AONTAS, Ireland’s national adult learning organisation, has received the 2022 International Adult and Continuing Education (IACE) Hall of Fame award.

It’s the first time the award, presented by the IACE Hall of Fame based in the University of Oklahoma, has been won by the organisation.

AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless describes their One Step Up website service: “It’s in plain language. The website basically breaks down terminology people might not be used to.

“It also provides direction and information on what the next steps might be if they want to return to education.

“Quite often people assume that they have to do their Leaving Cert if they want to engage in adult education or higher education which isn’t true.”


Dearbháil emphasises how important the Hall of Fame award is for recognising adult education.

“It’s provides great recognition for the value of the work that we do, and shows a real need for an NGO that brings people together as a collective, that advocates on behalf of adult learners.

“The word ‘aontas’ means ‘union’, so an underlying foundation of everything that we do is around that collective. It’s about a collective of people, a collective of organisations, shared understanding and solidarity, shared knowledge and learning.

“AONTAS highlights that non-formal education in community education is often a really important step in opening the door for people who come back or return to learning, and that often builds their confidence and their self-esteem.

“It’s an inclusive model, recognised across Europe as well. We’re often asked to present on community education and other countries really recognise the value.

“Our former CEO Dr Niamh O’Reilly was awarded an individual award as well which is amazing.”

Stepping forward

Adult learner Kayla Dibble left school before completing her Leaving Certificate after being diagnosed with a rare neurological condition.

She describes her journey to return to education with the help of AONTAS: “I would have done the Vocational Training and Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) with Roscommon. I started back in 2019 and AONTAS actually do a lot of advocacy work. They do the National FET Learner’s Forum.”

A few months back there was a Quality Assurance Review and they provided training for learners with that, which is how Kayla became aware of AONTAS. Last July, Kayla took part in the Learners as Leaders Development Education Programme. This course, a month-long workshop, was aimed at incorporating sustainable development goals into adult community education.

Alternative path to success

“I left school at the start of sixth year because I have a rare medical condition. Basically the school just didn’t ever adequately plan anything for me to continue my education, so I left.

“I took a year out to focus on my health and then tried to do the Leaving Cert from home. Schools very much show you only one route to education.

“I tried to do the learning from home but it didn’t work for me. It was a lot of trouble trying to get support and throughout all of that my parents kept saying to me, ‘you know, VTOS is an option’. They had done it years and years ago, my dad had got a job from it.”

With nothing left to lose, Kayla went into the VTOS open day and took it from there.

“I completed a Level Four in ICT skills, I completed a Level Five in Business Administration and that’s what’s enabled me to get into college.

“At the end of September I actually started a Bachelor of Business Honours in Digital Marketing at the Technological University of the Shannon Athlone.

Caring environment

Kayla believes that AONTAS puts the learner at the heart of their work having witnessed it herself.

“They’re very much learner-centred and I think that’s what kind of drew me towards them, is that they’re always asking the learner what can the sector do to improve or what can your centre do to improve or if there’s anything they can advocate on at Government level.

“Honestly the team are very approachable. There’s never an “us” and “them”, it’s very much a collaborative effort between everyone and I think that’s what drew me towards the organisation.

‘Bite the bullet and just do it’

Kayla emphasises that when it comes to further education, there’s something for everyone.

“There’s people in their 40s, 50s, 60s that just want to get out of the house and do a hobby-based course in community ed, maybe gardening or flower arranging. I think it’s important for people to know that that’s what FET is – there’s so many options there.

“I suppose advice really for anyone looking to return would be, I know it’s a cliché, but bite the bullet and just do it. Make contact with a service, whether that’s the One Step Up service, whether that’s your local ETB guidance service, whether that’s walking into your local FET centre or community centre or library that might have information. But it’s important to make the first step, just make contact with somebody.

“And [don’t be] ashamed either if you’ve struggled with education previous or you’ve been out of education so many years or whatever, because I mean there’s nothing really to be ashamed of at the end of the day.

Further information

The One Step Up website and freephone helpline, 1800-303-669, provided by AONTAS, is available to all adults looking to return to education.