Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 2 November 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Leaving Certificate Reform: Discussion (Resumed)
Today we will continue our discussion on leaving certificate reform with reference to higher and further education requirements, vocational options and career paths. I will invite the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to make an opening statement This will be followed by opening statements from Dr. John O' Connor from Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, Mr. Tim Conlon from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and Mr. Andrew Brownlee from SOLAS. Following the opening statements, each member will have an eight minute slot in which to table questions and get a response from the witnesses. The committee will publish the opening statements on its website following today's meeting.
Before we begin, I wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Mr. Conlon is giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and as such, he may not benefit from the same immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present and he has been advised of same. Witnesses are reminded the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. If their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction from the Chair.
I will now call on the Minister to make his opening statement. I wish to advise everyone that the Minister must leave the meeting at 12.30 p.m.
I thank the Chairman for inviting me, my Department and agencies of my Department to attend today. At the outset I want to commend this committee on the work it is undertaking in this area, which is hugely valuable. The way in which the committee is going about this work, in a very public and transparent way, is really helping with the important discourse that needs to happen now in relation to the lessons emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic in the context of transition pathways and opportunities for our younger people in school and, from my perspective, crucially, when they leave school; the way in which we present those options to them; and how we prepare them to best avail of those options. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused huge disruption, challenge, stress and anxiety but it has also presented opportunities. When it comes to the area of education, including further and higher education and the entire spectrum of education, there are many opportunities presenting and we will not be forgiven by future generations if we let this moment pass and decide to just go back to the old way of doing things.
Something much better and much bigger is demanded by our younger people, by the next generation of leaders within our community, society, economy and our political system, arising from their having lived through and endured a global pandemic. Consequently, I encourage all of us, that is, myself, my Department, our agencies and all Members of the Oireachtas, to take this opportunity and be bold in the policy response we consider. This committee is very much united across the political spectrum in wanting to explore those opportunities.
Any reform of the leaving certificate process must be considered in the context of broader senior cycle reform. Sometimes the conversation can be only about the terminal exam but we must also consider the programme, subjects, skills and objectives in the round. I will pose some questions. Does the senior cycle prepare all our students equally well for pursuing their future paths, be they academic or vocational? I really want to hone in on the latter point. Where are we at with respect to a student who wishes to pursue a vocational course within our second level system? Does the leaving certificate capture a person’s capabilities in the round or does it choose to focus only on certain capabilities and assess those very well, thoroughly and objectively while ignoring many other capabilities or skills a young person may have? Do the leaving certificate and the points system hinder a person’s potential or help them? There has never been a better time to have this conversation.
When we talk about the leaving certificate it is really important we not just talk about half the issue. We should not have a conversation with one arm tied behind out back. We should have a fully-rounded conversation. It cannot just be a conversation about the leaving certificate examination. When I talk to young people, their parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, principals and colleagues in these Houses, people also want to have a conversation about what happens after the examination. The process the Department of Education and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, the Government and the Oireachtas ultimately ends up putting in place is important but it needs to be joined up with the pathways that happen after that process of assessment.
How do we move beyond what I believe has been a very narrow view of options post school? We have huge success in this country with rates of university and higher education uptake. We should be proud of that but we must also be big enough to admit we have, perhaps unintentionally, narrowed the conversation about all the options much too early in a young person's life. We have narrowed, in many ways, the definition of what success is and how it is perceived by society. We must ask ourselves how we move beyond the points race and all the stress and worry students and their families feel every year and how we create additional and alternative pathways to further and higher education. The leaving certificate route, whatever that might look like, can be a pathway but it is not the only show in town. What are the other pathways to get a person where he or she wants to go? I want the committee to know that is where my energy is going to be. It will be placed in ensuring school leavers have as many ways as possible to progress to where they want to in terms of careers, as opposed to just one way. There are far too many conversations around kitchen tables or on couches about what university a person wants to go to and not about what does he or she want to do with his or her life and here are three, four or five different ways of getting him or her there. That is leading to huge challenges, to huge anxiety and pressure and a warped sense of what success and fulfilment can look like.
We must also be honest. The current leaving certificate system does not equip a student in respect of many life skills. Members may wonder why I should interfere in that space. I do so because it directly impacts on the ability of a young person when he or she leaves school to make the successful transition to further education, higher education or to the world of work. It does not always teach students about financial literacy or digital skills. Bizarrely, it does not teach students properly about sex education and consent. We in the higher education system then find ourselves having to play catch-up. We all know the huge difficulties around sexual harassment, sexual violence and consent. Why do we bury our heads in the sand on these issues when students are at a much younger age? Furthermore, in the week in which COP26 is taking place, why do we not teach our kids about climate skills? Mr. Brownlee, who is seated in front of me, is leading a massive programme in SOLAS to train people in green skills. That is great. Let us go back and train the people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who never had an opportunity to learn green skills. However, are we satisfied that kids today, who care more about climate than any generation before them, leave schools with no understanding, in a formal sense, of the green skills or no ability to be assessed in relation to that as well?
I should acknowledge that we have brilliant schools, teachers and principals. We have people who are passionate about doing the best by their students. That is not the point I am making. The point I am making is that the structured leaving certificate we have now ignores all these areas that I have spoken about but life does not ignore them and citizens in this country do not ignore them. I believe that these skills being provided in a broader sense within our education system would help our students transition to third level, to employment and, quite frankly, to life. We need a fair and consistent assessment system, one that can give our students feedback and a clear understanding of their strengths and talents in order that they can make reliable choices.
I will share with the committee some figures regarding transition rates from DEIS schools to higher education. In 2018, the overall transition rate was 63%. Of course, behind headlines there is a lot more detail and behind that overall transition rate there is a rate of 40% in DEIS schools and 69% in non-DEIS schools. The aspiration of a child from a disadvantaged community is no less and should be no less than the aspiration of a child from another community. We have to recognise that. When we boast about how well we are doing as a country in terms of educational attainment, and we have every right to be proud of that, we should not forget that we are still leaving kids behind today and we are failing collectively to put in place enough policy interventions to close that gap between 40% and 69%. That is not the equal republic that we all want to build post Covid. Two babies born side by side need to have the same opportunity as they go through the education system at every phase and their dreams should not be dampened or lessened due to the area in which they grow up.
We also have to acknowledge that we live in a very fast-changing world as regards work, the skills we require and how we work. We have all seen that accelerated through the pandemic. Our third level system exists to allow learners to develop and specialise their knowledge, skills and competence. Ireland’s future sustainability depends on the achievements of these learners, on their specialised knowledge, expertise and development, as well as on their collective capacity to widen and deepen social, economic and cultural development. We must ensure that there are sufficient numbers of students who are equipped to work in areas of specific skills needs. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, education, ICT skills and the development of language skills are some of the key areas where we must ensure post-primary students are given a chance to explore their talents. In other words, let us not begin the conversation about how we address these challenges when a student turns up at the door of a university or college of further education at the age of 18. Let us embed that in the school system.
An unintended consequence of the leaving certificate has been that it has decided that some skills matter and, therefore, by implication it has also decided that others do not. As a result, we are narrowing our view of what success is. We also have to be honest. I am also the Minister responsible for skills. There are skills shortages in this country in relation to housing. We all want to build more houses and we need 27,500 more people to get to our target for housebuilding. We all also want to retrofit homes. I was listening to media commentary about retrofitting this morning. It is a really important issue for saving our planet, which is on fire and which we all care about. We have to ask ourselves who is going to do it. No one here in this room is going to retrofit a home. No one in this room is going to build a home. We have to make sure that our younger people in school realise that there are pathways, careers and rewarding jobs in the trades and crafts and that it is not all just about a narrow view of the world. I would make that point very strongly.
