Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Restructuring of Vocational Education Committees: Statements

 

4:00 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Haughey.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to come before the House to discuss the restructuring of the vocational education committees. Before I outline the details of the Government's decision, it is important to outline briefly the background to the vocational education committee system and their current role and pay tribute to the ground-breaking and innovative contributions the committees and many dedicated and committed staff who served on them have made to the State since their inception some 80 years ago.

Vocational education committees, VECs, were established under the Vocational Education Act 1930 and operate principally in accordance with the provisions of this Act and the Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 2001. They are linked to the local authority structure in the area concerned. Each committee comprises members nominated by the elected members of the relevant local authority, urban district councils within the county area, parents of students under 18 years who are registered as students at recognised schools or centres of education established or maintained by the VEC in question and members of the staff of the VEC. Each VEC has a chief executive officer responsible for the administration and management of the staff and functions of the VEC.

VECs have a range of important roles and functions. Under the Education Act 1998 they are the legal patrons of second level schools, commonly called vocational schools or community colleges, that they maintain. These schools educate approximately 29% of all post-primary pupils.

VECs have an important role in the community and comprehensive school sectors. In community schools they are co-patrons with religious authorities, while in comprehensive schools, the CEO is a member of and ex officio secretary to the board of management. Comprehensive and community schools together educate approximately 16% of the second level population.

VECs play a central role in the provision of adult and further education programmes, including post-leaving certificate courses, the back to education initiative, community education, the Youthreach programme, the vocational training opportunities scheme, as well as the adult education guidance initiative and child care measures.

Historically the VEC sector has been an important contributor to Government labour market interventions, originally in relation to high levels of youth unemployment in the 1980s and, most recently, in the provision of additional places under the post-leaving certificate and back to education initiative programmes as part of the Government's current labour market activation strategy. Other measures supported by the VECs are designed to promote social inclusion such as adult literacy courses and the senior Traveller training centres.

VECs distribute funding to schools in their area which participate in the DEIS disadvantaged schools programme and support education provision in prisons. In addition, they have recently become involved for the first time in primary education through the pilot community national schools programme. This new model of primary school provision is being piloted in counties Dublin, Kildare and Meath. If successful, it could be a framework to meet future demand for non-denominational education at primary level. The emergence of the community national school model is a specific example of the capacity of the VEC system to respond to needs identified by the Government and directly implement and deliver on Government initiatives.

There were originally 38 VECs. Following a process of rationalisation in the 1990s, which merged a number of town VECs with the VEC of the county concerned, this number was reduced to 33.

In July 2009, the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes recommended that the number of VECs could be reduced from 33 to 22 and aligned with the functional areas of the 22 local authorities that also were recommended by the group. On foot of this, in September 2009 the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, invited interested parties to make written submissions regarding a reduction in the number of VECs. Arising from this process, the Government has decided that a greater reduction than suggested by the group is warranted to deal with the issues of scale and having regard to the current and prospective requirements of the education sector. Specifically, the Government has decided to reduce the overall number of VECs from 33 to 16 and has agreed on the merger of particular counties. Flexibility and responsiveness to changing and emerging needs has always been a central feature of the operation of VECs. A key strategic consideration that informed the Government's decision on the restructuring of VECs was the need both to retain and support this demonstrated capacity for flexibility and adaptability and to position the VEC sector to meet future challenges across the school sector generally. This reconfiguration has been framed on that basis.

The revised configuration for the VEC sector will be County Dublin and Dún Laoghaire, City of Dublin, City and County of Galway, City of Cork, County Cork, City of Limerick and counties Limerick and Kerry, City of Waterford, County Waterford and Tipperary South Riding, County Donegal, counties Wexford and Wicklow, counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Kildare, counties Laois, Offaly and Westmeath, counties Louth and Meath, counties Cavan and Monaghan, counties Mayo and Sligo, counties Leitrim, Roscommon and Longford, as well as County Clare and Tipperary North Riding.

At the core of this restructuring is the need to address the current low scale and size of operations in particular VECs. Although a number of indicators could be used to identify the scale of operation of a VEC, such as size of budget, number of second level schools and enrolments in those schools for provision to leaving certificate level, the level of post-leaving certificate provision or the overall number of teachers, it is fair to state that a VEC's overall budget is the broadest measure of activity and includes adult education and other provision not captured under some of the other indicators.

At present, 20 of the 33 VECs have an overall budget that is less than €30 million and 15 of the 33 have five or fewer schools. Excluding City of Cork and Dún Laoghaire VECs, where school activity is concentrated heavily or exclusively on post-leaving certificate provision, total ordinary second level enrolment is below 1,500 in 11 out of 31 VECs. These data reveal a size and scale of operation of a significant number of existing VECs that make restructuring of the sector a key priority.

Under the revised structure, the smallest VEC will have a budget of €39 million and the median for the individual budget measure of scale of operations will move from €26 million at present to €59 million, with 13 of the 16 new VEC entities having a budget of €50 million or more. This new structure is designed to better position the sector to support the evolution of service delivery both in schools under the direct governance of a VEC and in the wider education sector. In particular, VECs can engage in the aggregated procurement of supplies and services to the potential benefit of all schools in their areas. Through these changes, the newly reformed VEC sector will be positioned to contribute even more significantly in driving improved outcomes from education and training provision within its own schools and centres and in other programmes and initiatives where it has involvement or linkages. These new, larger VECs 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 their 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 a new VEC and the counties that are merged to form it will be a fundamental feature of the new structure. Each county involved in a merger will have representation on the new VEC committee.

The titles to be given to the new VECs and how they may best reflect the identities of the merging counties is one of the detailed items that will be covered in the consultations with stakeholders. At present, the alignment of VECs with local authorities finds its principal expression through the presence of local authority members on VEC committees, as distinct from any particular overlapping of functions and service delivery. The foremost objective is to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of education provision over and above aligning VEC functions with those of local authorities. The location of the headquarters of the new VECs will be determined later. This will require engagement by the Department with the VECs concerned. A number of factors will come into play, such as suitability of existing properties and capacity to cater for combined staffing, options for property disposals, relative scale and associated staff numbers of existing VECs, and whether headquarters options in an area are centrally located or at its boundaries.

This new reconfiguration can, over time, yield savings in the recurrent cost of the headquarter functions of VECs, which at present is of the order of €42 million in total, primarily comprising pay provision. The special group suggested savings of €3 million. The Government is satisfied that a saving of that order is reasonable in the medium term. Some of the likely savings from the restructuring of the VECs will come from the sale of existing VEC buildings. The potential revenue to be raised from the sale of these assets, however, is closely linked to the current state of the property market and it may not be possible to dispose of such buildings satisfactorily in the short term. These changes will require amendments to existing legislation, new legislation or both and drafting will now commence on the heads of relevant legislative provisions for submission to the Government. Implementation also will involve consultation and negotiations with all the relevant stakeholders, including trade unions representing staff in the VEC sector, regarding the detailed implementation of the Government's decision. These discussions will commence as soon as possible.

