Seanad debates

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

7:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach and the House for giving me an opportunity to put this matter on the record. The Minister of State has always shown an interest in education. In his previous role, he showed a particular interest in the development of the IT sector.

I want to talk tonight about further education which in many instances is the forgotten sector in Irish education. The reason it is forgotten is because this is the only country in Europe that does not have a deliberate and separate further education sector within the education system. We are talking about people who in some instances have lost the chance of education. We are talking about people who failed to get the benefit of the education system. We are talking about mature students and people who are interested in courses and qualifications which are not provided in any other place.

There are more mature students enrolled in post-leaving certificate education, or further education, than there are in third level colleges, which is crucially important. I am proposing that the State recognise this sector. It should recognise the recommendations in the McIver report and the Minister and the Minister of State should take on board the issues contained therein and provide a time line for their implementation. The Minister of State and I had this discussion many times in other places. This is the heart and soul of education because it is where people can find and develop their potential in ways that have not been available to them in the other sectors. This is why we need to take a serious interest in the issue. If we do not do so, we may not be legally in breach of the European directive on lifelong education, but we will certainly be in breach of the spirit of the directive. We are certainly in breach of the global agreements on the need for lifelong education. We have not brought to a conclusion the commitment given to the trade union movement and the social partners during the discussions on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. At that stage lifelong education was recognised as an important sector. There was a determination that it should progress and there was a decision to establish the McIver group in order to advise the Government on how it should move on. This has been done. There are a series of recommendations which should be put in place.

An amazing range of post-leaving certificate courses is currently available. These include music and art, in different forms, sound engineering, media studies, journalism, animation, pre-nursing, social care, alternative medicine, outdoor pursuits, computers and business. These are crucial areas which are an amazing success story. There are almost 30,000 pupils enrolled in these courses throughout the country, some in extremely large colleges. The profile of people interested in these courses are people who have not been able by reason of their physical means or social milieu to continue education at a particular point. This is one of the areas to which they can return. People can also take up these courses directly after doing their leaving certificate.

A whole range of people take up these courses. It is an opportunity for people to take up what is referred to as second chance education. However, I would say to the Minister of State that this is not second chance education. In some instances people go from no chance education to new chance education, which is what it is for some of these people. One of the recommendations in the McIver report — this is crucial evidence in terms of reflecting what we need to do — is that there should be a comprehensive arrangement for child care because single parents will be attending these courses.

I am asking for a distinct and separate sector. I am asking for computer access, with computer back-up and technical support for all students and groups involved in the sector. As well as IT and computerisation, there should be access to libraries, books and librarian support. There should be a management structure which would ensure that the further education sector could move forward. There should be huge diversity, a clear definition and public recognition of the sector. These are some of the issues I am asking the Minister of State to take on board.

I was speaking to some people who are involved in the sector and I asked them for examples of how people move on. They gave me the names of well known people in RTE, TV3 and people working in various organisations who are huge success stories. This is an area in which the Minister of State could make a name for himself and where Bertie's new socialism could find articulation.

Photo of Noel TreacyNoel Treacy (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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In response to Senator O'Toole, I have just flown in from Brussels where I attended a very important meeting over the past two days. Even French President Jacques Chirac has now converted to Bertie's socialism. There is a global effort to support the leadership he has given.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Is that a "Yes"?

Photo of Noel TreacyNoel Treacy (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas don Seanadóir O'Toole as ucht an ábhair seo a ardú sa Teach. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, regrets that she cannot take this Adjournment matter as she is accompanying the President on a State visit to Korea, but she has asked me to outline the following for the House.

Further education is already fully recognised by the Department of Education and Science as a specific sector of our education system. This recognition is underpinned in the national development plan and in the national anti-poverty strategy and is validated in a range of reports relating to social inclusion and economic prosperity and competitiveness.

