Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 26 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Cross-Border Opportunities to Prevent Youth Unemployment and Promote Job Creation: Discussion
On behalf of the committee, I am pleased to welcome: from the Department of Education and Skills, Mr. Peter Baldwin, assistant secretary, and Ms Deirdre McDonnell, principal officer with the higher education section; from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr. William Parnell, principal officer with the skills and education unit, and Mr. Gerry Wrynn, assistant principal officer with the North-South unit; from the Northern Ireland Department of Education, Dr. David Hughes, director of curriculum, qualifications and standards; and from the Northern Ireland Department of Employment and Learning, Ms Yvonne Croskery, director of the youth policy and strategy division. These officials are here to brief us on cross-Border opportunities to prevent youth unemployment through education and training, and to promote job creation.
I wish to acknowledge that this is the first Northern Ireland civil servants have come before this committee in a round table discussion with civil servants from the Republic on an issue that is fundamentally important throughout the island. I thank everybody for coming here today,
At our next session, Mr. John McAllister MLA, who is an independent Unionist, will appear before the committee at his own request. I am delighted that he has made the journey in the physical sense and in recognising this Parliament and our support and interest in Northern Ireland. This is a very special day for the committee and that gives hope and optimism to all of us who have high aspirations for the future of this island, North and South.
Before inviting our guests to make their presentations, I advise them of the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. As public servants, I think they full understand that. That advice should be directed more at politicians but I thank the witnesses very much.
The clerk to the committee sent the officials a copy of the recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report on preventing youth unemployment through education and training, purely for information purposes. It is not intended that this discussion will be based entirely on the report.
I will now ask Mr. Baldwin to make his opening statement. He will be followed by Mr. Parnell, Dr. Hughes and Ms Croskery. Members can then ask questions. Mr. Baldwin, the floor is yours.
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
My colleagues and I from the Department of Education and Skills thank the committee for the opportunity to be here this morning - along with representatives of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and our colleagues from Northern Ireland - to contribute to a discussion concerning the prevention of youth unemployment and the promotion of job creation. These are important issues of shared concern North and South and, in this regard, we very much welcome our continuing engagement with our colleagues in Northern Ireland.
In the first instance, the Department of Education and Skills is of the view that keeping our young people at school for as long as possible, so that they can complete their second-level education, plays a vital role in reducing youth unemployment. In Ireland in the last quarter of 2014, the unemployment rate for people with lower secondary or less education was 18%, whereas it was 12% for those with higher secondary or further education and training, and 6% for those with higher education. There has been a significant reduction in the proportion of early school leavers in Ireland, reducing overall from 13.1% in 2004 to the current 6.9%, which is well below the EU average of 11.3% and the EU 2020 target of below 10%.
Those young people who leave school early need access to good second-chance education and training. All young people who find themselves unemployed need access to good education and training options. Over the course of recent years, a programme of system-wide reform has been delivered in the further education and training, or FET, sector. SOLAS, the new Further Education and Training Authority, now has responsibility for the strategic co-ordination and funding of the FET sector. The first task for SOLAS was the development of a national five-year strategy for the sector which sets out a vision to provide world-class education and training, serving the needs of jobseekers, employers and the economy as a whole. One of the focuses of the strategy, published in 2014, is to improve the employment outcomes for those completing FET programmes, including early school leavers and young jobseekers. We work closely with our colleagues in the Department of Social Protection to plan programmes for unemployed people in a way that targets sectors where jobs are available.
Our higher education system continues to make an important contribution in this area, particularly through the Springboard programme. Springboard Plus has so far enabled over 21,000 unemployed and previously self-employed people to upskill or reskill in areas of identified skills need. In 2015, we will provide a further 9,000 places on 285 courses, in 42 colleges throughout the country. Courses will be delivered in areas such as ICT, high-end manufacturing, international financial services, skills to trade internationally and entrepreneurial or business start-up skills. The Springboard initiative has brought about a culture change within the higher education system, bringing an enhanced and productive industry focus to the design and delivery of courses. The strong engagement from employers in the development and selection of courses has been critical to the success of the programme.
Employer engagement has also been a feature in developing our apprenticeship system. Major developments in the area of apprenticeships have taken place recently, including a review of the Irish apprenticeship system and the establishment of the new Apprenticeship Council of Ireland. Following a call by the council for proposals for new apprenticeships, a decision has been taken to approve the development of 25 new apprenticeship programmes in areas such as-----
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
Certainly. Following a call by the Apprenticeship Council of Ireland for proposals for new apprenticeships, a decision has been taken by the Government to approve the development of 25 new apprenticeship programmes in areas such as ICT, transport and logistics, financial services, and tourism and hospitality. These new programmes will offer new career options to young people in areas where there are sustainable employment opportunities. The apprenticeship system is one aspect of education and skills development on which we have had fruitful engagement with our colleagues in the Department of Employment and Learning in the North. Regular cross-Border meetings of Ministers and officials review issues of joint concern and the potential for mutually beneficial co-operation in higher and further education strategies and policies, legislative and institutional reform, funding, access and student mobility issues, cross-Border student flows, and research. Through the framework of the North-South Ministerial Council, our respective Departments address such issues as educational disadvantage, and work to improve outcomes and opportunities for young people emerging from our education systems.
We look forward to our discussion on the issues in both jurisdictions and in the context of exploring the potential for further cross-Border initiatives that deliver added value to our work.
Mr. William Parnell:
I would like to build on the theme of skills and youth unemployment from the perspective of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I will also talk about cross-Border collaboration on enterprise development and job creation.
The education and training system is critical to support enterprise, growth and innovation. Providing young people with the education, training and skills that are relevant to the changing needs of the labour market is crucial, both to their own employability and to the development of the economy as a whole. Within the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, we work closely with our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills, as well as the Department of Social Protection, on matters relating to education and training, skills development, and other labour market issues.
We in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation work closely with our colleagues in the Departments of Education and Skills and Social Protection on matters relating to education and training, skills development and other labour market issues. Our Department, in conjunction with the skills and labour market research unit of SOLAS, provides the secretariat to the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, which reports jointly to the Ministers for Education and Skills and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the existing and emerging skills needs of the economy.
The overarching role of our Department is to champion the enterprise agenda across Government and promote and implement policies that support enterprise growth and job creation. The Department funds the activities of Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and local enterprise offices, LEOs. It co-funds InterTradeIreland with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland.
The Department is responsible for co-ordinating and publishing the annual Action Plan for Jobs, which is the Government's key policy instrument to support job creation. The action plan process has seen the delivery of more than 1,000 individual actions since the first plan was published in 2012. The action plans reflect many of the measures that have been introduced in recent years to reform the education and training system, which Mr. Baldwin discussed, and the high level of youth unemployment. Initiatives reflected in the action plan include the likes of the Youth Guarantee, Springboard, MOMENTUM, JobBridge and the ICT skills action plan.
