Learn Locals network in Australia tries to make the difficult first step – entering adult education for the first time – it is a bit easier for the disadvantaged learners, by offering a free lunch every week. /Photo: Catarina Sousa

Learning Down Under: Adult education for the disadvantaged

Interview. Local learning centres have an important role in educating disadvantaged people in Victoria, Australia.


At the southeastern corner of Australia, the state of Victoria prides itself with a network of over 300 educational institutes known as Learn Locals.

These learning centres offer a variety of courses and training that is designed to meet the needs of the surrounding community.

The Learn Local Network was launched in 2011, but the history of it reaches back at least 30 years, says Karen Dymke from Melbourne.

Back then, local communities used to have places called Neighbourhood Houses, and Karen used to work in one.

“Neighbourhood Houses were spaces where people – usually women – would go to learn a craft, take their children to playgroups or just to have morning coffee”, she says and continues:

“It became apparent that some of the people accessing these spaces were in need of further education. For example, they could not read well enough to read aloud to their children”.

What started off with general literacy courses evolved over the years, and after recognizing its importance, the state began funding the community-based learning.

Now Karen, an education consultant, who among other things teaches many of the teachers that work at the Learn Locals. She tells us how adult education and social inclusion connect in Australia.

The Learn Local Network

  • The Association of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres began to offer learning programs for their communities in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The majority originated out of the women’s movement and were staffed by and run for women.
  • The Learn Local Network was launched in 2011. Many of the existing Neighbourhood Houses and Community Centres are now part of this network.
  • Learn Local organisations deliver both pre-accredited and accredited training. The education is designed to meet the learning needs of the local community.

Who’s disadvantaged and why?

Learn Locals have a range of courses available for everybody in the community, but they also have a special focus on getting disadvantaged people into education.

For various reasons, disadvantaged people often lack formal education, which in turn has a negative impact on their quality of life. And as Karen explains, they are a mixed group.

“The Adult Community Education targets vulnerable learners such as people seeking asylum, refugees and indigenous people. It is very much dependent on the community and region”, she says.

Other groups include long-term unemployed people, older people, youth at risk – who may have dropped out of school or have challenging behaviour – or people with disabilities.

Because of the various backgrounds and needs of the students, managing diversity has been a big issue at the Learn Locals.

“Instead of having all learners in the same room, more specific programs have had to be created”, Karen says.

Understanding the learners’ needs is key, as well as modifying the teaching process to reflect that.

“There’s a strong intention among the tutors to meet the learners where they are at. To find out what they need and to identify any possible barriers such as trauma or learning difficulties”, Karen says.

Learning to learn – or learning to want to learn

Entering adult education for the first time can be a difficult step to take, but the Learn Locals try to make it a bit easier.

Karen gives an example of a Learn Local that offers a free lunch every week.

“Laneway Lunch is staffed by volunteers. The aim is to first reach out and engage people, to invite them to do something enjoyable”, she says.

After the staff get to know the people coming to lunch, they can invite them to take part in an activity that interests them, for example music or art.

“And when the people get to know the facilitator, it’s easier for them to learn something else with the same person, in a friendly environment”, Karen says.

Non-formal but standardized education

In order to meet the needs of those who don’t have many education experiences, the Learn Locals offer a lot of pre-accredited courses.

“The intention is to build the learners’ self-confidence, improve social participation and develop their skills and knowledge”, Karen says.

There has also been a lot of focus on developing the education standards of the Learn Locals. As Karen describes it:

“We have moved from an informal, make-it-up-as-you-go kind of relationship towards a stronger structure, where we now have curriculum framework for pre-accredited education”.

Among other things, the curriculum identifies eight employability skills. These include soft skills like communication and teamwork, skills related to self-management and technological skills.

The aim of developing these skills as well as the aim of the whole curriculum is to build readiness for either accredited education or employment.

“In the end it’s about giving people access, choice and equity.”

An educational trip to Europe

Karen Dymke and her colleague Cate Thompson were awarded a fellowship by the International Specialized Skills Institute to undertake a study in Europe on best practises in adult education.

Their three-week-trip began with a conference for adult educators in Tallinn, Estonia and was followed by meeting professionals working with adult education in several other countries.

“It was very insightful and helpful. I was especially impressed by the focus on professionalizing adult education which was the theme in Tallinn”, Karen says.

She noticed that there is a lot of adult education research going on in Europe.

“The research into adult education in Europe seems to be more cohesive and advanced than in Australia, which may be because of the European Union”.

In her home country, the focus on adult education is more practical.

“Because Australia has always been very multicultural, we have been addressing these issues of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners for a long time. As a result our programs are very strong”, Karen says.

She hopes to continue to discuss adult education with colleagues across the world.

“This was an encouraging visit to Europe, and I’m grateful for people sharing their knowledge. It would be fantastic to keep up the partnerships, keep learning and sharing ideas together”.

Karen Dymke (right) and her colleague Cate Thompson (left) were photgraphed in Stockholm during their tour in Europe. /Photo: Jonathan Pietsch