Berni Brady

Berni Brady, Director of the Irish National Association of Adult Education AONTAS, explains why there is a need for professionalisation of the adult education sector, and how professional development should take place. AONTAS is a voluntary membership organisation. It is an umbrella organisation, encompassing all the various aspects of adult education in Ireland. It has over 570 members, ranging from statutory providers of adult education, such as Vocational Education Commit-tees and third level institutions, to voluntary providers of community education, to individual adult learners and those with a general interest in adult education. The role of AONTAS is to work towards improving the adult education sector in Ireland through policy development, promoting the benefits of adult education and research.

Developing Professionalism in the Adult Education Service

Emphasis on Professionalism

The publication of the White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life (2000), was a major step in the development of the adult education service in Ireland, bringing with it a much-needed injection of resources into a sector that had been severely neglected for many years. The increase in resources has led to the growth and development of a much more sophisticated service, with a new emphasis on quality and professionalism. The development and implementation of accreditation systems, and various quality assurance frameworks, as well as the requirement for strategic planning at local level, have required a range of new skills within the sector, such as leadership, change management, and organisational development.

Today, the modern adult education service is a multi-faceted service, comprising a complex mix of provider agencies, ranging from locally-based community groups and agencies to Vocational Education Committees (VECs), secondary and community schools, third-level and private institutions.

Three Categories of Staff in the Sector

The staffing of the adult and community education sector reflects its complexity, and has changed considerably during the past 10 years, particularly since the implementation of some of the recommendations of the White Paper. An increasing number of people are now working in the sector, at a variety of levels, in roles that could roughly be classified under three categories.

Those Working Directly with Learners

Firstly, there are the people who work directly with learners. These include volunteers in the literacy service and community education groups; teachers who work with the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS), the Back to Education Initiative (BTEI), Post Leaving Certificate (PLC), and Youthreach services; skills-based tutors; adult education facilitators; and tutors who work with community education groups and third level mature students, as well as guidance and information personnel.

Organisers and Coordinators of Services

The second category includes staff whose role it is to organise and coordinate services, and to support both the development of programmes, and those involved in their delivery. These include Community Education Facilitators (CEFs), Adult Literacy Organisers, Guidance Coordinators, BTEI Coordinators, community group lead-ers, and development workers, as well as a range of personnel within the higher education system such as Access Officers, Mature Student Officers, and so on.

Management Personnel

The third category of workers in this sector includes management personnel, whose role is to lead the strategic thinking and planning for the service, and to support staff to develop integrated and team approaches to their work. Managers at this level need to be capable of providing "bigger picture" thinking, and of involving their staff teams in anticipating and responding to the ever-changing needs of the service. They also need to work together with a range of stakeholders in the local environment to provide a coherent service as part of the lifelong learning agenda. Included in this category are Adult Education Officers, Education Officers, and Chief Executive Officers within the VEC system; managers and management committees of community groups; and directors of adult and community education services within the second and third level education sectors.

Different Types of Professional Development

While these broad distinctions are being made for the purposes of de-fining the range of roles in the sector, there are obviously many areas of crossover, and it is in the best interests of the service that those working within it are involved as closely as possible in all aspects of its development. However, different categories of staff require different types of professional development depending on their roles, levels of skills, qualifications, and experience. Also, the nature of the growth of the service in the past meant that many of the staff working within it learned their skills on the job and do not necessarily have formal qualifications.

Current Systems of Support

Support services currently in existence across the service are varied in their quality and consistency, are generally poorly resourced and are often unconnected with each other. Within the VEC adult education service, different programmes have developed their own support services, with particular funding strands, but generally unrelated to each other. Examples include the Youthreach, Senior Travellers Training Centres, and VTOS.

More recently, the Community Education Facilitators' Training and Support Programme was established, and is currently being delivered by AONTAS. The National Adult Literacy Agency provides the main training for adult literacy personnel within the VEC service, as well as supporting a variety of other initiatives outside of the VECs, while the National Committee for Guidance in Education provides a support service for the adult guidance projects, run mostly under the auspices of the VECs. In addition, associations formed by VEC personnel receive small amounts of direct funding from the Department of Education and Science to support activities that could generally be described as networking and practice sharing.

Training and Support for the Community Education Sector

Alongside this statutory provision, community groups deliver community-based education in local centres, mostly on a voluntary basis and, in some cases, supported by the local Adult Education Officer (AEO). Many of these groups are funded by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for their anti-poverty education programmes, with some receiving support from the VECs, through tutor hours or annual small grants.

Training and support for community education staff is provided through a variety of sources, including Community Development Support Agencies, national organisations such as AONTAS, the National Collective of Community-based Women's Networks, European-funded projects and so on.

The Need for a Sophisticated System of Support

People working across the adult education sector tend to come with a range of experiences and qualifications, garnered from a variety of sources, and often their work does not fit comfortably with the rigid regulations of the formal education system. The ad-hoc development of the adult education sector has been the result of little recognition until relatively recently but, paradoxically, it has led to a rich range of skills and experience within the sector and the ability to respond to the needs of learners in a flexible way. As the service now develops, the challenge will be to retain and build its flexibility, while providing quality options for learners. This implies the development of a sophisticated support system, which will provide integrated and coherent approaches to staff development across the sector.

Structural Development

Professional development is inextricably tied into structural development, and this is one area where no progress has been made since the publication of the White Paper. The Paper recommended the establishment of an Inter-Agency Working Group, representing a broad range of interests, whose role would be to:

  • Examine the range of qualifications currently available in relation to the needs of the sector
  • Identify generic training needs, as well as the scope and need for specific specialisms on an elective basis
  • Explore, with relevant third-level colleges, the scope for a modular and flexible approach to the development of nationally certified in-service and pre-service training programmes
  • Make recommendations on the future recognition of qualifications in the adult education service

The White Paper also proposed a forum for adult education practitioners, to be established by the National Adult Learning Council (NALC), with a view to supporting the development of staff. Six years on, none of these recommendations have been implemented, and the suspension of NALC since 2003 has created an enormous gap in the leadership and direction of adult education. It is no surprise, given the treatment of NALC by the Department of Education and Science, that adult education has effectively slipped off the Department's agenda and, in 2006, received the lowest levels of increases in funding since 1997.

One of the core principles recommended by the White Paper to underpin the development of the adult education service was a systemic approach, which would require educational policies to develop coherent structures and strategies, leading to a seamless service, providing access for all adults. Six years on, however, the sector is still being funded and regulated on a piece-meal basis, thus preventing the development of professionalism in any coherent way. As a matter of urgency, the Department of Education and Science now needs to return to its policy frame-work, as outlined in the White Paper, and start to take seriously the necessity for coherent development and adequate funding for the sector as a whole.