In our consultations with stakeholders in preparing the Action Plan for Jobs 2016, we are once again hearing of the importance of the skills agenda to employers. As we emerge from the recession and see the economy beginning to recover, it is clear that a key issue for employers is finding the right skills to meet their needs as they grow their businesses. The war for talent is real, both for Irish companies and for multinational corporations based in Ireland. The 42,000 young people who are unemployed have a key role to play in meeting the emerging skills requirements of the enterprise sector. Economically and societally, it is important that we tap into this reservoir of talent. Ireland's competitive advantage in international markets will increasingly be driven by the availability of world-class skills at all levels.
A key objective of the Action Plan for Jobs process when it commenced in 2012 was to support the creation of 100,000 new jobs in the economy by 2016. This target has been exceeded, but tackling youth unemployment remains a challenge, one that is shared by many EU member states. In spite of economic recovery across most of the EU, the youth unemployment rate still exceeds 20% in many countries. In Ireland, the rate fell from a peak of over 30% in early 2012 to 20.7% in the third quarter of 2015. However, this is still more than double the national average of 8.9%, so our efforts must continue in order to support young people who are unemployed.
The Action Plan for Jobs is complemented by the Government's Pathways to Work strategy, which seeks to ensure that as many as possible of the jobs being created in the economy as it recovers are taken up by people on the live register. Pathways to Work is co-ordinated by the Department of Social Protection and focuses on actions to engage with and support the long-term unemployed and youth jobseekers on the live register. Within the pathways strategy, the Youth Guarantee sets a medium-term objective of ensuring that young people receive an offer of employment, education or training within four months of becoming unemployed.
Our Minister, Deputy Bruton, has placed a strong emphasis on supporting entrepreneurship, including young entrepreneurs. A key initiative in this regard is Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur, IBYT, competition, which was introduced last year. This initiative, which is run by the LEOs, builds from county-level competitions to regional and national finals. The competition has a total fund of €2 million and the overall national winners can receive an investment in their businesses of up to €70,000. This year, the competition attracted 1,400 applicants aged between 18 and 30 years, representing a 40% increase on last year. Twenty-four young entrepreneurs have reached the national finals, which will take place in the coming weeks.
Building on the entrepreneurship theme, I would like to mention some important areas of North-South co-operation in supporting enterprise development. As the committee will be aware, InterTradeIreland is one of the six North-South implementation bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement. It runs a range of initiatives and programmes for small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, on both sides of the Border to help companies develop their capacity and drive competitiveness. It is co-funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. Since its establishment, 25,000 SMEs have benefitted from its cross-Border information, 6,000 companies have taken part in all-island programmes, and 3,000 new jobs have been created through the agency's support. InterTradeIreland co-operates with other enterprise development bodies in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including Enterprise Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland, and the LEOs. It will play a role in delivering its services through the regions of Ireland under the Government's new suite of regional jobs action plans.
Enterprise Ireland, the agency responsible for supporting the growth of indigenous enterprises, has forged extensive links with various agencies and bodies in Northern Ireland. Its work has focused on liaising with and participation in cross-Border bodies, such as the Ireland Fund, the International Fund for Ireland, the Special EU Programmes Body and local-authority-led cross-Border networks. Enterprise Ireland works closely with Invest NI. In November 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two agencies to enable clients of both to access each other's market services, trade missions and seminars. Recognising the benefits of pooling resources to support companies in overseas markets, the services of Enterprise Ireland and Invest NI's overseas offices are available to client companies across the island.
Enterprise Ireland and Invest NI run innovation voucher programmes, which are designed to assist small firms in accessing the innovative solutions that are available in the higher education sector. In May 2008, an all-island innovation voucher initiative was jointly launched by both bodies in Belfast. Through this initiative, small Irish enterprises in the Republic can access a further ten knowledge providers in the North. Similarly, small enterprises based in Northern Ireland can used their vouchers to access expertise in research institutions in the Republic. It is a good example of cross-Border co-operation in this enterprise space. Since 2008, companies from the Republic have completed 123 projects with Northern Ireland providers under this scheme, while Northern Ireland companies have completed 57 projects with knowledge providers in the Republic. The agencies continually engage in close co-operation on the development of this cross-Border initiative, normally meeting twice a year.
Enterprise Ireland continues to work with Invest NI when recruiting participants on its leadership for growth programme. Five CEOs from Northern Ireland participated in this between 2010 and 2013, and five Invest NI clients participate currently. Three Invest NI clients are participating in the international selling programme that Enterprise Ireland runs. Other areas of cross-Border collaboration for Enterprise Ireland include the Halo Business Angel Network, HBAN, a joint initiative with InterTradeIreland that is tasked with the development of business angel syndicates across Ireland.
Ongoing dialogue is taking place between Enterprise Ireland's public procurement department and various entities involved in Northern Ireland, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Technology Strategy Board and Invest NI. Enterprise Ireland also works closely with InterTradeIreland on the procurement agenda.
Regarding access to EU research funding, co-operative links continue between the national support structure for Horizon 2020, which is based in Enterprise Ireland, and Invest NI and InterTradeIreland. This aims to facilitate a more targeted co-operation in Horizon 2020 on an all-island basis.
The cross-Border 2008-14 INTERREG IVA programme is worth mentioning. One element of this programme was designed to promote enterprise and business development. A total of €70 million was provided for the enterprise strand, with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation contributing approximately €18 million. Our co-funders from Northern Ireland were the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment or the Department of Finance and Personnel, depending on the exact nature of the individual project.
Approximately 28 projects were involved in this INTERREG strand, the two most significant of which with a physical legacy being the provision of two multimillion euro science parks in Derry and Letterkenny and the provision of two enterprise centres, one in Omagh and one in Carrick-on-Shannon.
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to outline these developments and I am happy to take the committee's questions.
Dr. David Hughes:
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to attend this meeting. We received this week a copy of the report on preventing youth unemployment through education and training. Having shared it with the Minister for Education, Mr. John O'Dowd, MLA, we would like to give its recommendations more measured consideration over a slightly longer timeframe. The committee will appreciate that these are relatively early observations.
I will begin by giving some high-level contextual background to the Department. School education makes a major contribution to society and is a key enabler of improved life chances for our young people. It contributes to community well-being and the success of our economy and it is a cornerstone of the Executive's programme for Government.
The Minister's corporate plan for education sets out a clear strategic direction that puts pupils first and is designed to ensure all young people regardless of their backgrounds can achieve their full potential. Lead corporate goals to support this vision are, first, raising standards for all through high-quality teaching and learning and ensuring all young people enjoy and do well in their education, have their progress assessed and have their attainment recognised, including through qualifications. The second lead corporate goal is closing the performance gap and increasing access and equality, that is to say, addressing the underachievement that exists in the education system and ensuring young people who face barriers or are at risk of social exclusion are supported to achieve their full potential. It is also about ensuring our education service is planned effectively on an area basis to provide pupils with full access to the curriculum and the entitlement framework.
