Thursday, 25 October 2007
It is nice to see Deputy Haughey back in the House. I am pleased to address this issue, which relates to the McIver report, established in 2003 to review the issue of post leaving certificate courses, PLCs. PLCs were introduced in 1985 and have been a tremendous success with hundreds of thousands of students across the country attending them and becoming better educated. In counties Louth and Meath they have been helpful in giving people additional qualifications in child care, community care and telecommunications and it is great to see them. Last week I attended a graduation ceremony at the Dunboyne Castle Hotel where 150 people graduated and was honoured to present some of the awards. I spoke to a lady who left school at the age of 14, returned to college quite a few years later, graduated from the PLC course and is now studying third level at Maynooth University. This is a great example of what can be achieved. I also spoke to her mother who said she could not keep her daughter at school when she was a teenager and was as proud as Punch to see her presented with her graduation certificate. It goes back to yesterday's debate on the benefits of lifelong learning. I appreciate that much work and funding has gone into this and it brings successes such as the one I have outlined.
We carried out a review by McIver four years ago and that report sought to strengthen the PLC structure. It came up with some specific recommendations, for example contractual teaching hours should be reduced and schools with over 150 students should try to operate separate organisational and management structures. It examined floor area and suggested the issue of space provided for students should be addressed. Since then, many colleges have implemented those recommendations, often on an ad hoc basis and without funding or approval from the Department of Education and Science. I ask the Minister to tell us what are his intentions regarding formalising the implementation of the recommendations in the McIver report.
I thank Senator Hannigan for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position on proposed developments in the PLC sector. The current negotiations on the development of the PLC sector are being looked at in the context of Towards 2016, Ten-Year Framework Social Partnership Agreement 2006-2015, which states as follows:
Having regard to developments in the PLC sector, including the McIver report, concrete prioritised proposals in relation to PLC provision and focused in particular on the larger PLC providers will be prepared and will be the subject of further negotiations between management and unions. The level of resources for the PLC sector will be determined in the light of resources generally and the implications for other areas of education. The union side will engage positively in relation to commitments on future working arrangements and developments in the sector. Student numbers will be subject to audit on an ongoing basis. The scope for rationalisation of provision will also be examined having due regard to ensuring appropriate provision on a geographic basis and the necessary critical mass for delivery of a quality education service.
Government commitment to the PLC sector, by reference to the resources applied in teachers' pay, non-pay running costs, student support and certification costs, is significant. We have increased the number of PLC places by 60% since 1996-1997. The number of approved places in the sector now stands at 30,188. We extended the provision of maintenance grants to PLC students with effect from September 1998. There were nearly 8,000 PLC grant holders in 2005 and they received €23 million in direct support. Tuition fees for PLC courses are also waived. PLC students are included in the calculation of non-pay budgets issued to schools in respect of running costs. A supplementary non-pay grant towards running costs specifically for PLC schools is also payable. This amounted to €5.5 million in 2005.
Other developments funded by my Department of direct benefit to the PLC sector include the provision of national certification by the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC. Students in PLC acquire mainly level 5 national framework of qualifications awards and some attain level 6, which are accredited by FETAC. Formal progression links to higher education in the institutes of technology is available to students through the higher education links scheme. Senator Hannigan mentioned a particular case of this.
There are 195 PLC providers, mostly in the VEC sector. Providers range in size from 1,875 students to five students. There are 20 providers with more than 500 students and a further 26 providers with 160 to 500 students. The remaining 146 providers have less than 160 students. Some 50% of students are under 21 and most come directly from mainstream second level schools. The other 50% are adults returning for second chance education to obtain accreditation in specific skills areas.
Graduates from PLCs enter employment directly or continue their studies by progressing into the higher education sector.
Officials in my Department are engaged in consultation with the relevant partners to determine how best the PLC sector can be developed. The level of resources for the PLC sector will be determined in the light of resources generally and the implications for other areas of education. Developments since the publication of the Mclver report will have an impact on the negotiations, in particular those relating to the implementation of FETAC policies. The scope for rationalisation of provision will be also examined, having due regard to ensuring appropriate provision on a geographic basis and the necessary critical mass for delivery of a quality education service. I wish to invest in educational opportunity for learners in further education by providing the necessary system supports that will allow the sector as a whole to fulfil its important potential.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive report. The Minister said the number of spaces has increased by 60% since 1996-97. There is a cap on the number of places in some counties, for example, the cap in County Meath is one student per 1,000 people. The national average is approximately four students per 1,000. Will the Minister review the allocation as it affects County Meath, with a view to it reflecting the national average?