The A to Z of adult education

With options to suit every lifestyle and aspiration, choosing is the trickiest bit

Access: Not everyone got the Leaving Cert they wanted. Mature students missed the chance to attend college. Students with disabilities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, meanwhile, face a number of hurdles getting into third level. Over the past ten years, Access courses have grown in importance as an entry route. For more information, contact the Access Officer in a third-level institution.

Back to Education Allowance/ Back to Education Initiative: Unemployed people, disabled people, carers, and those in receipt of the One-Parent Family Allowance, and certain other benefits may qualify for Back to Education Allowance, which allows them pursue further or higher education courses. Benefits remain the same as existing social welfare payments. BTEA participants who are under 26 only qualify for a reduced rate.

The Back to Education Initiative, meanwhile, allows people to combine family and work with a part-time further education programme. For more information, contact your local Education and Training Board (ETB).

Community Education: Taking place outside the formal education sector, community education focuses on social justice and helping people make a positive contribution to society. There's a heavy emphasis on the needs of learners who are involved in the design of programmes. Community education programmes often take place in more marginalised communities. For more information, contact your local ETB.


Disability: There are a range of supports for adults with learning, intellectual and physical disabilities in the adult education system, including grants and allowances. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) is an excellent source of information and support. See

Empowering: Adult education is non-compulsory learning that adults choose for themselves. As such, it is hugely empowering. Adults who return to education can pick from a wide menu of options – including night classes, literacy courses, work-oriented training courses and university degrees. Motivations include improving job prospects, widening a social circle, or simply learning for learning's sake.

Further Education: Post-Leaving Cert courses, as well as a number of adult and evening courses, take place in colleges of further education around the country. Courses are vocationally oriented. Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) and Youthreach courses are also under the aegis of further education.

Grants: Full-time mature students enrolled in university, institutes of technology or approved college courses may be eligible for the means-tested student maintenance grant. Students enrolled in adult or further education may qualify for financial assistance.

Help: Too little information? Aontas, the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation, can provide you with more details of courses and entitlements. See or call 01-4068220. Alternatively, visit the Department of Education's website,, or contact your local ETB or adult education provider.

Interest: Adult education centres, community colleges, and some universities including Maynooth University, University College Cork and University College Dublin provide a diverse selection of interest-based evening courses. Although these courses generally don't lead to any award, many adult education providers also run certificate and Access courses and learners from these courses are often inspired to make a full- or part-time leap back to education. UCC provides students with a certificate of attendance. Courses include digital photography, criminal psychology, literature, the natural world, genealogy, languages and politics.

Jobs: Adult learners may simply want to learn but, for many, it's about a job. Good employers want their staff to keep learning and may be able to point towards the right professional development course – many can be done online. Local ETBs can also provide information on courses and work. The Government's Momentum programme is currently funding the provision of free education and training projects to 6,500 jobseekers, with a focus on certain sectors that have been identified as providing opportunities. The Springboard programme, meanwhile, offers a choice of 171 free, part-time and intensive conversion courses in areas that have skills shortages. Courses begin at hgher certificate level and go right through to postgraduate level.

See,, and

Kids: Childcare is one of the biggest challenges for adult learners. Women are disproportionately affected by the childcare burden, putting them at a disadvantage relative to men. The State does offer some afforable childcare supports to families on lower incomes or to help parents return to work or education. The Childcare Employment and Training Support (CETS) scheme provides some subsidised childcare places for parents on VTOS, the Back to Education Initiative, Further Education and Training courses for specific skills and apprenticeships, and the Momentum Programme. Speak to your local ETB, but also let your course provider know that you are applying for CETS.

Literacy: The former Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, identified literacy and numeracy as a key goal during his tenure. All 16 ETBs provide adult literacy services, while the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) runs one-on-one, group tuition, home and online programmes. See

Mature students: Third-level colleges reserve a limited number of places for persons aged 23 years and over – and it's not based on your Leaving Cert results. Mature students attend lectures and sit the same exams as anyone else on the course. Application is through the CAO – see or phone 091-509800. Many colleges, such as Trinity College Dublin, also have a mature students officer.

Night classes: These are an enormously popular option for adults who want to learn something new without the stress of a full-time day course. Some are interest-based but others can lead to certificates or new qualifications.

Online: Distance learning may suit those who cannot commit to full-time education and wish to learn from home. As well as established course providers such as Kilroy's College and the Open University, many universities and colleges now offer distance learning courses. DCU and Sligo IT offer online courses, and other third-levels are also recognising the power of e-learning.

But perhaps the single biggest change in online learning over the past five years has been the growth of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses. These are at hand, free, to anyone with internet access, and they’re available from some of the world’s most prestigious third-level institutions including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and, closer to home, DIT, Sligo IT and Trinity. Students don’t get a recognised qualifcation as yet – that may change – but they do learn what they need, or would like, to know.

Post Leaving Cert: PLC courses provide vocationally-based training for school-leavers and adults. The courses include a substantial work experience component and most PLCs take place in colleges of further education. Many offer an access route to further third-level studies. For more details, contact your local ETB, or visit

Qualifax: The website provides a one-stop shop for adult learners looking for course information. Unrivalled.

Recession: To listen to us lot in the media, you'd swear it was all over. But many people, especially those most likely to enter adult education, are still suffering from the fallout. Those worst affected can improve their situation by returning to education and there is a range of supports in place.

Solas: The new Further Education and Training Authority in Ireland, set up after Fás was abolished and with the oversight of the ETBs. Solas is responsible for funding, planning and co-ordinating further education and training programmes in Ireland.


Training: With Fás abolished, Solas now provides specific short, and long, day courses; evening courses; online courses; and blended learning options for specific skills training with a tight job focus. Contact your local ETB for more information.

Universities and colleges: If the Leaving Cert didn't go your way but you would like to go to third-level, it's never too late – you can apply as a mature student. Talk to the university's Access office. Just make sure that a three- or four-year degree is what you really want and be sure to explore all your options.

Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme: Courses on the VTOS scheme include basic education and training as well as advanced vocational training. Courses are full-time and lead to qualifications from Junior Cert to Fetac Level 5. Applicants must be over 21, unemployed, and in receipt of social welfare payments for at least six months. VTOS participants can retain their social welfare benefits during training. Contact your local ETB.

Workplace learning: Learning in the workplace helps people update their skills, and learn new ones. Many employers will facilitate workplace learning, from two-day first-aid courses to full-time night courses. ETBs support a number of workplace learning initiatives, as do several private education providers. Employees should consider their skills needs and future aspirations, and discuss options with their employer.

eXtra curricular: It was this or Xeroxing (but we call it photocopying and if you can't do that then you probably shouldn't be pursuing adult education). Although adults tend to get less involved in student life due to other commitments, both higher and further education providers have a range of clubs and societies where you can develop as a person outside your course, not to mention make new friends.

Young?: You're never too old to stop learning. Ever.

Zzzzz. . . . : Because every A-Z lists ends with zzzz, and because you need to find time to balance work, life and study if you become an adult learner. Rest up there.