My wish for Limerick envisages learning embedded in the day-to-day life of every family, every community and every workplace, cultivating a widespread love of learning and promoting awareness of its importance for the future prospects of our people, our economy and our region. In this way, Limerick will become a vibrant ‘learning region’ that people want to come to because of the opportunities it offers in terms of lifestyle, culture, heritage, education and business development.
Mayor Stephen Keary, Mayor of Limerick City and County
Building a learning city
Limerick City and County is located in the mid-west region of Ireland, and has a population of almost 200,000. Prior to launching its comprehensive ‘learning region’ initiative, Limerick’s job market had been severely affected by the financial crisis and the recession that followed it, and unemployment had become a major problem across the city. In fact, according to the 2011 census, 36 per cent of the city’s inhabitants lived in disadvantaged areas. The city’s unemployment challenges were still evident in the recent census of 2016, with 17 of Limerick’s 38 Electoral Divisions (EDs) identified as unemployment blackspots. The overall census figures for Limerick City and County in 2016 showed 14.4 per cent of the population were unemployed (in the state overall this figure is 12.9 per cent). Undaunted by this situation, the city council decided to champion formal and informal learning as part of its solution to the challenges it faced.
The City of Limerick began to promote lifelong learning in 2003. Following the merger of the city and county councils in 2014, it began pursuing a vision of a learning region. Limerick’s ambition is to foster a thriving and inclusive city offering high-quality learning environments to inhabitants of all ages. Over the years, Limerick has paid particular attention to mobilizing a dense network of local stakeholders: key actors from the corporate, institutional, community and voluntary sectors. Through different partnerships, the local government has created links with and between stakeholders, fostering exchanges at city and regional levels. Close collaborations with partners have also enabled Limerick to meet the needs of both learners and employers, developing innovative projects such as the Limerick Hospitality Education and Training Centre.
Since 2011, the city has held an annual Lifelong Learning Festival to celebrate all forms of learning. The festival takes place in public spaces and at multiple learning venues, including museums, libraries and community centres. It serves as a meeting point for educational stakeholders. Limerick has been highly successful in activating the region’s inbuilt networks, enabling people to work together regularly without local government intervention. Limerick’s effective promotion of a common learning region vision has fostered widespread commitment to its aim of building a better future for the area.
Limerick’s strategy to become a learning city is grounded in three objectives: to increase people’s level of education, to reduce the region’s high long-term unemployment rate, and to improve inhabitants’ living conditions.
In line with its ambition to develop an inclusive learning strategy, Limerick is collaborating extensively with communities and local groups. The Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board has established links with local communities in order to identify and cater for learners’ needs. The Limerick Community Education Network, a network of providers and supporters of community-based adult education, has contributed substantially towards improving access to education for adults living in deprived areas. By fostering community collaboration and stakeholder engagement, it has succeeded in encouraging the community’s most disadvantaged citizens to participate in learning activities.
Limerick has implemented programmes to improve inhabitants’ living conditions and provide them with the prospects for a better future. In 2007, it introduced a Regeneration Programme. In 2008, the City of Learning steering committee (a sub-committee of the Limerick City Development Board) launched its strategy document, Together for a Brighter Future – Collaborative Framework for Progress. Becoming a learning city is integral to Limerick’s goal of giving people the best opportunities throughout life.
In its 2015 Action Plan, the City of Learning steering committee set out a number of clear objectives, which form the backbone of Limerick’s learning city strategy. Furthermore, the local government has established a clear framework that the steering group can use to identify obstacles, establish goals, and review past achievements.
2. Developing a plan
According to the recent census conducted in 2016, the rate of higher education among Limerick County’s adult population (30 per cent) is lower than the average in Ireland (33.4 per cent). In the region as a whole, nine per cent of inhabitants live in deprived areas. In the city of Limerick, this figure rises to 36 per cent (according to the 2011 census).
Limerick’s local government addressed these challenges by approving the Limerick City Development Board’s Strategic Plan (2002–12), which set long-term goals designed to transform Limerick into a ‘City of Learning and Opportunity’. It also spearheaded the aforementioned 2008 ‘Together for a Brighter Future’ initiative, which laid down four strategic objectives that determined its course of action: (1) to spark a desire for learning, (2) to give children and young people the best start in life, (3) to foster a thriving and inclusive city, and (4) to promote quality learning environments.
