Northern Ireland Faces Persistent Decline in Lifelong Learning Participation

Brought to us by Katie O’Rourke

Collective efforts are needed to tackle a predicted decline in lifelong participation in Northern Ireland by 2030. That’s according to AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation who launched a report today (01.10.2021) highlighting issues faced by community education providers in NI, and offering recommendations on how the sector can work together to support greater educational equality.

Speaking about the findings on the new report, commissioned by AONTAS and prepared by Dr Colin Neilands, AONTAS CEO Dr Niamh O’Reilly said: “We have seen the impact that COVID-19 is having on disadvantaged individuals and communities across the island of Ireland. This report shows that stark predictions lie ahead for adult learning in NI unless we take immediate action. Recent research from the Learning at Work Institute, commissioned by OCNNI, shows the lifelong learning participation rate pre-COVID-19 in NI was 10.9%, lower than the Republic of Ireland (12.6%) or the UK (14.8%). Worryingly we have seen that during the pandemic only 27% of adults engaged in some form of learning compared to 44% in England. If we look to the future the estimated proportion of people with less than lower secondary education (Junior Certificate/GCSE) in NI, currently 21%, will be 17% in 2030 – vastly different from the Republic of Ireland at 5% in 2030.”

The report also offers solutions for increasing participation and engagement in lifelong learning. The importance of community-based adult learning provision was highlighted as an extremely effective model for reducing inequalities and improving social mobility by reaching learners across communities in areas of high deprivation. O’Reilly continued: “Community-based adult learning has an impressive success rate in bridging the qualifications gap. Data from OCNNI, the largest regulator of accredited community-based learning, shows that in the last three years of 30,000 registered learners, 72% achieved qualifications, with 50% achieving at least the equivalent of the Junior Certificate. The success of this type of provision is down to the range of vital supports offered to learners and the option of non-accredited courses which often provides an important first step for people to engage in, or return to education.”

Finally, the report highlights a range of issues facing community education providers from a lack of adequate funding, including the impact of BREXIT and the need for a clear understanding of community education provision in N Ireland. O’Reilly said: “AONTAS is committed to supporting educational quality for adults in NI in partnerships with our members and stakeholders, FALNI and through the Network for Adult Learning Across Borders (NALAB). AONTAS will work with colleagues in NI to support the replication of our community education research to uncover who engages in community education, what courses are provided, how it is funded, and critically how it effectively supports people to fulfil their potential in NI.

You can read the full report here:

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The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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