I stress that no overarching or outside body will be involved in implementing these changes. No board will be established and no director's post will be created to manage the change. Implementation of these changes will be carried out by officials of the Department of Education and Skills working directly with the VECs and other stakeholders. This major project will have a timeframe for implementation of approximately 18 months. I hope this information is useful to Members and I look forward to a constructive debate.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While this proposal is interesting, I wish to tease it out a little. My understanding at the outset is that the Minister of State is pursuing the €3 million in savings proposed by Professor McCarthy in the report by an bord snip nua. My proposal to the Minister of State is that this money can be saved without mergers in most cases and that, most importantly, the education service can be saved. The feedback I have received from managers, tutors and administrative staff is that the education service is likely to be compromised until a smooth merger can take place, if ever. Consequently, I was glad to hear the praise given at the outset by the Minister of State to the work of the VECs. Having worked in a number of different sectors, namely, primary, third level and various types of education provision at second level, I have been hugely impressed by the diversity of education offered by VECs nationwide. I refer in particular to diversity with regard to population groups and age spans. Moreover, as the Minister of State rightly noted, VECs also are moving into the new area of primary school patronage. Certainly, however, I am most pleased that the VECs serve those on the margins. I refer to those who are socially disadvantaged and important target groups such as adult education students who return to education and students who were let down by schools with regard to literacy.

Having spoken to managers, tutors and administrative staff, the general reaction to the merger is that it will cost more trouble and money than it is worth. No two VECs do things in the same way. Therefore, it will take years before any merger will result in a smooth operation, if that ever happens. I note the Minister of State speaks of 18 months. It will be interesting to see whether that can be achieved. My concern is that in these intervening years more money will be spent on meetings of committees and sub-committees than it is hoped to save. In the meantime, the students will lose out while all these meetings go on. That needs to be taken into consideration.

The adult education proposals are a potential nightmare. We must look carefully at those groups that have been let down by education systems early in their lives. The Minister of State may think it is not good that VECs operate autonomously. On the contrary, they provide for local needs. People in County Tipperary North Riding VEC will not understand the range of programmes the County Clare VEC offers. What if someone in County Kerry VEC wants to run a programme for Irish speakers in a rural area? Will someone in City of Limerick VEC understand that? These are the amalgamations the Minister is proposing.

Has anyone calculated the increase in travel costs for co-ordinators, managers, tutors and administrative people? If there is a meeting of school principals, officers and co-ordinators every month, as there is in most VECs, it will cost a fortune annually in travel costs for all of them to go to a central office. I ask the Minister of State to clarify how he plans to address this. Will he retain travel costs, will fewer people travel or will travel costs be abolished? This merger is likely to increase travel costs because of the huge distances covered, especially in rural VECs.

There is good news. There are many ways of saving. Currently, there is a huge amount of waste. For example, the chief executive officer of City of Galway VEC has done an incredible job of making the administration in head office in Island House work with less, which is what everyone should be doing. My information does not come from the chief executive officer of City of Galway VEC but from some of his staff who see the changes and efficiencies he has made. This type of activity should be carried out across the board. Finance managers, human resources managers, principals of further education colleges, adult education officers, adult literacy officers, community education officers and, to a lesser degree, principals of second level schools should be looking to see how they can scale down and be more cost effective. It can be done. The policy of City of Galway VEC is to do more with less. For example, when the current chief executive officer took over, Island House had a staff of 25. He now has considerably fewer and the staff are motivated by the chief executive officer to do more. That model must be looked at. I make an exception for second level schools. They are working on tight budgets. I am talking about the other providers within the VEC sector.

Here are other examples of where micro-level adjustment could save bags of money. A large number of education officers were appointed after the last education plan was written. In most VECs, excluding Cork and Dublin because they are very large, this position is arguably superfluous. The position of education officer has a salary of approximately €100,000. What can that be compared to in other sectors? Senior management should consist of a chief executive officer and finance officer. Leadership for education should come from the chief executive officer. After all, the chief executive officer should be an educational leader. The new role of education officer appears to duplicate the role of other officers. The pursuit of chief executive officers by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, and the amalgamation of VECs smacks of window dressing. This is not the way to go.

Some question the need for adult education officers, with salaries of €90,000, in small VECs where there is only one literacy centre, one vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, one Youthreach scheme and one back to education initiative. It is felt that the co-ordinators of these can do the job well enough and can be managed by the chief executive officer. This is not, however, the case in large VECs such as Cork, Dublin, Clare and County Galway where there are numerous Youthreach, VTOS and adult education or literacy centres. In these cases, an overseeing manager is necessary.

One size does not fit all. The Minister must dig down deep and make a better assessment of the situation. I agree that a central purchasing unit in a VEC, instead of different centres doing their buying at higher prices, would save money. Budgets should be given out early to make for better planning. City of Galway VEC got its budget this year in May. Such lateness can force managers to spend money in senseless ways because if they do not spend it, they will not get the same allocation in the following year. That is poor planning and allocation of budget by the Department. When would be better? Obviously, the first week of January. If I am planning for the year 2010 I need to get my money early so that I can plan my spending.

VECs should also combine for services such as information and communications technology, ICT, and I understand the Minister is looking at this. Why not have one of the western VECs, for example, control all IT maintenance for the region and purchase en bloc? This could be done and would save money. There can be savings in paper use, photocopying and postage. Absenteeism should be better monitored. At present, VECs engage outside consultants to do research. There is no need for that. There are excellent people in VECs throughout the country. It is in these areas that there should be amalgamation and co-ordination of expertise. There is much money to be saved in these areas.

I say this because VECs are education providers and our primary concern is for the good of the student. Let us keep the student first. In the end, the student will lose out if larger provincial committees merge with smaller ones. There is the ridiculous situation in some VECs where the finance manager controls the literacy budget. Managers must approach the finance manager to request, for example, finance for five people who need a class. In other VECs, the logical situation occurs where the literacy or adult education manager controls the budget and proactively provides programmes and offers opportunities. In City of Galway VEC, for example, almost 2,500 students were provided with programmes this year. This would not have been possible had the finance manager been regulating the literacy manager's budget. If managers do not control their own budgets, students - the very people looking for jobs - will lose out. The right person must get the budget. Autonomy for the person in charge of the budget is critical.

The divisions or borders appear to have been drawn by a child with a Biro in his hand for the first time. Even if there is merging, the combination makes no sense. Why would one put County Clare with County Tipperary North Riding or City of Limerick with County Kerry? Why not put County Tipperary North Riding with County Tipperary South Riding, for example? Why is County Donegal not to be merged with any other VEC? No one can explain this. Can the Minister of State explain this preferential treatment for Donegal? Everyone believes this is because the Minister is from Donegal. Will the Minister of State address this? The combinations indicate a window dressing operation that has not been thought out. To do any sort of combining, much research would have to be done first. Mr. Colm McCarthy is an economist who only looks at budgets and salaries of administrative staff. Did he visit a VEC to see the services it provides to the public or to see how best to merge it? I doubt it.

I recommend that a ministerial order be sent to VECs to work towards efficiency and cost effectiveness by somewhere between 5% and 10%. The Minister did this already in late 2008 when VECs were told to cut administrative costs by 3%, and they were able to do it. This is letting the people on the ground do the scaling down. The Minister should let each VEC do the scaling down and give them a target of between 5% and 10%. They know where to make the cuts. My feedback reveals that we could save up to 10% more by doing the sort of efficiency management our chief executive officers can carry out.

Many VECs and the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, are meeting this week in committee. Here are the questions I have been asked to put to the Minister of State. What criteria were used to come up with the proposed amalgamations? What is the proposed timeframe for the implementation of the amalgamation? What legislative amendments are necessary for implementation and what timeframe will apply to these? What approach will be taken to implementation and what stakeholders will be involved? What will be the cost of rebranding the newly merged VECs? In regard to the structure of new committees, I presume that political appointments will continue to be made. What will happen to existing acting CEOs?

