Building a learning city falls under the heading ‘Skills and human capital’ of our current Cork City Development Plan 2015–2021, which promises that the council will work with the education and training sectors to develop the skills of its people to match the needs of existing and future businesses. Learning is therefore seen as crucial in meeting not only the individual’s needs but also the city’s economic and developmental goals.

Ms Mary Shields, Mayor of Cork

As the second-largest city in Ireland and the main economic driver in its region, Cork has a strong learning infrastructure that includes two major higher education institutions (University College Cork [UCC] and Cork Institute of Technology [CIT]), three of the state’s five largest colleges of further education, a wide range of complementary and second-chance education opportunities, and initiatives tackling educational disadvantage in both formal and community settings. The city council has been committed to developing Cork as a learning city since 2002 and formally adopted the Beijing Declaration on Building Learning Cities in 2014. Cork has developed many initiatives that work towards this aspiration. One of these is the Lifelong Learning Festival, which runs annually and has grown each year since its establishment in 2004. Furthermore, Cork enjoys an international profile as a learning city thanks to its membership of PASCAL International Exchanges (PIE), a project that fosters exchange on lifelong learning between local, community and city organizations throughout the world.


General overview

Metropolitan Cork has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years, having attracted foreign investment in pharmaceuticals and healthcare, information and communications technology, and internationally traded services. There are considerable differences in wealth across various parts of the city, however. Unemployment has affected disadvantaged areas particularly badly as a result of the loss of the city’s manufacturing base in the 1980s. This development has been exacerbated by the nationwide economic downturn that began in 2008. Over recent decades, the Irish Government and local authorities have targeted such disadvantaged areas with programmes aimed at counteracting intergenerational issues such as low literacy skills, early school leaving and unemployment.

Main issues to be tackled

A significant percentage of the Irish population is not achieving its full potential as a result of unsatisfactory initial experiences of education. The 2012 OECD PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study surveyed twenty-four countries and placed Ireland in seventeenth place for literacy (with 18 per cent of those surveyed at or below the lowest level) and in nineteenth place for numeracy (with 24 per cent at or below the lowest level). The survey also found that 42 per cent of the Irish adults surveyed were at or below the lowest level in problem-solving. This means that a significant percentage of the adult population is unable to participate fully in a modern knowledge-based society. Early school leaving is also a major contributing factor to the high levels of unemployment in certain parts of Cork City, with more than 40 per cent of the total population of some parts of the city leaving school early. In addition to long-term unemployment, people who do not do well in formal education often face other challenges, such as a lack of self-confidence and coping skills, isolation, addiction and social exclusion. In the most disadvantaged areas of Cork, these challenges are frequently intergenerational. Breaking that cycle is one of the main aims of Cork’s lifelong learning strategies and activities.

Another challenge facing the city is an imbalance in spatial development. Rapidly developed suburbs are largely home to young families, while large sections of urban housing are occupied by older people or welfare-dependent individuals and families. Furthermore, a ‘doughnut’ effect is emerging, with retail developments on the city’s outskirts draining activity from the centre. This has knock-on effects on jobs and related services.

Immigration has transformed Cork’s population over the past few years, with the city experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of people from Africa and Eastern Europe. Integrating these migrants therefore constitutes another challenge.

As a waterfront city, Cork is facing the environmental challenge posed by increasing incidences of flooding. The city therefore seeks to bring such environmental concerns into the heart of lifelong learning and to integrate these with its responses to health, culture and the economy.

Finally, as the second-largest city in an island country, Cork’s connectivity with the world is a challenge, both from a technological standpoint and in human terms. One of Cork City Council’s objectives is to improve data connectivity. Cork’s participation in the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities also lessens the perceived distance between the city and the rest of the world.

Motives for becoming a learning city

The main motives behind Cork’s decision to become a learning city were to encourage investment, increase employment and generally improve the lives of the city’s residents by reducing inequality and social exclusion.

An official designation as a learning city would be an acknowledgement of the work already done by many to develop a culture of lifelong learning, and it would provide encouragement to continue this work. It would also build on the positive profile of the city that was created when Cork was designated a WHO Healthy City in 2012.

Learning city policies and strategies

Local authorities in Ireland support specific initiatives associated with lifelong learning but, unlike other countries, local government is not directly responsible for the provision of education or training.

Definition of a learning city

Imagine Our Future (Cork City Council, 2001b), Cork City Development Board’s 2002–2012 strategy for the economic, social and cultural development of the city, contains the following definition of Cork as a learning city:

We see Cork as a place:

(i) Where access to learning is available for all levels and to all ages in the city.

(ii) Where provision addresses comprehensively the diversity of learning needs.

