31 May 2024

“What's Holding Us Back? Moving Forward with Tackling Barriers to Adult Education”: AONTAS AGM 2024

People sitting around a table talking

Writing by Dr Kate Smyth, Strategic Comms Officer

“Our colleagues in adult and community education are fighting for social justice and democracy,” said our CEO Dearbháil Lawless at our AGM on Thursday 30 May. Speaking to a packed room, with over 80 attendees, Dearbháil paid tribute to the “dedication and commitment” of people working in the sector who, she said, give her hope during difficult times.

The event, moderated by AONTAS Chair John D’Arcy, is a highlight of the year for bringing AONTAS members together to chat, discuss any challenges or new information on best practice, check in on the organisation’s activities, and hear from adult learners and experts in the sector.

Speaking about the activities of AONTAS in 2023, Dearbháil referenced the new Strategic Plan for the organisation, “Leading Collective Action for Social Change”, and the move to a “much stronger advocacy approach.” The highlight of this new approach this year will be the upcoming national campaign “Holding You Back”, focussing on what holds adults back from their education goals across the island of Ireland.

This campaign inspired the focus of the AGM, which brought together adult and community education practitioners, educators, and centre staff from across the island. It also featured adult learners who shared their experiences and recommendations for changes to policy and practice that would make learning better for all.

The event featured a keynote address by renowned educator and academic Bríd Connolly, who has published widely on adult and community education, including with RTÉ. Bríd’s inspirational speech focused on women’s rights and the history of adult and community education, particularly community education, in empowering women and communities.

She spoke about the social and political changes experienced by women in Ireland, from when AONTAS was first formed in the 1970s, to modern times. This includes the marriage bar, the lack of bodily autonomy, and the limitations in what women could access culturally. She referenced Irish journalists and feminist thinkers like Nell McCafferty and Rosita Sweetman as paving the way for changing the conversation about women, for moving towards liberation, and for society viewing women as human beings.

Bríd talked about the valuable role of organisations like the Dublin Adult Learning Centre in providing “basic education” in the 1970s, formed on a community education model, where people sat in circles and spoke to each other, rather than listening to an “expert” at the top of the room. In the 1980s, she said, this moved to challenging stereotypes and pushing the boundaries, especially when it came to women’s rights.

While these issues have certainly not been fully addressed today, Bríd spoke about the importance of remaining active in the adult and community education sector and continuing the work. She encouraged organisations and groups to keep pushing the boundaries: “Be the square peg in the round hole.” She called for collective action to achieve political change.

She spoke about focussing on what we can do: “Be the role models. Show others that if I can do it, you can too.”

The power of this was evidenced by a panel discussion focussed on adult learners who have been through huge barriers in trying to access education, and who spoke passionately about their journeys.

Chaired by Dr Lilian Nwanze-Akobo, an academic from Maynooth University and member of the AONTAS Board, the session featured three adult learners:

The panel also included two practitioners—Martina Hourigan from Roscommon Women’s Network and Nuala Glanton from Cork ETB.

After a difficult time in his life, including being in the prison system, Luke was introduced to START 360, which led to the beginning of his journey with adult education. He now has OCN Level 2 Certificates in Youthwork and Sexual Health, and is working on achieving a Level 4 OCN Certificate in Youthwork, and will begin university this year. He actively volunteers with a programme that supports people affected by mental health, addiction, and criminal records with gaining employment. As a neurodivergent adult learner who has experienced much adversity in his life, Luke is passionate about applying his lived experiences to support others. 

Luke spoke about the link between people with learning difficulties or mental health difficulties and ending up in the prison system. He talked about the stigma attached to coming out of prison and the challenges with building positive relationships.

Lilian, who was chairing the session, responded that people working in education, including those in the audience, must always ask themselves what they can do to help, “because the success stories in adult education are usually because individual people did things.”

Lorraine, who personally experienced financial barriers to education, joined the Tipperary ETB Student Council last year and works with peers to apply her social studies education and advocate for better conditions for learners encountering financial difficulties. Lorraine talked about class distinctions and stigmas, and the lack of information available especially as single parent.

Ferguson, who is currently living in Direct Provision in Ireland but is determined to re-launch his career and integrate into Irish society, completed numerous QQI courses and the Advanced Manufacturing course, which won an AONTAS STAR Award earlier this year and has featured on Newstalk radio. He spoke about the impact of stigmas and racial abuse, but also the comfort he received. He said that “barriers, if properly handled, can encourage a person to go forward.”

When it comes to tackling barriers, our roundtable discussions yielded some concrete suggestions for changes to systems and processes to make adult education more accessible for people. This includes:

The AGM also featured organisational business items, including the presentation of the Annual Report for 2023, a Presentation of Financial Statements from Aedín Morkan of Mazars Ireland, and the results of the elections to the AONTAS Board for 2024. This included:

Their experience and passion will be an asset to the organisation.

We are also grateful to Board members who stepped down – Martina Needham, John Buttery, Colette Ainscough, and Daniel Kenny – after years of service on the AONTAS Board.

Take a look at the Annual Report for more.