The Back to Education Initiative can provide people with disabilities with an opportunity to return to learning says Catherine Byrne, Community Education Facilitator, Dún Laoghaire Vocational Education Committee & Michele Hammett, Instructor, Choices Department, Carmona Services, Dún Laoghaire


The Back to Education Initiative (BTEI) was announced in January 2002 by the then Minister of State for Adult Education, Willie O’Dea, as part of the implementation of the White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for life. Key principles of the initiative include learner-centredness, equality, accessibility and inclusiveness, recognising and accommodating diversity, innovation, local consultation and quality assurance.

Dún Laoghaire VEC Adult Education Service welcomed the announcement of the Initiative and began a period of consultation with local groups and agencies. People with disabilities were identified as a key target group for the programme. A steering group was formed, made up of local agencies and providers in the disability sector.

The steering group agreed that a flexible, modular-based programme should be developed under the BTEI for people with disabilities. The programme was named ‘Exploring our potential’ and began in January 2003. The key elements of the programme included:

  • Induction—a two-week induction was put in place to allow students to gain an initial taster of the programme before deciding to progress.
  • Content—students were asked to develop their own programme, with emphasis on Communications and ITC.
  • Location—the programme was located in a mainstream setting, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Further Education.
  • Support—support was provided by the agencies or services who had referred the students and was designed to maximise the students’ independence.
  • Guidance—support was provided to each student by Discover Guidance, the Dún Laoghaire VEC’s Adult Education guidance service.

The seven students who enrolled on the programme graduated in July 2003 and were presented with certificates of achievement. Dún Laoghaire VEC Adult Education were delighted to announce that the Further Education Section of the Department of Education and Science had approved funding for a second phase of ‘Exploring our potential’, meaning that it has now developed into a two-year programme.

From the point of view of workers within services, whether primarily concerned with education or not, there are many reasons why it may be felt that continuing education can be beneficial to intellectually disabled people. People with intellectual disabilities may need more assistance and support than their non-disabled peers to maintain their skills and to adapt them to changing life situations. Their childhood educational experiences may have left them wanting or needing compensatory input. For those who are working towards employment educational activities may be seen as preparation for, and progression towards, participation in the jobs market. As with non-disabled adults there are many for whom continuing education is an exciting and empowering process, for the satisfaction that mastering a new skill brings, for the sense of achievement that accompanies certification and for the simple love of learning and developing one’s interests. The 1998 Green Paper, with its emphasis on lifelong learning, speaks of the process of adult education as being ‘… compensatory … empowering … [and] upgrading’ (Department of Education 1998). This question of empowerment is crucial. Traditionally people with intellectual disabilities have been seen as needing protection from the wider world, rather than being empowered and supported to negotiate its challenges and to find their place within it. Adult Education has a key role to play here: regardless of intellectual ability no one is ever empowered by ignorance. Thus those of us whose organisations are taking steps towards embracing personal outcomes measures—and many of us are individually committed to this system—may be particularly interested in initiatives such as this which widen the knowledge and experiences of those who use our services.

Until the 1990s, when third-level institutions such as Trinity College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology partnered services in providing further education for learners with intellectual disabilities, adult education was yet another experience from which this group of people were traditionally largely excluded in this country. What is so encouraging about Dún Laoghaire VEC’s response to the Back io Education Initiative is that it is a recognition by a statutory adult education provider that people with intellectual disabilities have a right to access their services. The issue of who should provide further education to intellectually disabled adults has on occasions been a somewhat confused one. There would appear to be scope for fruitful future partnership between VECs as providers of education and services as providers of support to ensure that intellectually disabled learners receive the educational experiences and activities they choose to pursue.

This is a relatively new area of educational practice in this country. As such the extant body of knowledge and recorded best practice in this area is not large, particularly that of Irish origin. Now that formal identification of this area of educational need has occurred perhaps those working in this area may be encouraged to begin to address this lack. Those of us on the front line, from both services and educational providers, are likely to be among the best placed to both develop and share expertise in this area. It seems self-evident that the beneficiaries will be the learners.


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