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Niamh O’Reilly

Niamh O’Reilly

Hall of Fame Class of 2022

For almost 20 years Niamh O’Reilly has been a leading advocate for educational equality for adults and an inspiring leader in the field of lifelong learning both nationally and internationally. Through her role as Chief Executive Officer of AONTAS, Ireland’s National Adult Learning Organization, she has strategically brought adult and community education into national prominence, re-establishing AONTAS as the key stakeholder on the policy stage, resulting in the inclusion of adult education in national policy plans.

Evidence-based advocacy, authentic collaboration, and dynamism have been the hallmark of her career, resulting in solid alliances, empowered learners, and engaged educators. Her high-level advocacy with the Irish government is informed by the networks of learners and educators she established, leading to a representative voice for adult learning. These successful, sustainable networks empower community education providers (Community Education Network) and adult learners (National Learner Forum) to shape policy and practice. She also recently co-founded a regional network of adult education advocates to support Northern Ireland through cooperation (Network for Adult Learning across Borders) post-Brexit. In building a resilient, national representative voice for adult learning, she oversaw the most extensive organizational and governance review since the establishment of AONTAS, increasing the operating budget by 70 percent and staff numbers by 70 percent, almost a third of whom now hold doctorates.

Her work has had a major impact internationally as well. She was the designated national coordinator of European Agenda for Adult Learning and past board member of EAEA and has worked with senior EU policymakers and commissioners to promote inclusive adult education. Committed to building the profile of AONTAS as part of the global adult learning community, Niamh expanded the organization’s EU projects portfolio with a total income of more than €800,000, set a track record for collaborating with organizations (e.g., Paulo Freire Institute), established the first lifelong learning advocacy summer school, and internationalized the Adult Learner Journal.

Due to her knowledge, competence, and energy, adult community education is now represented at the highest level. In recognition, she has been appointed by the relevant government minister to two key national boards: Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and SOLAS (the national training agency). It is a direct indicator of her successful advocacy that adult and community education is currently embedded in national strategies.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niamh proactively re-orientated AONTAS to become the trusted nongovernmental organization with expertise to guide governmental tertiary education policy through an equality lens. She represented the sector as part of the national COVID-19 tertiary education steering group and was appointed chairperson of the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group. She developed a Tertiary Education Learner Support Framework, which acted as the foundation for strategic advocacy, resulting in the establishment of a new €10 million fund for community education designed to reach the most disadvantaged adult learners. This fund revolutionized the ability of community-based organizations to respond to learner needs.

Niamh has spoken on national radio (e.g., Ask the Expert, Newstalk FM), has published opinion pieces in the Irish Times, contributed to the National Yearbook (Education Matters), contributed to the UNESCO UIL blog, the European LLL magazine, and national and international journals. A popular conference speaker on adult learning in Ireland, she also has lectured on European lifelong learning policy and presented at the University of Würzburg. She was recently appointed Chief of Staff at the President’s Office working directly with Maynooth University for President, Professor Eeva Leinonen. Recognizing the advantages she has been afforded and the path she has tried to carve for women in leadership, she strives to ensure her ongoing mentoring work will open avenues for a more diverse range of leaders in adult education and establish adult education as a right for all.