Limerick has worked to activate a busy network of schools and key representatives from the corporate sector, and to seal their commitment to its learning strategy. These efforts were scaled up to the regional level with the amalgamation of Limerick city and county councils in 2014. Subsequently, the Learning Limerick steering group launched its annual Action Plan in 2015. Its objectives are to develop the concept of Limerick as a learning region; enhance the profile of Limerick as a learning region by holding celebratory events; ensure Limerick is seen as a valued local, national and international partner; and ensure the inclusion and active participation of all key stakeholders. The current Local Economic and Community Plan also centres on a social goal: that of making Limerick a learning region.
These key measures are laying the foundations for quality learning environments and steering Limerick towards its goal of becoming a thriving and inclusive city. The city hopes that these initiatives will advance citizens’ education levels by promoting continuous learning and providing access to various learning opportunities.
3. Creating a coordinated structure involving all stakeholders
The Learning Limerick steering group was formed in 2003; it was then restructured in 2010 in line with the evolution of Limerick’s learning city strategy. Today, it represents a wider range of partners involved in formal and non-formal learning; these include formal education institutions, businesses, local communities and the voluntary sector. In 2013, following the merger of Limerick’s city and county councils, the steering group expanded its membership to include both city and county partners.
The steering group meets every six weeks. Its responsibilities are to promote the value of lifelong learning for all, and to support regional networks and groups in their efforts to provide high-quality learning. Wider networking meetings are held three times a year and are open to all city and county partners. These meetings, coupled with the annual Lifelong Learning Festival, build a shared and socially diverse vision of Limerick as a learning region.
The new city and county council’s ‘joined-up’ approach to governance brings organizations and networks together to tackle local challenges such as unemployment and inequality. Regional partnerships facilitate the creation of jobs and increase the impact of non-formal learning activities for adults. These partnerships, which include key representatives from the fields of information technology (IT) and engineering, and broader industry, education and training, are linked to the new Mid-West Regional Skills Forum, which allows individual skills and employer needs to be identified and more closely aligned.
4. Mobilizing and utilizing resources
The merger of Limerick city and county councils has maximized resources and knowledge, enabling learning region measures to be implemented more efficiently. Together with the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board, the council employs a part-time facilitator to oversee Limerick’s Learning City activities. The cost is shared with a local development agency, PAUL Partnership, which hosts and supports the facilitator. PAUL Partnership works with local communities to promote social inclusion and quality of life. The facilitator thus has a reliable network of local groups on which to rely.
Formed in 2014, Limerick for IT is a skills partnership that brings together major industries (such as General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, the Kerry Group, and Dell), education providers (the University of Limerick [UL], the Limerick Institute of Technology [LIT]), Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board (LCETB), Limerick City and County Council, Limerick Chamber and IDA Ireland. This partnership is a flexible and adaptable employer-led skills cluster that assesses and addresses future skills needs.
The annual Lifelong Learning Festival is funded by partners that primarily include the council and formal education sector. These partners include the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board (which specializes in adult and further education and training, as well as youth work and a number of second-level schools); the University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College, and the Limerick Institute of Technology. Both the Limerick Childcare Committee and the business sector have also shown a keen interest and have supported the festival financially. To maximize resources during the Lifelong Learning Festival, all of the city’s learning and cultural venues (libraries, museums, youth/community centres, etc.) host the various events.
5. Making learning accessible to all
A number of ongoing initiatives reflect the scope of the city’s efforts to recognize, understand and meet the learning needs of all of its residents, and to provide equitable access to learning opportunities.
The Limerick Community Education Network, recognized nationally for its successful initiatives, is developing projects focusing primarily on community-based adult education in areas experiencing high levels of social and economic exclusion. Another good example is the Limerick Hospitality Education and Training Centre (an LCETB Training facility), which analyses mismatch between high unemployment figures and unfilled vacancies in the region's hospitality sector with a longer-term aim of providing tourist industry training for adults. The training centre was set up in 2014 following collaboration between community groups and institutional partners (the Limerick Regeneration Agency, PAUL Partnership, LCETB, and the local employment service). The Irish Hotel Federation, a key actor in the Irish tourist industry, also provides insight into employers’ needs. The project has met with considerable success, and the training centre has been selected to pilot a new career path through a traineeship in hospitality.
