Dáil debates

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Adjournment Debate

Vocational Education Committees

6:00 pm

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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On 12 October, the Minister of the Education and Skills announced a Government decision to restructure the VEC system through the amalgamation of the VECs to reduce the number from the current 33 to a proposed 16. The decision includes the amalgamation of Kerry Education Service, County Kerry VEC, County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC. The rationale behind the decision, according to the text of the Minister's statement of 12 October, is that it is part of the overall Government agenda to transform how public services are delivered. The consolidation ensures that each of the 16 VECs will be organisations of sufficient scale to support the evolution of local education service delivery and to meet future challenges.

The briefing document indicates that under the proposed revised structure, the smallest VEC will have a budget of €39 million. I remind the Minister of State that Kerry Education Service had a budget of €40.6 million in 2008 and a budget of €41.4 million in 2009. The projected outturn for 2010 will be €44 million. This is way above the guidelines. Under the proposed revised structure, County Kerry VEC, City of Limerick VEC and County Limerick VEC will have a combined budget in excess of €100 million.

Since the amalgamation of Town of Tralee VEC and County Kerry VEC in 1998 when Kerry Education Service was formed, Kerry Education Service has developed a vigorous, modern and progressive education service in the county, supporting and developing schools and reaching into every corner of the county with adult and further education provision. In 2009, Kerry Education Service provided education for 3,000 second level students and 11,000 further and adult education students.

The McCarthy report quoted savings of €3 million but did not take account of the collateral damage, which will be far in excess of that amount when one considers the effect on communities, service users and staff. If the proposed amalgamation places the headquarters outside of Kerry, the loss of revenue to local businesses in Kerry alone will be in the region of €5 million per year.

At present, 1,000 full and part-time staff are employed throughout the county by Kerry Education Service. Any amalgamation will impact on resources for staffing. Decisions regarding the allocation of resources for schools and further education programs will not be made in County Kerry. There will be a loss of school identity in the scheme that will span two counties and 21 schools. Larger geographical areas for teaching staff will mean that teachers will have to travel further for re-employment or redeployment purposes. Kerry will also compete for PLC, FETAC, literacy and community education places with a large city such as Limerick and with Limerick regeneration requirements. Budgets and student places will be allocated without an understanding of the local economy and educational or social needs in many parts of Kerry. Kerry education service currently has the flexibility to provide quality-assured FETAC programmes throughout the county and this may no longer be possible. The development of new education initiatives for the county will be at risk. Special initiatives currently in place in Kerry education services schools such as the development schools and enrichment learning programme may no longer be available.

I am completely opposed to this proposal. There is no evidence of a coherent, thought-out plan and costed strategy focusing on the needs of students and on the needs of Kerry as a community and as a society in times of serious economic stress.

The Fine Gael document, Reinventing Government, has been criticised by some people in Kerry - I was attacked about it today by a member of the TUI in Kerry. On page 83, it is clearly stated that Fine Gael plans to rationalise vocational education committees from 33 to 20 in number but that Kerry would be left on its own. It is Fine Gael policy that for all the reasons I have outlined, Kerry will be left on its own. We have lost our industrial independence, our health independence and we will not give up our educational independence as it is one of the last real strengths we have as a county.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the background to the Government decision to reduce the overall number of VECs.

Arising from the recommendation of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes in July 2009, that the number of VECs could be reduced in number from 33 to 22, the Government has decided to reduce the number of VECs from 33 to 16 in order to deal with issues of scale and having regard to the current and prospective requirements of the education sector. Accordingly, the Government has decided on the merger of particular counties including the merger of County Kerry VEC with County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC.

Although a number of indicators could be used to identify the scale of operation of a VEC such as size of budget and number of second level schools, it is fair to say that a VEC's overall budget is the broadest measure of activity because it includes adult education and other provisions not easily captured otherwise.

With regard to County Kerry VEC, County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC, the position is that at present, each of these has an overall budget of less than €40 million. County Kerry VEC has a budget of €37 million; County Limerick VEC has a budget of €39 million while the budget for the City of Limerick VEC is as low as €27 million. In terms of the number of schools which the VECs operate, County Kerry has eight schools, County Limerick has nine schools and City of Limerick has three schools. This data reflects a size and scale of operation which is representative of a significant number of existing VECs which makes restructuring of the sector a key priority.

The merging of County Kerry VEC with County Limerick VEC and City of Limerick VEC will create a VEC which has the critical mass of activity inherent in an administrative budget of €103 million while retaining the flexibility and adaptability which has characterised the VECs in this area to date. In arriving at this combination, account was also taken of geographic factors such as the total area covered by the new VEC, the distance between extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures.

This new structure will provide the people of County Kerry and the people of County Limerick with a VEC which is designed to better position the sector to support the evolution of service delivery not just in schools under the direct governance of a VEC but in the wider education sector. This new, larger VEC will be better able to establish shared services and to provide support services to schools not just within the VEC sector but to primary schools and other second level schools in the Kerry and Limerick areas.

While the decision involves a significant departure from the present position, where there are one or more VECs in each county, the continuation of strong linkages between the new VEC and the counties that are merged to form it will be a fundamental feature of the new structure. Each of the counties concerned will have representation on the new VEC committee. The titles to be given to the new VEC and how it might best reflect the identities of the merging counties of Limerick and Kerry is one of the detailed items that will be covered in the consultations with stakeholders. The location of the headquarters of the new VEC will be determined later. This will require engagement by the Department with the VECs concerned.

I thank Deputy Deenihan for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on this matter.