Covid-19 has widened the educational divide. We urgently need to tackle it

Opinion: An action-focused strategy is vital to meeting the needs of all adult learners

Jimmy Prior, co-ordinator of Southill Family Resource Centre, Limerick City. “The past year has been really tough for most of the families; the kids being off school has not helped,” he says. Photograph: Cathal Noonan

Jimmy Prior, co-ordinator of Southill Family Resource Centre, Limerick City. “The past year has been really tough for most of the families; the kids being off school has not helped,” he says. Photograph: Cathal Noonan


At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was immense solidarity to respond to the national effort, particularly concerning educational equality.

One year on, whilst inevitably some disillusionment and fatigue has set in regarding reports of the fallout from Covid, the challenge of educational inequality is even more concerning, calling us to muster efforts to reconstruct an education system that builds on the learning from a unique year.

Adult learners, Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and community education organisations have battled through the challenges and responded with remarkable resilience.

As we take stock of the impact of the pandemic, it makes sense to fundamentally address systemic issues of educational inequality; the irrefutable benefits of adult learning are essential as we face into our new future.

It’s getting harder for learners

Notwithstanding the extensive efforts made by learners and educators, the significant, complex barriers - many due to long-standing structural inequalities - have resulted in an exacerbation of educational disadvantage.

In Ireland there has been a drop in further education participation levels of approximately 25 per cent across Travellers and Roma and a drop of 15 per cent for people with disabilities, the over-50s and people in direct provision.

Returning to education is hard at the best of times. Understandably, the seismic move to remote learning does not suit all learners, particularly those engaging after a long period of time.

Of the Further Education and Training (FET) learners engaging in remote learning, their experiences have worsened between the two phases of lockdown: emergency (March 2020-August 2020) and current (Sept 2020-present).

For instance, mental health is having an increasing impact on FET learners in this current lockdown wave, with 57 per cent of the learners surveyed in a recent Aontas report stating that their mental health has been impacted by the current crisis. This compares to 32 per cent in the emergency phase.

The lack of structure to remote learning is proving increasingly problematic for FET learners, with 38 per cent of learners in the emergency phase reporting that this is a struggle; the most recent survey data shows this figure rising to 54 per cent of surveyed learners. It is clear that an eventual return to face-to-face engagement is necessary and why outreach needs to play a significant part in addressing the drop in participation.

Challenges and resilience

Southill Family Resource Centre highlights the ongoing challenges and resilience of communities. The organisation - based in two adjoining houses in O’Malley Park in Limerick - offers a range of accredited and non-accredited courses with a wraparound approach focusing on peer support and connection.

During the Covid-19 crisis, co-ordinator Jimmy Prior and his staff team have maintained their ability to respond to the diverse range of challenges the community faces which he attributes to “our management board is made up of local people so their ears are to the ground all the time.”

The demand on the service has been constant and substantial with maintaining connection a key focus point.

“The past year has been really tough for most of the families; the kids being off school has not helped,” he says.

“ The situation has been going on for so long. It was hard trying to encourage and motivate learners who may not be so digitally friendly. It’s about keeping in touch. We made over 2,500 calls between learners and other facilities we are offering, encouraging and supporting families.”

However, unemployment has increased; further, new cohorts of people are now availing of their services .

“We are seeing families now for the first time ever since the 20 years that the centre’s been open that have found themselves unemployed or on PUP payments. They wouldn’t be used to coming to organisations like ours,” he adds.

New vistas

Online learning has opened up new vistas as many courses and groups have gone online, and Solas’s Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund - channelled through the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board - has been crucial in enabling learners to continue their courses during Covid-19.

As Jimmy reflected: “Last year we didn’t have the computers to give out; now we have them to give out if they’re needed. We only applied for what we can use. Thanks to the fund, we have six laptops on loan to learners to let them complete their QQI courses.

“I’m very appreciative of that. I think there is no way that some of them would have completed their course. Now some of them only have one more module to get a major award. We have three iPads out as well for the older people who have thankfully been able to be supported in being able to switch it on an.

“Being able as part of the grant to fund internet [PROVISION], that is incredible … it has been a lifeline for families as they were struggling to do homework. You can’t do your homework on your phone.

“As part of the fund, we are providing the wifi into their house and we’re looking after it.” While significant efforts have been made, a more sustainable approach to addressing local need is required.

Inclusive path ahead

A recent Aontas study on the Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund notes the significant inroads it has made in addressing immediate concerns such as supports for disadvantaged learners, creating safe learning spaces, addressing the digital divide, building learner communities, and increasing sectoral capacity.

The Department of Further and Higher Education’s Covid-19 Response Tertiary Education Steering Group has taught us that taking a tertiary-wide approach, and one that follows the learner path, or indeed climbing frame, across the education system has value.

Whether in community, further or higher education, key themes arising from new context still exist to varying degrees. Digital poverty (access to devices, internet and the skills to engage in online learning), financial barriers, mental health and wellbeing, implications of remote learning on assessment, learner engagement, connection and belonging, and the structural inequalities that manifest on the most marginalised people in society are common across the tertiary education system.

Leveraging collective efforts across the education system is essential. Limited resources need to be shared across community, further, and higher education to safeguard against a further exacerbation of educational disadvantage.

All learners must have their basic needs met, support to navigate the system, have a sense of belonging, wellness to learn, are effectively engaged with and supported to learn in the new online context.

We know different people need different kinds of supports and resources to reach the same level of advantage; only then can we build everyone’s capacity to engage in learning.

Inclusion has been a key focus of the new Department of Further and Higher Education and is clearly outlined in its new statement of strategy. We need to do more. An action-focused strategy is needed to address the long-term impact of Covid-19 on engagement, retention and progression across tertiary education, with a specific focus on marginalised learners, and the community education and FET sector.

Now is not the time to retreat into silos. We need to hold on to the solidarity of purpose that saw collective efforts, increase collaboration and a calling for protecting vulnerable groups with a common voice at the early stages of the pandemic.

One year on, we have a deepened understanding of the scale of the challenges but also the importance of the collective. In describing adult learning, we would do well in holding on to the approach of Liz Moynihan, director of Kinsale College: “It’s not us and them, it’s just a feeling of us”.

Niamh O’Reilly is chief executive of Aontas, the national adult learning organisation