Before deciding on a merger, I ask the Minister of State to offer each VEC an opportunity to scale down by 5% to 10%, or whatever is required to reach the €3 million figure. He will thereby save time, money and, above all, the education service, which is our most valuable resource.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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This is a subject which is close to my heart. As a teacher and a career guidance counsellor, I worked on a wide variety of educational courses and disadvantage problems within the VEC system. I was also a member of County Dublin VEC for nine years. I am well equipped to speak on this subject, therefore.

I pay tribute to the innovative and professional people involved in the VEC system over the past 80 years, including its staff and those who served on its committees. They were real teachers and professionals, and they reflected the needs of their day. They knew when to design new courses or change curricula. I recall the period many moons ago when they had to start thinking about how to help the drop-outs of society by containing them in the school structure and designing courses to meet their needs. Every time, the VECs rose to the challenge of providing courses that could save those who were not suited to academic education. I value the VECs and their contribution to this country. They must be asking themselves how they will address the challenges we will face in the future.

I have asked myself why the present 33 VECs should be amalgamated to 16. For some of them, it is because student enrolment has shrunk. We must reform the VECs so they serve the future of their counties. The proposed amalgamation is not intended to do away with VECs but to give them a new life and a new structure in which the links with their respective counties are reinforced. That is the essence of democracy, education and community. The links with local authorities are important in terms of bringing democracy because local representatives know the students in their communities. This representation cannot be diminished in any way. VEC committees will be more efficient and produce more effective thinking about implementing programmes that serve the needs of society in the future. I do not want to dilute their power because we need VECs now more than ever.

It will take 18 months to implement the proposed rationalisation. Concerns have arisen that the links with local government will be broken. What will happen in the case of VECs from smaller counties which are merged with those of bigger counties? I ask the Minister of State's opinion on whether the local link will be diminished.

VECs are deep rooted in their local communities and the courses they offer are many and varied. They offer group certificates, transition courses, skills training, leaving certificate and post-leaving certificate courses, the vocational training opportunities scheme, second chance education and life-long learning programmes. They can tap into an area to find out what is needed. They offer excellent career guidance services and a home school link service which reaches out to primary schools. I welcome the new model of community national schools because there should be continuity between primary and secondary education, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Problems at second level in the vocational sector often arise first at primary level. There are no better organisations than the VECs for digging to the root of problems. They should start providing education to children from the age of four to ensure they are not deprived of the chance of an education. The Youthreach service brings students who dropped out at the age of 14 back into the system. The leaving certificate applied programme, which is not available in secondary schools, is a superb programme for those who are not academically bright but have a natural tendency towards the vocational end of the educational system. I want the VECs to be further empowered to reach out to communities to provide these programmes so we can make sure we no longer have drop-outs in our society. If restructuring produces that result, I will support it.

In respect of the cost implications, I found the following comment from the Minister of State to be somewhat convoluted:

Under the revised structure, the smallest VEC will have a budget of €39 million and the median for the individual budget measure of scale of operations will move from €26 million at present to €59 million, with 13 of the 16 new VEC entities having a budget of €50 million or more.

I do not know what that means but perhaps he will enlighten me. The bottom line is that we want to provide a better service while reducing costs.

We must engage in a consultation process with teachers, staff, CEOs and committees. Until these consultations are completed, we cannot make final decisions. I do not doubt that everyone will agree with the rationalisation programme, provided VECs are empowered to provide courses that reflect students' needs and give them opportunities to move into the world of work. The expertise involved in adult education in the areas of literacy and numeracy is first class.

I have always felt the City of Dublin VEC was the model we should work towards in terms of support services, psychological services and helping those who have dropped out of society. That model should be considered as one that can be used in many counties. It is not that small is beautiful; the small VECs were excellent in their day but numbers are reducing, changes have taken place in the way of life and new community schools and secondary schools have been amalgamated under the VECs. Matters have changed drastically in recent years and it is important we rationalise this, reflect the needs of the future and ensure we complement the work done by the teachers. It is teachers who understand the work and who have designed courses which will reflect the future and ensure no child will be deprived of an education to suit his or her needs, be it a skills need or a vocational need. When we do this, it will be welcome.

We must involve the stakeholders, discuss the issues, sit around the table and then come back with the results. I look forward to the Bill that will come through the Houses. I am glad to have this debate because it gives us an opportunity to make known our views as to how we should move forward with this amalgamation. There should not be any confrontation on the issue. I am sure teachers, the CEOs, the staff, the committees and the local authorities will go with it, provided they are empowered to deliver education for the disadvantaged of the future.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I wish to share time with Senator Norris, by agreement.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I always have a difficulty following Senator Ormonde on education matters because she has such knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm. In the way an actor is told never to share the stage with children or animals because one will always lose out, I always feel that way in this area. It is a delight to hear Senator Ormonde speak about these issues.

One area where I have some knowledge is in regard to the leaving certificate applied as I was chairman for five years of the leaving certificate applied committee and I learned exactly what Senator Ormonde has just discussed. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is responsible for lifelong learning. The leaving certificate applied is an area that identifies those other intelligences that are sometimes not regarded highly. Those children who were left behind early in their school days because they were regarded as not very academically bright were regarded almost as failures. When one sees them taking the leaving certificate applied, one suddenly sees their other abilities, talents and intelligences. Mr. Charles Handy wrote that he believes there are ten different intelligences and Mr. Harold Gardner measured seven different intelligences, yet we only measure one in the traditional leaving certificate. This is why it is important we put more into the efficiency of our education system.

While the savings expected by the amalgamation of the VECs will be relatively modest, the Government must cut costs as if it was running a business. I hope the restructuring of the VECs' administration will make them more efficient. There is a very odd situation whereby some VECs have large amounts of work compared to others. We must bear in mind that the VEC system has been almost untouched since it was begun in the 1930s.

The VEC system is involved in important work, running 240 vocational and community colleges and also further education colleges with more than 30,000 students, a figure that amazed me, as well as programmes such as Youthreach for early school-leavers and adult education services. I was interested to learn recently that work is to start next year on a €20 million education campus in Monaghan. I understand the Government has given its commitment to the project but in the wake of the VEC amalgamation announcement, I want to know whether the Government still supports it. Perhaps the Minister of State will update us on the present situation in Monaghan and whether the project will go ahead.

I always like to think of the "customer". When I first came into the Seanad, I was not sure how I would handle Bills until I began to look for the customer in each Bill, whether the Road Traffic Bill, the Health Bill or otherwise. In education, the customer is the student. I am glad to hear the views of several of the CEOs of the VECs stating that students will not be adversely affected. For example, the CEO of Leitrim VEC, Mr. John Blunney, said the amalgamation is a major change from the point of view of the CEOs and the administration staff but that it should not adversely affect teachers and student services.

VECs administer two thirds of third level student grants, which involves some 60,000 students, and are due to take over operation of the entire grants system under the Student Support Bill. This legislation has been awaiting movement in the Dáil for almost two years, which is too long. My proposal on presumed consent has been waiting for two years at this stage. Will the Minister update us on the status of the Student Support Bill? When is it planned that it will come before this House? On the point of the VEC administering grants, would it not make sense for just one office per county to administer these grants? Could this function, along with the local school transport scheme, be transferred to another Department? The logical Department would be the Department of Social Protection as it has the information to judge whether people are deserving of this support. What does the Minister of State think of this idea?

Under the new arrangement, County Dublin and Dun Laoghaire VECs are to be merged. What is the rationale of not including the City of Dublin VEC in this merger? Would one administration for Dublin not be sufficient?

