Developments: Educational inequality has increased
Our Irish member, AONTAS- Ireland's National Adult Learning Organisation, observes a slight deterioration on the current situation of adult learning and education in Ireland.
Educational disadvantage and inequality have been exacerbated during the pandemic and public policy interventions have been vital in responding to the crisis. Many of these interventions have been reactive measures in the form of funding for specific items such as digital hardware and health and safety equipment to support continuity of learning. These were important and necessary but have been put in place as stopgap temporary measures. These must now evolve into more durable, flexible, and sustainable funding models if Ireland is to recover its access, participation, and progression rates and build on these positive policy interventions and seize the opportunity to bring about lasting positive and equitable outcomes for all learners.
Ireland is collecting data on the impact of COVID-19. Although the funding measures are a stopgap they have been given funding for independently-run community education/non-formal education providers. This is a positive contribution for addressing the urgent needs of disadvantaged learners and the organisations that support them.
AONTAS established three main areas that still require urgent attention:
- Needs of adult learners
- Requirements of the community education sector
- Changes needed within the tertiary education system structure.
New policies and strategies in Ireland
Ireland has introduced the following new key ALE policies and strategies in 2020/2021:
- Adult Literacy for Life' - a 10-year adult literacy strategy
- Ireland’s National Skills Strategy
- Reform of the Higher Education Authority Act, 1971
- Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021 to 2025Future FET: Transforming Learning
- Ireland’s National Skills Strategy
- National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021
- Action plan for increasing Traveller participation in higher education
As observed, there are multiple important changes within the Irish organisation. Establishment of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science is one of the most relevant structural changes. Being responsible for adult learning in Ireland it had significant implications for public policy in ALE. The department was established in 2020 and manages significant amounts of funding . One positive development has been the establishment of a new unit within the Department focused on mitigating against educational disadvantage as well as policies around equality, diversity, and social inclusion.
AONTAS confirms their involvement in CONFINTEA VII process and delegation of Ireland.
Changes in funding policy
According to AONTAS, there is a slight improvement in the ALE funding in Ireland. ALE is financed through project and programme funding, structural funding, fees paid by individuals or employers, formula funding (funding of learning activities based on the number of participants) and private income. Many local community-based adult learning providers are also social enterprises with charity shops and innovative projects that generate some income.
During 2020/2021, there has been some changes in the funding policy. The new Government Department has increased public funding in adult literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy. In addition for the past two years SOLAS administered a Mitigating against Educational Disadvantage Fund which provides funding to support educationally disadvantaged learners in participating in community education.
Civil society has an active role in the design and implementation of ALE policies in Ireland. AONTAS continues working to lobby key politicians, political parties, and decision-makers in local and national government to improve the function, sustainability, and amount of funding made available for adult learning in Ireland. Some examples of this work are:
- Success of previous annual policy day events in 2020
- Success of previous annual policy day events in 2021
- CEN Census 2020 Policy Paper - Educational Equality is Central to Ireland's Recovery: Community Education in a Time of COVID-19)
- AONTAS Pre-Budget Submission 2022
- What is Happening in Adult Learning and Education (ALE) in Ireland?
Policy papers and publications can be found at AONTAS website.
COVID-19 pandemic has increased the digital gap in Ireland. There was a significant drop in participation rates throughout the pandemic. Those that already have very good digital skills were able to further improve their digital skills. Shifting learning activities to a digital environment also attracted new groups of learners. However, learners who don’t own the right devices, have low level of literacy, struggle with physical and mental health or do not receive financial support have stopped courses. Disadvantaged people may also have poor internet connectivity or unsuitable home environments to online learning. This may have resulted in a stagnation of their digital skills. Although MEAD funding provided technology and internet for some learners, the most disadvantaged learners could still not engage due to the challenges mentioned before.
Outreach has required much more effort on the part of ALE providers than before the pandemic. Also the costs of learning provision have increased. New technological environments, including software, stable Internet connections, and hardware had to be introduced. Irish ALE organisations and providers received more public funding and fewer participant fees.
AONTAS considers social and environmental sustainability very important, and they have a strategy to promote sustainability in their work procedures. There have been public consultations on the topic in Ireland, and national strategies are being developed in relation to Education for Sustainable Development and embedding the SDGs in adult learning and education provision.