Lifelong Learning


AONTAS Lifelong Learning Research:

What Affects People’s Access to Education in Ireland?


Statistics show a drop in the number of people accessing Further Education and Training since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few months, AONTAS has been conducting research into why this is happening. Our Research Officer Aisling Meyler has been doing surveys and running focus groups with people to learn about their experiences. This research is called the Lifelong Learning project and is based on the opinions and experiences of over 1100 adult learners. We've been talking to 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 research focussed on groups of people who have struggled to access education, including women affected by addiction, people affected by imprisonment, lone parents, people with disabilities, older adults, and migrant women. 62% of people surveyed were between 35 and 64 years old, 75% of the people have jobs, and just over half have a third-level qualification. There are many barriers people face in going back to, or sticking with, education. This report explores these barriers, and makes recommendations for policy to make adult education more accessible for everyone. 

You can read the Lifelong Learning Participation report here. 


What Helps People Stay in or Return to Education?

Big factors that facilitate people to stay in or go back to education include being employed, living in Dublin, having higher education/third-level qualifications, and having stayed on at school.  Age was also a factor, with younger people more likely to stay in or go back to education than older people.  

University graduates were much more likely to continue with some form of learning, when compared to the sample average. This aligns with the Matthew Effect, which suggests that earlier successful outcomes lead to continued successful outcomes. It means that people from more privileged or economically wealthy backgrounds, with greater access to education, are more likely to continue in education or be able to return to it later.


What Hinders People from Staying in or Returning to Education?

Big issues that impact on whether a person can go back to learning include financial costs, access to childcare, flexible and accessible learning options, access to equipment like laptops and the skills to use them, home environment, personal safety (for instance, exposure to domestic violence), trauma, stigma, self-esteem and confidence.

What Were the Experiences of the Different Groups?

Let’s take a closer look at the different focus groups that we spoke to.

Women Affected by Addiction

When we held the discussion with women affected by addiction, the barriers included the cost of courses and classes, the absence of childcare, low confidence, traumatic experiences and mental health, and the need to keep methadone clinic appointments.

The research supports the need for holistic, wrap-around support to ensure that people can access and complete their course or programme. This includes services such as onsite childcare, counselling, access to laptops, and flexible learning schedules. We also need peer-support programmes to increase people’s trust. People are more likely to stay in education when they can speak to and learn from someone who can personally relate to their experience and understand where they are coming from. This is a person-centred approach to learning.


People Impacted by Imprisonment

In this group – which includes people who had been involved with the Criminal Justice System, and people who were on temporary or day release from prison – participants also spoke about this need for peer-led support, and the impact of trauma, stigma, and discrimination they experienced.

Participants also spoke about a lack of motivation and confidence to get involved in education

“There’s nothing in [prison] that would make you say, ‘God, I can’t wait to get to class’.”

There was also little choice in the schedule and options for learning and a lack of certified or accredited options, which could potentially help someone build their CV and qualifications.

“You could do any [course] and it could be a step to somewhere else but you don’t have that step. You have no proof to say you have done anything. There are girls in [prison] that have never gotten a cert in their life […] If they were to get that little acknowledgement, it could really help them.”

The research results show that people affected by imprisonment should be more involved in the design of courses and classes. The power of Learner Voice means that if people are consulted and have the opportunity to direct their own learning, they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership of it, and a sense of self-confidence and control, and to keep going with it.

Another suggestion is to have better-resourced education support services in prisons, including course certification and accreditation and, once people are released from prison, to help them adjust and integrate into education and employment.

People Who Are Lone Parents

For this group, the absence of childcare – which also comes up as an issue across several different groups – was a key barrier to access to adult education and to whether people could stay in their course.

“I’ve thought many times about doing courses, but the free or cheaper courses are usually evening courses. They are very bad timing. When you have to put your kid to bed, when you have to have dinner. It can be hard to find someone to mind him at that time. A lot of times, that has stopped me from doing something.”

In order to combat this, we recommend flexible approaches to courses, such as hybrid learning. But people need to have access to digital tools like laptops and Wi-Fi, and to learning materials. They also need to have suitable and reliable space to learn at home. The findings are that we need to promote awareness of childcare supports and grants available to lone parents, and to help build people’s self-confidence and digital skills, as well as learning about time management. We also recommend developing and implementing policies across Education and Training Boards to ensure access to breastfeeding facilities and to raise awareness of this need among education providers.


People With Physical and/or Intellectual Disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on this group. They experienced a lack of hybrid-learning options, unsuitable home learning environments, and high volumes of coursework. We recommend that flexible learning options should be offered, as well as including assistive technology and the tools to learn at home, and more awareness of how a heavy course-load can have a negative impact on general wellbeing.

Older Adults

People in this group experienced negative perceptions of aging – both internalised and among educators - – as well as a lack of support for digital literacy needs. Older adults also highlighted previous negative experiences in formal education.

“I couldn’t write, I couldn’t spell, and I was deaf – two hearing aids – so I thought I was too stupid to get a course. I would love to be educated.”

We need to challenge and deal with negative perceptions of older adults’ learning abilities. We need to think about how this impacts on approaches to teaching, and ensure there is respect for learners at all times. We also recommend one-to-one support with digital skills and limiting class numbers in IT courses. Again, we should integrate Learner Voice as part of the process of course creation, and focus on the learners’ needs: older adults have different needs than younger people. A targeted awareness-raising campaign for older adults who had negative experiences at school would potentially promote more inclusivity. 


Migrant Women

And, finally, we spoke to a group of migrant women, who had come from Ireland from other countries and many of whom are living in Direct Provision.

One participant spoke about the benefits of going back to education, “meeting people outside of the community and getting education, joining groups, doing short courses. Because everybody in Direct Provision is traumatised, you need something outside of that space.”

The women in this group spoke about the lack of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes, not enough childcare support, poor public transport in rural areas, and higher fees for international students. They also discussed the issue of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), where a person’s qualifications in other countries are considered when gaining certification or qualifications in Ireland, and how we need to increase this here so that migrant people can access better jobs.

One participant said: “It wasn't just that the degree wasn't recognised, your work experience was not even recognised. So, it's as if you're starting from rock bottom, and then you feel like there is no opportunity to say that you can use your existing skills or knowledge.”

They also spoke about the psycho-social barriers to education, like trauma, isolation, and fear of speaking out in Direct Provision centres. We need more acknowledgement of this, and more trauma-informed therapeutic support to encourage people to stay in education and reduce intergenerational trauma.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Lifelong Learning Research project demonstrates the ongoing inequalities in our society, and the lack of opportunities experienced by some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland at the moment. People in positions of economic privilege are more likely to benefit from the education system, while others continue to suffer and thus are more likely to drop out of education.

We need more wraparound supports – like childcare and mental health support – as well as digital skills, confidence-building, awareness of stigma and discrimination, grants and funding, and ensuring that learners are involved in the creation and design of courses and learning outcomes. Rather than persisting with a one-size-fits-all approach, when we tailor learning to suit people’s needs, they find it easier and more feasible to stay engaged.


We will be launching the Lifelong Learning Participation Research report during the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival 2023, at an in-person event in Dublin: “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots: The Versatile and Enduring Strength of Community Education.” Taking place on the morning of Monday 6th March in the Richmond Centre, Smithfield, this event will combine the views of adult learners, providers, and policymakers to discuss current tertiary education policy in Ireland and how we can continue to reach the more vulnerable people in our society through community education.

You can read the Lifelong Learning Participation Research Report here.

Learn more about and register for “Stepping Stones and Stable Roots”

Find out more from our Research Officer Aisling Meyler about how and why AONTAS does research.