Will the Minister of State explain whether the VECs will retain offices in each of the former 33 locations? If so, this would mean there would still be significant costs to maintain these offices. I am worried there may be no actual reduction in the number of staff, similar to what happened with the HSE. When, for instance, will voluntary redundancy be offered? I am also concerned that it could be a year or 18 months before the changes in the VECs come into effect. We need action today, not for this to be put on the long finger, as we need to save money immediately - we have talked about doing it up-front or later. Will the Minister expand on why the legislation will take so long to implement?

I understand the Opposition has backed the Minister's plans. We have heard from the Opposition about working together to solve our problems, and this is a concrete example of giving the Government support when it makes the right decisions. While I very much welcome this, the obvious question concerns the issue of quangos. If we are to tackle costs in organisations like the VECs, the Government must have the resolve to take the tough decisions on quangos and implement even more of Mr. Colm McCarthy's recommendations. Making savings now is essential for the future of the country.

I support the Government in this worthwhile reorganisation. It will lead to savings and, I hope, to a much more efficient organisation. However, I have several concerns, including the length of time it will take to introduce. I would be pleased if the Minister of State could address the concerns I have outlined. I appreciate his attention, I am delighted he is present and I welcome this discussion.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I thank my friend and colleague, Senator Quinn, for allowing me some of his time. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. I was also struck by the passionate advocacy of my colleague on the Fianna Fáil benches.

What I find of interest here is that an bord snip nua basically recommended a very substantial cut, namely, that the number of VECs should be reduced from 33 to 22, a cut of exactly one third. The Government has decided to go further and cut it by more than half. This is a drastic cut and I am not sure the Minister has adequately spelled out the implications in terms of a reduction in staff and how that will be achieved - whether through wastage, voluntary redundancy or otherwise - and also in terms of the provision of services. Finally, there is mention of the question of the disposal of premises.

In case I omit to get to this point, let me front-load it and in a very parochial way direct the Minister of State's attention to the occupation of No. 20 North Great George's Street, a very fine house, once the home of Sir Samuel Ferguson. It is currently occupied by the VEC, which does remarkable, wonderful work through the Youthreach programme. I have questioned for many years whether it is the most appropriate use for that house. I want that work to continue because the house in question is spectacular. In light of what the Minister of State indicated, there is a distinct possibility that the house will come on the market. Will he endeavour to discover whether this is one of the properties which may be disposed of? If the answer is in the affirmative, will he indicate what will be the method of disposal? I recommend that he contact the North Great George's Street Preservation Society in order that it might be added in some way as an ornament to that street and to the city of Dublin. I remind him that the buildings on North Great George's Street are protected and appear on Dublin City Council's list 1. I am not trying to remove the VEC from the premises in question, I am merely stating that we should make the best possible use of it if it become vacant.

I have great admiration for the work done by the vocational education committees. The Minister of State provided a useful potted history in that regard. There are some aspects of that work which I would regret seeing diminished. I refer, for example, to the adult literacy scheme for members of the traveller community. It would be a great shame if this scheme were reduced in any way. This is a scheme which must be retained.

I listened with great interest and respect to the contributions of Senator Quinn and Ormonde. Senator Quinn, in particular, referred to the Student Support Bill. I will be taking an interest in that legislation and asking some questions which may give rise to some slight expense. I am of the view that, when it comes to education, we should foster all the children of the national equally. Is it appropriate that Griffith College and similar institutions should be completely excluded from the provisions of the Bill to which I refer? I say this particularly in light of the fact that some years ago a student at Griffith College pursued a successful legal action. This created a precedent which the Government has not followed.

I accept that we are living in extremely difficult times and that everyone is seeking cuts. However, we must ensure that such cuts do not damage the education sector, particularly the part of it which deals with 29% of all post-primary pupils. I would welcome further details in respect of the exploratory manoeuvres relating to encouraging the VECs to provide primary level education.

Like Senator Quinn, I am intrigued by the proposal to amalgamate the County Dublin and Dún Laoghaire VECs, with Dublin City VEC being left as it currently stands. I presume this is because the criteria of size, function and expense do not suggest that the latter is appropriate for this type of rationalisation.

With regard to the proposal to merge City of Waterford, County Waterford and Tipperary South Riding VECs, the geographical area involved is quite extensive. I visited Waterford and addressed the Waterford Institute of Future Education, which is a remarkable and terrific local initiative. There is major potential for replicating what the Waterford Institute of Future Education has done elsewhere. I wish to put to the Minister of State a question that most people in the covered area wish to pose. I can do so and not be accused of having an axe to grind because I have no discernible connections with Waterford city or county. It is one of the few parts of Ireland in respect of which I cannot establish some form of connection.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I thought the Senator had national aspirations.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Indeed I do. However, I am developing my connections with County Waterford. I do not have just national aspirations, I have presidential aspirations. The phenomenon of discovering connections with various parts of the country is one with which the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will be quite familiar, particularly as his late father was quite an adept in that regard.

Recognition of the work of Waterford Institute of Technology, a matter about which Senator Quinn waxed so eloquently, is worth considering. We need creativity, ingenuity and the capacity to improvise new ideas. In that context, there is no university in the south-east and it is time that changed.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The Minister of State may wish to note the enthusiastic support from the Government benches in respect of my suggestion. Consideration must be given to this proposal because establishing a university in the region would not only assist Waterford and the south east in general, it would also improve the country's prestige and restore a certain level of energy.

I am surprised that there has not been greater resistance to the proposed amalgamations, particularly as there must be implications for jobs. I expect the Minister of State will be in a position to reassure the House with regard to the measures that are going to be used to deal with issues of wastage, voluntary redundancies, etc. I hope good teachers will not be lost.

5:00 am

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. I also welcome this initiative. Reducing the number of VECs from 33 to 16 is a good move. I support what Senator Norris said with regard to a university being established in Waterford. Members on all sides would support any initiative in this regard because we would all like to see a university being set up in Waterford.

Galway city and Galway county VECs are to be amalgamated, which is good. There are those who disagree with this plan but the savings of €42 million which can be achieved are crucial. I am of the opinion that amalgamating these institutions will give rise to a more coherent service. In such circumstances, this is a win-win initiative.

We must ask whether there will be a need to reduce the number of VECs again in the future. Amalgamating VECs throughout the country and moving to the use of a more regional model is probably a very positive development. Major debates are taking place at present in respect of the patronage of schools and a number of different considerations are emerging. The various churches - which were the traditional patrons of schools - are in many cases seeking to move away from the provision of education. This will lead to the development of a more secular education sector. In many instances, VECs are stepping in to become patrons. However, it is not correct to state that the various VECs are all the same.

I am of the view that an evolution is taking place with regard to what constitutes a vocational education committee. For example, the type of education provided is no longer strictly of the vocational variety. Different forms of education and different types of service are now provided by the VECs. I attended a meeting last night at which there was a discussion on proposals to establish a secondary school in Claregalway in County Galway. Such a move would make major sense. The various patrons being considered in this regard are the Catholic Church, the local VEC and the Educate Together movement. The latter is now intent on providing secondary as well as primary education. It has already put in place a huge number of primary schools throughout the country and I am sure it is going to follow this with a similar number of second level schools.

I commend the Department of Education and Skills, which has moved forward with its process for allocating second level schools. In the past, we were presented with, in essence, a system of political patronage and political lobbying was what gave rise to decisions on where to locate secondary schools. Obviously, the process in this regard was informed by the numbers of children in particular areas and whether a school needed to be provided. However, the reality was that it all came down to a ministerial decision and, as such, it was up to local people to lobby the relevant individuals. The introduction of a proper process in respect of the allocation of secondary schools is an important and positive initiative on the part of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I welcome what has been done in this regard.