(iii) Where an ethos of quality underpins the provision of continuous learning opportunities for all citizens in the city.

(iv) Where the city is recognized nationally and internationally as a centre of learning and research.

(v) Where available information and knowledge are catalysts for creativity and learning.

Vision and objectives

The aim of the Imagine Our Future strategy was to improve the quality of life of all citizens and to tackle the causes of social exclusion, including poverty and unemployment. The Cork City Development Plan 2015–2021 (Cork City Council, 2014) identifies the enhancement of skills and human capital as critical for stimulating the city’s economy and states that Cork City Council will work with the education and training sectors in order to meet the needs of existing and future businesses. Building a learning city therefore plays a key role in meeting the city’s economic and developmental goals.

Legislative framework

When published in 2000, the Department of Education and Science’s White Paper on Adult Education represented a departure from the traditional understanding of the role of education in Irish society. This was because it asserted the importance of providing learning opportunities over the entire lifespan, embracing new forms of learning, recognizing that learning takes place in a range of settings beyond schools and universities, encouraging links with industry, and developing more flexible forms of provision. Thanks to this white paper, lifelong learning continues to be the governing principle of education policy in Ireland.

In 2002 Cork City Council adopted the Cork City Development Board’s Imagine Our Future strategy, thereby committing itself to working towards making Cork a learning city.

In April 2014 Cork City Council adopted the Beijing Declaration on Building Learning Cities, so far the only city authority in Ireland to do so.

Governance and partnership

Local authorities in Ireland support specific initiatives associated with lifelong learning but, unlike other countries, local government is not directly responsible for the provision of education or training. Instead, education in Ireland is organized and financed by the Irish Government through its Department of Education and Skills, which runs primary and most secondary schools. Universities, institutes of technology and colleges of education are largely funded by the state through the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) maintains, develops and reviews the National Qualifications Framework which, since 2003, has formed the basis of a flexible and integrated system aimed at developing a lifelong learning society. It awards certification, working with all providers of education including Cork ETB, UCC, CIT, and commercial and private providers.

All learning institutions in Cork are integrated through the City Learning Forum, which was established under the City Development Board in 2003. This forum brings together all stakeholders in education and training, from preschool to higher and community education as well as work-based learning initiatives. It includes policymakers, providers, learners, trade unions, the private sector and other relevant public service providers. It has facilitated an integrated view of issues affecting learning in the city.

The Cork Education and Training Board (Cork ETB), which is funded by the Irish Government, runs adult and further education programmes as well as some secondary schools in Cork. It also runs the Youthreach programme for early school leavers, Skills for Work (a workplace learning programme), community training workshops, the Adult Basic Education Service and the Adult Guidance Service. In partnership with other statutory organizations such as the Health Service Executive (HSE), Cork ETB is involved in many other projects too, including education for ex-prisoners, recovering addicts, homeless people and disabled people.

Cork Adult Education Council is a local voluntary organization supported by Cork ETB that has been promoting adult education opportunities for over forty years. It runs an annual exhibition on adult education and training that is hosted by Cork City Council in City Hall. Both UCC and CIT also have active access programmes and a regional mission to provide lifelong learning opportunities for adults.

A number of organizations in Cork have evolved best-practice models for promoting social inclusion through education and training by collaborating on projects that support early school leavers, in particular Travellers, ex-prisoners, people in recovery from addiction, and migrants who do not speak English as their first language. In September 2014, fourteen of these organizations came together to form Cork Equal and Sustainable Communities Alliance (CESCA), which aims to pool resources and expertise, achieve costsavings and address gaps in provision.

With regard to international partnerships, Cork was the first Irish city to become a member of PASCAL International Exchanges (PIE). Cork’s involvement in PIE has led to its adoption of the EcCoWell approach (Ec = ecology and economy; Co = community and culture; Well = wellbeing and lifelong learning), which offers a creative means of integrating thinking and planning across the fields of economics, the environment, health, learning and social inclusion.


Provision of lifelong learning

Considering the wide range of Cork’s educational community network, the following are just some examples of the city’s provision of lifelong learning.

Hundreds of courses are organized for older people every year, such as basic IT skills courses and an intergenerational project in Mahon (one of the city’s more disadvantaged areas), where school students teach their older neighbours how to use mobile phones.

One Book, One Community is a family reading project organized by homeschool community liaison teachers in disadvantaged schools and preschools. Copies of a chosen book are distributed free of charge to schoolchildren, who take these books home with them to read with their families. Activities inspired by the chosen book requiring parental involvement, such as quizzes and arts and crafts, take place over the course of the year.

