6.4 Validation of non-formal and informal learning
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The Qualifications (Education And Training) Act, 1999 gave individual citizens the right, in law, to have prior learning validated by the further and higher education system. The recognition of informal and non-formal learning (NFIL) can enable learners to:
- gain access to programmes, credits or exemptions within programmes,
- earn partial accreditation in the form of minor awards, or
- achieve complete qualifications at every level of the Framework.
However, recognition and validation of NFIL is inconsistent within Ireland across different sectors for access, programmatic credits, awards and for professional accreditation. Some fields of learning are prevented by law from validating NFIL.
In Ireland, the validation of NFIL is known as the recognition of prior learning (RPL). Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) describe RPL as ‘a process used to evaluate skills and knowledge gained through life outside of formal education and training, for the purpose of recognising life achievements against a given set of standards or learning outcomes’.
The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012 establishes the statutory basis for QQI’s engagement with RPL. Under Section 56 (1) and (2) of this Act, providers must establish and implement policies, criteria and procedure for learner access, transfer, and progression. These must ‘include procedures for credit accumulation, credit transfer and identification and formal assessment of the knowledge, skills or competence previously acquired by learners’ [Section 56 (3)]. These procedures must be submitted for approval to QQI [Section 56 (4)]. Where learners meet standards that QQI has established, they may apply to QQI for awards, and QQI may request providers’ assistance to assess their achievements [Section 50 (3)(7)]. While methods for assessing prior learning differ, portfolios are a common method.
Objective 44 of the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 [Department of Education and Skills (DES), 2016] states the Department of Education commitment to develop a national policy for RPL. RPL is integrated into the Further Education and Training Strategy 2020 - 2024 (SOLAS, 2020), the Action Plan for Jobs 2018 (Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, 2018), the National Strategy for Higher Education for 2030 (DES, 2013), and the National Skills Strategy 2025 (DES, 2016). Other guides about/including RPL are Access, Transfer and Progression Policy Restatement 2015 (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003; QQI republished 2015); the Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Recognition of Prior Learning in Further and Higher Education and Training (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2005; QQI republished 2015); and Policies and Criteria for the Validation of Programmes of Education and Training (QQI, 2013).
QQI directs individuals with questions about gaining recognition through an RPL process, to talk to their local adult education guidance service or education and training provider. The Adult Education Guidance Initiative (AEGI) offers impartial adult education information, one-to-one guidance and group guidance, through local AEGS offices. The National Centre for Guidance in Education (NCGE) supports guidance practitioners and provides resources to support adults with RPL.
The RPL Practitioner Network is a community of practice for people working and interested in RPL, founded in 2015. The network’s main activities are:
- networking: facilitating the practitioners to meet, share experience and build relationships with each other.
- Community of Practice: where members share their knowledge and experience, assist in answering fellow members queries and providing a voice to give input to policy.
- awareness raising: where through sharing knowledge and giving a voice to practitioners we can raise the public’s awareness of the use and role of RPL in individuals and communities learning and development.
- contribution to policy: as a group representing practitioners we can give our opinion on RPL policy and related matters of importance to us around RPL.
The network is run by practitioners and supported by the Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), the Irish Universities Association, Institutes of Technology Ireland, National Centre for Guidance in Education, the National Forum for Teaching & Learning, and Quality and Qualifications Ireland.
European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) Ireland hosts events, such as conferences for practitioners and policy makers, to promote the value of nonformal and informal learning, and for practitioners to exchange best practices around RPL. ECVET Ireland also nominates practitioners and policy makers to attend international training ECVET conferences and peer learning activities on RPL. ECVET Experts are individuals who are recognised for their expertise in the area of vocational education and training, who promote RPL throughout their professional networks. ECVET is co-funded in Ireland by the European Commission and by SOLAS (the national Further Education and Training Authority). ECVET is managed in Ireland by Léargas, the National Agency for Erasmus+ in the fields of School Education; Vocational Education and Training; Adult Education; and Youth.
Adult and Community Education: Supported Learner Pathways 2020-2021 aims to build the capacity of community educators and develop new guidelines for using RPL in working with marginalised and vulnerable groups, and with employees with low qualifications. The programme is run by AONTAS (the national Adult Learning Organisation), as Irish National Coordinator for the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL). EAAL is funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union and co-financed by the Department of Education through SOLAS.
The Adult Literacy Organisers’ Association (ALOA) provides collective representation of Adult Literacy Organisers, funded by Education and Training Boards (ETBs). The Community Education Facilitators' Association (CEFA) is the professional representative association for Community Education Facilitators, who work within the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) to give support to local community groups. Both the ALOA and CEFA host training events and conferences, highlighting the value of non-formal and informal learning, and offering guidance on RPL.
QQI has a statutory role to develop QA guidelines under the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012, Section 27(1). The Policy on Quality Assurance Guidelines (QQI, 2016) recognises that QQI Quality Assurance (QA) guidelines are a crucial component of a variety of QQI’s functions, services and policies including RPL. These guidelines set out QQI’s approach to developing and organising QA guidelines. It applies to the validation of formal, non-formal and informal competences.
The Core Statutory Quality Assurance Guidelines (QQI, 2016) sets out eleven core areas in which providers are expected to have quality assurance procedures in place, and what is expected of provider procedures in these areas. These core areas are:
- Governance and Management of Quality
- Documented Approach to Quality Assurance
- Programmes of Education and Training
- Staff Recruitment, Management and Development 12
- Teaching and Learning
- Assessment of Learners
- Supports for Learners
- Information and Data Management
- Public Information and Communication
- Other Parties Involved in Education and Training 20
- Self-Evaluation, Monitoring and Review.
The guidelines require that provider policies and procedures for learner admission, progression and recognition include ‘fair recognition of education and training qualifications, periods of study and prior learning, including the recognition of non-formal and informal learning’ and that the provider ethos enables flexible learning pathways. These Guidelines should be considered in conjunction with QQI’s sector and topic-specific QA guidelines.
The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012, requires providers to “have regard to” QQI’s QA guidelines when establishing their own quality assurance procedures. Providers must ‘establish an internal quality system appropriate to their individual context which incorporates both operational procedures and a system of review to monitor the effectiveness of those procedures’ (Core Statutory Quality Assurance Guidelines, 2016).
The quality assurance framework for RPL is provided for within the QQI Policy Restatement: Policy and Criteria for Access, Transfer and Progression in Relation to Learners for Providers of Further and Higher Education and Training (QQI, 2015), and the Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Recognition of Prior Learning in Further and Higher Education and Training (QQI, 2015).
The professional development of staff engaging in RPL is the responsibility of the individual provider.
DES actively monitor with relevant national agencies, RPL though performance framework and reporting systems.