A number of small VECs may not be very efficient in the context of how they operate. In that context, this initiative will allow for a proper rationalisation of the system and will give rise to greater efficiencies. I am of the opinion that we need to consider the services that VECs are providing. In addition, we must examine the position regarding the patronage of schools, particularly from the point of view of coherent policy.

I listened with great interest and respect to the contributions of Senator Quinn and Ormonde. Senator Quinn, in particular, referred to the Student Support Bill. I will be taking an interest in that legislation and asking some questions which may give rise to some slight expense. I am of the view that we should foster all the children of the national equally when it comes to education.

I notice that Educate Together in the past held a position where each new school set up a patronage on an individual basis for primary schools. This was not very efficient and Educate Together is now trying to rationalise the process so there is a single patron for all the schools in the country. With the VECs we are talking about individual local patrons, which is not necessarily the most efficient way of acting. As another Senator mentioned, we are also looking at VECs potentially providing primary education.

It is an interesting position as to how the two major secular organisations are providing schools, although I am not forgetting gaelscoileanna. VECs mainly provide secondary schools but are trying to move to the primary area. Educate Together mainly deals with primary schools but it is trying to move to the secondary area. Clear policy on this is important and although it is vital to have local level decision making, it is also important to have a coherent national policy as to how schools operate. It is important that when we consider the merging of VECs, we look at the policy for service provision by those VECs as well. It is not good enough simply to say VECs will be allowed to evolve without any national guidelines. That is not what is happening and although there is a level of national policy, it could be strengthened.

In future, patronage of schools should be very transparent. The Green Party very much favours a move to a more secular provision of education. However, it is absolutely crucial that the religious requirements of people are provided for, with the great traditions in the religious area heeded regardless of what is the local school. That is a key point.

This move is a great opportunity as well as being a money-saving device. I urge the Minister for Education and Skills to consider an ongoing process in terms of further rationalising different VECs to see if we can provide a more coherent approach to the provision of vocational education.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to discuss this interesting proposal from the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. We know there is to be a reduction from 33 to 16 VECs. The rationale contained in the Minister of State's comments seems reasonable, although if we thought this through we might come up with slightly different action. It is a reasonable enough idea and as a decision has been made, it is as good as any other and we should move on with it.

The four VECs remaining unchanged are Donegal, Cork city, Cork county and Dublin city. It is a reasonable move for three of them, although a question mark was previously raised about Donegal and whether the decision was made in the Minister's favour. It would be interesting to see the background to that decision and whether it meets criteria elsewhere. Given that there are questions it would be interesting to see the figures and it is important we do.

Before coming here I was not aware of a timeline but the Minister of State has indicated that 18 months has been suggested. We should examine that closely and it should not be allowed to drift. We should set the timeline for 18 months, work back from this and look at what must be delivered to achieve that target. There is no point in setting that goal today but returning in 18 months to say it has not been achieved. We must deliver upon set timelines.

VECs provide valuable education services and the Minister of State gave a substantial list, including post-leaving certificate courses, back-to-education initiatives, community education etc. It is tremendous work. Senator Ormonde mentioned the group cert but that might be gone.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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It is now the junior certificate.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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We are all showing our age.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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It is important all these services are provided and not interrupted in any way by the restructuring process, as mentioned by other Senators. The valuable ongoing work in education must be at a level unaffected by this rationalisation. Some Senators raised concerns about such a potential outcome.

The Minister of State went to great lengths in speaking about implementation, indicating there will be no overarching outside body involved in implementing the changes. I have no problem with that. Neither do I have a problem that no board or director posts will be created. If we are to achieve a result, somebody must have ownership of the process. I have no problem with a director or project manager, seconded for 18 months from a senior position within the service, being given ownership of the process. It might be a very positive career opportunity if somebody achieves the delivery; this would probably happen in the private sector. We have so much experience of issues being put on the long finger that something along these lines is essential. In addition to the project management approach we must have key deliverables and timelines; in essence, it should be a project management plan.

The Minister of State referred to an expansion of remits for the VECs, and this is an ideal opportunity to create something like a local education board or authority. The Minister of State has indicated that no decisions have been taken on the name but it is important to consider the opportunity to expand the remit. The Minister of State noted some of the changes, which are very positive, including procurement and shared services. This concerns not only VEC schools but all education establishments within the region. Another area is categorised in the Minister of State's speech, where principals of schools are snowed under while trying to manage schools. They are trying to be managers of facilities etc. and many are struggling under the pressure. The Department should consider the possibility of extending that remit to support schools where principals are struggling in this regard.

We must make clear decisions on what must be done and action must be quick. Speed of action is very important. We are debating changes in management and the longer a process goes on, the more resistance to change builds. If a timescale is set and delivered, the potential for resistance is lessened.

The changes involved in the process are in line with the Croke Park agreement, and the sector would be seen to deliver the changes specified in the agreement. It is important to consider voluntary redundancies as we saw what happened with the HSE. We have had much debate on what the HSE was supposed to be and what it is not, as well as the layers of management left behind. We should learn our lesson from the establishment of the HSE and ensure the reorganisation of the VECs does not replicate its problems. There should be opportunities for voluntary redundancies and for people to move sideways through various organisations.

The Government has a real opportunity to reform the VECs but it must listen to those people within the committees. They must listen to the VECs. This will be implemented by officials in the Department. The Minister of State referred to the need for consultation with major stakeholders but it is important the stakeholders are listened to because the officials in the Department, one of whom is in the House, do not have experience of the reorganisation process and will also be learning. It is important that the key stakeholders, including trade unions and various bodies, are listened to.

In terms of the implementation plan, while the project plan, project manager and steering committee are all essential, I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the need for a director or someone to take ownership of the project. The Minister of State said the new configuration can, over time, yield savings in the region of €3 million. I would have preferred this to be that it will deliver savings, not just over time but within a specific timeframe. Is the saving of €3 million to which the Minister of Stage referred an annual saving? Does it include once-off savings associated with the sale of various buildings?

I wish the project well. If the Government can do this, it may avoid creating another overstaffed and costly body such as the HSE. We should learn from that, do the right thing and not make the same mistakes again.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him on the ongoing work he is doing in his brief. Lifelong education is the success story of modern Irish education. The VEC system is also a success story and has been since its foundation in the 1930s. I never taught in a VEC school. I taught for 20 years, ten of them at secondary level. I taught in a comprehensive school where there was partial VEC involvement in management. I have been a member of the Kerry Education Service for ten years and was vice-chairman of it during the last term. Like Senator Ormonde, if I was a racehorse I would have some form.

To go forward with VECs, one must look back to where they came from. As we know, VECs were originally set up to provide training opportunities for young farmers and young men who were not academic and wanted to go into the trades. They provided a very important service. The situation has changed in more recent times and the adult education sector is ever more important and lifelong learning is huge. The VECs provide opportunities to adults to get involved with information technology, IT, training and upskilling at a very important time.

Lifelong education will have to grow even further no matter what changes we make in the future. I am glad that a broad welcome has been given to the Minister of State's initiative. The discussion here has been good and dispassionate, and long may that continue.

Another element of the VEC system is that the education it provided has been free of charge and free of class, something which is part of the spirit of VECs and which I hope to see continue. The deprived in our communities had very little access to second level education. Groups such as the Traveller community would not have had access to education were it not for the VECs because many barriers were put in their way elsewhere.

