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.