A major research initiative has been launched to transform adult education in Northern Ireland.
The first ever census of community education will be carried out in Northern Ireland in order to provide information to lobby political leaders for improved access to learning and help create more employment opportunities for adults left behind by mainstream education.
The results of the census will be published in September by National Adult Learning Organisation AONTAS and its partner organisation FALNI (Forum for Adult Learning NI).
AONTAS Chief Executive Dearbháil Lawless said: “This is an exciting piece of work which will provide an evidence-base for advocacy. This project is bringing groups together across Northern Ireland by sharing practice, building knowledge and forging solidarity in the sector. This research will show the value and impact of front-line service provision and tell us about the needs of local people, in local communities.”
Colin Neilands from FALNI said: “This is a chance for organisations in the voluntary and community sector to show the power of their voice to demonstrate the scope of their contribution to our society.”
Adults across Northern Ireland currently access most of their learning through local community organisations but the impact of the voluntary and community sector’s role in education for adults has long been under-researched. This has led to its value being underestimated and under-resourced.
The organisers of the census are hoping that their work in adult education will become an important part of Government strategy once the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is restored and fully functional.
They want to see better collaboration across the Stormont departments including Education, Communities and Health to improve the opportunities and experiences of current and future learners.
The aim of this research-based project is to strengthen advocacy work in collaboration with these organisations and to support providers in need of more funding and resources to get recognition for the important work they do.
The launch of the NI census follows a similar exercise carried out by AONTAS in the Republic of Ireland in 2020, which led to improvements in funding and resources for community education.
Census forms will be available to all organisations in the voluntary and community sector that deliver adult learning. The questionnaire asks for a range of information including numbers of participants, the type of courses, whether they are accredited or non-accredited, funding arrangements and the impact of Covid and the cost of living crisis in the sector.
There will also be a series of focus groups held from March to May, which will delve deeper into the issues raised by the questionnaire.
The report’s findings will support and strengthen the adult and community education sector in Northern Ireland and can be used by community organisations to further their individual and collective advocacy with key stakeholders and to strengthen their future funding applications.
Deirdre Quinn, Training Development Manager from the Women’s Research and Development Agency (WRDA), one of the organisations supporting the census project, said: “Ultimately, we hope this mapping of adult learning across the community and voluntary sector will highlight its pivotal role and the challenges it faces to access funding for this provision. This piece of work will help us to build collaboration with those involved in adult learning from all sectors, to both improve provision for adult learners throughout Northern Ireland and to advocate for statutory recognition and funding of learning for all ages.”
Sandra Bailie, head of organisational development in NICVA, added: “Many of our members fulfil the vital role of providing community education throughout Northern Ireland. In fact, advancement of education is the top area of work of charities on the Charity Commission NI database with over 15 per cent of them working in this crucial area.
“We fully support this initiative which is providing support and strengthening the adult and community education sector. It will be an important evidence base to lobby decision makers, encourage collaboration, and demonstrate the undoubted value of community education. We urge all organisations supporting adult learning to fully engage and take part, their voice is essential in shaping services for the future.”