Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection

Further Education and Training Strategy: Discussion

1:05 pm

Mr. Paul O'Toole:

I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for giving us an opportunity to contribute to today's discussion on the further education and training strategy for the period between 2014 and 2019. We look forward to contributing to the committee's discussion and addressing any questions that members may have about the role of SOLAS in the implementation of this strategy. SOLAS was established in October 2013 on foot of the Further Education and Training Act 2013, section 9 of which provides that SOLAS will prepare and submit a strategy in respect of further education and training to the Minister for Education and Skills every five years. The Minister may approve the strategy with or without modifications, or may refuse to approve the strategy. The first such strategy was submitted for consideration to the then Minister on 31 March 2014 in accordance with the agreed timeline for this initial proposed strategy. The Minister formally approved the strategy on 24 April 2014.

SOLAS is tasked with ensuring the provision of high-quality further education and training programmes which are responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changed and changing economy. This mandate will be delivered in conjunction with all of our partners, particularly the education and training boards, which are our principal partners. For the purposes of the strategy, further education and training programmes are defined as comprehending up to level 6 of the national framework of qualifications and where funding is provided by SOLAS through the Vote of the Department of Education and Skills. These programmes embrace a vast range of courses which provide entry level, intermediate and technical skills as well as programmes which assist in personal development and support people who suffer various forms of disadvantage or disability. Apprenticeships are an example of effective further education and training provision. I am aware that the committee has examined the future approach to this aspect of provision.

The strategy provides a focus for the setting of further education and training investment priorities and a framework for the establishment and development of a strong further education and training sector. It aims to deliver a higher quality learning experience, leading to better outcomes for everyone who engages in further education and training. In turn, this will support economic development and increase social inclusion. SOLAS consulted widely with stakeholders in developing the strategy, which is set in the context of Government reform of public services. This consultation included representatives from employer bodies, higher and further education and training providers, community and other representative bodies, trade unions and, vitally, learners themselves. An evidence-based approach was applied though collaboration with the ESRI, which has carried out extensive research nationally and internationally. This research has been published by the ESRI in a companion document, Further Education and Training in Ireland: Past, Present and Future.

Strategic goals have been identified for the further education and training sector in five areas: skills for the economy, active inclusion, quality provision, integrated planning and funding, and the standing of further education and training. The goal under the heading of skills for the economy is that further education and training will address the current and future skills needs of learners, jobseekers and employees, meet the skills needs of enterprise and employers and contribute to national economic development. The goal under the heading of active inclusion is that further education and training provision will support the active inclusion of people of all abilities in society, with special reference to literacy and numeracy in accordance with the legislation which established SOLAS. The goal under the heading of quality provision is that further education and training will provide high-quality education and training programmes and will meet appropriate national and international quality standards. The goal under the heading of integrated planning and funding is that further education and training provision will be planned and funded on the basis of objective needs and evidence of social and economic impact. The goal under the heading of the standing of further education and training is to ensure a valued learning path leading to agreed employment, career, developmental, personal and social outcomes.

Following the approval of the strategy by the Minister of Education and Skills, a detailed whole-of-sector implementation plan that sets out over 50 actions required to implement the strategy has been developed in consultation with the Departments of Education and Skills; Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; and Social Protection. SOLAS will lead on more than 50% of the actions which have been identified and the balance will be led by a number of Departments and other bodies. A large number of stakeholder organisations are being asked to contribute to the achievement of each action as appropriate. A new strategy implementation advisory committee has been established to review progress on the implementation of the strategy and provide advice to SOLAS. It is being chaired by the Department of Education and Skills and its membership includes representatives of each main group of delivery stakeholders. A mechanism to ensure the voice of learners is heard is being developed and will be implemented to ensure this vital group of stakeholders will have an opportunity to participate in the evolution of the further and education sector.

SOLAS will report progress on a quarterly basis to its board, to the Minister for Education and Skills and publicly. SOLAS acknowledges the fine work carried out by many providers in the development and evolution of the further education and training sector over many years. We believe these providers and the existing provision form a solid basis to move forward. Nevertheless, the objective evidence which is available points to the need to refocus and reinvigorate the sector. Further education and training programmes give many people, most of whom are adults, an opportunity to develop their potential in a manner which best supports the achievement of their personal learning goals and their preferred approach to learning. A coherent plan that seeks to synergise the many strands which encompass further education and training today has an ethos of continuous improvement and is based on objective, non-partisan evaluation of how individual further education and training programmes achieve against their stated objectives, deliver better outcomes and experiences for learners and significantly enhance the contribution of further education and training to the economy and society. The principal challenge for all the stakeholders in further education and training is to drive forward the implementation of this strategy. A sea change is required in how we value, promote, deliver, assess and continually improve further education and training programmes. SOLAS intends to play a full and constructive part in this implementation.