Speech by Minister Brady at the Official Opening of the 3rd AONTAS Senior Learner Network Meeting
I am delighted to be here to open the 3rd AONTAS Senior Learner Network. I would like to thank Niamh O’Reilly for her kind invitation to officiate this morning.
It is important, at the outset, to acknowledge the very valuable role that older people play in all areas of our society. There are at present approximately half a million people aged 65 or over in Ireland, and the number is set to rise in coming years. While we should to celebrate the fact that we are living longer, healthier lives, it is equally important that these should have purpose and meaning. Older age should be a time of new freedom and challenge, that enables older people to lead a richer and fulfilling life.
The Importance of Learning for Older People.
The positive and beneficial role that education plays at all stages of our lives cannot be over stated. It encourages people to discover new skills or talents and heralds new opportunities or experiences.
Being involved in further education can help also break down the sense of isolation that older people sometimes feel, encourages a sense of direction, and introduces people to a new community of fellow learners. It is through such involvement that a sense of belonging is fostered, through new friendships, skills and community involvement. It has been well documented, and is widely accepted, that there is an obvious link between keeping active and good health as we get older. This has both physical and mental benefits.
There are therefore many reasons why older people should continue to participate in learning thus helping to promote an inclusive and sustainable society.
Office for Older People:
As Minister of State, I have specific responsibility for the recently created Office for Older People. This Office reinforces most clearly the commitment of the Government to enhancing the lives of our senior citizens. My aim is to ensure that the vision of a unified approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by our ageing population is realised, and that older people receive the maximum support and encouragement to enhance their lives.
One of the priorities of my Office is to develop a Strategy for Positive Ageing. My goal is to develop a meaningful and innovative strategy that will result in real improvements in the lives of older people. I intend that the new Strategy will cover all the main issues relevant to older people and not just focus on the health and personal, social services areas. It will instead concentrate on a broader range of issues, highlighting the participation of older people across society and the ways in which relevant programmes and services are organized. It will concentrate for example on income, housing, transport, education and employment. The Strategy is being developed by a Cross-Departmental Group, chaired by the Director of the Office for Older People. There is an Expert Advisory Group and a Liaison Group composed of key Non-Governmental Organisations representing older people advising on the process.
In June last, I called for submissions on the new Strategy now being developed. This is the first time that there has been such a wide-ranging consultation between Government and older people about matters that affect them. The closing date for the public consultation process was just last week, 24th September. The next step will be to consider in detail all submissions received, with a view to progressing the Strategy as planned.
With specific reference to today’s proceedings I congratulate AONTAS for playing such a pivotal role in the field of Adult and Community Education, since its establishment in 1969. The Department of Education and Science has long recognised this contribution, with the provision of annual funding since the mid 1970’s. AONTAS continues to provide an excellent support and advisory service for Adult Education providers, students and the general public. Its activities have expanded considerably over the years, as has the size and profile of its membership. The Government sees the Association continuing to have a major input into the development of Further Education in the years to come.
AONTAS has been to the forefront in promoting and highlighting the needs of the Further Education sector and has developed the annual Adult Learner’s Festival. This important initiative has undoubtedly been a fantastic success since its inception in 2007. It has brought lifelong learning to a new level. The Festival, which now lasts for a week, promotes and highlights the different education services available to adults nationwide.
I understand that it was during a Senior Learner Network meeting, held as part of the Festival, that the Senior Learner Network Manifesto was formulated. This is a vibrant mechanism which enables learners to come together, share their experiences, and identify barriers or issues that may arise for the adult learner. The Manifesto promotes the needs and rights of senior learners and lists five requirements for senior learner education. It outlines the corresponding suggested actions that need to be taken by policymakers and local statutory bodies, to ensure the growth and progress of adult learning.
The Government recognises the importance of continuing older people in Further Education programmes, and has prioritised a major expansion of opportunities in this area. Exchequer expenditure in this sector, for example, has increased by 60% from €256 million in 2002 to €414 million in 2008. The overall budget provision for 2009 is approximately €420m. We will continue to support Further Education programmes in order to encourage an ethos of lifelong learning within our citizens.
Lifelong Learning is undoubtedly crucial to the positive and constructive development of our society, and encompasses all forms of formal and informal education. It ranges from pre-school through to post-retirement – it is in essence, an on-going process of growth rather than a final goal to be reached. In this context older people are specifically prioritised under the “Back to Education Initiative (BTEI)”, where around 20% of those participating were older people.
In addition, I understand that last year around 17% of participants in the Adult Literacy Service run by the VEC’s were in the older category. In general, there has been an increase in such trends in recent years and this obviously should be encouraged in every way.
In this current economic climate, a prime objective has to be to encourage people, particularly our older population to achieve their full personal potential through education. I would exhort each individual to realise their vision and talents in this way.
I would like, once again, to congratulate AONTAS as they support those who have started on the journey of learning. I hope that the spirit of enthusiasm, warmth and support apparent here today at this meeting will encourage others on their own path of learning and self-fulfilment.