Year-round cross-border, cross-community projects are organized by the Cork Festival of Lifelong Learning in partnership with the Féile an Phobail annual community arts festival in Belfast. When these projects began in 2011, the organizations involved in Cork were Meitheal Mara (translates roughly from Gaelic as ‘workers of the sea’), a community boatyard and nationally accredited boatbuilding training centre, and Mahon Community Development Project (CDP). Organizations initially involved in Belfast were Féile an Phobail’s youth section and the Mural Artists Collective. That has grown over the last three years to involve others, including youth projects in both Republican and Loyalist communities and organizations working with unemployed men. The projects involve learning how to build and row traditional boats (currachs) and paint murals. These initiatives have meant that people from Northern Ireland have spent time in Cork (and vice versa) and have had the opportunity to learn about each other.

Project Refocus, which is supported by Cork City Council and the City Development Board and funded by the Department of Social Protection, is an inter-agency, community-based project aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds who are out of education or employment. In their first year, participants complete a programme that is designed to help them enter the workforce. Over the following three years, various education and training agencies monitor and support these participants in order to help them find and retain employment.

The establishment of the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival, which is described in more detail on the next page, is a key achievement in building a learning city. This festival involves participants from state, voluntary and private sectors that offer opportunities for learning and training. Over its eleven years the festival has grown to showcase opportunities for learning and training to people of all ages, abilities and interests.

Over its eleven years the festival has grown to showcase opportunities for learning and training to people of all ages, abilities and interests.

Example of innovation or good practice

Cork Lifelong Learning Festival


The festival promotes and celebrates learning in all its forms and encourages participation by people of all ages and from all backgrounds, particularly those who might normally feel excluded from learning. The festival’s motto is ‘Investigate, Participate, Celebrate!’ While showing that learning is fun, the festival also has a serious intent: to develop a culture of lifelong learning among all of Cork’s citizens. Over its eleven years, the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival has challenged people’s perceptions about learning. It has helped individuals and institutions reimagine the place that learning has in diverse activities and organizations, and to reposition learning as a core activity that is central to life in the city.

Main target groups

The festival is inclusive and encourages disadvantaged and marginalized people, such as disabled people, Travellers and immigrants, not only to attend events but also to organize their own. Every example of learning is valued equally, from PhD students discussing their research to older people learning how to crochet in their local community centre.

Main activities

During the week there are about 500 events, all of which are free of charge. Events include performances, talks, tours, debates, taster classes, demonstrations, workshops and international seminars. The festival embraces all aspects of civic society, including the arts, industry, health, IT, the environment, genealogy, languages, local history and architecture.

Events are run by statutory bodies, voluntary and private organizations, and individuals offering learning opportunities. The events take place across the city and suburbs in colleges, schools, galleries, theatres, community and family centres, libraries, sports grounds, parks, streets and even on the water.

Many volunteers are involved in running events and each organization covers its own expenses. All are furnished with supplies of programmes and posters, and are advised on how to publicize their events.

Mobilization and utilization of resources

Human, technological and intellectual resources and leadership are accessed through the festival’s voluntary organizing committee, which meets year-round.

The Lifelong Learning Festival receives national funding indirectly through Cork ETB and Cork City Council. Festival costs are kept as low as possible; in general, total costs amount to approximately 25,000 euros for a week-long programme offering 500 free events.

UCC, CIT, the HSE, the QQI and the HEA provide financial support, as does the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, Ballyphehane Credit Union, O’Callaghan Properties (a local property development company) and Blacknight Solutions (an Irish internet company). In addition, some city councillors donate money from their own ward funds.

Cross-border, cross-community projects organized in partnership with Féile an Phobail in Belfast are partly funded by the Cork branch of the peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland and by Cork City Council.

Cross-sectoral and private philanthropic initiatives also support lifelong learning projects. For example, Music Generation Cork, which provides music classes to disadvantaged young people, is partly funded by the band U2. The Discovery Science event, meanwhile, which is targeted at schoolchildren, is awarded national funding from Science Week Ireland, but also receives financial support from local scientific, pharmaceutical and electronics industries.

Human, technological and intellectual resources and leadership are accessed through the festival’s voluntary organizing committee, which meets year-round. This committee is made up of volunteers and representatives of UCC, CIT, Cork City Council, Cork ETB, further education colleges, traveller and community education programmes, and the city library service.

The local Evening Echo newspaper and 96 FM radio station are the festival’s media sponsors, providing coverage as well as free advertising. The River Lee Hotel supports the festival by accommodating guests visiting from abroad. Support for lifelong learning organizations in Cork often takes the form of benefits-in-kind. A good example is Meitheal Mara, the community boatyard and boatbuilding training centre discussed above. Meitheal Mara receives funding from local and statutory agencies, including the Garda Síochána (police service), but two premises have also been donated to it: one by Cork City Council and the other by the local property developer O’Callaghan Properties.

