Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion (Resumed)

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister and all the witnesses for their contributions. We agree on much of what has been said. We certainly agree on the value of further education and apprenticeships, but we need to drop the idea that the main issue with them is perception and snobbery. That abdicates responsibility for the impediments that need to be addressed within the apprenticeship and further education process. Perception and snobbery might be the case for some people but it is not for most.

We know the further education system needs multi-year funding to provide the ability to plan strategically, to know where people are and to have greater freedom to provide the courses and education people in their communities want and need. I welcome the new CAO website. If it included FET options, including apprenticeships, it would be a step forward. Critical pathways must be there for those who do not want to progress to higher education. When we look at this issue, it is quite stark. Less than 5% of almost 4,000 students who do pre-nursing in further education get access to degree courses afterwards. That is a real problem we need to address. It is simply not good enough, especially when we have shortages of nurses.

The Minister talked about enhancing the visibility of apprenticeships, which misses the point to an extent. Many people are trying, right now, to get an apprenticeship. I speak to them every day.

I know of one person who just got an apprenticeship after trying for two years. In that case, 140 people interviewed for two apprenticeship places. The retrofitting targets that were mentioned mean we will need 27,000 tradespeople working in this area in the coming years so we know exactly what we need. Currently, we only have about 18,000 craft apprenticeships in total and we have more on the waiting list unable to access the training they need. The process has been allowed grind to a halt. I am aware Covid has been a big factor in that but there were capacity issues before the pandemic and we need to have an honest conversation about this as well. It is the only way we will be able to tackle what we need.

The so-called "emergency response" to the waiting lists in 2020 was to allocate €12 million to address the backlog. This was despite the fact that the backlog was actually saving the State over €16 million in the same year because it did not have to pay many of the allowances. The response has been completely inadequate and has left the system in crisis. We also need to ensure apprenticeships are available for people who want them. We should be leveraging the public procurement system by applying a criterion in respect of apprenticeship employment for companies that want to apply for public contracts. We need to be very direct about this in ensuring it is part of the conditions.

There are many other issues around apprenticeships but I am conscious of my time. I will ask a couple of questions. What was the estimated saving to the State arising from the waiting list in 2021 and the reduced payments for allowances?

The next question is for Mr. Conlon. He referred to the HEA funding ICT and entrepreneurship summer camps. I welcome that but does it in any way suffice when we have so many second level schools in which computer science is not taught? Is it an objective of the Minister, the Department and the Government that all students in this day and age have an option to study computer science? That must be our ambition and there must a timeline for achieving it. In this changing environment, it is not acceptable that we have schools that do not offer the option of computer science.

Dr. O'Connor mentioned establishing student counselling and career guidance services. It is shameful these are not already in place. We know from research we did last year with college students that one of the biggest impediments they face in making the right choices at further and higher education is the absence of, or lack of sufficient, career guidance. I want to know how that problem will be fixed.

I will address my next point to Mr. Brownlee and SOLAS. We have an ETB training centre in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. The community wants to make it into a vibrant training centre for the town, which has been decimated by banks leaving and other matters. The community wants to have a cohort of well-trained people. It is not seeking a huge amount of funding but some funding and support to turn the ETB centre into a place which can be used for apprenticeships for specific job opportunities in the town. That is a way of making use of buildings that are not being used, reviving our towns and building up the labour capital we need in all of these towns to be able to attract industries to them. We need much broader thinking and to remove blockages.

I will make a final point on pathways for nurses. There is no reason people who do an apprenticeship should not be able to go on to do a degree and go right up to PhD level. That needs to be made clear to them. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement committee last week, we discussed cancer research and oncology. The Minister will know that we have the most brilliant oncology nurses. Why do they not go on to become consultants? What are the blockages stopping them from becoming consultants?

There are lots of matters we need to address and I have little time for answers but maybe some of my questions can be answered.


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