The institutes of technology are a natural corollary of the success of the VECs and that should not be overlooked. That strong connection is still maintained. The other important part of the VEC structure is its democratic content. There are representations from all groups in society in the management not only of the individual schools but of the VEC scheme itself, not least among which are, naturally, elected representatives such as county councillors because VECs are closely associated with and reflect local authorities. It can be fairly said that elected representatives have not failed in their duties. Many of the chairpersons of VECs whom I have met down through the years have been county councillors who have been able, experienced and not afraid to make tough decisions and ask questions. That role must be protected whatever the confederation of the VECs will be in the future. The role of elected representatives on an inter-county basis must be protected and cherished.

Another element of VEC schools which it is hoped will continue with the new regime is their accountability. No schools are as accountable as the VEC schools. I speak from experience because I was chairperson of the internal audit committee of the Kerry Education Service and we were put through a rigorous audit every quarter and term, not just every year. In comparison with the desperate and obscene waste we have witnessed in some of the quangos and now infamous organisations where there seems to have been little or no accountability, every penny spent by the VEC in Kerry - I am sure it is the same all over - was properly accounted for.

We have witnessed duplication over the past five to six years where other groups did work which was within the remit of the VECs. Although the latter had the expertise, buildings, infrastructure and knowledge, every kind of community development association was setting up training and life skills programmes and so on which trebled or quadrupled costs. Some sense is now coming into such programmes because that kind of overlap was unnecessary and wasteful.

Change is good. Everything must change; otherwise things will stagnate. The yardstick by which the success of this initiative will be judged is whether the new structures will enhance educational opportunities and provision in the country. I believe they will and it is for that reason I support them. I like some of the elements which have not been highlighted in the media. I like the fact, referred to by Senator Ormonde and others, that the VECs will be given an enhanced role in procurement on an aggregate basis for all schools in a vicinity. I like the further development of VECs in terms of their becoming involved in the management of community primary schools. I also like the idea that there will be more relationships, co-operation and working together between VEC and non-VEC schools. For long enough we saw the stand-alone approach of local secondary schools, be they Christian Brothers schools or diocesan schools, and the VECs. They were like enemies rather than groups which were working together for the good of the community. That development is commendable and I hope it will continue.

The reactions of VECs have been mixed and there has been something of a knee-jerk reaction. I have been contacted by many people in the education service in Kerry who are concerned. Kerry has been one of the more successful VECs and passes the budget criteria in so far as its budget is larger than the minimum set down for the new process. It might have to revisit that.

In terms of county identity, something will be lost for every county and we will have to work to protect it. A person living in Kenmare, for example, might feel disenfranchised if a school management board was managed by someone living in Hospital in County Limerick which is almost on the Tipperary border. The location of the headquarters of the VECs will have to be handled very sensitively. They should not be located in big cities just because we have big cities. Let us go for the median approach.

Ten chief executive officer posts will be abolished. There will be some natural wastage. I am concerned about the position of TUI members. I am a former member of the TUI. It is not protected by the Croke Park agreement as a result of its decisions. I ask that the TUI leadership revisit the Croke Park agreement to ensure teaching staff are protected. When the old town VECs were closed and amalgamated with counties some ten or 15 years ago, there was awful ruaille buaille. People were throwing their clothes off and saying it would not work at all. Would anyone present state we should bring back town VECs? We must look forward.

Real consultation will be vital because elements of this will be very serious for individual schools. Will they remain open or will there be closures? Issues have also been raised with regard to teacher security. Will the conditions of service of teachers appointed to a VEC scheme change because they will be in a different VEC? Will we have to redraw the school transport boundaries in light of the changes? We want something that will be coherent and positive. We do not want something dysfunctional. The county unit has served us well throughout the years and if we change it, as we appear to be doing, it will have to be done very sensibly with maximum consultation with existing VECs.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Senator Paddy Burke.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, to the House. We on this side of the House have no fundamental, philosophical objection in principle to what is proposed or to rationalisation per se. We are not opposed to saving money. The only caveat we would enter is that we do not want savings to the detriment of a quality service. My difficulty with what is presented is that it is very hazy and woolly and lacks specifics. I hope in his response to the debate the Minister of State will allay these concerns. I am very open to having them allayed.

The first issue that arises is the timeframe. How long will this take? It is a very valid and relevant question in terms of potential savings and outputs and the destabilisation of the service in the interim. What changes in legislation will be required and when? The Government should be in a position to answer these questions.

What will happen to the democratically elected committee members? People might say as a Senator I would ask that question, but I applaud very sincerely the committee members of our VECs, past and present. I served on County Cavan VEC for a couple of terms and it was genuinely awe-inspiring to see how seriously ordinary members of the committee took their role and how genuinely committed they were to the meetings. They sat through entire meetings, briefed themselves and were interested. There was nothing in it for most of them. Effectively, there is no saving in getting rid of committee members as their costs are minimal and that is verifiable. Where does the Minister of State see the great resource that is the membership of the committees going? What will happen to them? What level of rationalisation will take place? How will they be structured in future? They have a right to know given their patriotism and self-service. With very few exceptions they are a credit to what they do.

What process of dialogue is envisaged with the committees and the stakeholders, to use the contemporary jargon? How quickly and effectively will this take place? How will it be structured? What about the chief executive officers, given that there are more of them than potential committees? What methodology will be used in the rationalisation of chief executive officers? How will they be got rid of if they have to be? How will they be redeployed, to where and at what cost? These are relevant questions and it is reasonable to ask the Minister of State for specific answers. By definition those who became chief executive officers were by definition brilliant teachers and administrators at school level and rose through the system. They are highly successful and are obviously tremendously skilled people. That is a given, although there is always an aberration.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator O'Reilly is taking from Senator Burke's time.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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The question of what will happen to them arises in the present economic climate. Do we not need them?

The objective will be that VECs provide services to schools generally. Does this mean the laudable practice of County Cavan VEC of providing information technology, IT, services to other second level schools and primary schools in the county will be kept up? We are very proud of this.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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It is a very good model.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Will the college of further studies in Cavan, which is a national centre of excellence, meet its potential if it is to service a big region? Will this be an issue? My colleague from Cavan, Senator Wilson, will speak about our excellent Youthreach services because he has a personal involvement in them. What will happen to them?

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Does Senator O'Reilly understand he is leaving Senator Burke with very little time?

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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How does the Minister of State envisage maintaining excellence and good practice while engaging in this rationalisation? Where will the savings be made?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I am disappointed the Minister of State came here to outline this as a fait accompli. Like my colleague, Senator O'Reilly, I would like to know the timeframe. The Minister of State mentioned a period of 18 months.

Will the Minister of State tell the House the difference in savings between the McCarthy report recommendation of a reduction to 22 VECs and the Government's proposal of a reduction to 16? I am disappointed the Government will introduce such a rationalisation while in the Minister's home county, County Donegal VEC will be the only one to remain fully intact. Will County Donegal VEC be the smallest in the country? The Minister of State said the smallest VEC will have a budget of €39 million.

I have always been an advocate of primary schools being brought under the auspices of the VECs. Such a system would lead to accountability. Heretofore, national schools have received a budget from the Department of Education and Skills, the accounts are sent to the patron and that is where it ends. VECs have elected members and I hope the Minister of State will spell out what will be the number of elected members on the new VECs. They are the only people fully accountable to the public by way of the ballot box.

The report of an bord snip nua recommended a reduction to 22 VECs on the basis of county boundaries. It also recommended a reduction through amalgamation of local authorities. Under such a system, north and south Tipperary would be together. Under the proposal presented by the Minister of State, County Tipperary will be divided between Limerick and Waterford. I do not know how the people of Tipperary will take this. I am sure the way forward would have been for the two bodies in Tipperary to have been amalgamated.

