Is Portugal dismantling grassroots adult education?

A government decision eliminates a level from the Portuguese educational system, and leaves thousands of adults and professionals in this area adrift and without future prospects, writes Carlos Ribeiro.


The order arrived between Christmas and New Year’s Day. A tersely-worded notice addressed to all the New Opportunity Centers, both private and public, confirmed the plans revealed in mid-2012 concerning the inevitable closing of the centers.

The Centres, or “Centros Novos Oportunidades” specialize in the recognition and certification of competences and the organization of adult education courses.

This government decision eliminates a level from the Portuguese educational system, and leaves thousands of adults and professionals in this area adrift and without future prospects.

Shock and dismay

Many of the directors and technicians of the now-closed centers are still in a state of shock, and not without reason. The notice ordering complete shut-down of all activities was written in dry and objective military terms, without extenuating details, and was effective immediately. A post-Christmas message allows self-financing centers to continue voluntarily operating until April 2013, so that the adults who use these centers are not suddenly abandoned.

Centers connected with public schools will receive instructions for the immediate dismissal of all instructors and technicians, and are not permitted to organize any type of transitional phase, except for the possibility of directing to other voluntarily functioning centers those adults who are registered and already in the RVC  (Reconhecimento e Validação de Competências/ Recognition and Validation of Competences) process pipeline.

Professional training replacing the Opportunity Centres

New Qualification and Professional Education Centers are set replace the current centers. These new facilities will go into operation in April 2013. ANQEP, the National Agency for Classification and Professional Training, is planning for a transitional phase for a reorientation of these centers toward qualification and professional training, with consequent abandonment of the grassroots, participatory platform associated with adult education.

Critical reactions by center staff members

Many political and academic voices have criticized the above described measures as taking adult education progress back a decade.

On a more pragmatic note, the President of ANPEFA, the National Association of Adult Education Professionals:

… regretted that the association had not been invited to participate in the process of restructuring these facilities that specialize in lifelong training of adults, and that it never received an answer to its repeated requests to ANQEP for a meeting for this purpose. We are working without official information and on the basis of on-the-ground observation of what i  happening. And what is happening is total disorientation.

Completion of studies in danger

Association data indicate that,

…in June 2012, 350,000 adults were actively registered in diagnosis or procedures at the New Opportunity Centers, or were already in the RVCC process of recognition, validation, and certification of competences. The association fears that many of them will not be able to complete the steps begun, or will have to begin all over again at the new centers.

The end of a social movement

In the past twelve years, adult education in Portugal has undergone profound changes. A new organizational structure based on a Network of Centers of Opportunity with a mixed composition that involved schools but also and in particular various civil-society associations and organizations established a new methodological approach to competences developed by adults throughout their lives.

This less academic approach led hundreds of thousands of individuals to participate in new learning processes that in most cases led not so much to diplomas as to recognition and social appreciation in the family circle, in the individual’s professional activity, and in the social sphere.

This dynamic has come to be classified by some sociologists as an authentic social movement, because of the scope of the phenomenon, the scale reached, and the profound nature of the results achieved.

The first effect of the announced return to conventional systems, based chiefly on the academic model, will certainly be the withdrawal of adults. It will definitely promote a limited elite with access to qualification and professional training, and abandonment yet again of the most disadvantaged and most socially vulnerable members of society.

This article was produced in collaboration with InfoNet adult education network.

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