I will offer the following observations on specific recommendations in the report. Recommendation No. 3 is on the provision of cognitive and job-specific skills in schools to improve the employability of young people. One of our key vehicles for raising standards and preparing pupils for the world of work is to ensure every young person has access to a modern, relevant, broad and balanced curriculum. The statutory curriculum places great emphasis on developing the core skills sought by employers. It includes all the skills specifically mentioned in the report from primary school onwards: literacy, numeracy, communication, teamwork, problem solving and learning ability. All schools are required to deliver on these skills and assess and report to parents on children's progress in them.
Employability per seis one of the strands of the learning areas, namely, learning for life and work, LLW, within the statutory curriculum. It cuts across all learning areas and occupies discrete curriculum time. It is intended to develop critical thinking and equip enterprising young people with a can-do attitude.
Recommendation No. 4 is on the provision of entrepreneurial education. Enterprise and entrepreneurship appear in our curriculum from key stage 1 onwards as part of personal development and mutual understanding in primary school and continues within LLW at post-primary level. The Department of Education funds Young Enterprise NI to support the delivery of this aspect of the curriculum in the form of company-based programmes, master class industry events and classroom-based programmes. In the 2014 to 2015 period, more than 100,000 pupils accessed the programmes.
Recommendation No. 7 is on the improved provision of career guidance. The Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning have a shared careers strategy. The Careers Service works with schools to provide careers advice to young people at crucial decision points, in particular year 12 when they are 15 or 16 years old. A recent review of the careers strategy has confirmed the strength of our approach and sets out some areas for improvement: the revision of the Careers Service website; the establishment of a regional careers advisory forum, which will bring together employer representatives, education providers, parents and other stakeholders; and the development of a central work experience portal.
Recommendation No. 8 is on enhanced levels of support for those who are disadvantaged, which is a key ministerial priority. Examples of some of the actions being taken include giving every school the responsibility to address underachievement within their school communities, changes to the school funding formula to allocate additional resources to schools serving high proportions of our most disadvantaged pupils, and the extended schools programme, which allocates approximately £10 million every year to schools serving disadvantaged young people. This money allows schools to provide additional programmes and support the vital connections between schools and their communities. Further actions include targeted, time-bound interventions such as the recent Delivering Social Change literacy and numeracy projects, which funded more than 260 additional teachers to support literacy and numeracy outcomes for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the education works advertising programme, which promotes parental and community involvement in the education of our young people.
I will also refer to the work of the North-South Ministerial Council meeting in its education sector format, which has allowed Ministers to work effectively together across a range of areas of mutual interest for the benefit of pupils in both jurisdictions. The council has a strong focus on educational underachievement and the Departments have shared their experiences in a practical way through joint events and workshops. The Ministers, Mr. O'Dowd and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, recently agreed to commission work that would help to progress joint efforts aimed at understanding and addressing educational underachievement. This work will involve an all-island programme of dissemination of good practice, an independent examination of the work of both Departments and recommendations on further promoting benchmarking and sharing of best practice and experience in this important area.
I hope this short submission provides some illustration of what the Department is doing across the areas highlighted in the report, and I look forward to the discussion and having a more detailed examination of the report over the coming weeks.
Ms Yvonne Croskery:
I thank the committee for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr. Stephen Farry, and in particular to discuss cross-Border opportunities for promoting job creation and preventing youth unemployment through education and training.
Rebuilding and rebalancing our economy are strategic priorities for the Northern Ireland Executive. My Department makes a key contribution to achieving these outcomes by improving young people's skills and, in so doing, providing a route to sustained employment. As the committee will appreciate, there are many work streams across my Department. I hope to give members a flavour of some of the cross-Border activity that is ongoing. For example, our employment service has well-established links with the Department of Social Protection, sharing developments in policy, programmes and service delivery and exploring opportunities for co-operation. Both Departments play an active role in the EURES cross-Border partnership, which encourages and supports labour mobility on a cross-Border basis by providing information for workers, jobseekers and employers. Most recently, the partnership organised a series of cross-Border job fairs and recruitment events in Cavan and Armagh as well as a cross-Border IT recruitment convention for young people in Derry and a speed networking event for employers in Louth to encourage cross-Border trade.
In terms of further education, my Department provides funding every year for several thousand students living in the Republic to undertake courses in Northern Ireland. The highest concentration of these students appears to be in the Donegal area who attend the North West Regional College. As Mr. Baldwin mentioned, my Department and the Department of Education and Skills jointly produced a report this year analysing student flows between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Work is under way to develop a leaver survey for the further education sector which will include details of the destinations of learners living in the Republic. The report details student flows in higher and further education and provides a sound basis for future policy development in both sectors.
This year, organisations based in Northern Ireland secured funding of almost €6 million under the ERASMUS+ programme, allowing many of our young people to study, train and gain work experience internationally. ERASMUS+, Horizon 2020 and INTERREG V projects run by our higher education institutes and further education colleges include cross-Border mobility projects for students and staff together with the building of strategic partnerships in the Republic. The colleges are actively seeking partnerships with the education and training boards in preparation for the 2016 ERASMUS+ calls.
Regarding higher education specifically, my Department continues to work with colleagues in the Department of Education to implement recommendations arising from a report on barriers to undergraduate student mobility. The report was jointly produced by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC, and the Confederation of British Industry, CBI.
Strong relationships have been developed in higher education research through the US Ireland Partnership.
The youth policy and strategy division of my Department recently published two new strategies for apprenticeships and youth training. They set out a blueprint for the future of these systems in Northern Ireland. A number of pilots are currently operating. When the new systems roll out next year, there will be opportunities for the young people taking part to exchange international knowledge and participate in activities. This will be beneficial to employers through the sharing of good practice and innovation. The new apprenticeships are designed to allow for international portability. We believe this is critical and we have been working closely with Mr. Baldwin and his team in this regard.
My Department is leading on the development of united youth, an integrated good relations programme for young people who are not in education, employment or training. The programme is a key commitment in the Northern Ireland Executive strategy, Together: Building a United Community. A total of 13 pilots are running throughout Northern Ireland at the moment delivered by a range of community and voluntary organisations. They are testing a range of approaches to achieving our key outcomes, including good relations, personal development, citizenship and employability. The learning from these pilots will help us to develop a service design framework for the programme after March 2016. The key elements of the programme will be delivered on a cross-Border basis via a youth initiative with funding secured through the children and young people's standard of PEACE IV. Under PEACE IV, a working group is being established and this will include representatives from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the National Youth Council of Ireland.
There are many opportunities for joined-up approaches aimed at both preventing and tackling youth unemployment. I hope I have given the committee a snapshot of some of the cross-Border initiatives in which my Department is engaged.
I thank the witnesses very much for their submissions. I am keen to ask some questions. My first question is for Mr. Peter Baldwin. Does he agree with the view that there is too much emphasis on academic courses? Does he think the institutes of technology have lost sight of the original purpose of providing well-trained technicians? Is academic education serving young people well?