That is why I am not just talking about it as this Friday, with the co-operation of SOLAS, the CAO and the education and training boards, ETBs, we will launch a new updated CAO website. Every leaving certificate student will be able to log on to the website and see the button for the traditional CAO options but, for the first time ever, they will also see a button for the further education and training options and a button that they can click to find out lots more information about apprenticeships and the supports and the pathways there as well. Why hide these issues and not talk to people about apprenticeships at a younger age? Why not look at allowing people the opportunities to sample and experience apprenticeships in our secondary school system and perhaps even earlier? In our sector we are going to bring about that cultural change, where the conversation around the kitchen table or on the couch will be broader. We are going to start that on Friday, with all our partners, with this revamped website.
Does cultural change not need to begin much earlier in the post-secondary school student's life? It does. The way one achieves that is through a broader and more inclusive curriculum. I look forward to working with my Government colleagues, especially the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and to reviewing the forthcoming report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, on priority areas and goals. I wanted to share with the committee the view that the skills needs our country requires depends on getting this right. The definition of success and what success is has been unintentionally narrowed by a leaving certificate system that applies a focus to some skills and ignores others. In addition, the successful transition to other options post school requires a broader ranges of issues being assessed and a broader range of life skills being considered. Crucially, we will begin this week by showing people all of the options available post school and not just some of them.
Dr. John O'Connor:
On behalf of QQI, I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to participate in this important discussion. QQI oversees quality in post-secondary education and training and is the national awarding body for further education and training. QQI has a statutory remit to promote the implementation of Ireland’s national framework of qualifications which includes school, further and higher education and training qualifications. We promote lifelong learning through the implementation of national policy on access, transfer and progression and advise on the international recognition of qualifications. My opening statement will focus on those aspects of the topic of leaving certificate reform that are the focus of the discussion today, namely, higher and further education requirements, vocational options and career paths.
The leaving certificate examination is an integral part of what is known in Ireland as senior cycle and internationally as upper secondary level education. The ongoing senior cycle review led by the NCCA has built on the many strengths of our secondary school system including: systematic use of consultation processes for reform initiatives; well-developed autonomy for schools; a strong supply of highly qualified teachers; and a high level of school completion rates. Any reform of our leaving certificate should build on what works for all students and be informed by engagement with stakeholders and findings from the best available evidence.
The enduring challenges in upper secondary level education have been well documented internationally. They include: the need to guarantee real opportunities for young people to continue learning in the upper secondary education model of their choice after completing compulsory education; avoid making upper secondary vocational education programmes an option for lower achievers linked to poor-quality jobs and no access to tertiary education; create and strengthen credible pathways from secondary vocational education to tertiary education and encourage a significant proportion of students to follow that path; and establish systematic student counselling and career guidance services in all schools to prevent a lack of awareness of future options,to facilitate the making of informed choices and to help students to overcome their troubles and prevent dropout.
Senior cycle and the leaving certificate examination are important stages within the national education and training system. They follow on from junior cycle and lead directly to employment or further and higher education and training opportunities. System connectedness across general, further and higher education and training will therefore help to ensure cohesion and clarify responsibilities underpinning any reform.
The purpose of senior cycle should be shaped by both social and economic considerations. Structures, including assessment practice, must support a responsive and flexible upper secondary education system that simultaneously serves employment, social inclusion and lifelong learning. Ireland's economy and dynamic labour markets need people with sophisticated knowledge, skills and competences that are developed throughout school, further and higher education. The capacity for lifelong learning is based on primary and secondary education. The secondary school age cohort of young people is larger than ever before and these students will require skills to prepare them for a lifetime of learning.
Vocational education and training is currently underdeveloped within senior cycle. The role of senior cycle in initial vocational education and training in Ireland could be strengthened and expanded. Initial vocational education and training programmes combine school and work-based learning. Developing and strengthening both general and vocational pathways in upper secondary education can make education more inclusive and strengthen the transition from school to work.
The leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and the leaving certificate applied, LCA, have a work orientation but are more appropriately classed as pre-vocational or pre-technical, with little work-based learning required. These programmes attract a minority of students, 25% and 5% of the leaving certificate cohort respectively. The leaving certificate applied, which does not provide direct access to higher education, disproportionately attracts students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The recent expansion of apprenticeships into new sectors such as hospitality, financial services, information and communication technology present opportunities for pre-apprenticeship and traineeship programmes to be developed alongside traditional leaving certificate programmes.
Any such developments should be supported by guidance services and should ensure that graduates have opportunities to progress to work and to attain high-quality vocational, academic or professional qualifications.
Thank you, Chair. I am happy to provide further information and respond to any questions that might assist the committee with its deliberations.
Mr. Tim Conlon:
Thank you, Chair. My colleagues and I are pleased to assist the committee in its consideration of leaving certificate reform.
The leaving certificate is the primary assessment element of our national curriculum and facilitates the examination of the potential of students in terms of their knowledge of the national curriculum in their final senior-cycle year and ultimately defines their progression route into either further or higher education, which is our area of interest. It is critical that any assessment method is based on a robust and practical delivery method in assessing the capability of the learner. The leaving certificate examination should be fair and equitable, have strong quality assurance arrangements and have stakeholder buy-in, because it is the stakeholders - primarily the learners but also teachers, schools, higher and further education providers and employers - who will benefit directly from any reform agenda. In the context of both today's discussion and the areas to be examined, any reforms which may be considered should focus on improving the learner experience with a view to providing learners with the best possible opportunity to realise, develop and display their talents.
Currently, the majority of higher education entrants come directly from the leaving certificate in any given year. Hence, the connection between the second level sector and further and higher education sectors should be strengthened through any reform process and should focus on improving access and retention as learners transition from secondary to tertiary education, with a view to providing an even more seamless transition process.
The Higher Education Authority, HEA, has participated in the transitions group which has implemented several policy changes in recent years to address some of the issues associated with transition to higher education including, for example, the revision of the leaving certificate grading system and the streamlining of entry points to higher education programmes to simplify student choices. Any reform of the leaving certificate assessment model should provide for better connectivity and understanding of future career and associated education pathways for the learner, as the Minister has mentioned. Outside of leaving certificate assessment, it is also important to create and embed links between higher education providers and post-primary learners at other stages in their junior and senior cycle. In this regard, for example, the HEA funds ICT and entrepreneurship summer camps which engage post-primary school pupils with higher education institutions in short taster courses in these critical skills areas.
In addition, the HEA funds an access to apprenticeship programme which takes those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may not have completed the senior cycle or who may not have achieved their desired leaving certificate outcome and offers them a pathway to apprenticeship. In this way, the recent expansion of apprenticeships into new sectors, such as hospitality, financial services and information and communication technology, presents opportunities for pre-apprenticeship programmes and traineeship programmes to be developed alongside traditional leaving certificate programmes. Any such developments should be supported by guidance services and ensure that the graduates have opportunities to progress to work and high-quality further and higher vocational and academic qualifications.
