had someone in your family who have engaged in adult education or higher education, it can feel quite alien to you. There’s a lot of people who’ve never walked on the grounds of a higher education institution.” 

That’s why community education is so powerful, she says, because it removes the fear around returning to education and helps people take the first step – or perhaps the only step they need. Some people don’t want or need to progress to university, but going to a friendly, open community centre is enough to make a massive difference in their lives.   

“It’s somewhere in your local community, run by local people,” Dearbháil says, “and it’s that kind of open-door policy, come in have a cup of tea, have a chat.” 

Eoin says, “Everybody has their strengths,” and suggests that success in learning means different things to different people, like if people “are very good with their hands, practically, cooking, buildings things.”    

Dearbháil agrees and talks about how the school system just doesn’t suit everyone, or it could be a difficult time in a person’s life, and it might suit them to return to education later. She speaks about her own experience of going back to education, and the respect that people are shown, which is a whole different approach. “It’s a whole new world for them,” she says.  

Eoin asks the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival, and what’s involved. Dearbháil talks about the 166 events happening all across the country, and the AONTAS STAR Awards, which she says has been dubbed “the Oscars for community development.”  

When asked for advice for someone thinking of returning to education, Dearbháil says:  

“Jump in, it’s not going to be scary, it’s going to be somewhere where you’ll meet new people.”

She says, “Pop into your local centre. It could be a community education centre, it could be an education and training board – they’re all across the country. Knock in and say hello. And the majority of those courses are completely free.” 

Listen back to the interview here.  

Find out more about AONTAS’ call for greater investment in adult learners.