My next question is for Mr. Parnell. It relates to Pathways to Work and the Action Plan for Jobs. What sectors of employment does he believe have been made available? What is the best strategy in working with his counterparts in Northern Ireland to deal with the question? Mr. Parnell highlighted significant projects involving two new enterprise centres in Omagh and Carrick-on-Shannon. What exactly do they entail? How did he go about the work? Did he work with the local authority or local groups? Have they been successful? One of the areas is part of my constituency, so I am being a little self-indulgent.
My next question is for Dr. Hughes. I am keen to hear more detail about the work commissioned jointly by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Mr. O'Dowd, to address educational underachievement. When is this work due to be completed? What outcome does Dr. Hughes anticipate? Will there be a plan of action based on the findings? What is the level of attainment for integrated schools vis-à-vissegregated and shared education schools?
My final question is for Ms Croskery. I was not aware that ERASMUS operated so effectively within the further education sector. Will she go into more detail about the programmes that operate on a North-South basis in the further education area? Is she involved in any shared degree courses with the Irish universities or further education institutes? I see considerable potential in this area, for example, with food science or other education areas or schools.
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
The Chairman asked about an excessive emphasis on the academic side. We are keen to see a spectrum of education and training provision that covers a range of needs. This extends from further education and training, which typically goes up to and includes level 6 on the qualifications framework, to research work at level 10 in the institutes of technology and the universities.
We have discussed nature of the institutes of technology. Clearly, we want them to retain the mission they have had traditionally, which is a focus on the technological side of things, rather than mission drift into university education, other than the provision now in place for technological universities. The question is better seen in the context of a full continuum whereby we have recognition of the different needs within enterprise and different skill sets within individuals. The idea is to provide a spectrum to meet this.
It is true to say we are a largely third level centric society. When people are doing the leaving certificate, the main focus is on the number of points a student gets for university. One of the ambitions of the further education and training strategy is to strengthen further education and training provision, including apprenticeships and other models in order that people see the value of further education and training as a route to employment.
There is a degree of activity under the strategy but what is important ultimately is that the value parents and young people put on further education and training is sufficient to ensure a broader view of where to go after school. This includes a greater appreciation that further education and training can lead not only to a job but a career. That is at the back of the various elements of the further education and training strategy.
Rather than refer to an excessive emphasis by the institutes of technology on the academic side, there is probably an excessive emphasis on that side within society. We want to achieve a greater recognition through engaging with employers and through a range of other actions that will increase the value of further education and training while retaining the distinct missions of each of the providers within the education and training sector. There is an element of not allowing mission drift as well. We do not need more universities, but we do need a spectrum that meets people's needs. I hope that answers the Chairman's question.
Mr. William Parnell:
The Chairman had two questions. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Wrynn, to speak about the enterprise centres. I will address the question on the Action Plan for Jobs and the sectors that have produced jobs. Over the years the Action Plan for Jobs has focused on a combination of thematic objectives and specific sectors. The thematic areas on which we have been focusing include improving the skills of the economy, improving entrepreneurship and improving energy efficiency throughout the economy. There are also specific sectors such as agrifood, manufacturing, tourism, information and communications technology as well as areas like construction and retail. We have focused on these areas in recent years. One important development in terms of identifying the sectors that have strength at a local or regional level has been the launch of the new regional action plans for jobs. Indeed, there will be an action plan for the Border region launched in the coming weeks.
Mr. William Parnell:
It may indeed be Monday. The regional plans work closely with industry and education providers in the areas in identifying the particular strengths. For example, in the west, medical technology and life sciences are particular strengths. In the south west, there is extensive pharma-chem strength. The Border region is interesting. What the Department is trying to do is grow the enterprise base and get companies to scale up. This is relevant for companies, particularly in the Border region. They have a unique opportunity to test their exporting potential and trade across the Border. We are getting down into the granularity of where the jobs are when we go down to the regional level. There is a real opportunity in this area to try to build on the employment base and keep people working and living in these regions. My colleague, Mr. Wrynn, will cover the question on the enterprise centres.
Mr. Gerry Wrynn:
There was a question about the enterprise centres in Omagh and Carrick-on-Shannon.
The INTERREG programme was all about developing enterprise and it was felt there should be some legacies at the end of it rather than spending all the money on ongoing capacity-building. Both Carrick-on-Shannon and Omagh could perhaps be considered peripheral in the wider region. In this regard, a group called the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, was established. It includes the local authorities in the cross-Border region in the west of Northern Ireland and the midlands in the Republic. It proposed that what was needed to kick-start start-ups and small businesses in Leitrim and the relevant part of Tyrone was the building of enterprise centres that would serve as incubator units so smaller businesses starting up would have a ready-made facility that was not already in existence. The Omagh centre was actually an extension of an existing facility that had been built using previous INTERREG funding. It had been very successful and there was a need for more capacity. Leitrim County Enterprise Board was very strongly involved with the one in Leitrim. It was built in Carrick-on-Shannon to provide a base to help start-ups and smaller businesses that had nowhere to locate, and it was also to facilitate mentoring and the offering of support to those businesses. Obviously, the capital cost of both centres was borne by our Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, with the refund coming back later from the European Union. The tenants in the premises pay a rent. It does not cover the capital cost but it will cover the ongoing costs of both centres. In fact, both have been quite successful although I am sure there was some scepticism initially. The Leitrim centre, in particular, had a very good take-up. Many businesses are located there and the prospects are good.
Dr. David Hughes:
The first question was on the joint work on addressing educational underachievement. In both education systems, very similar patterns of underachievement arising from social disadvantage have been recognised and are being addressed. Over the past couple of years, there has been a sharing of the experience of quite different models of addressing the patterns. What has been going on in school classrooms and communities has been very similar. We have had the benefit of having been briefed on the evaluation of the data project, in particular. Likewise, we have had briefings with colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills on programmes that have been implemented in the North. The conclusion was very clearly that both education systems know how to address similar problems. The overall structures may be different within the different systems but there are very similar interventions at school level. The greatest value of working together is actually increased sharing of experience and good practice, so it is not just a question of policymakers talking to policymakers but teachers and managers in schools talking to teachers and managers in schools who are facing very similar issues.
The proposed way forward has been to go to tender for external support to organise a programme of teacher professional development and dissemination of good practice, including at least one event. Although events are not always the most efficient way of getting information out, they can be very effective. There are other dissemination models. It was proposed that there be a report at the end on the learning from the whole process. A particular feature has been drawing on work the two inspectorates have done on best practice in respect of literacy and numeracy. That work was being done quite separately. The two inspectorates worked together very closely on many issues. They are finishing reports on good practice regarding literacy and numeracy. It was felt that if we are to purchase an engagement process pertaining to educational underachievement, the work on literacy and numeracy would fit in perfectly with that. It was suggested that the two strands be put together and that the programme be purchased. This is progressing. We expect the invitations to tender to be issued in the next month or two.
