Learning within the community

Many adults want to learn simply for the sake of learning and the pleasure and life-enhancement it offers

For many adults, their last engagement with education was more than a generation ago and ended much to their relief when they walked out of the school gate after the Leaving Cert, or in some cases years before that. Now, having lived years of their lives as mothers, fathers, workers, carers, they may be interested in returning to education.

There are many barriers to participation in education for those who had a negative experience of school or who have problems reading and writing. The National Adult Literacy Agency (Nala) is a voluntary organisation that aims to ensure all adults with literacy difficulties have access to high-quality learning opportunities that suit their needs. According to the last international survey by the OECD, one in six Irish adults had difficulty understanding basic written text. One in four people finds it difficult to do simple maths.

There are lots of options for people who would like improve these skills. Currently, about 55,000 adults are improving their reading, writing and maths in day and evening classes in local education and training board (ETB) adult education centres. You can also learn with a tutor over the phone through Nala’s distance learning service or study online, on writeon.ie.

For other adults the main problem in accessing education is knowing where to start. Aontas (the Irish National Association of Adult Education) promotes adult education and lifelong learning and has an information and referral service.


‘Accessing information’

Aontas director Berni Brady comments: "

While we’ve seen a huge increase in the numbers accessing information online, we still get regular phone calls from adults who are not sure where to start, or who have a specific query. While recent figures from the CSO show a continuing decline in the numbers on the live register [11.2 per cent in August 2014], approximately 20 per cent of Irish adults still have only the equivalent of a Junior Cert.”

Analysis of callers to Aontas has shown:


34 per cent were employed

, while 37 per cent were unemployed.


18 per cent of callers had the equivalent of a Junior Cert qualification, while 10 per cent had no formal qualification.


The most popular queries were about finding information about a particular course, and how to repeat the Leaving Cert.


The most popular course choices were health and fitness followed by information technology and healthcare.

This month, thousands of adults are enrolling for evening classes, to learn a new skill or to pass the dark winter evenings. Aontas estimates that more than 300,000 adults take up a learning opportunity each year.

An example of a success in adult education cited by Aontas is Derek O’Kelly. Mr O’Kelly grew up in St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, Dublin, didn’t do well in school in the 1960s and left when he was 15; he was later diagnosed as dyslexic. He worked in unskilled construction for many years and at 30 had no future. A chance meeting with a tutor in what was then the VEC gave him the opportunity to do football coaching with a local youthreach group. Having found something he was good at, staff at the ETB encouraged him to pursue a qualification. He has never looked back, and now has a rewarding career in training and teaching other students hairdressing skills .

‘New opportunities’

Mr O’Kelly said: “People are returning to adult education at all ages now. It’s more acceptable than before. There’s always more time to develop, improve confidence or self-belief. My lack of education held me back, but adult education helped me find what I wanted to do with my life, and helped me develop the skills to take up new opportunities.”

A challenge facing those wishing to embark on a further education course is finance, according to Ms Brady. “While new initiatives provide opportunities for people who are unemployed to return to education, for people who are in employment and want to upskill, the choice may be more limited. For example, a working adult who wants to pursue a part-time degree still has to pay full fees. Improving your skills can come at a high price.”

There are a number of open days around the country showcasing the range of learning opportunities open to adults. Details of local open days are at onestepup.ie. Aontas has also published a new edition of What Next, an information guide for adults on employment and training options.

Thousands of programmes

For adults who want to explore a subject, whether it is flower arranging, IT, or studying a language, their local ETB college is the best option; thousands of such programmes are on offer throughout the country, mostly in the evening.

For those considering returning to study for a degree, the key advice is to take it one step at a time. Most third-level institutions are rapidly expanding their wide range of courses for adult learners. Universities offer access programmes to those interested in making this step – check your local colleges to see what is on offer.

Maynooth University, for example, offers a Return to Learning Cert on academic writing, how to structure paragraphs, reference material you have read and list a bibliography at the end of a piece of written work – all skills needed by those planning to return to study. Contact the Department of Adult and Community Education at maynoothuniversity.ie.

Another examples is UCD’s Open Learning, with 20 modules available to adult learners in archaeology, art history, biology, classics, history, physics and politics. Adults start in September or January and can take any combination of modules, for interest alone (audit) or for course assessment (credit). UCD also offers adults some part-time lifelong learning courses. Some are offered in partnership with the National Library, Pearse Street Library and the Hugh Lane Gallery. See ucd.ie/adulted/prospectivestudents/

Theses new initiatives are in addition to the mature years access courses that UCD has offered for years. The university offers access to arts and human sciences, science and engineering courses, designed for adults who never had the chance to study at third level. They prepare learners who aim to go on to higher education and guarantee a place in degree courses including arts, social science, law, science, engineering and agriculture.


Qualifax.ie is the national database for all third-level and further education courses. The website also has a list of adult guidance services. Nala’s distance learning service is on writeon.ie. For information on Nala literacy classes phone 1800 20 20 65 or Freetext ‘LEARN’ to 50050. See onestepup.ie for adult learning open days. See also aontas.com and etbi.ie.