The increased financial provision in the annual Estimates of the Department of Education and Science to support development and expansion in this area is clear evidence of our commitment to further and adult education.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Members are wondering whether a script is available.

Photo of Noel TreacyNoel Treacy (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I have just been handed it myself, but was told that copies were available for distribution ahead of my arrival. I will make the script immediately available to Senator O'Toole and anybody else who wishes to receive a copy.

Expenditure in the area of further and adult education will rise in 2005 to approximately €138 million. Overall, this provision represents an increase of €10 million, or nearly 8%, as compared with the position in 2004 and will provide for an expansion on existing services in the sector during the coming year. The sum does not include a figure in the region of €50 million to meet the pay cost of teachers in PLC colleges.

An extra €2 million will be provided in 2005 for trainees with special needs in both Youthreach and senior Traveller training programmes. There will be an increase of €1 million, or 7.2% extra, for the back to education initiative in 2005. The number of back to education initiatives training places will increase by approximately 1,000to 7,000, catering for in excess of 10,000 participants.

An extra €800,000 is being provided for the roll out of phase 4 of the national adult guidance initiative. Expenditure on child care services in Youthreach, Traveller and VTOS programmes will increase by some €350,000, or 7.3%. This will provide child care assistance for approximately 150 extra children across the entire system. Overall, it is estimated that some 2,250 children of participants in these programmes will be catered for in 2005.

The principal objectives of the further and adult education measures funded by the Department of Education and Science will meet the needs of young early school leavers and provide second-chance education for adults, vocational and educational training for labour market entrants and re-entrants and alternative pathways to higher education. These objectives are pursued through programmes such as the following: Youthreach, which caters primarily for young early school leavers in the 15 to 20 year age group; the senior Traveller training programme, which incorporates a Youthreach-type programme for young Travellers in the 15 to 20 year age group as well as adult Travellers; the vocational training opportunities scheme for people over the age of 21 who have been unemployed for more than six months; post-leaving certificate courses to meet the skills needs of school leavers and adults who may wish to return to the labour market; back to education initiative part-time options, which provide flexible learning options for people in the workforce, the unemployed and those wishing to return to employment; and the adult literacy and community education scheme which meets the needs of adults who require literacy skills and adult basic education programmes.

The McIver report, to which Senator O'Toole refers, arose from a commitment to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and the White Paper on Adult Education — Learning for Life. Senator O'Toole had a major input into that programme during those discussions. Its purpose was to examine and make recommendations on the structures and resources required in schools and colleges with large-scale PLC provision, having regard to good practice in related areas across the system and in other countries. Recommendations were prepared following an extensive research and consultation process. The report contains 21 over-arching recommendations, incorporating over 90 sub-recommendations.

I will return to the overall position with regard to the advancement of key recommendations, but first I will address the question of the report's recommendation that the Department should formally establish further education as a distinct sector. This recommendation was qualified by a statement to the effect that a key element of that sector would be post-second level provision in a number of settings comprising colleges providing further education only, further education centres within schools which would mix further education and second level provision and other centres providing post-second level education which could include core VTOS training centres, among others. The rationale for this recommendation is outlined in the report focused on the institutional needs of colleges catering for post-second level provision, primarily post-leaving certificate courses. This focus is understandable, having regard to the terms of reference for the review that this narrow definition of further education does not take account of some of the key target groups requiring further education, particularly the large cohort of adults requiring second chance education and especially those who left school early without any qualifications.

While we respect the underlying intent of the recommendations and recognise the need to address the issues confronting colleges, as articulated in the report's terms of reference, they must be considered within the broader sphere of further and adult education provision in the context of lifelong learning. Our approach to this matter is supported by the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, and the need to consider all of the recommendations of the McIver report in this broader context is a key concern in the IVEA submission to us with regard to its view of the way forward.