In responding to the nationwide economic downturn and structural reform, both statutory organizations and NGOs have fewer resources to devote to non-core activities. Achieving the support of CEOs and heads of department in local government, educational institutions and partner organizations such as Cork Chamber of Commerce and the HSE has been key to building confidence that the lifelong learning city will remain part of their core business. Members of the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival’s steering committee are planning a series of briefings for key organizations to ensure organization-wide buy-in and support for the objectives of the lifelong learning city initiative.

Monitoring and evaluation

The festival organizing committee oversees and evaluates the festival on an on-going basis. The festival coordinator writes a comprehensive report after each festival, which is presented to its organizing committee and sponsors. This report includes details of the number and types of events, feedback from participating organizations and individuals, and details of income and expenditure. An annual newsletter is circulated widely to all stakeholders. Regular updates on the festival were given to the Cork City Development Board (CDB) until earlier this year. The current reshaping of the CDB has seen it replaced by a Local Community Development Committee.

The city council’s Strategic Policy Committee on Economic Development, which is made up of senior officials, staff and cross-party elected representatives, will oversee the next phase of Cork’s development as a learning city. This committee reports to the Corporate Policy Group, which itself reports to the chief executive and the full city council. Educational programmes that operate in Cork and receive national funding are closely monitored by the relevant government body, as is the case when funding is received from Cork City Council or other statutory agencies such as the HSE.

Impacts and challenges

UNESCO interest helps to renew the commitment of bodies such as this beyond the lifetime of one lord mayor or the current local government.


The Lifelong Learning Festival has grown exponentially over the past eleven years. Starting with about sixty-five events over two days, it quickly became a week-long celebration, and has grown to now include about 500 events. These events fully reflect the variety and scope of learning experiences available across the city.

The festival has helped forge alliances between participants. It has also helped bring higher level institutions into contact with marginalized groups. Such contacts made between participants during the festival continue year-round. Some festival activities have also developed beyond the event to have a life of their own, such as the cross-border mural and boat-building projects already discussed.

Cork people are very proud that an initiative that started in their city is being emulated elsewhere. For example, Limerick City has followed in Cork’s footsteps. For the past four years it has organized its own festival, which runs concurrently with the Cork event.

Through the festival’s membership of PASCAL International Exchanges, it became involved in the EcCoWell concept, hosting first a seminar and later an international conference in 2013. This led in turn to an invitation from UNESCO to take part in the conference in Beijing. The Cork Lifelong Learning Festival has also been involved in EcCoWell events in Glasgow and Limerick and the PASCAL annual conference in Hong Kong. Recognition of Cork abroad has given a significant impetus to the city to persevere in its commitment to making Cork learning city.


Since the economic downturn in 2008, the election of a new Irish Government in 2011 and the election of a new local government in 2014, there have been many changes in the bodies involved in providing or supporting learning initiatives. There are concerns that these changes could affect the delivery and evaluation of learning city programmes. UNESCO interest helps to renew the commitment of bodies such as this beyond the lifetime of one lord mayor or the current local government.

Lessons learned and recommendations

The following are Cork’s main recommendations for anyone considering organizing a lifelong learning festival:

• Start small and build up – encourage new participants to organize just one event the first year they are involved; if they are over-ambitious, they may be disappointed if events are not well attended.

• Keep participation voluntary.

• Ask all participants to publicize their event(s) and the festival as a whole; as well as the practical impact, this gives them a sense of ownership over the festival.

• Make sure that the kinds of learning showcased – formal, informal, certified and non-certified – are as broad as possible and that all are given equal billing in publicity material such as festival programmes.

• Do not restrict participation to the state sector; individuals, the voluntary and community sectors, and private and commercial providers should all play a part too.

• Publicly recognize and thank all those who organize events, as they do this on a voluntary basis. This can be done by sending thank-you letters and organizing receptions.

• Never forget that it’s a festival – fun and celebration are a powerful means of changing attitudes to learning.



Tina Neylon

Official title

Coordinator of Cork Lifelong Learning Festival






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Cork City Council. 2001b. Imagine Our Future: Cork 20022012 Integrated Strategy for Economic, Social and Cultural Development. Cork, Cork City Council. Available at: http:/www.corkcitydb.ie/imagineourfuturenew_strategy_document.pdf [Accessed 21 January 2015].

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For citation please use

Edited by Raúl Valdes-Cotera, Norman Longworth, Katharina Lunardon, Mo Wang, Sunok Jo and Sinéad Crowe. 2017. Cork. Ireland. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Available at: https://preprod.uil.unesco.org/case-study/gnlc/cork [Accessed 21 January 2022]

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