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Taking learning out of institutions

Irish qualifications framework is compatible with non-formal education because it sets standards of learning outcome not standardizing the learning process. Niamh O’Reilly told the conference that accreditation of non-formal learning has been a big opportunity and a second chance for many Irish citizens.

In economical and financial terms Ireland is the poor cousin of the European family these days. But when it comes to qualifications frameworks, Niamh O’Reilly was able to present the most coherent model of all at the conference – and even more important: the most successful example of integrating non-formal learning into the framework.
Niamh O’Reilly is working with AONTAS, the Irish adult learning organization.

Awards on each level

The foundation of the Irish national qualifications framework was laid in 2001, when three new organizations were established:
• National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI)
• Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC)
• Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC)
“The task of NQAI was to develop and maintain a national framework of qualifications. To this end they made a system of coordinating and comparing awards based on outcomes. The result was a 10 level framework, and to each level there is an award,” Niamh O’Reilly explained.
She also told a about a process of intensive consultation with stakeholders:
“The policies were explained, and feedback was incorporated. That enabled ownership and support for the process,” she said.

Registered providers

In the Irish framework non-formal learning covers level 1-6.
“As part of the national framework learning outside traditional institutions can now be accredited,” Niamh O’Reilly told. She further explained:
“To be able to grant an award you have to register to become a FETAC provider. To do that you must sign a Quality Assurance Agreement. According to the agreement the provider must have a policy statement and written policies and procedures. They most monitor the learning and evaluate the outcome.”
In the Irish model there are different kinds of assessment of the learning outcome.
“At level 1 or 2 you don’t need exams. The assessment can be made by way of a personal portfolio. And all through the system there is no assessment of the learning process – and therefore no standardization of learning methods, only assessment of learning outcome,” Niamh O’Reilly stressed.

Benefits

According to AONTAS there are big benefits of accredited non-formal learning.
“For many people with low skills it is an important opportunity, a real second chance. Recent AONTAS research shows that half of the learners want to be accredited,” Niamh O’Reilly said.
“It is important to both learners and providers that all learning can be accredited, for example also knitting or art. This takes learning out of institutions and makes non-formal learning on a par with qualifications in the formal sector,” she argued.

Challenges

Of course such a big reform is not without problems – or challenges, as Niamh O’Reilly termed it. Actually she presented a whole list of challenges:
• Government policy focuses on individuals moving one level up
• Non-accredited learning may lose status and be more difficult to fund
• Small providers may lack the administrative capacity to be quality assured by FETAC
• There may arise a dilemma for providers between quality assurance and nurturing the learner

Be imaginative and use it!

But the non-formal sector must cope with these challenges according to Niamh O’Reilly.
“Civil society must take on the task of influencing the qualifications frameworks. We must advocate for the right to recognition, the right to progression and right to return into education if you have been out.
Fundamentally, the qualifications framework has been an import step forward for non-formal learning in Ireland.
But the non-formal sector needs to be imaginative on how to use it. If you want to avoid a top-down approach, you must take the initiative and use the framework rather than being led by it,” was the final advice from Niamh O’Reilly.

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Niamh O´Reilly
Niamh O´Reilly

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