I mention the IVEA in particular because further and adult education services and programmes funded by the Department of Education and Science are primarily delivered by vocational education committees in schools, further education colleges, adult education centres, Youthreach centres, senior Traveller training programme centres and in community settings on an outreach basis. The IVEA is the representative body for VEC management and in this role it is pivotal to the development of a robust, coherent and integrated further and adult education service. As each of the 33 VECs is an autonomous statutory entity, comprising locally elected representation from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, the collective voice of the VECs, as representative of the IVEA, is vital in the development of national policies to meet the needs of further and adult education. The Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 2001 and the duties placed on VECs to develop educational and service plans to embrace the totality of VEC provision in the education sector, including further and adult education, will further clarify the overall requirements for provision in this area of education.

I am fully aware that certain secondary, community and comprehensive schools provide essential adult and further education programmes in areas where the VEC may not have a local presence. However, as the leading provider of programmes of further and adult education, it is incumbent on the State to address the policy and structural issues confronting the principal strategy provider while facilitating the provision of further and adult education programmes in other settings through local partnerships that ensure the availability of programmes at local level to meet the needs of the community. This can be achieved by ensuring the structures that have been put in place to develop local linkages, such as community education facilitators, are actively enabling communities to access local education services, whether directly or an outreach basis.

Further education cannot be classified as a single sector in the traditional sense. The concept of a sector, as referenced in Senator O'Toole's proposition, is embedded in the framework of first, second and third level education delivered in traditional settings of schools and colleges, with further education as something in between but with an institution as a centre of provision. I hope my remarks will promulgate a wider vision that will recognise that learning takes place in a variety of settings and that all of these settings must be validated in terms of further and adult education provision within the context of lifelong learning policies. The needs of people who want to participate in further education, or indeed those whom the State wishes to encourage to actively participate for social and-or economic reasons, will not necessarily be met within the defined confines of a school, college or other establishment.

The recommendations of the McIver report on PLC provision are wide ranging and encompass proposals that extend beyond PLC provision. The report poses considerable challenges with regard to the shaping of structures for the delivery of adult and further education into the future. There are also significant cost implications in the report's recommendations which must be measured against needs across the education system, as well as substantial industrial relations issues. The primary purposes of PLCs is to enhance the prospects of students gaining employment. They also provide an alternative route of entry to higher education in the institutes of technology though the National Council for Vocational Awards FETAC links scheme. The Department of Education and Science is working with the IVEA as the principal management body in the area of further education to move towards a more structured and integrated provision for further and adult education across all levels from adult basic education through to PLC level.

Going forward, the Department of Education and Science will engage in further discussions with all relevant stakeholders in terms of the structural changes envisaged in the area of adult and further education and having regard to the White Paper on adult learning, the report of the taskforce on lifelong education, the McIver report and requirements arising in the context of the implementation of awards and quality assurance processes under the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999.

I trust this information puts the matter in context for this House.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Go raibh míle maith agat, ach fan nóiméad amháin. The Minister of State gave a great spin. However, he rejected the first item, or gave it recognition as a separate issue, and indicated that something might happen in regard to the other matters. He also appeared to indicate that people are involved in discussions. However, we do not know the identities of these people. He also state that the IVEA is opposed to it.

I will read through the Minister of State's script when I am provided with a copy. Will he, however, provide an assurance that the cap will be lifted? The Minister of State listed a number of figures but I will have to see them on paper. Do those fine figures — which his party are great at providing — represent increases?

Photo of Noel TreacyNoel Treacy (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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It is the generosity of the Government.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Is this generosity or have we heard it before? Is there anything new in it?

Photo of Noel TreacyNoel Treacy (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator will see a 7.2% increase in one area, a 7.3% increase in another and an 8% increase in another. The Senator may rest assured that while the talks continue, the action will take place. We are totally committed to further education and to life-long learning. The Senator has championed it in the past and we have supported it. Successive Ministers for Education and Science, particularly through my party's policies, have invested in education. We will continue to do so into the future.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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We will do our best with it.