The third National Further Education and Training Learner Forum, organised by EAEA Irish member AONTAS on 13 April 2018 in Dublin, was a unique opportunity for learners to participate in the review and planning of the further education and training policy. As we learned during our one-week study visit in Ireland, collaborative partnerships are key in driving policy and practice that put learners’ needs to the fore.
One size does not fit all
As all the organisations we met in Ireland underlined, bringing the learners’ perspective to the regional and national level is key. Our Irish colleagues were keen to share their local context with us. “Here in the Longford County, 40% of mothers are parenting alone, as opposed to 22% in the rest of the country,” said Tara Farrel, Deputy CEO of Longford Women’s Link (LWL). For a community education centre, this has a huge impact, meaning that issues like childcare need to be taken into account.
We were shown around LWL and its childcare facilities by Kathleen Dowd, Community Employment Supervisor at LWL and our former Younger Staff Training participant. Both Kathleen and Tara underlined how important it is to bring the local perspective to the attention of national policymakers through partnerships with organisations active in advocacy at the national level. “We’re a member of AONTAS and of the National Women’s Council,” Tara told us. “This is how we can make sure that the information we provide from the grassroots level can feed into the regional and national level”.
Building a community partner hub
In some cases, collaborative partnerships can actually help increase the accessibility of adult education courses. As Longford does not have a third level college, and the nearest one is a 50-minute drive away, LWL has partnered with the An Cosán Virtual Community College (VCC) to offer an online third-level higher education course.
“You know your participants best,” emphasized Maria Flanagan, Community Partner Lead, presenting the offer of VCC at an information meeting in which EAEA also participated. Aiming to reach the most disadvantaged and isolated learners through blended learning, VCC has already engaged over 60 community organisations in 22 counties across Ireland. Cooperation with community partners such as LWL has played a key role in its success.
As our VCC colleagues explained, alongside providing the necessary information about the learners’ needs in a community, community partners can also provide the physical space for the participants of an online course to get together. The creation of such learning hubs helps to preserve the spirit of community education and exchange even if the actual content of the course is delivered online.
Bringing in the academic perspective
“It’s really important not to be an ivory tower,” said dr Camilla Fitzsimons, speaking with us at the Maynooth University. The Department of Adult and Community Education offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses that focus on professionalization of adult educators, and remain flexible and accessible enough to fit the social and economic needs of mature students.
Dr Fitzsimons and her colleagues highlighted that most of the courses are co-created with external partners. “For example, we cooperate with the Crafts Council of Ireland for the adult guidance and counselling course, and with Soilse, the Addiction Rehabilitation Service, for the course on addiction studies,” they shared.
The Maynooth University also collaborates closely with AONTAS, for example to launch the first Lifelong Learning Advocacy Summer School, which took place two months after our study trip to Ireland.
Our colleagues from AONTAS stressed how important it is for them to involve partners from the academic sector in evidence-based advocacy. Their perspective was also brought in to the Learner Forum, which had a team of Irish academics from Maynooth University and University of Cork, as well as international experts from universities in Belgium and the United Kingdom.
“As the project has developed over the last three years, AONTAS recognised the need to inform this work with the academic expertise of objective experts in learner voice as a tool for policy making,” explained Benjamin Hendriksen, Advocacy Lead of AONTAS. “The Learner Voice Academic Expert Group provides advice and guidance to AONTAS as we identify recommendations made by learners in the numerous learner fora held across Ireland.”
Learners are partners, not passive recipients
The Learner Forum itself is a result of cooperation of AONTAS with SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority. AONTAS was entrusted with the task of creating the Forum thanks to its long-standing experience in consulting learners on their experiences of further education and training services.
“AONTAS believes that learners are experts of their own learning,” said Niamh O’Reilly, CEO of AONTAS, speaking at the event. “We’re delighted to announce that since the establishment of the Forum the number of learners we’ve engaged with has increased year on year, helped by the regional Forums we held throughout the country.”
“Learners are partners with educators and policy makers, not passive recipients of services,” added Professor Peter Lavender from the University of Wolverhampton and member of the Academic Expert Group, also speaking at the Forum.
AONTAS reports that the number of learners influencing national further education policy has increased almost ten-fold.
The EAEA study visit in Ireland took place between 9 and 13 April 2018 within the framework of an Erasmus+ KA1 project ODESSEA. During the week, EAEA was kindly hosted by: AONTAS, the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation, Longford Women’s Link, An Cosán, An Cosán Virtual Community College, Soilse and Maynooth University. EAEA would like to thank the hosts for their warm welcome and sharing their expertise!
Text: Aleksandra Kozyra and Raffaela Kihrer
Photos: Raffaela Kihrer, Maynooth University, Longford Women’s Link