AVERIL CONTRIBUTION TO THE SEANAD ON REFORM OF FURTHER EDUCATION AND TRAINING

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I welcome the Minister of State and commend him on visiting New York at the weekend for the “St. Pat’s For All” parade. It was important there was a Government representative at that inclusive function in New York. Unlike the official St. Patrick’s Day parade in the city, the “St. Pat’s For All” event recognises the diversity and inclusiveness of modern Ireland. I am glad the Minister of State attended.

These statements relate to two topics, namely, the further education and training sector and the apprenticeship system. As the Minister of State indicated, the further education and training sector developed incrementally over time. It initially grew out of post-primary education and began life as a relatively small sector. Now, however, it is a huge element of the overall education system. More than 50% of students involved in further education are over the age of 21. In reality – if not in statute nor always in policy – the sector has become distinct and has developed its own identify over a long period. As the Minister of State outlined, this has not always been recognised by the education system or the Department. This has led to a great deal of incoherence. There have been occasions on which further education colleges have benefited from some grants given to post-primary schools but not from others. For example, they might benefit from one round of the summer works scheme but not the next. They have been covered in respect of broadband services under the IT grants but not for networking. I presume most of this occurred not on the basis of any deliberate prejudice or discrimination but rather as a result of a lack of thought. People whose attention is focused on other sectors sometimes forget to include the further education and training sector as a result of the fact that it has traditionally fallen between the two stools of higher education and post-primary education.

There was another example of this late last year when the general scheme of the education (admission to school) Bill was published. At the time I was contacted by the further education committee of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, which also made a submission to the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and which pointed out that under the general scheme, as published, it appeared the further education and training sector would be captured by the Bill. This is because the draft scheme states that post-primary schools cannot, in the context of admissions, distinguish between students on the basis of prior academic achievement, interviews, portfolios, etc., all of which are central to being able to decide upon someone’s suitable for certain post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses. When I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, in respect of this issue and highlighted the concerns of the NAPD, he replied that an issue potentially exists and he will address it. This again highlights the fact that if the further education and training sector is not taken into consideration when decisions relating to other sectors are being made, then there can be unintended consequences for that sector. With the establishment of SOLAS, I hope the sector, which, as the Minister of State indicated, has a unique identity, will be given the credence and priority it deserves.

On apprenticeships, there is a need for a fundamental rethink in respect of vocational education in this country. The apprenticeship model developed in response to the needs of construction related sectors and traditionally involved the training of carpenters and electricians. However, it is relevant to many more areas. In its submission in respect of the review of the apprenticeship model, IBEC stressed that a large number of opportunities exist in this regard. The economy has changed dramatically since the model was first conceived and it is in this context that the opportunities to which I refer arise. There are those who advocate a system whereby people would be involved in a mixture of academic studies and on-the-job training. I welcome the review, which was published in January. I hope its recommendations will be given priority and implemented with some haste. This is because there is an issue with unemployment in the context of upskilling people and getting them involved in sectors where vacancies exist.

There is a need to engage in long-term planning to ensure we have the right mix and the correct type of education and training to meet emerging needs in a changing economy. The apprenticeship has taken a real hit in recent years. In the past year, the number of people pursuing apprenticeships was just 20% of the figure it was at the height of the boom. It is clear the existing model has all but collapsed and that a fundamental re-evaluation is required. In addition to considering apprenticeship as a separate sector and linking in with employers to ensure we put the right programmes in place, we must also learn lessons from the review and apply them in respect of second level education. We could learn a great deal, for example, from the German system of vocational education. From the age of 16, students in Germany are able to choose two very different routes. If traditional academic education is appropriate to one’s needs, one can choose that path. I understand that 50% of students in Germany go the university route and the remaining 50% take the vocational route. The latter engage in a mixture of training in the classroom and work experience. This is exciting for young people because it gives them the opportunity maximise their talents, pursue their own interests and obtain relevant on-the-job training during their teenage years.

We could learn a great deal from the German system, which is also good for employers because it gives them the chance to mould future employees in the context of their education. In addition to the review of the apprenticeship system relating to adults, I hope we will also consider the lessons which can be learned and then applied to the second level education sector. I do not believe adequate priority has been given to this in recent years. Many schools are struggling as a result of cuts to the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR. The Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, often states that schools now have more flexibility because, with guidance counsellors gone, they can use teachers for other purposes. The reality is that the ability of schools to offer subject choices has declined in recent years. They are experiencing particular problems in the context of offering some practical subjects.

It is a shame, especially in the current environment, and we are seeing a drop in the number of students taking the leaving certificate applied for similar reasons. These are matters of resources and esteem, as it is not seen within schools as being a route of education equal in value to the traditional leaving certificate and the move to university. There is a concept of a universal goal for everyone to get a university education and be a teacher, lawyer or doctor. We should instead encourage all young people, if they are good with their hands or more practical, to excel in such areas. As well as delivering on the changes in the adult side through SOLAS, will the Minister of State seek to ensure the Department of Education and Skills will embed the attitude of vocational education or practical training in our second level system?

 

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