Adult education

eolas explores the figures associated with adult education and the Government’s action plan to help reach EU guidelines.

Addressing levels of adult learning In Ireland is a relatively new concept having first been aired back in 1973. The Adult Education in Ireland Report, referred to as the Murphy Report, was the first official acknowledgement of an adult literacy problem in Ireland. However the report, and the subsequent Kenny report of 1983, which was the first state report to have lifelong learning as a central theme, made little impact on national statistics.

Since then planned reform of Ireland’s education system with regard to higher education and further education and training has formed a focus on creating the right opportunities for Irish adults. The Further Education and Training Strategy (FET) 2014 – 2019 represents the first five year strategy for the further education and training sector in the history of the State.

Adult participation in learning 2012-2015 (%)

Source: Eurostat (EU-LFS, 2012-2015)
Source: Eurostat (EU-LFS, 2012-2015)

Tertiary educational attainment and Europe 2020 targets

Source: Eurostat.
Source: Eurostat.

A key vision which the strategy outlines is to: “Improve literacy and numeracy levels amongst the adult population with a particular focus on providing individuals with the necessary competencies to achieve their personal, social, career and employment aspirations by promoting literacy and numeracy provision.”

Currently the proportion of working-age adults in Ireland who have, at most, lower secondary level education remains around the OECD and EU average and recent figures from the EU Education and Training Monitor show that Ireland has one of the lowest rates of participation within adult education in the EU, with just 6.9 per cent of Irish adults returning to study to learn new skills.

While each nation has responsibility for its own education system, the EU has moved to address common challenges through Education and training 2020 (ET 2020), a framework for cooperation in education and training. Among its benchmarks is the goal that every nation should have at least 15 per cent of adults participating in lifelong learning.

However, the percentage of adult participation in lifelong learning for 2015 was just 6.5 per cent and actually fell from 2012 levels. AONTAS, Ireland’s national adult learning organisation, estimates that Ireland’s lifelong learning participation is currently around half of that of the UK’s and have called on the Government to not only widen participation but also to widen access particularly for those who prematurely finished full-time education. They estimate that just 7 per cent of those participating in lifelong learning are made up of those who held qualifications at lower secondary or less compared to 59 per cent who were third level graduates.


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