Ms Yvonne Croskery:
I will respond first to the question on Erasmus+ and the collaboration between colleges in Northern Ireland and their counterparts in the Republic. As I said, Colleges Northern Ireland is the umbrella body for the six further education colleges in Northern Ireland. It has been working on taking forward Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and INTERREG projects. It has developed a series of strategic partnerships, including with the institutes of technology in Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Dundalk, to put in joint bids to boost skills and employability, including in terms of training and youth work. South West College proceeded with a £3 million bid under INTERREG IVA. It worked in partnership with the institutes of technology in Sligo and Cavan, and Dumfries and Galloway College. Through that, CREST is focused on research and development facilities for small enterprises. It was a very successful bid. Colleges Northern Ireland, through Dr. Alan Blair, is currently collaborating with its counterparts to put forward a series of bids this year for Erasmus+.
The Chairman asked about shared degrees. I have no details to hand on shared degrees. We can provide the information at a later date.
With regard to the Northern Ireland policy for higher education, Graduating to Success, the importance of cross-Border co-operation is highlighted clearly, along with undergraduate mobility between institutes in Northern Ireland and the Republic, from economic, cultural and social perspectives. We are committed to working on an all-Ireland basis to remove the barriers, be they real or perceived, to encourage student mobility and support higher education institutes in collaborating on both teaching and learning on a cross-Border basis. We have been working with the Department of Education and Skills very closely on the implementation of the recommendations of the IBEC–CBI report, to which I referred. It considers barriers to undergraduate student mobility. We will continue to examine this.
I welcome our visitors. I certainly agree with the point Mr. Baldwin made on the Department's view that keeping young people at school for as long as possible is vital in reducing youth unemployment. There was a feeling many years ago, perhaps when I was teaching, which is a long time ago, that there were pupils of a certain age who might be inclined to take up apprenticeships after the intermediate certificate examinations. Is it possible that apprenticeship courses could start a little earlier, as in after the junior certificate examinations? Could support be given to those interested in such apprenticeships so they might continue in education?
At an earlier meeting on education, Deputy Brendan Smith, who apologises for being unable to attend today, raised cross-Border co-operation between schools, particularly schools that are very close to the Border. Has anything happened on that? I am referring to very basic provisions such as school transport, the type of curriculum and model of school that would be involved in this catchment area.
In my county, County Galway, there is almost a battle for land between schools and industry. I am wondering whether our visitors could enlighten us on this. I could give an example from Galway where a motorway has opened up great possibilities for using extra land. State lands have been cut in two and there are opportunities for more development. At public meetings held by people who want to promote a school, one is almost asked whether one is for jobs or for a school. Of course, the answer is probably that one needs both.
I find it hard to believe that sometimes there are objections from industry to a school, but that is actually happening in Galway. I do not know why people do not just sit around the table and say: "We'll have the factory here and we'll have the school there." We are fortunate in County Galway that Apple is coming to the town of Athenry. Because it is felt that more industry will follow, the provision of a school will be difficult. One can talk about co-location, and I am all for that, but it is proving to be a real problem unless people sit down to talk. I do not know whether the same situation exists in other parts of the country.
I have the honour of chairing Leaders' Questions at noon, so I will have to go before this meeting is over. I want to thank the witness, however, for a very interesting presentation.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
Yes. Youth unemployment is higher in disadvantaged areas and communities that suffered greatly in the conflict and the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. I would like to explore what joint work has been done for areas with high unemployment rates, including Derry, Strabane and my own constituency of west Belfast. North Belfast is another area with high unemployment and high youth unemployment rates. Are specific works going on in those areas? In my own constituency, for example, educational attainment has increased, which is a good sign. That is because disadvantaged areas were specifically targeted with resources. Unfortunately, I cannot say that for the Department for Employment and Learning because I do not see exactly what different approaches are being taken. It would be good to try to explore that matter. It is not a criticism, just a question.
I attended an event recently in Belfast City Hall for the Belfast Works project. It is a first-class project which is supported by the Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning. Within six months of its initiation 339 jobs have been created, which is a welcome sign. The big problem moving into next year is that funding for Local Employment Intermediary Service, LEMIS, projects is reliant on matched funding, which is a serious issue for many of the organisations that work on that scheme. I would like to get some thoughts from Ms Croskery on some of those issues.
I welcome the witnesses here this morning. To follow up on what Mr. Maskey said, how often do representatives of the different structures meet? It is a pity that the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, had to leave because he would have had a better insight on co-operation at ministerial level. How flexible are the systems for meeting counterparts? If something is working in one area, North or South, I presume those involved will exchange information, but how flexible is the system in trying to change or adapt to this?
Apprenticeships were mentioned, but during the recession the construction industry collapsed, and everyone said there was a need to move away from the standard apprenticeships that had served us well over the years. Mr. Baldwin said there were 25 new apprenticeship systems, but do they represent 25 new programmes? Models were cited, including the German apprenticeship system. The advantage is that if a young person wants to be an apprentice electrician and it does not suit them, they can adapt within the system itself. It is much more difficult to do so within the Irish system. That is why I am trying to find out about the level of flexibility in the system. It took us years to change over from this system. At the time, young apprentices said that getting practical experience was a huge problem. Some of us suggested bringing them into local authorities to obtain practical skills there, but how adaptable is that system?
The fall in youth unemployment was referred to, as well as young people staying at school and entering higher education. As we know, there is a price for families whose children stay on at school. Figures are given comparing the European model with what is happening in Ireland, where more people are staying on at school. We have also been given figures for the number of young unemployed people. In Ireland, the safety valve has always been emigration; this would not be the same in other European countries.
When members of this committee visited Belfast we examined various disadvantaged areas. Dr. Peter Shirlow provided figures for young people from a Protestant background who were doing well at school but then left the North. Figures were cited on the positive changes that are happening in disadvantaged areas, but is that still the pattern for young people from a Protestant, loyalist or Unionist background? Are they still leaving for Scotland or England? What is being done to try to keep such young people in employment in Northern Ireland?
I wish to comment on the one-size-fits-all system of second-chance education. If one talks to people involved in second-chance education, particularly those in training, they say the system is not very flexible. I recently spoke to a teacher in my own constituency in Tallaght. He said that funding is available for second-chance education targeting those who have dropped out of school, including a one-to-one teacher-pupil ratio. The big problem, however, is to try to draw down such funding. Are there similar systems in the North, besides the usual school structures, to keep young people in education? Is there anything we can learn from their system?
It is all about sharing experience. I am aware of the strides that have been made in education in Scotland, so is there a tie-in between the North and other systems in Britain?
I thank all the witnesses for attending the committee today. It is fabulous to see both sides of the island coming together to talk sense and see what we can do. The figure I have for youth unemployment for October 2015 is 19.7%. Having started a business in the late 1980s, I saw the dramatic change that it makes in people's lives when they get a job. Their self-confidence and demeanour improve.
