Solas revamp brings overdue direction to adult education

General learning courses, which help reintroduce people to a learning environment, have attracted 157,000 people

Adult and further education, for so long the neglected orphan of Ireland’s education system, was once higgledy-piggledy at best. There were 33 VECs, offering a range of courses, but they often overlapped with those offered by Fás, the national training and employment authority (which was dissolved after a series of scandals).

Adult and further education was barely even an afterthought. But in the past few years, Solas, which was established in 2014 to bring some coherence, structure and planning to the sector, has reformed apprenticeships, offered more than 300,000 learning opportunities a year and brought some much-needed direction to the sector.

VECs became education and training boards and were reduced in number to 16. Meanwhile, adult literacy, community education and opportunities for mature students are increasing. Indeed, the changes to adult and further education may have been the most substantial legacy of the former minister for education Ruairí Quinn.

“The further-education and training sector is not dedicated to one specific group of learners in the context of age or stage in their educational development,” says Paul O’Toole, chief executive of Solas.


“It is available to all learners aged 16 and over and facilitates lifelong learning, social inclusion and access to education and training opportunities, which can result in the learner gaining qualifications at level one to level six on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), progressing to programmes of higher education and training, gaining employment, upskilling and reskilling.”

What’s popular right now?

What’s popular right now? Post-Leaving Cert courses have the highest numbers, with 69,802 taking them on a full-time basis. And 15,390 people are on Specific Skills Training course, with 36,628 in back-to-education groups and 37,928 in adult-literacy groups. Meanwhile, 51,999 people are on community-education programmes around



General learning courses, which help to reintroduce people back to education and have a broad focus, are by far the single most popular, with more than 157,000 people benefitting from them.

These are followed by health, family and social-service courses (46,261 learners), which is an area of skills shortage right now, while there are 30,702 on information-technology courses and 23,848 on business and administration courses.

Further education and training courses are geared towards the labour market or as a gateway to further learning, including higher-education courses, but are also important ways of improving social inclusion and social mobility, says O’Toole.

About 60 per cent of people who engage in lifelong learning are graduates; the focus on skills can exclude older people who could have a lot to gain from adult education and who would also have a lot to give back to their communities.

Over-50s may find it harder to gain work, even with retraining and education. And one of the biggest barriers for many adult learners is that there are still fees for part-time higher education, whereas those who start on a full-time undergraduate course do not have to pay fees.

Niamh O'Reilly, chief executive of Aontas, the national adult-learning organisation, says while there has been a focus on skills and training for employment, there is a need to ensure adults are comfortable with returning to education and that learning for the sake of learning should not be neglected.

Not always a fix-it

“You can’t just fill a person with skills so that they meet an economic need,” she says. “There isn’t just one step from educational disadvantage to employment. It isn’t always a fix-it that leads immediately to a job. If we look at adult learning as merely the route to a job, people lose that autonomy to make their own decision as to what course is right for them.”

“It is likely that some people will not complete a course if they’re just been steered on to it need without any consideration of what they are really motivated by. Learners tell us that it changes the dynamic on a course when there are some people who want to be there and others who have to be there to maintain unemployment benefit.

“People, especially the unemployed, need very good guidance.”

Who’s doing what? Learners, motivation and obstacles

Aontas, which runs One Step Up (

), has a freephone number that has engaged with thousands of learners since November 2013. In the past six months, 10,081 people have used the website. An analysis of 3,754 user profiles shows that 46 per cent were aged 35-65, 28 per cent were 25-35, 25 per cent were 18-25 and 1 per cent were over 65. Of these, 33 per cent were from Dublin, with 8 per cent from Cork, 5 per cent from


and 4 per cent from Galway.

The majority of these – 1,267 people, or 34 per cent – were long-term unemployed, but 27 per cent were employed, 19 per cent were unemployed and 2 per cent were retired.

What did they want? Fifty-two per cent wanted courses, 24 per cent were looking for advice, 11 per cent sought information about funding and finance, 7 per cent were looking to improve their basic skills in writing, spelling and maths, 3.5 per cent wanted to know how to contact services in their area, and 2 per cent were looking for information about the nature and meaning of different qualifications, especially those on the National Framework of Qualifications.

Of those who called the helpline, 37 per cent said their biggest barrier to returning to education was finding a course, 33 per cent said it was a lack of information, 20 per cent said it was about funding, 2 per cent cited childcare, and 3 per cent said it was down to other factors.

Aontas freephone helpline: 1800-303669

Expanding field: apprenticeships

There have been major changes to Ireland’s apprenticeship system over the past few years, and now the overall number of apprentices is expected to increase to about 10,700.

And, although Ireland’s apprenticeship system is undergoing a much-needed and radical overhaul, to bring in more numbers, the old system couldn’t exactly be described as broken.

A 2010 report from researchers at the London School of Economics said that “the duration and standard of apprenticeship training in Ireland is similar to the best European provision and intended to facilitate recognition as skilled craftsmen/women in other EU states”.

Indeed, Irish apprentices do seem to be well regarded abroad, with Irish representatives having won medals at the WorldSkills competition.

In the last WorldSkills event, held in Brazil in 2015, Ireland came 11th in the world ranking and won a gold medal for aircraft maintenance.

The Apprenticeship Council of Ireland is working with education providers and industry to develop apprenticeships in entirely new areas, including as an insurance practitioner, which is on level eight of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) and is due to be launched this month.

Solas will be running a campaign in the coming months.