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Ireland – an example of a reform of the adult education system for the purpose of quality improvement at the national level


Ireland has a long tradition of adult education, also called Adult and Community Education, which includes a wide range of programmes and courses that are implemented by formal institutions, civic associations and even individuals. The education system is structured and improved in accordance with economic, social, cultural and personal needs. The idea of forming a partnership between competent authorities and citizens and the emphasis on personal and community development is what makes the Irish adult education system truly extraordinary. The primary goal of this social partnership is to ensure that informal experience and skills acquired by adults are valorised in the sense that they grant access to the adult education system and allow the acquisition of professional qualifications. Emphasis is also placed on the reintegration of adults who dropped out of school early and workplace education, which is often organised and financed by employers and unions. The adult education system as defined includes higher education, continuing education and training and systematic formal and informal learning.




The 2000 “Learning for Life” programme that was published in the White Paper ushered in a new era of adult education in the Republic of Ireland. Increasing access to higher education, strengthening the role of the education sector in the community and promoting workplace learning were highlighted as the principal guidelines for improving the adult education system. Other important legislations related to adult education in the Republic of Ireland include the Education Act (1998), the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act (1999), the National Skills Strategy (2007) and the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion (2007).




The formal education of adults falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education and Skills, which is mainly responsible for promoting equality, social inclusion and the concept of lifelong learning. The Department also provides educational programmes aimed at adults that include courses following the completion of compulsory education, professional training for the unemployed, adult literacy and education in the community. Employment services and related programmes fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Protection. New employment offices were formed in 2012 (Intreo Offices) as the main point of contact for all employment services and as support for employees and employers. Other institutions that are relevant for adult education include the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs.




Evening classes and self-organised educational groups exist informally and are mostly linked to marginalised (refugee), volunteer (elderly) or local interest groups (creative workshops for women). Several non-governmental organisations deal with adult education in the Republic of Ireland, with AONTAS and NALA as the most significant. AONTAS or the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation is a volunteer organisation whose primary goal is to promote a quality and complete adult education system available for everyone. NALA or the National Adult Literacy Agency is an independent organisation that aids people with low literacy skills (language and numeracy) with social inclusion and ensures that education is available that is suited for their needs. The Irish National Framework of Qualifications is aligned with the European framework of qualifications and based on an external assessment and accreditation system and includes 10 educational levels. QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland), an agency formed in 2012, is an accreditation body for providers of adult education programmes and is also responsible for the development and monitoring of the national framework of qualifications and for the external assessment of further and higher education and professional training. The Irish National Framework of Qualifications was designed to integrate lifelong learning in public education in a way that would allow recognition and transparency, thereby ensuring active social inclusion. Attempts at active inclusion have been made in order to ensure that every citizen has equal and fair access to education and training, including those who encounter obstacles in their endeavour to enter the labour market (such as people with disabilities, people who have not completed compulsory education or people with low qualifications). The ultimate goal of social inclusion is to provide flexible educational programmes suited for the needs of individuals.

Scheme of the Irish National Framework of Qualifications


Levels 1 and 2 of the National Framework of Qualifications are especially important in the context of adult education. The aforementioned levels include the acquisition of basic competences and ensure the entrance of poorly employable, poorly qualified and other marginalised groups in the education system, for which participants are given a certificate. This solution is an excellent example of a cohesive policy for the implementation of basic skills in the educational system. The National Framework of Qualifications is an example of how to ensure vertical permeability in the education system for every individual through levels 1 and 2, which are not subject to a Junior Certificate and are based on the acquisition of basic literacy skills. Level 3 (up to the age of 16) refers to compulsory education and is a ticket for entering higher levels of education. Individuals who complete levels 4 and 5 (age 17 – 19) acquire the qualifications necessary for undergraduate education. Levels 6 – 10 include higher education ranging from undergraduate to doctoral studies.




In the last couple of years, the Irish education system has undergone a major institutional reform that can serve as an example of good practice in improving organisation and management and the monitoring of adult education. The FAS – the Irish National Education and Employment Authority – was dismissed and completely new structures were formed. SOLAS, an organisation founded by the Department of Education and Skills, is responsible for funding, planning and coordinating adult education programmes. Its ultimate goal is to make the education system more permeable and suited for labour market needs through the coordination of FET (Further Education and Training). The FET sector (roughly equivalent to professional and adult education in Croatia) provides a wide range of courses for persons over the age of 16 and is the main provider of professional retraining programmes and training for the employed and unemployed. It provides education and training in order to facilitate job finding and the acquisition of personal and social skills and qualifications (levels 1 – 6) of the framework of qualifications. The notion of the importance of developing skills that lead to a reduction of unemployment, proactivity, social inclusion and mobility is central to the FET's strategy. The NSD (National Skills Database) was established in 2003 with the goal of obtaining all data concerning skill demand on the labour market and it was envisioned as a platform for analysing and predicting developments on the labour market. Until recently, the main providers of adult education programmes in the Republic of Ireland were Vocational Education Committees (VEC). VECs were responsible for developing programmes at the local level with the purpose of systemising quality postprimary education. In June 2013, 33 Committees were aggregated, and the responsibility for providing adult education programmes was handed over to the Education and Training Boards (ETB) that act in partnership with SOLAS. 16 boards were established in total and each one is responsible for maintaining the quality of all educational institutions within its local unit.




A five-year Further Education and Training Strategy (2014 – 2019) was adopted this year for the purpose of reforming education programmes within the FET (Further Education and Training) sector. The main strategic goals of the Strategy focus on aligning skills with the needs of the economy, the development of education programmes that correspond with national and international standards of quality, integrated planning and financing based on the objective analysis of socio-economic needs, social inclusion and the development of a system for the external assessment of education programmes.




The Irish experience taught us that investing in education should be a priority. The Republic of Ireland invested 30 % of the total funds allocated from the EU social funds. This proved an excellent move resulting in an increase of workforce quality, which in turn led to economic growth. Nevertheless, reforms and the systematic improvement of the Irish adult education system continue.