Regarding changes relating to information relevant to student choice, and specifically changes to the CAO system, the HEA has been involved in and welcomes the inclusion of apprenticeship and further education programme links and information on the CAO platform, as the Minister has mentioned.
As equity of access to higher education is one of the key priorities for the HEA, it is important that any reform of the leaving certificate takes account of the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged students in accessing higher education. The higher education access route, HEAR, and disability access route to education, DARE, schemes, which offer entry to courses on a reduced points basis for socio-economically disadvantaged students and students with a disability, are an important mechanism in that regard.
Overall, the leaving certificate, and any future reform of it, should ensure that all students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or who face barriers in terms of progression to higher education have as a fair chance of accessing higher education and achieving comparable outcomes as those from more affluent backgrounds. These outcomes cover both access to and progression through higher education, as well as completion and future career development.
The HEA works closely with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education to examine and improve teaching and learning interventions in support of student success, aiming to provide a high-quality and supportive higher education environment for all students arriving in our universities, institutes and colleges.
As with other sections of society and the economy, the recent experience of the higher education system has demonstrated the need for flexibility and responsiveness in challenging circumstances. Higher education institutions are now examining the outcomes from their recent experience of remote provision in terms of teaching and learning, but also student supports. Discussions to date suggest that institutions are leveraging new ways of engaging with students, such as through digital learning and outreach from counselling and learning support services, alongside and complementary to more traditional higher education provision. The national forum is leading a national partnership project, Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together, to consider what we have learned since March 2020 and, crucially, what that means for the future of teaching and learning in Irish higher education.
Each student is different. This is a useful opportunity for us to consider how students' educational needs can be met as they transition from the senior cycle into apprenticeship, further education and higher education. This will require ongoing engagement and dialogue, not just at institutional or system level, but between educators at all levels in the education system as well as with students, their parents and their representatives.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to join this conversation. I am happy to answer whatever questions it may have.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
On behalf of SOLAS, Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, and the ETBs, I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to speak to it on leaving certificate reform.
SOLAS is an agency within the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We have responsibility for funding, co-ordinating and monitoring of further education and training, FET, provision across Ireland. We are also the statutory authority for apprenticeships. Through the 16 ETBs and other providers, the FET system offers access to a wide range of learning opportunities and supports in every corner of the country, regardless of background or formal education level, and a learning pathway to take people as far as they want to go. It currently serves a base of approximately 200,000 unique learners every year. School leavers are a significant part of this provision, including circa 30,000 students on post-leaving certificate courses and many more opportunities through traineeships, specific skills training and apprenticeships.
SOLAS welcomes the Government's commitment to reform of the leaving certificate and senior cycle education and the resulting focus on improving access and pathways into all forms of tertiary education for people. Currently, more than two thirds of second level students choose to enter higher education directly after their leaving certificate. However, it is our belief that a proportion of these students would be better suited to a technical or vocational route where they could develop their creativity or technical skills. Key to achieving this is providing the opportunity to learn about further education and training courses and apprenticeships at the point where decisions are being made on their future learning pathways post secondary school.
In response to this, I am delighted to confirm that, for the first time and as the Minister mentioned, CAO applicants in 2022 will be able to get information and apply for FET courses and view apprenticeship options via a link from the CAO website when it goes live this Friday. This means that all of a school leaver's options will be available to him or her on one single platform. This is a significant step towards improving pathways and will bring a focus on all of the opportunities available for students. However, more work is needed in order to achieve the ambition of having an integrated and inclusive tertiary education system. Together with the ETBs and other FET stakeholders, we are one year into the implementation of the ambitious FET strategy, Future FET: Transforming Learning 2020–2024. This strategy sets out a clear strategic roadmap for the FET system that centres on three core pillars of building skills, fostering inclusion and creating pathways. In the context of leaving certificate reform, the pillar of creating pathways has specific relevance in terms of school leavers entering the FET system.
The lack of exposure to vocational learning and the lack of vocational options in junior and senior cycles are highlighted as barriers to school leavers developing an interest in FET. This finding was reinforced through our engagement with the NCCA and was underscored in the SOLAS formal submission to the public consultation on the reform of the senior cycle.
International approaches suggest a potential role for FET in offering modules and tasters of vocational courses to second-level students where existing teaching resources simply do not have the required technical experience to deliver them. The potential for apprenticeship taster offerings as part of transition year, TY, is currently being tested in some schools. The scale of this collaborative practice has the potential to be further expanded. Indeed, with the ETBs operating many second-level schools, this could facilitate piloting of any new approaches and potentially support earlier interventions to inform future learner pathways to FET. Furthermore, it provides a basis to consider the introduction of offerings at level 5 and level 6 as an integrated part of the senior cycle.
All-of-system career guidance is also vital for successful reform. The FET strategy outlines this, building on the independent report commissioned by the Government on career guidance. SOLAS and ETBs work closely with both the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and the National Centre for Guidance in Education to ensure their members are equipped with the latest information on FET options and we look forward to continuing to work with them to improve timely access to information. As a general principle, it is important that FET is promoted as a valid and smart potential destination from the earliest stage within schools. SOLAS has launched successful national campaigns in recent years to build awareness around FET and apprenticeship options, which are vital to ensure that ETBs can compete on an equal footing in terms of choices for progression by school leavers.
In conclusion, as the FET strategy and relevant cross-government policy to date demonstrates, there is a real opportunity now for ambitious reform, not only in FET, but in wider second-level and tertiary education provision. This reform and the other key actions outlined in the FET strategy will together deliver tangible change that better serves both the needs of the learner and the country as a whole, in directly tackling labour and skills shortages and supporting the achievement of national goals and challenges such as Future Jobs Ireland, climate change and Housing for All. Continuing to build and strengthen pathways from secondary school to FET is a key strategic objective for SOLAS and the wider FET sector. Vocational options in TY and senior cycle, reform of the CAO and continuing to work with guidance professionals are key to unlocking this growth.
I hope that this provides a brief overview of SOLAS views on matters related to reform of the leaving certificate. I thank committee members for their time and look forward to discussion of this matter.
I thank Mr. Brownlee and the other contributors for their opening statements. Deputy Conway-Walsh has an eight-minute slot to ask questions and receive replies from the witnesses. If she directs her questions to particular witnesses, we will get through it more easily.
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.
There were loads of questions and I have little time to answer them. I want to both agree and disagree with Deputy Conway-Walsh on various matters. I will not drop the idea, as the Deputy said, that part of the issue around apprenticeships is not a lack of information, a snobbery or a cultural issue because I genuinely believe it is. That is not abdicating responsibility because I accept it is only a part of the issue.
I met Zoe, the 1,000th female registered apprentice in Ireland, who is an accounting technician in Cork and no one ever told her about apprenticeships. She did not know anything about them but her brothers in school became aware of them. She was not aware of them because she went to an all-girls school. Zoe said that if she had have been made aware of them much earlier her career pathway would have been easier. I also met Jack in Cavan, who got his first choice in his CAO application and started his degree but he hated it so he dropped out and did a pre-law course in Cavan Institute. Jack told me that if he had known about that course first it would have been an awful lot more straightforward. Karen in Sligo College of Further Education was gutted when she did not get the points she wanted in her leaving certificate. She went to Sligo College of Further Education for a year and is now going on to St. Angela's College to do her degree. She said she feels better developed as a person as a result.
