CORK’S Lifelong Learning Festival lead the way in 2004, and since then Limerick, Belfast, and now Dublin have followed with Learning Festivals of their own. All cities are gearing up for a week of free lifelong learning events celebrating all that is best about their cities.
And overseas a similar story is unfolding. Swansea held their first learning festival last week, and cities in countries as far away as Canada, Australia, the USA and Finland say they took inspiration from Cork in creating Festivals of Learning.
‘We owe it all to Cork. When we visited in 2017 and spoke to people on the street and in the English Market they all knew about it’ Councillor Jennifer Raynor said at the Swansea launch recently.
This is the success story that led UNESCO to select Cork for a Learning City Award in 2015 and as host for their third International Conference in 2017, joining Beijing who hosted the first conference, and Mexico city. And this year Cork will ‘pass the torch’ to Colombia who host the fourth conference in Medellin, a city that has transformed itself with learning and education at its core.
In 2015 when Cork was awarded a UNESCO Learning City Award, it one of the first of only 12 cities globally to be selected, and it was one of many occasions when the city has punched well above our weight in this area. The pathway that lead to this level of recognition can be traced back to 2002 when the City Development Board set out to develop Cork as a Learning City as one of just 7 high level goals for its 10 year strategy.
And when a small committee came together in 2003 to make plans for a festival to promote lifelong learning few could have envisaged the story that was about to unfold. The festival that resulted, run for the first time in Spring 2004, with 65 free events, was the catalyst that created all the opportunities and developments that followed.
The 2019 Festival, Cork’s 16th , runs between April 7 and 14, has over 500 free events, and the city is again gearing up to ‘investigate, participate and celebrate’ learning of all kinds, for people of all ages, interests and abilities. In the years in between the festival has truly become a festival of the people, with groups and organisations throughout the city voluntarily hosting events that offer people a chance to taste learning, to satisfy their curiosity and to open themselves up to new experiences.
Because the Festival had grown both in size and reputation to such an extent by 2013, Cork was invited by UNESCO to participate in the first International Conference on Learning Cities held in Beijing. Cork was centrally involved in the Conference — then Deputy Lord Mayor Lorraine Kingston was selected to speak on behalf of all city Mayors at the closing ceremony, and the Festival’s founding co-ordinator Tina Neylon was part of the drafting committee for the new UNESCO Learning City Policy – the Beijing Declaration on Learning Cities.
In 2014 this declaration was formally adopted by City Council, which committed itself to implement these ideas and to make Cork a Learning City, promoting Learning for all, Inclusion, Prosperity and Sustainability.
With this policy as a common platform, in 2015 Cork City Council, with Cork Education and Training Board, CIT and UCC, jointly signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Learning, which committed these organisations to work together to provide leadership and to co-operate with other partners to make Cork a globally recognised Learning City.
This partnership approach to building a Learning City was recognised by UNESCO with the Award presented in Mexico at the second International Conference on Learning Cities in 2015.
2015 was also the year when a second significant project — Learning Neighbourhoods - were piloted in two Cork communities, Ballyphehane and Knocknaheeny.
Cork defines a Learning Neighbourhood as an area that has an ongoing commitment to learning, providing inclusive and diverse learning opportunities for whole communities through partnership and collaboration. The programme followed by each community is co-created by residents and a local leadership group and aims to continue to build a culture of lifelong learning across Cork City’s neighbourhoods.
In 2016 Togher and Mayfield, joined the Learning Neighbourhoods programme, bringing new ideas and initiatives such as the ‘Learning and Community Expo’ to share with the other partners. And this is continuing, when The Glen and South Parish joined, piloting new ideas such as the ‘Learning Trail’.
The 2017 International Conference was a milestone in the city’s development. ‘Cork is a beacon for the world as a Learning City’, Chris Sheppard of the University of Glasgow said after attending.
The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning said ‘Cork is one of the most important partners with regards to Learning City Development’ at a European launch event in 2018 for a series of video tutorials, developed as a joint project for cities worldwide. The launch was followed by a meeting to form a new Network of Irish Learning Cities, that now joins Cork with Limerick, Dublin, Belfast, and Derry/Strabane.
As we prepare to present this Learning City Success Story at the next UNESCO Conference in Colombia, Cork can look forward to building on the work done to date and to continuing to innovate and to develop. Inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, our motto as a Learning City is ‘Leave No-one behind’ and we will continue to prioritise inclusion.
As Pat Ledwidge, our recently retired Co-Chair said in his closing remarks ‘Learning is central to the development of the city, and if the city thrives, we all thrive’.
For a programme see https://corklearningfestival.ie/