The demolition of community education in Northern Ireland
Just imagine the uproar if the education department withdrew a school’s funding two months before the end of term leaving A Level and GSCE students without teachers, and the rest of the pupils scrambling for places elsewhere.
Such an action would be absolutely unthinkable, indeed impossible. No government would allow that kind of thing to happen no matter what.
Yet officials in Stephen Farry’s Department of Employment and Learning seemed to suffer no such qualms when they put a torch to community education schemes across Northern Ireland this month.
By doing so they left many adults trying to make the best of their lives in limbo, with all the study and sacrifice rendered meaningless and their future progress on hold.
Many readers will find it moving to know that many of the staff whose funding has now disappeared are now working for no pay because they are refusing to let down people who put their trust in them.
One of these is Sharon McCullough who runs the community education programmes in Lenadoon. Her courses have been highly rated by inspectors, and many people in the area have benefited from them.
“I’ve worked in the community all my life and I’m not closing the doors. We do not want to let our students down,” she says.
In Sharon’s case she has been running courses that run from teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills right up to GCSEs and A levels. For those taking part the programmes have given them a pathway to employment, developed self-esteem and improved family life. Community education can transform lives.
Currently there are 169 on courses, with a further 300 on a waiting list.
The latest developments are part of a long running process which has seen the steady demise of community education in Northern Ireland.
Colin Neilands is chair of the Forum for Adult Learning and used to run the Workers Educational Association which was forced to close last year due to cuts as was the Ulster Peoples’ College.
He believes that community education has become the victim of a “perfect storm” of cuts partly due to the lack of co-ordination between the multiplicity of departments that have provided funding.
DEL has overall responsibility but there are also other departments that contribute: Health, Justice and OFM/DFM to cite three.
There is no doubt that all branches of government want to improve our skills base, for a variety of reasons: to improve employability and productivity, to attract more employment opportunities, to improve mental health and help with the rehabilitation of offenders. There are so many reasons for this work.
The strategy appears to be one of increasing “professionalisation”, diverting funds to FE Colleges linked to a focus on young people not in education employment or training.
This is all very well and good and on the surface laudable. Yet there are, and will continue to be casualties.
Let’s take the hypothetical example of a single unemployed mum from Lenadoon with young children who currently studies at Lenadoon.
In the future she’s presumably going to have to travel to Belfast to continue her education. That’s not as simple as it sounds. To get into college requires two buses each way, and there is the additional problem of child care, currently this is not an issue as there is a crèche at Lenadoon.
Neillands says that is not the only barrier: “It’s not that easy for many people to go to college. Colleges are invariably huge, anonymous and can be very intimating. They are not necessarily the most supportive environment. That’s why more informal, local settings can work so well.”
The latest crisis was precipitated by community education programmes losing out in applications to the European Social Fund which is administered by DEL.
One of the biggest problems for those involved in adult learning is the lack of a collective voice. Neillands wants to ramp up the Forum for Adult Learning to fill that void, working with the FE colleges and the voluntary and community sector in order to provide a collective lobby for their work and to represent the interests of students.
It’s not an easy task. Everyone with experience of cutbacks knows that there is an inevitable tension between self and collective interest and that can become a barrier to progress.
However the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice of all those trainers who are currently working without pay demonstrates the passion of the sector. If that can be effectively harnessed, there is at least some hope for the future.
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