I genuinely and passionately believe that the pathways, information and knowledge we are giving our students at the age of 16 and 17 are key. That is not in contradiction with the point Deputy Conway-Walsh validly makes about the need for us to also up our game in what we are doing. I fully accept that. We are doing a couple of things although I will not have time to get into all of them. I will mention increasing the number of available apprenticeships, because availability was a core part of the Deputy's question, as two key actions are taking place next year. First, from January a core financial payment of around €2,000 per apprentice per year will be made to any employer that takes on a new apprentice. The hospitality sector and the Restaurants Association of Ireland have been looking for such a financial incentive for an employer to take on an apprentice for years. Second, there has been hypocrisy about this in the public sector. We wag our fingers about apprenticeships and give out about them but the entire public sector, which employs around 300,000 people, on average takes on 80 apprentices per year. That is a darn disgrace. There is a target in the apprenticeship action plan of 750 apprentices per year by 2025. By next July the quotas of what council, agency and Department is doing what will be brought to Cabinet.
Mr. Brownlee will comment on the apprenticeship backlogs and the wait times because SOLAS is driving those down. The Deputy said it is inadequate but I am satisfied with the plan that is in place. The only constraint in increasing the capacity has been public health concerns and we are now in a good place in that regard. Any funds that have been or will be required will be forthcoming. I accept that it is not all down to Covid but this is a chance for something good to come from Covid so we must remove that backlog once and for all.
The Deputy is entirely right about pre-nursing. When Mr. Brownlee and I talk about this new portal on Friday being the first step towards an integrated third level system, one of the next steps has to be that if one goes on to do pre-nursing or pre anything else and one gets the top marks then there has to be a linkage. I am committed to delivering on that as part of our integration of the tertiary education system.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
On the waiting lists, we have to be conscious that it is only from last month that ETBs and higher education institutions have been allowed to return to full on-site capacity. There is a major emergency plan and I agree with the Deputy that it is an emergency. Capacity was an issue before all of this started but it is many times worse now. The emergency plan involves increasing the instructor base significantly and the Deputy will see that there is an ongoing campaign to recruit 100 additional staff into ETBs in the coming months. We have moved the entire delivery model for phase 2 of off-the-job training from three intakes per year to two, which increases capacity by 50%. Some €20 million of capital investment has been made to expand workshop capacity across both further education and higher education.
The key point is that we are back on-site. For the first nine months of the first 12 months of Covid, the workshops were closed and we could not run the training.
For the period up to September, they were operating at approximately 50% capacity, but they are ramped up now. We are turning a corner, in that the waiting list decreased from 11,800 at the end of July to 9,797 at the end of September. That happened because we have been able to get people back in training. We believe a corner is turned but there will be no let-up. We completely accept that we are in an emergency situation.
I thank the Minister and the other witnesses for their comprehensive presentations. I thank all of the organisations represented here in terms of the great work that is being done in a very transformational way. I would like to put a number of direct questions.
On the FET strategy, the retrofitting skills programme started with Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board. I welcome that it continues to be rolled out. Is Mr. Brownlee confident, in terms of the construction apprenticeship needs we have as a country, that we will be able to meet them? The Minister mentioned a figure of 27,500. Is Mr. Brownlee confident we can do that? One of the problems historically has been barriers of transition between FET and higher education. Are there existing barriers about which Mr. Brownlee continues to have concerns with regard to those who wish to transition between further and higher education and vice versa?
My next question is for Mr. Conlon. He will be aware of the work done by the Commission on the Points System, the HEA and the NCCA on the transitions issue. One of the big concerns was around the increasing specialisation of higher education courses, that these were multiplying and we were getting programmes such as engineering with French and computing. One of the recommendations was that higher education institutions would reduce that diversification. That has not happened to the extent that we would like to see it happen. It is welcome that under the CAO, students will get a whole range of options in terms of apprenticeships. What moves are being made in terms of reducing those overall numbers because it is the backwash from third level that is impacting on the CAO programme, particularly in the area of the high points courses?
We will be constantly building skills over the next period. Dr. O'Connor might comment on the work QQI is doing in the area of micro-credentials. That is important.
My final question is for the Minister. Access is improving enormously but for high points courses, the socioeconomic profile, particularly those in medicine and law, is not improving. There is evidence it is disimproving. What can be done in that area? Students who are doing their leaving certificate now will be retiring in the 2070s. What skills will we need out to that period? Like others, I have spoken to students about what they would like to hear and see. They have talked about tax, philosophy, greater knowledge of technology, design, and public speaking. In my own case, I would have liked a greater knowledge of home economics. Anybody who has experienced my cooking would probably agree. In terms of his own experience in life, what skills would the Minister have liked to have undertaken at second level that he believes would stand to him now?
More training on resilience would probably be useful in this game. The Senator raised a valid question. It is a point that I am trying to make here without being overly prescriptive or without crystal ball-gazing too much. There are skills that are transversal skills that I do not think our second level system as currently constructed is able to deliver on. That is not a criticism of the people there; they are doing an exceptional job. It is not a criticism at all but it goes to our values as a country. It goes to our view as to what we determine to be success. Success is different things for different people. I believe we are putting too much pressure on our students if their success, capabilities and talent is not in the areas that we are assessing.
There are a whole load of other areas where they could be really good, but we are not shining a light on them. I was talking to a number of youth organisations at the weekend, and they were hitting me with things like financial skills, digital literacy and climate. Climate is the big one. This is one that we could get right. Why not start it now instead of some other Minister sitting here in 20 years' time and the head of SOLAS saying we have to train all these people in their 40s and 50s in green skills? They are better clued into this than any generation before. We have a chance now to not have to go back and, pardon the pun, retrofit the next generation with climate skills but to try to find a way of working it into the school system.
I know the question on construction needs is for Mr. Brownlee, but I wish to make one comment on it. Sometimes, when we talk about the 27,500 – I am sure I am to blame on this too – people presume they are all in further education and training, FET, and that it is not the case. While a lot of them are in FET, when we look at the needs, we will also require architects, quantity surveyors and engineers. I say to Mr. Conlon and the HEA that it does not let the higher education side off the hook, nor would it wish to be. There will be a need to increase capacity in terms of training people in those areas where a higher education degree or a master's degree is needed, in addition to a lot of the areas that FET can provide as well.
I am acutely aware of the issue relating to access. In medicine, there can be too much sameness in terms of the background of people who enter certain professions and that is not good. To be honest, one of the barriers to entry on the graduate medicine programme is still the cost. I am working on proposals, which I hope to advance through the next Estimates process – it gets earlier every year – on how we can look at both the SUSI system and the level of financial support that is supplied. In fairness to my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, she has raised graduate medicine with me too. It was indicated that law also has a role to play in this regard. I hope to engage with the law bodies and colleagues in the Department of Justice on this shortly. I will hand over to colleagues.
Dr. John O'Connor:
There was a specific question on micro credentials. We have large qualifications like the leaving certificate and bachelor's degrees, but the Irish qualifications system also provides for smaller qualifications, what we might call, non-major qualifications. In some ways, Ireland has been ahead of the pack internationally in having a flexible structure to be able to recognise smaller chunks of learning through the use of what are called micro credentials. There is a lot of interest in these, in particular in terms of their having a responsive, flexible reaction to labour market skills, for example in response to climate change and digitalisation where micro credentials may well be the solution to upskilling or reskilling where a full or major qualification is not the appropriate labour market response in that particular area.