Furthermore, Limerick established a Public Participation Network in 2015 in order to involve citizens and communities in its decision-making processes. Strengthening learning-related links with communities and businesses is a particularly effective way of tackling Limerick’s high unemployment rate. The city’s official website (limerick.ie) provides information on tourism, business, sports and local services, and serves as a means of promoting learning opportunities and events, chief among them the Lifelong Learning Festival (limerick.ie/lovelearning).
6. Organizing celebratory events
Since 2011, Limerick has held its annual Lifelong Learning Festival. Each year, the event selects a specific theme to promote formal and informal learning. The 2016 Lifelong Learning Festival focused on the importance of learning together in families, at work or in broader communities, for example; its theme was ‘Learning from Each Other in a Changed Limerick’. The 2017 festival will highlight the power of learning to link communities with the theme ‘Communities, Connecting, Learning’.
The weeklong festival is a convivial affair, bringing together local inhabitants and education providers from all sectors of society. It offers an excellent opportunity to advocate for the multiple benefits of learning, and for public stakeholders to connect with learners and local businesses. One of the festival’s objectives is to create a space where businesses, organizations and communities can network and build partnerships. Participating bodies have testified to its success.
A wide range of events and learning activities are held in various public spaces and learning venues, inviting individuals to discover museums, libraries, and family and community centres in an enjoyable way. The festival connects potential learners, especially people from marginalized groups, to Limerick’s learning environment. Learning events cover everything from arts and crafts, sports and gardening to health and business skills. As a sign of the festival’s success, the number of events and activities on offer has soared from 70 in 2011 to 250 in 2016.
7. Monitoring and evaluation
In 2016, a consultant for Learning Limerick designed a review process to measure Limerick’s progress as a learning region using indicators based on UNESCO’s Key Features of Learning Cities. Workshop sessions with Learning Limerick members identified a set of geographical, sectoral, developmental, technological, cultural and generational indicators critical to the success of the learning city, and culminated in the production of a case study titled Limerick’s Journey from Learning City to Learning Region: The Power of Connections.
Limerick’s new regional structures (the amalgamation of Limerick’s councils), with their joined-up systems and processes, show that a number of fundamental conditions for building a learning region are now in place, particularly related to governance and participation. The aforementioned case study confirmed that Limerick has succeeded in coordinating and building both stakeholder participation and private sector commitment over the years. The case study’s recommendations highlight the need for a user-friendly evaluation framework, as well as the creation of a strong and unique brand identity around the region’s learning initiatives.
In addition, Limerick conducts a yearly review of both its annual work plan and its Lifelong Learning Festival. The Lifelong Learning Festival is evaluated on the basis of surveys distributed to participants, and the findings are presented to the Learning Limerick steering group. These findings have emphasized the celebratory event’s crucial role in establishing new partnerships that connect organizations with learners, and in conducting joint activities with community groups and organizations. Over the years, the festival has become a key tool for fostering intersectoral partnerships in the region, boosting Limerick’s development as a learning city.
8. Achievements and the way forward
Limerick’s cultural heritage and vibrant outlook were rewarded in 2014 when it was designated the Irish City of Culture. That year,156 projects organized more than 3,000 events across the city, attracting an estimated audience of 1.8 million people. A separate social impact study revealed that 364 new local partnerships had been formed and 2,504 Limerick artists were employed in various projects.
In 2015, the Limerick City and County Council sought to drive innovation in the region by setting up the new public-private partnership: Innovate Limerick. Projects spearheaded by this partnership included a social innovation hub, a film studio, two county enterprise centres, and an International Cluster Conference. Capitalizing on the region’s sporting fame, Innovate Limerick is currently promoting the establishment of a new National Sports Cluster in Limerick, with the potential to create up to 500 new jobs in start-ups and multinationals. In addition, Limerick for IT looks set to have a significant positive impact on the city, with the potential to create more than 1,000 jobs in its first four years.
Limerick is fast becoming one of the most progressive Irish cities with regard to healthier, more sustainable travel, and in 2012 was the first to be awarded the title of Ireland's Smarter Travel Demonstration City in a national competition funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
The Learning Limerick steering group’s next step will be to develop a new strategic plan, drawing on UNESCO’s Key Features of Learning Cities and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The group will also focus on identifying and documenting all of the collaborative learning and innovation taking place across the region.
Lifelong Learning Facilitator, PAUL Partnership
Official city website