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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Issues for Adult Participation in Learning in Northern Ireland

by Colin Neilands
Language: EN

Northern Ireland Impact Forum Conference 2019


This was the focus of a recent webinar run by the Northern Ireland Impact Forum on Adult Learning. This Forum is one of four set up in 2014 as part of the UK EAAL programme (see UK National Coordinator for the European Agenda for Adult Learning). Each Forum brings together stakeholders in adult learning from across the sectors and reaches out to those working in related fields, such as health, community development and business. As Northern Ireland has no established voice for adult learning this development has been particularly welcomed and strongly supported.


Participation Data and ‘Deep Dives’

The cover of OECD Skills Strategy: Northern Ireland | Recommendations Mission (21-24 January 2020) - Briefing PackIn her recent blog (Working Together to Raise Adult Participation in Learning), Fiona Aldridge describes the annual Adult Participation in Learning survey carried out by Learning and Work Institute. This year the Institute will also undertake ‘deep dives’ into the issues and opportunities facing those currently under-represented in learning and in doing so is consulting with partners across the four UK nations. Fiona gave an overview at this webinar of trends emerging across the UK and anticipated in the 2020 survey, which is currently being conducted.

Webinar participants discussed three particular issues where it was felt a greater understanding via a ‘deep dive’ would help shape local policy development. We are particularly mindful that the Department for the Economy is preparing a new Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland and one of the key recommendations from the preparatory report compiled by the OECD is the development of a culture of lifelong learning.


Moving from Informal to Formal Learning

Participants felt strongly that there continues to be too little understanding by policymakers of the role informal learning plays in building a culture of lifelong learning and that it is a vital foundation for Government’s desired goal of greater uptake of skills provision. Practitioners have long seen how engagement in informal learning builds confidence and self-esteem and capacity to learn and progress. However, this has largely remained qualitative or anecdotal data and informal learning is not consistently evaluated, with a plethora of uncoordinated funders and providers since the demise of regional community learning providers. There is an infrastructural gap in Northern Ireland hindering relationship building between informal and formal learning providers and consequently complicating the learning journeys of our adult learners.

In supporting the need to know more of learners’ journeys from informal to formal provision, we must not be seen to buy into a model where all learners must make such progression and where the choice not to do so (or to progress at the officially desired speed and direction) is labelled failure. Informal learning contributes much in its own right to individuals and the community – bringing wellbeing benefits, breaking social isolation and much more.


Engaging More Men in Learning

Consistently there is a lower uptake of adult learning by men than by women. Obviously, this is a common challenge in adult learning and not particular to Northern Ireland. While it has long been researched (see for example the work of Veronica McGivney – Excluded Men 1999), there has not led to a significant shift in engagement. 

In Northern Ireland there has been a concern for some time over the significant and persistent under-achievement in school of working-class boys and this will be a particular focus of a recently appointed Expert Panel. This pattern clearly repeats through later life and it would be interesting if a deep dive could shed any new light on barriers to male participation which might feed into this enquiry.

Ulster University is also carrying out research into access of working-class males – Taking Boys Seriously.

However, in terms of informal learning the Mens’ Sheds movement shows engagement can be achieved. The model has been hugely successful across all parts of Ireland and has reached out in particular to older men. The option of single gender provision and programmes geared to traditionally male interests has worked well, and the results in terms of mental health benefits are widely acknowledged.


The Urban/Rural Divide

Another issue found across the UK is the inequity of service experienced by those living in rural areas. This is often highlighted in Northern Ireland in terms of access to many different resources, but perhaps less often to adult learning.

The COVID-19 crisis has further highlighted the lack of high-speed internet access across many parts and if adult learning providers continue to shift more provision online the disadvantage for many rural dwellers will only increase.

Transport links and costs continue to create a barrier to physically accessing many places of learning and the role which local community organisations play in providing a range of informal and formal learning is critical for many.


What Next?

The decision as to which areas will become the focus of ‘deep dives’ lies with Fiona Aldridge and her team, but the webinar discussions showed that practitioners in Northern Ireland have many concerns about access for adult learners. The Impact Forum will work to bring these to the attention of the appropriate policymakers and press for more local research into participation in adult learning.


Institute for Learning and Work, Learning and Work | Sefydliad Dysgu a Gwaith, Scotland's Learning Partnership, Forum for Adult Learning NI, Ecorys, Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union


About the author

A photo of Colin Neilands


Colin Neilands is an EPALE UK Ambassador and the Director of Communitus Consulting. He established Communitus in 2014 to continue his core interests in adult learning and good relations. Previously he worked for 23 years with the Workers' Educational Association in Northern Ireland. He helped found the Forum for Adult Learning NI in 2010 and continues to be its Chair. He currently manages the Northern Ireland Impact Forum on Adult Learning and is contracted to help promote EPALE UK in Northern Ireland.





This blog is part of the Learning and Work Institute's 2020 collection of blogs and comments from UK adult educators involved in the European Agenda for Adult Learning programme. If you would like to get involved please contact Mark Ravenhall or Joyce Black.


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