The universities are leading the way here in a particular project on promoting the national framework for micro credentials. These can also be used in further education and training. There is potentially a role here too for micro credentials in school education. Transition year has a lot of very useful learning. Sometimes that learning is not formally recognised or certified. The use of the micro credentials tool to give a formal, portable trusted recognition of learning achieved in transition year could be used for exchange and portability along the path for individuals.
We are well ahead in the game in terms of micro credentials in Ireland, in particular in innovation. The national quality assurance and qualifications system supports the roll-out of that particular response.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
There were two questions. With Housing for All, the imperative is to support the delivery of 33,000 houses per annum. The emergency measures we talked about in terms of the apprenticeship pipeline once we have dealt with the waiting list problem should give us an increase in capacity of around 50%, which in the medium term will be a platform to deliver on that. It is not just about apprenticeships, there is a need to ramp up the non-apprenticeship courses. There is a model to follow with the development of the Mount Lucas National Construction Training Centre, which has started to work in partnership with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, and others to develop levels 4 and 5 construction courses to get people into the labour force.
Retrofitting is a big challenge. It was mentioned that Waterford-Wexford had the first retrofitting centre of excellence. There is now one in Laois-Offaly and there are plans for centres in Sligo, Limerick and Cork.
We have two fully operational and the rest will be on-stream by quarter 1 of next year.
There is still not significant demand from industry for the courses that are being offered in those facilities. There is a job of work there to stimulate industry interest and demand. Contracts may still be coming to them a little to easily. We need to find a way to get the focus on what they will need to meet the skills needs of tomorrow.
On the further education and training to higher education transitions question, I think the Deputy is right that it is ad hocat present. It depends on college-to-college links. One in five of the technological higher education sector intake still comes from further education. There are, therefore, strong transitions in place. However, we need to look at a more universal system, probably theme by theme. Perhaps we should start with nursing and then perhaps information technology or initial teacher education, chunk that off and put in place a system where a student who gets a level 5 pre-nursing qualification will know that he or she will have direct access to an Irish higher educational institution to do the degree. I think it should go further. There is real potential for one-plus-two and two-plus-two models where students start their degree in a further education institution. That is a model for which we can borrow and learn from jurisdictions not too far from here.
Mr. Tim Conlon:
I will make two brief observations on Deputy Conway-Walsh's point on leaving certificate options and Senator Byrne's point on the proliferation of programme choices at CAO. The point at which students make a career choice is the most important piece. The Minister alluded to the need to support students in making a decision that has an impact on the rest of their lives. Then, if that does not work out, what are the alternates and how can the student step up or step down between different levels in the system? I could say more about it but time is limited.
I thank the Minister and the witnesses for appearing before us. The strengths of the leaving certificate also present its weaknesses. I will ask the Minister a question in respect of that. The leaving certificate is a good examination for identifying academic excellent. A boy or girl in secondary school who wants to become a doctor knows that he or she has to excel academically. Such children know they have to do excellently in the leaving certificate and once they do that, they have a pathway, literally, to the age of 65. Unfortunately, that same pathway is not available to the child who is not academically excellent or, alternatively, the child who is vocationally gifted. Do we need to categorise and identify earlier the different gifts that children have when they are in secondary school? It appears that by the time they get to the junior certificate, they are on the academic route and unless we expose them at that stage to opportunities or avenues aside from that, necessarily they will not achieve their potential. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say in response to that general issue.
Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's comments on the leaving certificate are very fair. The leaving certificate has its successes and for certain professions and people who wish to go a certain way in life, it works extremely well. Even for those for whom it works well - students who do extremely well in it - the sense I get from many of them is that they wished they had been exposed to other skills. I am conscious that teachers would make the point that schools cannot do everything and are under considerable pressure.
While I do not wish to stray too much into the Department of Education's space, I also agree with the Deputy's point about when a young adult in secondary school is, to use the Deputy's word, "exposed" or perhaps given an opportunity to sample vocational skills within the second level system. That does not really happen, with the exception of schools that do it off their own bat or in the transition year programme where it may happen in an ad hoc, non-structured and non-credentialled way.
Our suggestion is that we need to broaden the options so that the conversation changes at 16 and 17 and a student does not only see the traditional CAO form but also FET courses and asks what certain courses are and whether there is a different way available if he or she does not get the points for law. For example, should someone sample law by doing a pre-law course, to use the Deputy's profession as an example. Can students sample in transition year by micro-credentialling elements and allowing them to try something out for a few months? As the FET strategy says, can we introduce taster programmes in apprenticeships at transition year? The answer to all of those questions is "Yes", but we need to do this in a way that is tied in with the NCCA review and the work the Minister, Deputy Foley, will be doing.
Dr. O'Connor mentioned the importance of transition year.
Transition year sounds like an ideal opportunity for young people to identify the kind of career they might be interested in. At one level, however, transition year seems to be chaotic and at other levels, it is not properly structured. What would Dr. O'Connor like to see in a transition year that would be beneficial to expose younger people to the types of careers they might be interested in?
Dr. John O'Connor:
On when you make the choice and who makes it, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, did some work six or eight years ago indicating that second year was particularly important. It is not necessarily that the student makes the decision but that the rest of the system makes the decision for the student as to whether he or she is on an academic track. That may be too early to make the decision and there is a question of whether that is an informed decision by the individual. You hear different experiences anecdotally around transition year based on the school and the individual. It does seem to be a really useful opportunity. A lot of useful learning happens in transition year. I do not think we make the best of it. Deputy Conway-Walsh struck on something earlier, namely, the idea of a vocational education and training pathway. In school, in further education and in training and higher education, you could take engineering, nursing, teaching or law and look at what that pathway looks like and at what the role is for secondary education in that pathway. That goes to the point in guidance too. It is about when you can see a pathway and there are assurances along that path that if I can strike that path and can get taster elements of it in the school system, it will lead across further education, into higher education and professional qualifications if I desire. In some ways, we are zooming out away from the leaving certificate and looking at what vocational education and training looks like in Ireland.
Mr. Tim Conlon:
I would have thought so. It is complicated. At what stage in one's career does one make a choice about one's future career? We see a challenge, in terms of access and progression in higher education, in respect of students who do not make the appropriate course choices and drop out. There should be step-downs and other options. To engage too soon is a challenge but as others have said, it is most important to have a range of options and information available for people to inform them in the choices that they make. For this apprenticeship programme, it is about telling people that these are pathways into apprenticeship that can lead on to further and higher education and about giving them that as a career choice.
Mr. Brownlee's opening statement referred to the 70% of second level students who choose to enter higher education and that he believed that a proportion of these students would be better suited to a technical or vocational route where they could really develop their creativity or technical skills. Is he saying there are too many unprepared people or people who should not necessarily be going on to higher education? Why is that happening? Is it because society says to them that this is where they should go?
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
I think we should move on from an either-or scenario. Many people might benefit from an further education-first type of approach before they go into to higher education. There are schools where 100% of school leavers go directly into higher education and surely, one or two of those individuals would be better suited to a more technical or vocational route. As we reflected, they do not get exposure to those kinds of technical or vocational options. Transition year is one part of it and in a way it is quite easy to build in taster and foundation courses but we need to look at real reform of the senior cycle and the leaving certificate and maybe look at, say, the Scottish model where further education colleges actually deliver those level 5 and level 6 modules and students get credit for them as part of the equivalent of the leaving certificate there.
