A grown-up’s guide to adult learning

What courses are on offer? Are there any financial and childcare supports? Our guide has all the answers

The Leaving Cert is easy enough to follow. Most teens do it, although some opt for Youthreach or the Leaving Cert Applied programme. Third-level or further-education courses follow.

Along the way there are usually a fair few sources of information and support, from secondary-school guidance counsellors to student advisory officers at college – not to mention a plethora of newspaper articles on everything from how to look after yourself in the Leaving Cert – see today’s Health & Family section in this newspaper, for instance – to how to pick a third-level course and then thrive in college.

For adult learners, however, it’s not always so straightforward. This is largely because, unlike standard CAO-entry courses, of which there are usually a set number at third-level institutions, adult education has a far broader range of entry points, and a lot of people who want to pursue further education don’t necessarily have a career-guidance counsellor on hand to help them navigate the terrain, and are often less familiar with formal education.

Adult learners fall into a range of categories, which often overlap. Some adult learners want to get their Leaving Certificate. Some want to get back into the workforce. Some are looking to improve their skills. Some simply want to learn or to expand their minds and their social circle.


As well as having a variety of motivations, adult learners come from a range of backgrounds. Some have disabilities, some are from disadvantaged backgrounds and others may be relatively well off but be looking to expand their skills.

With this in mind we’ve put together a guide to everything that every type of adult learner needs to know.

Access and foundation courses

Also known as return-to-learning courses, these are for both mature students (anyone over 23) and more recent school-leavers who, for whatever reason, didn’t get a chance to attend college first time around. The courses provide a basic grounding in some of the key arts or science subjects at third

level, and can lead on to transfer to a full-time degree course. The courses have an emphasis on study skills, writing and communication skills and information technology. NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology are among the providers. For more information contact the access officer at each third-level institution.

Adult literacy and numeracy

Provided by all 16 education and training boards. The National Adult Literacy Agency (nala.ie) has a range of options to help adults improve their literacy, including group tuition, one-on-one sessions and home and online programmes.


A tried-and-tested route to learning a trade and getting on to a career path. Apprenticeships are primarily organised through Solas, the new Further Education and Training Authority, although some organisations, such as the Society of the Irish Motor Industry,

also offer them. Options include mechanics, electrical instrumentation, plastering, plumbing, metalworking, toolmaking and wood manufacturing and finishing. See solas.ie for more information.

Community education

A less formal approach to education. Classes take place in the local community and have an unparalleled level of flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of local people; indeed, the learners tend to be involved in the design of the programmes themselves. Many community-education

programmes take place in more marginalised communities or, sometimes, with more marginalised people, such as refugees, victims of domestic violence and single parents. An Cosán, the community-education centre in Tallaght, is among the better-known providers, offering year-long education programmes tailored to local learners and with a range of supports, including a creche.

Government initiatives

Your local education and training board

can provide information on courses and work. The Springboard programme offers a choice of 171 free part-time and intensive conversion courses in areas that have skills shortages, with courses running from higher certificate through to postgraduate level (springboardcourses.ie).

The Momentum programme, meanwhile, is targeted at those who have been unemployed for a year or more, funding free education and training projects which help jobseekers gain skills and access to work in particular sectors. The Momentum website, which is updated regularly, is currently providing training for customer-service roles, construction jobs and gaming and interactive technologies (momentumskills.ie).

Interest courses

Love photography? Always had an interest in astronomy? Want to develop your passion for literature? Got green fingers? Going travelling and want to brush up on your Spanish? Whatever your interest, adult-

education centres all over Ireland have a range of courses where you don’t need to worry about an exam but can just broaden your horizons and meet new people on the way. Universities including Maynooth, UCD and UCC provide a diverse and eclectic mix of evening and weekend courses, but most people attend night classes at their local community college. Learners from these courses are often inspired to continue in education, either full- or part-time.

Online and distance learning

Learn at your own pace. Kilroy’s College is one of the more established course providers, but many universities and colleges, including DCU and Sligo IT, offer e

learning courses.

Massive Online Open Courses (or Moocs), however, have the potential to completely change how we learn. Essentially, some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Yale and Trinity College, are putting content from some courses online, allowing anyone to learn whatever they want. The downside is that such courses often don’t involve assessment, or a recognised qualification – although the global popularity of Moocs could change this.

Post Leaving Certificate courses

Vocationally oriented courses in colleges of further education throughout the country. Popular options include computers, childcare, fashion and beauty, tourism and travel, business and IT. They’re an alternative to third

level and a worthwhile qualification in their own right for both school-leavers and mature students. Many also offer access routes to third level.

Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme

VTOS courses range from basic education to advanced vocational training and are targeted at unemployed people aged over 21 and in receipt of social welfare for six months or more. VTOS participants can retain social welfare benefits throughout the course. Local education and training boards

have further details.

Workplace learning

In this fast-paced world

it’s a dull workplace where you don’t keep learning and updating your skills. Many employers know it’s in their best interests to facilitate employees who want or need to update their skills, and many offer courses or support you in your learning. Don’t be afraid to talk to your employer or see if it can help.

Grants and support

Back to education allowance/ Back to education initiative

The back to education allowance

supports unemployed people, people with disabilities, carers and those in receipt of the one-parent-family allowance to return to education and pursue further or higher education. The back to education allowance is open to people aged 21 and over; those pursuing postgraduate options have to be 24 or over. The rules have recently been tightened; check with the Department of Social Protection to see if you are eligible.

The back to education initiative, meanwhile, gives adult learners and early school-leavers who want to improve their skills a chance to combine education with family, caring or work responsibilities. It’s free for those with less than a Leaving Cert education, in receipt of social welfare or on a medical card. Contact your local Education and training board for more information.


For many adults, the lack of affordable childcare supports is the biggest obstacle to education. Women, who have a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, are at a disadvantage. Some community-education facilities provide creches, while there are some State childcare supports for parents on lower incomes.

The childcare employment and training support provides some subsidised childcare places for parents on courses that include the back to education initiative, further education and training, Momentum and VTOS. More information from your local education and training board.

Student maintenance grant

Full-time mature students enrolled in college courses may be eligible for the student grant. Part-time learners are not eligible for financial assistance – a constant source of agitation for adult learners, who point out that many part-time learners are women with caring commitments or people on low incomes who have the greatest need for support. But, for now, at least, them’s the breaks.

More information


, the

Irish National Adult Learning Organisation

, is a well-established organisation with a wealth of knowledge about the various courses and supports for learners in the adult and further education sector.

They have a dedicated information and referral service; call 1800-303669. It’s a really comprehensive source of information and support, for everything you need to know but might be afraid to ask. Best of all, you’ll talk to someone who is genuinely dedicated to supporting adult learners; aontas.com.

Solas is the new Further Education and Training Authority, responsible for funding, planning and co-ordinating training and further education. Its site has information on further education, training and apprenticeships, as well as training centre, ETB and Intreo details; solas.ie


Those in receipt of social protection payments will find more information at their local social welfare office; look out for the notices or talk to your community welfare officer.

The local Education and Training Board will also provide a list of courses in the adult and further education sector. See etbi.ie to find your local centre.

Check out the Qualifax website at qualifax.ie. It’s an unrivalled one-stop shop for learners of all ages, overflowing with information on every course and learning option.