It is not just about getting money, it is about meeting other people, socialising and having a break for coffee. It is somewhere they can go every day. We have 37,000 young people unemployed. It is not just a number. For each person in that group it is a very traumatic life to be living. Where I live in Dundrum, I come across people who may or may not have done their leaving certificate and who are floating around. They do not know what to do with themselves and they have not found what they want to do. It is very wearisome. How the hell does one get them to get into some course or something and to keep going? If they remain outside the system and become disadvantaged, that is where trouble starts.
Will Mr. Baldwin bring us up to date on the apprenticeships and what has happened in this regard? These young people I am talking about would be very interested in them. One young person wants to be in forestry, but how does he get into it? I would love to hear about the apprenticeships and it is tremendous we are starting it.
I have said numerous times at the Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation that we have to keep our eye on the local enterprise offices, LEOs. I asked a LEO to help somebody last week and I thought I was getting across that we need personal support, but all the person got was a letter and a website number. I was shocked because I saw a great opportunity to help a person develop their business. I would have thought an official would go and meet the person. It takes energy to do that, but I was very disappointed that they were told just to look up the website. Could Mr. Parnell respond to that?
I would like to ask Ms Croskery whether it is still the case that there is no recognition for the GCSE and so on in this jurisdiction. What has happened in this regard? We had some reference to that in this committee and the Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Are we now recognising the third level qualifications in the North? She said that 13 pilot programmes are currently running across Northern Ireland. Unemployment is such a serious issue for any human being that I would think pilot programmes would be made into full-blown programmes as soon as possible. I am very passionate about jobs and employment, having had the hands-on experience I have had. I still come across people who do not have jobs and who have nowhere to go every day. They stay in bed and there is no inclination to get up. People become bitter and dissatisfied and that can lead to other, more serious issues in society. They may not have liked school and may have left early. Perhaps they could not stick secondary school.
It is a great occasion today. I am delighted to be here. I wish all the witnesses the best and thank them very much.
Can I just ask one more question? I am continually perplexed as to why west Belfast has never broken out of the cycle of unemployment. I just do not understand it. What the hell is holding it back? I know there is a cultural problem there and I understand that, but why is the system in the North not trying passionately to help the people there? I am not asking Ms Croskery to solve the world's problems, but I would like some help on that. It is the most disadvantaged area in the UK.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
On that point, I can inform the Senator that west Belfast no longer has the highest unemployment rate, even in the North of Ireland. We have managed to reduce it by a number of percentage points over recent years. Foyle in Derry now has the highest unemployment rate. That is for many different reasons, but the Senator is right and we want to see an increased level of apprenticeships. That is what today is about.
I want to speak about some of the social clauses that, for example, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure proposed in regard to stadia. It is to be hoped Casement Park will be built in west Belfast. That is out for consultation now and we will be starting it in the very near future. Will they be working closely with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure with regard to trying to get apprenticeships in? The new social clauses within those contracts for the stadia are some of the hardest and most costed measures from which we will get the most benefit. That is earmarked for apprenticeships. It is also specified that if the contractor does not fulfil his or her obligations, he or she can be taken to court and that will probably be the first time. What collaboration is there between the two departments to reduce unemployment even further in those areas?
Adding to that, this committee probably believes that apprentices should be given enhanced status. There is a saying for people within the trade that they have been dumbed down over the years for some reason. Do the witnesses agree that SOLAS or the institutes of technology are the best places to deliver these courses? Mr. Parnell rightly said that sometimes we are looking in smaller and regional areas for the big factory to come in. I have found that by addressing the industries that are there, many of them are now taking on extra staff. It is sometimes going unnoticed. We all want the factory that employs 100 people, whereas the existing industry that employs 60 or 70 people or that takes on 30 or 40 may not be highlighted. The members have posed many questions, so I am looking forward to some answers.
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
I thank the Chairman. First, on Deputy Kitt's question regarding young people moving into apprenticeships after the junior certificate, we still have the objective that young people would complete their leaving certificate. The apprenticeship review group endorsed that as a legitimate objective and agreed that the time to go into an apprenticeship should be after the leaving certificate. There are issues around the curriculum at both junior and senior cycle which might better address the different skill sets of individuals in terms of preparation for apprenticeship, but we would still have the overall objective that people would complete it. People can, however, still go into apprenticeships and education and training boards, ETBs, do have the potential to offer, for example, pre-apprenticeship courses or apprenticeship sampling courses.
In respect of co-operation between schools, which was raised by Deputy Brendan Smith, there are difficulties around different curricula and so on, and in terms of school transport, there are issues around different starting times and so on. The most fruitful area for co-operation is probably professional collaboration, because ultimately what happens in the classroom dictates the quality of the outcomes for children and work is being done on a North-South basis in terms of professional collaboration around issues of disadvantage.
On planning for schools, we now have quite a sophisticated planning apparatus in our planning and building unit in Tullamore. There is a GIS system that looks at all the demographic data throughout the country. There is also a working arrangement with county managers in terms of future planning, so that should assist, but I do not doubt that conflicts arise locally on occasion. It is hoped this apparatus will minimise the occurrence of such conflicts.
Deputy Crowe rightly identified the problems we had before with apprenticeships being demand-led. This meant that in the aftermath of the construction boom, we ended up with many apprentices who had to be assisted in seeing out their apprenticeships. In fairness to FÁS, while there were many well-documented issues with it, it did put a huge range of measures in place to facilitate apprentices seeing out their apprenticeship and qualifying.
We are very conscious of it as we go forward into the new apprenticeships. With a demand-led scheme, there is no way of smoothing it out. With the new apprentices, we will be starting with approved numbers rather than taking a demand-led approach. It must be employer-led, given that an apprenticeship is a contract of employment and an employer must step up to the plate.
The areas are accountancy, butchery, technical, travel, telecommunications, network engineering, information technology, financial services, hospitality, manufacturing and engineering. New apprenticeships have been identified in the first 25. There was a call for proposals and a group of 25 were identified as those that would be amenable to quicker development than the others which needed more development. The 25 are in a range of different areas and the idea is that funding will be given to them to develop. There is an amount of work to be done to develop the curricula and the on-the-job part, and money will be given to develop it. It is hoped that recruitment in those will occur in 2016. They are different areas and will begin with specified numbers.
One of the key issues around the new apprenticeships is sustainability. We have hammered at this from the beginning. If we are to persuade the young people of Ireland, and their mothers and fathers, that our new apprenticeships are a valid way to go, it must be a sustainable career. The commitment by the employers and industry sectors will be crucial. This is one of the key elements. We hope the initial ones would be sustainable within the numbers that are approved.