Is it important that people who do proceed down a technical or vocational route are told that they are in fact proceeding down the route of higher education? It strikes me as though it is higher education although our society seems to not regard it as higher education.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
The Deputy is right; we need to get away from those badges. The Deputy mentioned categorisation. The worst thing that could happen, which is somewhat what happened to the leaving certificate applied, is where you siphon off the less academic people. It needs to be seen as a valued integrated part of the overall senior cycle.
The Deputy made an important point. I meet people all the time who say that someone will do third level or an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship is third level. The Deputy is right, in that it is a question of how we speak about it. Anything that someone does that is learning post school and is credentialled is third level.
I thank everyone who presented to us. This has been an interesting session because we have focused to a great degree on skills, which is welcome.
One of the recurring themes that we are seeing throughout this process is that we must differentiate between senior cycle and the leaving certificate. Too often, they are viewed as one and the same. I wonder whether by overfocusing on the leaving certificate as a summative end point exam, we almost make it a singularity in a student's life, to use science fiction terminology, and we miss out on the senior cycle. As such, it is welcome that we are beginning to speak about moving beyond the leaving certificate – sidestepping it is probably the wrong way to talk about it – and discuss alternative pathways for students. The leaving certificate captures one type of learning, which has been broadly accepted as we have worked our way through this process.
Skills will be vital. Housing has been mentioned. Waterford and Wexford have done great work leading on retrofit programmes. However, retrofit on its own will not be enough. As the town centres first policy is delivered, it will entail refurbishing older properties, but we do not have the skills in our trades to bring those old market town properties back into use. If we are serious about tackling vacancy and dereliction and returning life to the hearts of our towns, this will be an important skill set.
I will offer the Minister praise. He has shown the merit of having a senior Ministry in this area. It has driven further education. We should also consider lifelong learning. While it is tangential to this discussion, lifelong learning is one of the areas where we do not do well. However, I am glad that we are focusing more on further education, in particular apprenticeships.
I would like to give Mr. Brownlee the opportunity to drill down a little more into the idea of level 5 and level 6 certification. It is interesting and I would love to see it happen in respect of languages as well. I would like to see the common European framework being rolled out into schools. We have discussed this at length on the Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus Phobal Labhartha na Gaeilge. Many people who leave school, often with a good leaving certificate in Irish, will say the next day that they cannot speak Irish at all. If we put them on the common European framework and told that them that they were at B2, B1 or wherever, it would be helpful. I would like to give Mr. Brownlee an opportunity to speak a little more about this idea and how to segment it for particular subjects. I studied engineering to the leaving certificate. Is there a micro-credential that we could roll out for computer aided design, CAD, computer numerical control, CNC, turning, milling or the like? I am using these as examples only because I know the subject reasonably well.
I took a look at the figures in preparation for today. We are not doing badly in terms of STEM subjects. A press release from Engineers Ireland in September detailed how well we were doing in terms of the number of students taking engineering, construction studies and agricultural sciences to the leaving certificate. That is welcome, as an important part of the skills piece has to do with land use. For example, the forestry programme in WIT was oversubscribed.
It will be incredibly important. Land use programmes, organic agriculture and horticulture will become extremely valuable skills. I will give Mr. Brownlee and Dr. O'Connor an opportunity to talk about that because the witnesses were speaking about that in terms of micro-credentials. How do they see that working and integrating, particularly in transition year? There is probably a role for it in the senior cycle if we could make the system marry up.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
It is a really interesting point. Obviously, my job is to worry about further education and training and apprenticeships, but the idea of integrating modules in languages or engineering as part of the leaving certificate or senior cycle plays to the same point. There is no reason a technological university or one of our traditional universities could not offer that type of access to a module as part of senior cycle. How it works and how it works in other places is quite simple. It is a credit-based system. Very often, someone will go to the local further education college for a couple of hours. The college will deliver that module once or twice a week to senior cycle students and students will get credit that will be recognised as their overall leaving certificate award and, potentially, their overall CAO score. It is really that simple. It is the delivery we must get right. We would have to reconcile how we would get a further education instructor to deliver education within a school setting but perhaps the answer to that is to take interested students to the local further education college, give them a taste for the environment, deliver the module there and bus them back to the school afterwards. I know this is the model that is followed in Scotland. There is a real idea there around this not being just a further education thing but could be a higher education thing in terms of an offering in the senior cycle.
It would provide a pathway that sidesteps the leaving certificate and possibly allows someone to take the leaving certificate without feeling a level of pressure whereby everything in his or her life will depend on it.
Dr. John O'Connor:
I would not agree with the Deputy when he says that lifelong learning is tangential to this discussion. It is central to it and leaving certificate reform. Regarding the Deputy's question on delivery and certification, we can be very open-minded. We have the toolkit available to us in terms of different types of certification. We have QQI and FET certification. If we think again about zooming out and upper secondary education, it can be delivered not just in school but outside it. It can be delivered in workplaces. We have other certification bodies that can provide input into this. It involves looking in a more holistic way at what the right mix of certification is, awarding bodies that might be involved and further education and general education being mixed. That kind of zooming out and thinking about that idea of upper secondary education where we have general education and further education gives us a lot of tools to play with in terms of finding the right mix of certifications and places and location of delivery, which is not always a classroom in a school. It can be delivered outside a school in a workplace or other education and training settings. We have the policy instruments available to us to design those more rounded pathways for young people.
At a meeting of the committee two weeks ago, I asked a question about guidance counselling to which I suspected there would be a one-word answer. I suspect it will be the same at this session. Do we need to seriously invest in second level in order that guidance counselling is available? The Chairman put together a significant unit of work on bullying in schools. The need for guidance counselling and one-on-one relationship service within schools was another thing referenced. Do we need it in terms of helping students to see a pathway that is not just the leaving certificate to a third-level institution and that academic pathway? Do we need to make that investment?
I think the short answer is "Yes". We have a responsibility to build it up within our own sector as well. I am very struck by Dr. O'Connor's comments, which are hugely valid and probably broaden the discussion. If we talk about everything to do with 16- and 17-year-olds as being what happens within the school, we limit our options quite frankly.
This is because schools can only do so much within the number of hours each day. We will build up our own guidance supports as well, with guidance in the community, and guidance that will be made available to students and the population about information about apprenticeships. The short answer is "Yes". We need to support guidance. Guidance counsellors are being asked to do a huge amount. It is an ever more complex role for a whole variety of reasons, academic and otherwise. "Yes" is the short answer.
In the last couple of days, a guidance counsellor told me a story about the son of two professional parents. The son decided he wanted to become a plumber. The professional parents nearly had a conniption, because he was not going to get a professional job and that he was going get hands dirty. They decided to go to the guidance counsellor to try change his mind and that he would go to a more professional job. The guidance counsellor told them their son was happy with what he wanted to do and that they should let him do that. It tells us the two sides of the importance of guidance counsellors. The parents were trying to talk the son out of what he wanted to, which was a trade. He would probably make more money than what the parents were making.
Can I make a brief point on retrofitting? I am conscious that Deputy Ó Cathasaigh raised this point. We are fully committed to it. However, I want to emphasise the point Mr. Brownlee made. It is a serious point from a policy perspective. We will not be found wanting as a Department, nor will SOLAS as an agency of our Department, in making sure we do everything we can to expand retrofitting skills. However, we need to consider what policy instruments are required to create demand. This demand should be on two fronts. The first relates to demand by those who wish to access the training and how one incentivises that. The second relates to demand by people who want to get their home retrofitted and how we incentivise that. I am fully committed to this. It has to be done in half a million houses. We are opening centres of excellence to train people. We want those centres of excellence to be busy. I want to flag with this committee that we will need a policy discussion about how we incentivise demand by people who are looking for the training and demand for people who wish to be able to have the works carried out on their home, office, business, or building.