We need more information on the number of schools and students involved in each VEC. Will the Minister return to the House on another occasion and provide Members with more detail on the number of teachers, students and schools in each of the 33 VECs? We might then be better informed on the decision made by the Minister.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted the House has this opportunity to discuss VECs. Thus far, the debate has been a little unbalanced in that it is a discussion about the boards of the VECs and there has been great interest in how many elected members will be retained on the VECs. I do not know how relevant this is to the customers, as Senator Quinn put it, namely, the students and parents. Parents are voting with their legs by not sending their children to VEC schools. I do not believe for one minute that is an elitist comment. I want to make it clear that I am not an educational snob. I have served on County Wexford VEC, which is an example of poor administration if ever there was one. In my political career to date, I have encouraged children who have failed in education to return to the system. I commit myself to that daily. I am proud of that work. As the daughter of a teacher, I intrinsically and fundamentally believe in education. Although I honestly think the VEC system has outlived its usefulness, I should mention that some brilliant work is being done by VECs through the vocational training opportunities scheme and the Youthreach programme, for example. Fundamental concepts like adult education and lifelong learning are being developed by the VECs to bring people back into second chance education.

I felt a little jealous as I listened to Senator O'Reilly discussing the excellent provision that is being made by County Cavan VEC. I have discussed the matter with Deputy Conlon too. I accept that some VECs are superb and provide superb services. That is not being done as part of a national policy, however. It depends on the ethos, energy and drive of the chief executive officer of the VEC in question. It may also depend on a lack of political infiltration in the county in question. I do not know very much about the Cavan model but I know that County Wexford VEC is swamped by petty political interventions, for example, on the part of people who are trying to get on certain boards, such as interview boards, or to have certain costs, such as travel expenses, met. That is why I was jealous when I heard about the services being provided in Cavan.

As a republican, I firmly believe every child in this country should be treated equally. I do not accept for a minute that children from disadvantaged areas are being pushed into VECs because they cannot get places in other schools, even if such schools would better suit their needs. The VEC system was established to give vocational training to people who are not academically minded, if that is the right phrase to use, and to ensure such people can use their other intelligence. People who were good with their hands, for example, were given training in carpentry and woodwork. When other secondary schools started to provide such subjects in the 1970s, it was clear this was no longer a unique function of the VECs. We need to examine where the VEC system is going. Do we need VECs to run secondary schools at all? Is a different model needed in this modern era to get certain categories of student through the education system in order that they can provide better lives for themselves, their children and their parents, who should not still be dealing with them in later life? That is the reality and the truth. It is disappointing that no one has spoken about this aspect of the matter to date. I could speak about it ad nauseam if more time were available to me.

There is a need for a survey of enrolment in VECs, for example, to ascertain how the numbers stack up in schools with brilliant teachers. The Minister of State said the fundamental reason for the amalgamation of VECs is that student numbers are falling. I am not sure we need we need to amalgamate the VECs. We should start by cutting the dross from the VECs. A layer of staff might not be needed when the county and town VECs merge. We should be honest and start with voluntary redundancies and other ways of cutting expenditure. I understand that officials from County Wexford VEC went to Jersey last year to attend a seminar on bongo drums. I do not think taxpayers' money was well spent in that instance. I do not know how it was supposed to prevent a child in a disadvantaged part of County Wexford from dropping out of school. It was ridiculous.

We need to examine all elements of the VECs to see where money is being wasted or is seeping out. The bottom line is that parents will send their children to schools that successfully deliver services. I am aware of children in Wexford town who travel to schools in New Ross and Enniscorthy each day because they do not feel served by the VEC in Wexford town. I do not criticise the VEC school in Bridgetown, the ethos of which is more like that of a community college. It seems that VEC schools perform better when there is less interference. We need to look at that. I am sick of listening to Senators asking how many elected members will remain on the boards of VECs. The reality is that most politicians who are on the boards of VECs are failed politicians who had seats but no longer have them. They wanted a little bit of recompense after losing their local authority seats.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is a bit harsh.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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It is the truth. There are many Fine Gael politicians in that position. County Wexford VEC is controlled by Fine Gael. I do not think Fine Gael has served it very well.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is very harsh.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should check the facts.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Senator McDonald is impugning the efforts of members of local authorities.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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Absolutely. Senator Healy Eames said that one size does not fit all when it comes to vocational education. She argued that all the various VECs provide different services. I do not think that is fair. All children should be treated the same regardless of whether they come from Wexford, Cavan, Dublin or Galway. I accept there is a need to differentiate between inner-city communities with different needs. We need to fight harder for them. I do not know the answer but we need to start by conducting a survey of enrolment and seeing what the children need. The work of the VECs has helped many people to get jobs. Many people with trades have done wonderful work in this country. We should focus on the next moves that are needed to help people to enjoy the benefits of having jobs rather than ending up on the trash heap, which has happened to many people.

If this is all about making savings, I suggest a simple way of doing that would be to provide for a centralised grant system. Responsibility for grants could be taken from the VECs. Westmeath VEC charges €88 to issue a grant. The highest grant price - in excess of €450 - is charged by County Tipperary North Riding VEC. There is huge divergence. There are similar differences in the times taken by VECs to issue grants. This could all be done pretty easily on-line. I do not see why we cannot take this function from the VECs and leave it at that. That would be a much more reasonable way of making changes. We need to get into the VECs to see exactly what changes need to be made. The bottom line is that the customer is the individual student or child. I have to say as a mother that there are many VEC schools to which I would not send my child. I do not say that in an elitist way. I refer to the manner in which services are being delivered. Many VECs are being run in an inefficient and poor manner. I have referred to the example of county Wexford VEC. I appreciate that not all VECs are like Wexford. That in itself is intrinsically unfair.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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I enjoyed Senator McDonald's speech. Although I did not agree with some of it - some of her comments were scandalous - it generally reached the core of the issue. Her passion cannot be questioned. It was wrong of the Senator to refer to some of the public sector workers in our education system as dross. It should be made clear that those who deliver education services within the VEC system and at the front line in our schools face many challenges. During previous debates on education, we have mentioned that teachers must deal with changing social attitudes. It is much more difficult to control a classroom today than it was many years ago. It is unfortunate to call anyone dross, but I especially regret the use of that term with regard to those who provide public services and educate our future entrepreneurs, Deputies and Senators, etc.

I agree with Senator McDonald in so far as I do not think the amalgamation of certain VECs represents the solution to the problems in this area. We need to consider whether it will help us to ensure the best educational services are provided to children. What will the amalgamation of the VECs achieve? The Minister of State said it will save €3 million. Will that saving be repeated every year? Is it a current or a capital saving? The only aspect of the €3 million saving that was itemised by the Minister of State was the sale of buildings, which would be a once-off saving for the State. He said the special group suggested that €3 million would be saved and he was satisfied that something in that order was reasonable. It is unlikely that front-line workers will lose their jobs as a result of the amalgamation. The Croke Park agreement means it is doubtful that chief executive officers will take wage reductions. They will be moved into different positions and will keep their salaries and the payments they receive. Few savings will be made. There are a number of examples of regionalisation of services, including the health boards and the HSE and the centralisation of the medical card system. They have all been highly criticised by both sides of the House as resulting in inefficiencies. I am not convinced this effort, whether right or wrong, is the best approach to meet the future needs of the VEC in education in this State. Will it result in the cost benefits on which the Government is hinging this project?