Mr. Maskey asked about dealing with educational attainment and high unemployment. In terms of the North-South issue, the co-operation around disadvantage might best facilitate attention to disadvantage on both sides of the Border. Senator White raised the issue of youth unemployment. During the recession there was not a family in Ireland that was not touched by unemployment and the effect long-term absence from education, training or employment can have on a young person. The first point of contact for young people is the Department of Social Protection's Intreo service. The Youth Guarantee promotes engagement with young people who have been out of the workforce, particularly those with a low probability of exit from unemployment. Where we work with them, there is a protocol between the education and training boards, ETBs, and the Intreo service to facilitate referral of all unemployed people, particularly the long-term or young unemployed, to appropriate education and training provision.
While I understand what Mr. Baldwin is saying, young people have told me they cannot get a relationship going with the person they meet when they attend Intreo. These are young people who are somewhat disadvantaged, the people who hated school. When they attend Intreo, they fall out with the contact person.
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
Intreo is planning a further training programme for its case officers regarding referrals. We must bear in mind that Intreo is an amalgamation of the former FÁS employment services, the community welfare service and the traditional Department of Social Protection service. Intreo has faced a major challenge bringing those together as a one-stop-shop and rolling out the offices throughout the country.
Mr. Peter Baldwin:
The Apprenticeship Council is examining the proposals. After an initial call went out, the Apprenticeship Council made a judgment as to which ones could be developed the fastest. It requested further information from the proposers of the 25 selected. They have come back, and the Apprenticeship Council is examining them. It will return to the proposers and, subject to clarification, will give each proposer money to develop the apprenticeship.
Ms Yvonne Croskery:
I will cover the totality of questions. Mr. Maskey raised youth unemployment, particularly in areas of very high unemployment in Northern Ireland, and I will outline a range of measures we are taking. Mr. Maskey will be aware of our strategy for people not in education, employment or training, NEET, launched in May 2012, which is a cross-departmental strategy to deal with the NEET situation. Reading the report of the committee, one can clearly see the percentages of NEET in Northern Ireland, 14.1%, and in Border regions, 18.3%. It is a very common issue across our island. The strategy has three tiers: preventing young people from missing opportunities for education and training; helping people in the 16 to 18 age group, especially those facing barriers; and assisting the unemployed young people. From this year, we have been funding the NEET strategy through the European Social Fund.
Mr. Maskey mentioned the Local Employment Intermediary Service, LEMIS. LEMIS is continuing. We published a very detailed evaluation of our NEET strategy and will come forward with a refresh following this evaluation. A part of my challenge, we are looking at how we join up the employability piece with united youth, examining the two funding streams, PEACE IV and the European Social Fund, particularly moving towards the next call in 2017 and 2018, so we give a holistic approach to our NEET young people in Northern Ireland, using PEACE IV for the citizenship and good relations aspect on a cross-Border basis. We are seeking to work in partnership with the Border regions. We have been working very closely with the Youth Council of Ireland to see how we might go forward with it.
We have had our careers review in Northern Ireland. We are working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Mr. John O'Dowd, MLA, and have guaranteed all our young people in Northern Ireland impartial guidance in their final year of school. Some 95% of young people have taken up the offer. We have a Youth Guarantee through our training for success programme, which guarantees every young person in Northern Ireland aged 16 to 17 an opportunity of a training place. I have 13 united youth pilots across Northern Ireland, including in areas of high NEET youth unemployment. We are very excited. Initial feedback has shown that innovative approaches from voluntary and community sectors are coming forward using a range of measures to engage young people who have had a very bad experience in the education sector, using, for example, shared support in a number of very innovative ways, examining our shared identity and employability needs. The young people are able to avail of their benefits, which is exciting. We are paying a stipend with it. It is an innovative approach.
We had a target of 365 young people. The pilot was launched at the end of August and approximately 290 young people have been recruited to united youth so far. My department has just finished a root-and-branch review of apprenticeship and youth training in Northern Ireland and we are coming forward with a new system of learning at level 2. The review of youth training at level 2, which will replace a range of interventions we had, will provide a professional and technical system of learning for our young people who do not have five GCSEs including maths and English. It reflects the dual aims of the system. It will provide young people with a solid foundation of skills, experience and qualifications that are recognised and valued by employers relevant to today's labour market. The broad-based skills will include work-based learning either through an employed or non-employed, virtual route.
As I have said, it will be focused on all young people in Northern Ireland between the ages of 16 and 24 who do not hold five GCSEs, including maths and English. We are very excited about this concept. The new professional and technical system of learning that is being built will be equal to the academic route and will be recognised by the academic route. The advisory forum we have set up in partnership with employers and trade unions will ensure employers are central to this process. It will help to inform the curriculum to ensure we get it right. This new system will allow for progression into an apprenticeship or into sustained employment. We have had a radical root-and-branch reform of our apprenticeships. A brand new system will be in place from September 2016. We see this as a parallel route of equal value that will allow young people to go through level 3 apprenticeships or sub-degree apprenticeships through higher-level apprenticeships. It will allow them to move into new jobs and roles throughout their careers. It will allow them to progress all the way to level 8, which is PhD level, with their qualifications recognised as part of the system.
This is the most radical thing that the current Minister or any Minister in Northern Ireland has ever been involved in and we are very excited about it. We are working with our partners in the Northern Ireland Department of Education. We are aware that issues can arise when young people make choices at the age of 14. If we have a good, robust, distinctive, professional and technical qualifications route, young people will be able to choose an alternative pathway that will offer value in terms of seamless progression right through to higher education, with work-based learning being built around that. The Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr. Stephen Farry, launched a skills barometer in Northern Ireland a fortnight ago. This initiative, which is being taken forward by the University of Ulster's centre of economic policy, is setting out for our Department and for Northern Ireland what the skills demands of the Northern Ireland economy are going to be from now until 2025. It will be refreshed on a constant basis. We are now able to look at how we can better match demand with supply with regard to particular pockets of unemployment in Northern Ireland.
We make sure the funding we invest is targeted where it is needed. We provide generous funding levels in areas where we know there will be jobs that will be able to command the commensurate salary of a technically well-skilled young person. We are working hard on that. We have invested significantly in west Belfast. We built a brand new further education campus, known as e3, there. It has been one of the most successful investments we have made in terms of really turning around education and skills training in Northern Ireland. Investment has been made in cutting-edge equipment there. I have to say that people are travelling across Belfast and from further afield to west Belfast to avail of the specialist training offered at the campus. For example, training in the specialist area of composites is provided there.
I can respond to Mr. Maskey's question by firmly saying that we are working with the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. We have had discussions about piloting new level 3 apprenticeships this year through the change fund in Northern Ireland. Our Minister was able to secure €7.5 million. We are piloting between 350 and 400 higher-level apprenticeships at sub-degree level. This is quite a new approach for Northern Ireland. Those apprenticeships will allow seamless progression into higher education, university degrees and even as far as PhD level. We are working with the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to see how we might do that through all the social clauses and contracts. I hope I have given a good broad view of what we are doing.
