Averil welcomes the Further Education and Training Bill 2013 (20/06/2013)

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I welcome the Minister and extend the good wishes of the Fianna Fáil group to the Minister of State.  We have had good exchanges with him on further education and training issues and I hope he will make a quick recovery.

I very much welcome the legislation.  It is the third Bill relating to reform of the further education sector that we have discussed in the past few months.  It is a hugely important sector, given the high unemployment rate.  It has the potential to make a major contribution to equipping people with the skills they need, not only in the context of their personal development but also in accessing employment.  A sum of €900 million is invested annually in further education and training.  The higher education sector is overseen by the Higher Education Authority and it is a shame, as the Minister said, that the administration of the sector has been disjointed in the past, with FÁS on one side and a range of providers on the other.  Having a strong authority looking after policy and ensuring there is a national strategy will be a positive development.  While the programmes will be run by other providers and not SOLAS, such co-ordination and strategic oversight will be important in ensuring unnecessary duplication of courses is avoided and courses are matched not only against current skills needs but also future needs and the need of employers.

This is positive legislation, of which we are supportive.  A number of useful recommendations were made during the consultation process by different groups, but, in particular, by CDVEC and the TUI which I would like to highlight.  Both groups stressed the importance of community education.  I welcome the Minister’s reference to this because there is a fear among community providers that they will be lost in the new system and that they will not be given the priority they deserve.  Community education is one of the key pathways, particularly for the long-term unemployed, to access education and get on the ladder to avail of other opportunities.  It is important that priority be given to community education, particularly to smaller providers that offer excellent courses.  They should not be swamped by focusing on larger institutions.  I refer to the NCU Training Centre for the Unemployed in Coolock in my area.  Excellent courses are provided for the long-term employed and we need to ensure such providers are included in the overall picture and what they are doing is matched with what larger providers in the area are doing to make sure both are used to their full potential.

It is also important to avail of the opportunity to achieve two purposes at once.  It is welcome that the authority will work with both the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection.  There is significant potential to use the community employment scheme apparatus to make sure participants leave community employment programmes not only with work experience but also with appropriate qualifications to help them to secure jobs.  I welcome the Minister for Social Protection’s announcement two weeks ago of an additional 15 community employment places for Darndale village centre, which probably represents one of the largest approvals for a community employment provider in the State.

A new centre is being set up to provide home care day services for senior citizens.  Those concerned have been operating on a smaller scale in the past few years using CE places.  As a result of taking in CE workers and giving them experience in the area, and as a result of working with FETAC, it has been ensured that the employees leave with level-5 FETAC qualifications.  Some 50% of the staff who began on community employment have already managed to find jobs with providers of home care services.  This is an example of two Departments working together creatively while providing an essential public service.  This is an example of good governance.  I welcome the fact that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, is supporting this.

There is much more potential to engage with people who are unemployed and who want to work with local social services through CE schemes.  It is a question of ensuring that, at the end of their CE programmes, participants emerge with qualifications and, ultimately, get jobs.  I would like to see much more cross-departmental co-operation in these kinds of areas.  I hope SOLAS, with its brief of working with various Departments and agencies, will ensure that happens on a much greater scale.

The VEC and TUI both stress the importance of community education and the need to prioritise adult literacy.  I welcome the fact that the Minister mentioned this in his contribution.  It is essential.  The number of adults with problems with basic literacy is frightening.  Illiteracy shatters one’s opportunities to gain access to any other form of education.  It is important that the new agency ensure that we focus on helping people with the initial steps and prioritising adult literacy courses and other programmes at FETAC levels 1 to 3, not just at the higher levels.

Guidance counselling has been stressed, as has the need to ensure people are getting advice on thinking through what course is best and on what employment opportunities a course is likely to lead to.  The latter is important at this time.  If people, especially those who have not been in education for a long time, encounter an obstacle while doing their course, they should have support and somebody to encourage them to stick with it.

While I welcome the legislation, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the considerable concern in the sector over the somewhat contradictory approach of the Government.  It is important that legislation is introduced to reform the sector and that there is a national strategy.  The stakeholders in the sector welcome this and are keen to see greater emphasis on further education and training, but they have seen a succession of budgetary cuts affecting the further education sector.  In budget 2013, there was a two-point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio.  There have been cuts to training allowances and supports for Youthreach, a vital programme.  The Minister mentioned youth unemployment.  Youth unemployment is particularly chronic, yet support for Youthreach has been cut.  It is all very well to have the right policies, words on paper and legislation, but if the necessary financial supports are not made available and if courses must be closed because of personnel cuts, they are of no consequence.  We need to ensure we support the sector financially; otherwise the exercise is pointless.

It would also be remiss of me in the Minister’s presence not to refer to the special education cuts that have been announced in the past two days.  Nobody in this House disagrees with the fact that savings must be made somewhere.  I completely appreciate that and know the Minister is in a difficult position but I believe it is incredibly unfair that, yet again, people with disabilities are being targeted.  They seem to be regarded by the Government as a soft target for cuts.  Children who were receiving five hours of support, such as autistic children, will now just receive three hours and 45 minutes.  There have to be other ways of saving the money.  We must establish some priorities in this recession, draw a red line and state some developments are not good enough.  For me, targeting children with special needs is one of the latter.  While I realise we are present to discuss further education, I believe it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to implore the Minister to reverse the cuts.  I ask Senators on the other side of the House to use their influence on the Government in this regard.  We have seen revolts by Government backbenchers on other issues.  The issue in question is particularly worthy of their time and efforts to lobby Ministers.  Children with special needs are relying on all of us to stand up for them.  I hope that Members will do so.

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