I thank everybody for their contributions so far. The Minister spoke about the climate emergency. It is important to note that it is not the planet that is in danger, but it is us, as a species, who are in danger. We have to put the measures in place to ensure that we survive as a species. It is that serious. There is a moment for us in education across primary, secondary and tertiary. That moment is now and we have got to grab it. We need to be a lot more ambitious about transition year. The suggestions Dr. O'Connor had are excellent, but they need to be throughout school, and not just in transition year. In the GCSEs, for instance, students can do Bitesize. They can be accredited in the UK system. Why not do the same here and look at doing it every single year? School, fundamentally, is a transition. It is not just one year. Let us look at the whole of the schooling system.
Additionally, we should not have the kind of conversation where we talk about academic kids versus non-academic kids. Apprenticeships are not necessarily non-academic. There are all kinds of apprenticeships. Apprenticeships just mean that the person is doing a particular job that requires mentorship.
I would like to address the point that leaving certificate lets down academic kids too. Secondary school lets down gifted children. We talk about giftedness as a special need, but we do not provide the services for that special need. In legislation it is a special need and, yet, what are we doing there? Let us not forget that in the conversation. That goes for some of the universities as well. I know this having done guest lecturing with third level students. The students come into third level feeling bedazzled, even though they are academic children and young people.
Does the Minister have any thoughts around some of those issues? I will come back in with a couple more questions.
I endorse and agree with everything Senator Pauline O'Reilly has said. Earlier, I posed a question about climate skills in trying to help this committee with its deliberations on leaving certificate reform. While we have a role to do with third level in terms of climate and green skills, why are we retrofitting our citizens with those skills at that age when we could be doing it much earlier? They are demanding we do it much earlier, as the Senator knows very well. They are taking to the streets. They want action at every level and to play their part. I do not want, in years to come, a committee asking the Minister of the day how many more places he or she is putting in for people in their 40s, 50s and 60s to get the green skills, when we have a chance to start people in within the education system within an earlier stage.
I agree with the Senator. It is dangerous to categorise children, full stop. What does academic versus vocational even mean? One can be academic in one area and vocational in another. It is about providing as many different pathways to access different skills in different and flexible ways as possible. I am glad the Senator made the point on apprenticeships. If I walked down Grafton Street now and asked people what an apprenticeship was, I guarantee people would tell me it was all the crafts and would list the craft apprenticeships one by one. Of course, they are not wrong and we need more people in those and want to promote and do more but one could do a PhD in an apprenticeship or a master's degree in science in an apprenticeship in Ireland. One can do a level 8 degree as an apprentice. An apprenticeship is not something over here, it is a different way of obtaining that qualification, as Dr. O'Connor will know in QQI.
Apprenticeships are much broader. I met the CEO of an insurance company in a DEIS school the other day. He entered the company through an apprenticeship scheme and is now the CEO. This is the norm throughout the European Union. We are outliers in that regard. We are expanding the number of apprenticeship programmes into areas that have been seen in this country as non-traditional apprenticeship areas. I welcome the Senator's point.
It is not a difficult question, it is just to take advantage of the Minister, Deputy Harris, being here. I have been reading through the submissions. Reference has been made in a couple of submissions to students with special educational needs. We have had internal debates about this in my party. Previously, there have been thresholds in the public sector with a target of 2% of employees being people coming from special educational backgrounds. Where are we at with that? I am having significant difficulty back in Cork in trying to get programmes off the ground with both local authorities whereby a certain percentage of people would be employed or taking on trainees as trainees or given placement. These people are highly skilled in their own way and the private sector in Cork seems to be doing an awful lot more than we as the public sector or State are doing.
The Deputy is correct. I will ask the HEA to provide to the committee any data it has on numbers and percentages and maybe SOLAS also has some information. I will highlight two actions we are taking. One is on apprenticeships. We are setting targets for the public sector for the first time for 750 apprentices to be taken on in a year in the public sector by 2025, compared to an average of approximately 80 now. It is a big step up. The quota for who will do what will be worked out between now and next July and then brought to Government. That is about the public sector having to step up.
Alongside that, in the apprenticeship action plan, should be read the commitment to increase diversity among apprenticeships. There is specific reference to disabilities. We will be setting up a group in the apprenticeship action plan to look at how we improve access. I am happy to keep in touch with the Deputy on that. We are doing broader work on which I can write to the committee. We are quite excited about it. One could argue the cliff edge for a person with disability has moved from being from primary to secondary and is now from secondary to third level.
That is not to say there are not good examples out there, the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, TCPID, being one that springs to mind. I met parents of children with Down's syndrome recently who told me that not only was it heartbreaking for them as parents to not watch their child progress post-school, but they were having to watch their child regress. A fund of €5 million was provided in the budget this year to provide pathways for people with intellectual disabilities into further and higher education. The Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, and I have been charged with looking at how we do that transition planning. When I was Minister for Health we were having a conversation every year about school leavers in the context of residential places and day care. While I am not suggesting that is not important, I am not sure that the same level of conversation is being had about training places, for example. In fact, I know it is not, to be quite frank. We have been asked by the Taoiseach to bring proposals to the Cabinet committee on education. If this committee wants to hear more on that, we can provide more details but as an initial step, I will send a note on it.
I thank the Minister and all of our guests, many of whom have been here several times previously. It is good to see that things have progressed in terms of embedding environmentalism and sustainable skills across subjects. That is an important point. It is not just that certain students will learn about retrofitting. Every single apprenticeship and qualification needs to have that embedded within it because we must all deal with the crisis we are now in. Macra na Feirme has raised with me the fact that it would like to see options for ecologists. I ask the witnesses to speak to the specific skills and areas that have been identified as requiring more places. What needs to be done in order to make that happen? I would also welcome any comments they wish to make on the points I made previously.
Dr. John O'Connor:
I thank the Senator and agree with the idea that this split between academic and vocational education and training is not particularly helpful. Any vocational education and training programme or qualification is going to require strong foundations in general education anyway so the aforementioned idea is a false choice. General education is also key for long-term progression. As the Minister said before he left, we have doctoral level apprenticeships. That is not just a symbolic statement. We actually have them in practice. That is quite unusual internationally and shows that we mean it when we talk about higher vocational education and training as distinct from higher education. That is a point well made.
On the skills piece, the skills and labour market research unit in SOLAS identifies skills that are in demand and provides forecasting in that area. The labour market intelligence function that we have can tell us, whether it is with regard to ecology or other areas, not just what occupations are in demand but also the skills and competencies that we will need for those particular occupations. It is really important to invest in and maintain that infrastructure so that we have good visibility. It is tricky these days to determine what we will need three, four or five years down the line. That labour market intelligence is also relevant for guidance and understanding the skills that are needed. If we are designing qualifications or educational programmes at this stage, we need to have good visibility, with a good deal of granularity, of the skills and competencies that we will need to build into qualifications. That could include sustainable education principles, green practices or green knowledge. We need to have that foresight and visibility from our labour market function which is well developed but not always well used, particularly in the senior cycle and in parts of the education and training system.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
As Dr. O' Connor mentioned, we have a skills and labour market research unit which is actively working on an analysis of future skills needs in the green space. We think of those in terms of three broad categories, one of which is green skills for construction. This relates to things like retrofitting and we have a reasonably good handle on the scale of the skills needs in that area.