Senator White asked specifically about the 13 pilot programmes. We are totally committed to moving forward with the united youth programme. We are using PEACE IV funding for the youth initiative aspect of that programme. This allows our neighbours in the Border areas to avail of that funding. We work in partnership. As I have said, the activities of the first working group that will be given this money will kick off around the first week of December. I will chair that group, which is looking forward to developing an innovative programme using the information from the pilot programmes. It is no longer a case of one size fits all. We will use all the different learning to ascertain what works. No single pilot programme can best be taken in isolation. We will pick the bits that work best and focus on them. I have to say that the pilot programmes have been particularly useful in areas where there are many young people who are not in education, employment or training and where there are high levels of deprivation as well. We are doing all we can there.
Ms Deirdre McDonnell:
A new scheme of recognition was announced earlier this year by the Irish Universities Association. The resulting increase in the number of points awarded for various A level grades will open up more opportunities for students from Northern Ireland to study here. We can get a copy of the scheme for the Senator if she wishes.
Dr. David Hughes:
Most young people who are doing their A levels are taking three subjects. Under the new scheme, the points from three A levels will be sufficient. The assumption previously was that young people were taking four A levels. That was actually quite an unusual arrangement. It looks as though this issue is being addressed, which would be very welcome.
Mr. William Parnell:
I would like to respond to a couple of the points made by Senator White which have not yet been covered. She asked how young people find their way into certain sectors, such as forestry. It is clear that career guidance has a big part to play in this regard, as has the industry itself. There is a high level of churn in certain sectors, such as hospitality and retail, as people move around. Such sectors can encounter difficulties in recruiting people for certain positions. One of the recurring themes I am seeing through the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs is that industry can play a role in promoting certain sectors and in making it clear that there is a progression path in those sectors. It needs to be emphasised that people who enter the retail sector, for example, at the lowest level can rise to management level and earn handsome salaries. There is a clear role for career guidance teachers and industry itself. Perhaps we will see this developing over the coming months, for example, through the regional action plans for jobs and the regional skills forums, which are organised by the Department of Education and Skills.
The Senator also mentioned the local enterprise offices. I understand what she is saying about the level of service. The local enterprise offices are in their second year of operation and have gone through a process of change. The level of resources available to individual offices has varied because of the constraints on the number of staff that could be employed. Having said that, the objective of the Department working with the local authorities is to ensure there is a standardised quality of service. It was my understanding that the local enterprise offices would be able to provide named contacts in other areas. There would be a named contact to deal with a revenue issue, for example. I assure the Senator that the Department is very conscious of the issue of standardised quality across the system. We have been working on that issue since the initial establishment and bedding down of the local enterprise offices.
Deputy Crowe asked about the level of engagement between the North and the South. My colleague, Mr. Wrynn, might say a few words about the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation's involvement and collaboration with its counterparts in the North of Ireland.
Mr. Gerry Wrynn:
We work closely with our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on two fronts. First, we work with them on the management of InterTrade Ireland. We co-fund that body and we agree its programmes and wider strategies. There is constant engagement on that front. We have regular meetings in Belfast or Dublin with our counterpart officials. Second, we both fund the enterprise strand of INTERREG. There is a similar level of co-operation in that regard. Representatives of both Departments sit on various committees that are run by the EU managing authority. Representatives of other Departments in the North and the South sit on that group as well. At a more senior level, the Secretary General of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation meets his counterpart - the permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment - a couple of times a year to discuss issues of mutual interest and to share experiences. At a political level, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, meets his counterpart - the new Northern Ireland Minister in this area is Jonathan Bell - as part of the trade and business strand of the North-South Ministerial Council. Their next meeting will take place in Armagh next week. Overall, there is a pretty comprehensive level of engagement.
Dr. David Hughes:
There are a number of points on which I wish to supplement what has already been said. The questions on how to keep young people in education have been answered from the perspective of the end of compulsory education, as it were. From the perspective of schools, however, there are a number of strategies we would adopt that have the impact of maintaining what one might call traction with compulsory education. The critical one is the degree of freedom schools have to devise a school curriculum that suits their particular intake. The statutory curriculum is quite minimal in content, so the school curriculum can be developed quite flexibly around that. We maintain an open market in qualifications. There is an enormous array of qualifications that schools can work towards, particularly at post-primary level.
The one requirement we place on post-primary schools, which has a particular impact in this area, is that all young people have an entitlement to access to, or an offer of, a minimum number of courses both at key stage 4, which is years 11 and 12, and at the post-16 stage, which is years 13 and 14. At key stage 4, which is now in place in full for the first time in this academic year, all young people are entitled to an offer from their school of 24 courses, and 27 courses at post-16 stage. Those courses do not have to be delivered by the school, but they must be offered. That is done in collaboration with other schools and with FE. That idea of breadth and range means that there must be something that suits. If it means that a young person continues to go to school to do whatever it is that they are really keen on, they will also continue with their English, mathematics and so forth.
Dr. David Hughes:
Yes. That breadth of opportunity is a very important part of it.
The relationship between the Department of Education and Skills and the Northern Ireland Department of Education is very similar to what has just been described. Obviously, there is political engagement and regular engagement at a high level. There is also simply picking up the telephone to say: "We are up to this. Can you let us know what are you doing in that area?". That type of engagement and dialogue happens regularly.
I wish to make a point about west Belfast. The levels of educational attainment in west Belfast are increasing very impressively. There are a number of factors in that regard which we recognise, one of which is the degree of community buy-in to the importance of education. It is not schools alone doing it; there is a great deal of community buy-in. In west Belfast there has been a piloted approach to co-operation between schools. All post-primary schools belong to clusters and there are 30 area learning communities. Some of them are very effective, some are a little looser, some adopt many roles and some of them keep themselves quite focused. In west Belfast an effort has been made to expand the degree to which the schools are working together, so there are groups of not just principals and vice-principals but also of heads of departments. The special educational needs co-ordinators meet, as do the curriculum devisers. They are also now extending into the primary schools and nursery schools.
That has been ongoing and that work has made a real impact. There is a cohesion to educational delivery and real buy-in. I am not saying west Belfast is unique in that, but this programme is unique. We hope it will not be unique for much longer. We will see where it goes. If one day the issue of unemployment is transformed, I expect it will be because the attitude towards education has taken so many steps forward.
Thank you. On behalf of the committee I thank the officials for meeting us today. The discussion has been informative and productive. One aspect that is clear is that the initiatives you have outlined demonstrate the value of EU funding in cross-Border co-operation and regional development.
It has been a wonderful meeting. I thank my colleagues for their questions and the witnesses for the way they replied to them. This issue is fundamentally important to the island of Ireland, North and South, and its citizens look to the future with great hope.
We will suspend the meeting for a number of minutes to allow the next witnesses to take their seats. I invite the witnesses and members for tea and coffee. The Department of Finance has decided to splurge on tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits.