Catering to diverse needs of adult learners

Aontas puts adults on an education path, whether for a career or the sake of learning

What do learners in the adult and further education sector want? The sector is diverse, encompassing everything from local courses tailored to the needs of the community right through to mature learners going to university.

Some are in secure employment and on a clear career path; some have never had a job. Some learners are straight out of school; others are well past retirement age. Their goals couldn’t be more different.

For more than 20 years, Aontas, the National Adult Learning Organisation, has run an information and referral service for learners in the adult and further education sector. Since 2013, this service has been enhanced, and Aontas has gathered a useful overview of trends in the sector.

Aontas director Berni Brady has worked in the sector for more than two decades and retires at the end of the year. During this time, some trends have been constant.


“Second-chance education has always been popular,” she says. “The Leaving Cert is still regarded as the holy grail and people who haven’t done it want to go back and get it. People have also been looking to develop their basic skills and to increase their literacy and numeracy.”

Trends vary

Other trends vary based on the state of the economy. “When the crash hit and the construction sector fell apart, our information service was inundated. We got 4,000 calls in six months,” says Brady.

“Many of these were from people who had low basic skills but had been earning good money in the construction sector. They had been out of education for 10 or 20 years and now they had to consider what to do next.”

More recently, Aontas has noticed an upsurge in demand for courses in childcare and social care. “This is because there’s a population increase and an increase in the number of children. Childcare is seen – especially by women who have children and childcare demands themselves – as a flexible way back to the workforce.”

A few years ago, there was a rise in demand for guidance and counselling programmes, which Brady believes was largely down to a media discussion around psychology and wellbeing. She says that, since she began working at Aontas, adult and further education has gone from being treated by successive governments as the poor cousin, to now being recognised as a central plank in education and economic policy. In less than 20 years, adult literacy and numeracy has gone from being almost totally ignored to becoming a key priority.

She points out, however, that an exclusive focus on training courses to get people ready for employment has meant other important areas are sometimes neglected. “Some people are looking to advance their career or train for employment, others enter programmes for personal development reasons.

“You’re not considered part of the workforce if you’re over 65, but lifelong learning is important for older people. A significant number of older people are returning to education because they want social contact and to keep their mind active but, unfortunately, policy-makers see these programmes as less important than employment-focused courses, and they’re therefore less funded.”

Barriers remain

Significant barriers remain, she says. “Finance, childcare and transport are problems for many adult learners. At the lower end of the scale, access for basic education programmes is generally free, while training programmes have an allowance, but adults who want to enter higher education (third-level courses in an accredited college or university) run into problems.

“Among the biggest issues are that those on part-time courses are not eligible for free fees and that some supports have been eroded, and there are big costs associated with returning to study.”

Childcare is an obstacle, primarily for women. “We have some of the highest childcare costs in the OECD,” says Brady. “And then, some learners, particularly in rural areas, have problems in getting to the course they need to.”

Adult and further education comes in many forms including local community education, adult literacy, Post-Leaving Cert courses, university access courses, State-funded training courses and much more. Some will help people progress in a career, but others will simply help pick adults up from the floor.

"How do we measure success?" Brady asks. "Earlier this year, two young women who did programmes with Focus Ireland came to our Adult Learners Festival. Their measure of success was to be in a more stable environment and get their lives back on track.

“We argue that, in the current environment where the Government is always looking for concrete outcomes for money, they don’t always see that moving someone from a chaotic environment to a place where they can start thinking about education is an investment in the long term.”

"I left school at 14 with no formal education. For a long time, I wanted to go back, so I enrolled in college for a pre-nursing course at the age of 23 but I got pregnant with my first child so I left.

“In recent years, I did a Fás course in computerised accounts and payroll, because I was told this was where the jobs would be. Then the economy crashed and the jobs didn’t materialise.

“I had a second child by now, and was busy looking after them. They both have mild autism, so I wasn’t in a position to work full-time, and there wasn’t work available. I did, however, do a lot of voluntary work in the community, so when I came across a leaflet about community development in An Cosán, the local community education centre in Tallaght, it really appealed to me. It was two years part-time, one morning a week, and I learned a lot.

“When it finished, I wanted to continue in education but, as a part-time learner, I had to pay fees. I was reluctant to do it for that reason, but I got a scholarship, which has helped.

“Now I’m doing a course in leadership development, which is delivered by IT Carlow through An Cosán. A master’s course is in my sights now, and I’m seeing chances to develop a career in community work.

“Adult education is essential, especially for those who don’t fit into the narrow parameters of the Leaving Cert system.

“We talk so much about child poverty; I genuinely believe that adult education, particularly educating mothers, is the best way to tackle this. Children learn by what they see, so children who see their mothers in education will see the value of it. Education is the route out of poverty.”

In 2014, just over 300 people contacted the Aontas information referral service, which supports adults who wish to return to education and training. This represent a fraction of those seeking to pursue adult or further education, but the statistics do provide a useful overview of trends in the sector. Of the callers:

64 per cent were female and 36 per cent were male

64 per cent of calls came from urban areas and 36 per cent from rural areas

35 per cent were looking for courses, 20 per cent were seeking to return to education and 11 per cent wanted to do the Leaving Cert

Callers identified the main barriers to education as a lack of information, a lack of suitable courses and a lack of financial support.

10 per cent of callers had no formal qualification, 11 per cent had a Junior Cert or equivalent, 51 per cent had the Leaving Cert or equivalent, and 27 per cent had a third-level qualification.

Who’s employed?

36 per cent of callers were unemployed

41 per cent were in full- or part-time employment, or in employment programmes

12 per cent were students, volunteers, home- makers, retired or not economically active

11 per cent of callers had a disability