First ever census of VCS adult learning provision in NI launched

11 Sep 2023 Sandra Bailie    Last updated: 11 Sep 2023

On 8 September 2023 the first ever NI census of adult learning provision, delivered in connection with the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector in NI was launched in the Long Gallery in Stormont

The NI Community Education Census 2021-22 was commissioned by AONTAS, Ireland’s National Adult Learning Organisation.

Research like this is key to creating meaningful change. It gathers and concentrates the voices of learners, providers and organisations across Northern Ireland into a collective call for action. Their experiences also create a strong evidence base for working with policy-makers, funders, local councils and Government to address the issues identified. 

Dearbháil Lawless AONTAS Chief Executive Officer

The findings from this report show community education has a profound impact on a huge number of learners in Northern Ireland, with the 60 organisations that completed the survey delivering 798 courses to 50,285 learners. Some of the key learning from the research are highlighted below. The full report can be accessed here.

Wide-Ranging Provision with Personal and Social Impacts

Learners were interested in community education for a range of reasons. Those taking part in accredited learning in areas such as Employability, Community Development, and Essential Skills. Non-accredited learning options in the areas of Health and Wellbeing, Community Development and Creative Arts were popular. Learners reported the huge impact that non-accredited courses in particular had on their own wellbeing, and by extension, frequently on the wellbeing of their families. Learners reported increased confidence, resilience and social integration as positive impacts of engaging in community education courses.

Supporting Diverse Learning Needs

The sector provides an impressive range of holistic supports to assist a diverse range of learning needs and to ameliorate disadvantage faced by the different groups engaging in community education. Mental health support  was most commonly reported, and a large number of groups operate drop-in centres, career guidance and provide access to resources. Learners spoke of the profound benefits of engaging in learning in this supportive environment. As one learner in the focus group described:

“It [community education] has saved the Government a fortune not having to treat me for mental health.”

Both Sector and Learners Facing Financial Difficulties

The funding landscape for community provision is highly complex and diverse, with organisations accessing a mix of government, local government and philanthropic funding sources. There are challenges around securing funding from, and then reporting to, a large number of funders, as well as a lack of ability to plan due to the short-term nature of funding contracts. This was compounded by the impact of the cost of living crisis, which has caused centres’ running costs to dramatically increase. Learners are aware of the very real financial challenges faced by the sector, and the impact on individuals and communities should funding demands not be met. One learner commented:

“What would we do if the centre had to close? There’d be a lot of isolation. Families can’t do without these supports.”

Strengthening Links with Further and Higher Education

Also examined in this research are the links that community providers share with Further Education and Higher Education Institutions. A large proportion of community groups are already linked with their local Further Educational College, while almost half were linked with a University. These partnerships are working well in most cases, however, research participants described a number of ways in which these relationships could be improved upon to foster better understanding and partnerships and further support learner progression.

A Way Forward

As part of this research, participants were asked to reflect on how they think the sector could be better supported and made more sustainable, and the recommendations below arise from the findings of this research broadly:

  • Reliable and longer-term funding for community education, taking account of all the resources required to provide a truly supportive learning environment.
  • Greater recognition for community education. Recognition is needed not just in terms of financial support, but also in terms of inclusion in policy and policy-making at local and regional levels.
  • Further investment into impact measurement, greater uniformity of practice and consistent reporting structures.
  • Stronger relations with statutory providers and policy-makers. There is a need for greater mutual understanding and trust building. There needs to be a mechanism to facilitate this relationship building, as effective collaboration requires support, structure and purpose.
  • A single strategy for adult learning that unites all the providing sectors

This research closes the gap in understanding the challenges in NI, by establishing a robust evidence base using methods and techniques that have already done so much to support the non-formal education sector and adult learners in the Republic of Ireland. While community education and adult learning falls within the remit of the Department for the Economy, it is clear that the objectives and goals of other Departments can be enhanced through a coherent approach to adult learning and its delivery. 

John D’Arcy AONTAS Chair


AONTAS Community Education Map

This is a brand-new resource for everyone working or interested in community education in Ireland and Northern Ireland. There is essential work happening in local communities all across the country. This map is a new space to make that work visible and to say Community Education is here.  

Click here to put yourself on the Community Education Map


FALNI is the Forum for Adult Learning in NI.  FALNI works closely with organisations such as AONTAS to inform, advocate and collaborate on issues relevant to adult learning in NI. Click here to find out more.'s picture
by Sandra Bailie

Head of Organisational Development

[email protected]

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