Interesting research that we have got to date from the Skills and Labour Market Research Unit, SLMRU, suggests that when you go beyond that, it is not so much about specific green jobs in five, ten or 15 years. Rather, many jobs will require a sustainability or a green skills component. If agriculture, for example, is going to be sustainable, we will need a wide base of farmers and their employees who have that deep understanding of green skills and energy management, emissions, and minimising carbon footprint. Manufacturing is another area. If we are going to meet our targets, the whole industry of meat processing has to change. Green skills for careers is about embedding green skills into particular industries and occupations, rather than bringing in 50,000 new green jobs. That is what we seem to be hearing already. The biggest part of this are agents of change. We should make sure that every learner who does a further education and training course is given a module in sustainability, on minimising carbon footprint, and on green skills. There is an ambition in the further education and training, FET, strategy to embed that across every FET offering. We could do that across the entire tertiary space and, as we have heard, start embedding it at school level as well. That is how we will start to change the dial on this.
Mr. Tim Conlon:
I thank the Senator for an interesting question. I am thinking about the education for sustainable development strategy, which is currently in development. It addresses matters more generally. There will be a specific skills piece. We work closely with SOLAS and the SLMRU in identifying skills needs and addressing them. There is a broader piece about education for sustainable development in curriculum, in further and higher education, as well as in post-primary. This is because the industrial and technical responses to the climate challenge will be highly technical skills solutions. Behavioural responses are also needed, where the onus is on all of us to be aware of and to understand the environmental and social impacts of our actions. That will be important in the formation of citizens across the curriculum in higher education. As I say, that education for sustainable development strategy is on the way. Embeddedness in the curriculum across the board will be important for the UN sustainable development goals, SDGs. Another example is that we are currently operating a North-South research programme, which is going to invest heavily in all-island research. We are asking people not to just talk about a specific scientific project, but about the impact of that project on environmental sustainability, as well as on the broader UN sustainable development goals. This maps out to European research, which I know goes a long way from leaving certificate. However, it is the direction of travel and trajectory we are on. Those "do no significant harm" principles underpin all kinds of public funding rounds and all kinds of proposals. There are particular technical skills in retrofit, but the broader agenda of sustainable development is for all citizens to respond to. For that reason, it should be embedded across curricula at all levels.
I thank Senator Pauline O'Reilly for letting me in early. I would like to begin by asking each of the witnesses who are still here to elaborate on the question I raised earlier with the Minister. What we can do to encourage greater participation from people with special educational needs or with disabilities into our education system and on to the workforce?
I was listening to the discussion earlier from my office about how useful and practical transition year work experience can be. To give my own experience, that is where I found that I wanted to be a teacher, having worked with a disability service provider. I was 15 or 16 years of age. I worked there once a week over the course of a school year. After that, I worked in a local national school. That is where I made the decision that I wanted to be a teacher. That pathway was obvious to me at that point because I was given that opportunity. I had a number of friends who did the conventional apprenticeships, such as plumbing, electrics, or fabrication, in some cases.
They got a similar flavour for that and subsequently, they went on and trained in those fields. We need to highlight the importance of TY work experience and the impression it can give people for their career paths. I ask the witnesses to comment on that and on the importance of TY.
I want to raise apprenticeships, which we always talk about in this committee and I have listened to various witnesses discuss it. I have gone on a tour of a few universities in recent weeks and many of the providers there spoke of our ambitious targets for apprenticeships. When one hears the word "ambitious" being flung around, one wonders whether we can meet those targets. I know we will have difficulties due to the Covid pandemic but certain universities and providers have difficulties with capacity, for example. Those capacity issues have been exacerbated due to providing for social distancing, air ventilation and whatever the restrictions on capacity might be. We need to examine how we will combat that in the short term because it will have a knock-on effect for all the schemes we are talking about in these Houses every week, be it retrofitting or whatever.
Dr. John O'Connor:
I will respond to the Deputy's question on students with learning disabilities. It is outside of my area of expertise but I note from the senior cycle review that much has been made of this particular innovation in the junior cycle where there are level 1 and level 2 programmes that are designed for students with learning disabilities in particular. That is an important and significant innovation but what options will those people have in the senior cycle? When we are looking beyond the junior cycle, what is the progression from level 1 and level 2 programmes? It is on the radar in the senior cycle review, so the policymakers are looking at where useful and valuable progression routes can be provided for students from level 1 and level 2 programmes in junior cycle.
Mr. Andrew Brownlee:
I will double-check this statistic when I go back but we have 13,000 learners with disabilities currently engaged in further education and training. A concern of ours is that there has been a decline during the period of Covid shutdown and restrictions. People with disabilities need in-person support and when we have been relying purely on online modes of learning delivery that has suffered and it has also suffered for other groups that are most at risk of exclusion. Specialist training provision is split. This is the kind of dedicated provision provided by Rehab Group, for example, and then there are people with special educational needs and disabilities involved in mainstream further education and training provision. There are two things we need to do and to get better at. We need to make sure that if one is starting off in specialist training provision, there is a pathway to move through further education and training and into higher education. The second part is that there is consistent learner support. It should not matter where one presents across the country; one should have access to the same learner support that will allow one to learn and engage with one's peers and teachers and progress along that pathway. It is not consistent at the moment and that is a big priority in the further education and training strategy.
The Deputy asked if the targets for apprenticeships are realistic. In the last apprenticeship action plan we underestimated the lead-in time to develop new apprenticeships and so there was always a lag of about a year. Before the pandemic we were already at over 6,000 new registrations per year and there is good news from 2021 already. Despite the fact that we have been operating under restrictions this year, craft apprenticeships are up by 13% on 2019 levels. As the new apprenticeships are up by about 100% on where they were in 2020, we are already seeing the growth.
We now know how long it takes to develop these new apprenticeship programmes, so moving from 6,000 to 10,000 over the five-year period is realistic.
Mr. Tim Conlon:
That is a very interesting question . I noted it when Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan mentioned it earlier. We recently provided funding support through a special scheme for recognising performance in higher education for the expansion of the certificate in contemporary living at UCC, which I am sure the Deputy is aware of. It looks at ways for students with intellectual disabilities to engage with higher education and their contemporary living. We are currently discussing the outreach programme with UCC. It will be reflective of the broader ambition of our national strategy to ensure that the student body entering and participating in higher education at all levels reflects the diversity of Ireland's population. The programme in UCC in particular is of interest to us. As Mr. Brownlee said, while some provision has proven challenging during the pandemic, institutions are learning from that and looking at new ways to reach out and engage in different ways with students and broader communities. This goes back to some of the earlier points about lifelong learning. There are additional ways of reaching out, but that is not necessarily germane to leaving certificate reform. The important thing for us is that when students arrive in higher education that they have the supports available to them.
I thank everyone for coming here today. The discussion has been very productive. I commend the witnesses on their hard work and commitment in developing further and higher education. I thank Dr. O'Connor, Mr. Conlon, Mr. Brownlee and the Minister, Deputy Harris, for their contributions. I also thank the members.