I challenge the Minister of State or the Minister to publish a report. We talk about consensus and transparency, so let us publish the document showing the cost benefit analysis of all of this, where the savings will be made, how they will be made and the greater efficiencies.

The Minister of State talked about procurement. We do not need mergers of VECs to deal with procurement. There is no reason we cannot look at joint procurement now. We do not have to wait 18 months for that happen. VECs and, indeed, local authorities are following that path, on which they must be commended, and the merger of VECs is not required.

What buildings, or VEC headquarters, is it proposed to sell? I am sure the Minister of State and Minister have an idea, although perhaps they do not and this is a back of the envelope job. Many of these courses and unique services to communities are provided in the headquarters of VECs.

Senator McDonald spoke in very passionate terms. I agree with her that there is the issue of the VEC gravy train. The Minister could take steps today to ensure it is stopped in its tracks. It is not unique to Fine Gael. Ministers and Members of the Oireachtas can design legislation stating there will be so many parents' representatives, community representatives and so on but I served on Donegal VEC and a community representative on that VEC was a Fianna Fáil TD while the other community representatives were directors of elections for Fianna Fáil.

The following is a little anecdote of how bizarre the situation is and how some people on the VEC see it as a gravy train. Myself and the parents' representative, a democratically elected person, were the only people who did not get on to any board of management in Donegal VEC. I did not want to be on the majority of them because they were not in my area, they were too far away and there were people who were perhaps better placed. Members of that VEC served on four or five different boards of management. Due to the coming together of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which controlled the VEC, myself and the parents' representative were kept off boards of management.

Someone from the top end of Donegal was appointed - it takes me two hours to travel the length of my constituency, not to mention there is another one - to the board of management of a school in the bottom end of the constituency. That is not unique. That is done time and again because when one goes to board of management meetings, one can claim one's expenses. That is what it is all about. The Minister must step in. That could be done now and we should not have to wait 18 months for issues such as that to be stopped.

If we merge VECs and do not regulate the system, there will be an even greater problem. VECs will transcend three counties. Imagine the person from whatever party living in that part of Leitrim which borders Donegal getting travel expenses to travel to Longford for the fortnightly management meeting. They are small issues but they are issues of public confidence and cost savings.

I question whether this will be a cost saving exercise. Some capital expenditure will be saved. What is unique about VECs is the partnership approach. Some work better than others, as do some schools, and that is all because of the talents people bring to the table. There must be more hands-on management by the boards with elected representatives and other members of the boards stepping up to the plate in these matters and better oversight by the Department of Education and Skills which funds the VECs to ensure the standards are up to scratch.

Senator McDonald touched on a point I was going to raise. We are talking about amalgamating VECs. Some 29 of the 33 will be amalgamated. This House debated the Student Support Bill two years ago. Students are contemplating dropping out of college because they cannot get their grant payments. It is on this the Minister should concentrate. Last week Carlow VEC, Clare VEC, Cork VEC, Donegal VEC, City of Dublin VEC, County Dublin VEC, Dun Laoghaire VEC, Galway VEC, Kildare VEC, Kilkenny VEC, Leitrim VEC, Limerick VEC, Longford VEC, Louth VEC, Meath VEC, Monaghan VEC, Offaly VEC, Roscommon VEC, Sligo VEC, Tipperary North VEC, Tipperary South VEC, City of Waterford VEC, County Waterford VEC, Westmeath VEC and Wicklow VEC had not issued a single grant payment. It is in absolutely chaos. People are dropping out of college. Let us look at the service and the client, the people who need the education and the help. That is what the Minister should focus on and not on amalgamating VECs which will not result in any benefits.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Leyden.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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Before Senator Leyden speaks, given what I heard from Senator Doherty, could I withdraw my use of the word "dross"? I did not intend it to be imparted in that manner. It came out accidentally.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and wish him well in his work in the Department of Education and Skills. I expressed my view at a parliamentary party meeting that I hope this proposal to amalgamate 33 VECs to form 16 will be more successful than the amalgamation of the eight or nine health boards into the Health Service Executive, which did not prove very successful. I hope there will be very detailed consideration of the benefits of this proposal.

VECs have served us very well since the 1930s. It is a long time since legislation was introduced. The Minister of State will agree that the VECs have done the State a great service over the years. I am a former pupil of the vocational education system and I declare an interest in that my daughter is chairperson of the Roscommon Vocational Education Committee, although I do not believe I have to declare that. The chairpersons of VECs do not receive any remuneration. It is important to note that quite a number of members of VECs come from the elected councils and they provide a very good service to the public in a democratic way.

It is imperative the new structures continue the legacy of the effective integration and work of the county VECs. The VECs work with statutory and voluntary agencies with a county remit, including the county development boards, child care committees, sports partnerships, integrated development companies, mental health associations, activity groups and so on. It is imperative the new VEC structure, whatever it is, continues to connect with local communities.

The strength of VECs in the area of adult and community education has been that they have been able to connect with the community through interagency work and other methods. VECs empower individuals to engage with education. They break down barriers to education through community education. Initiatives in adult education programmes and accessibility are key to delivering an effective education to adult learners in rural communities. That has been a strong point. I do not believe any other education service would have given that type of service to adults. That is what has been provided by the VECs and their adult education officers. The new VEC structure must ensure staff at county level in the area of adult and community education continue to engage, empower and, ultimately, improve the education of rural communities, which are dispersed and geographically isolated. The delivery of education in rural dispersed communities takes much time, effort and cost. VECs have played a key role in empowering individuals on the margins to engage with education and to improve the quality of their lives and their job opportunities, and that is vital in the new role the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and the Department have in FÁS and other agencies. It is vital the new VEC structure will include the key posts and workers in adult and community education, such as adult education officers, community education officers and support staff within each of the counties.

VECs over the years have proven themselves to be accessible, accountable and democratic bodies. The education service at local and county levels must remain accessible to the community to remain relevant and effective. To that end, the key posts and support staff within the county structure must be retained, where there will be a strong structure on the ground. Irrespective of whether we amalgamate Roscommon, Leitrim and Longford, for example, each county would have a clear structure with which people could identify, as they had in the past.

The Minister of State can make this quite clear. The amalgamation has no effect on community schools and colleges which operate under the schemes or on VEC links with, and membership of, the institutes of technology. Those all are issues which can be considered and looked at by the Minister and officials when they are dealing with the matter.

The matter is at an early stage. It was mooted previously, in the 1980s, and it was deferred at that time until another date. It has been talked about for a long time. This may or may not come about. We will be concentrating on other issues in the meantime.

The proof is that the VECs really have been effective organisations. They have worked well. If one visits Grange in County Sligo, from where the late Senator Willie Farrell came, one will see it developed because there was a vocational school. All of the businesses, whether furniture manufacture or window and glass manufacturing, had a connection with the community there. I can see in every town where there are vocational schools that the majority of people who work in the area have had a link with the vocational school. At the time it was a tremendous concept - it is still a good concept - and over the years it has developed in other areas of activity, and now we want to emphasise job creation.

I found going to the vocational school in Roscommon a fairly good experience. When I was leaving the vocational school in the 1960s I was offered two jobs, which was rather good. I was offered a job in the county council as a trainee draftsman or work with an architect in Roscommon, and the headmaster brought me in and gave me great advice before there was careers' advice available.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Leyden has one minute remaining.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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He advised me to go to the energetic young architects, Brian and Mary O'Carroll, in Roscommon, and I took his advice and learnt a great deal training and working with them over the years. I suppose I can say that Mr. Bill Finch, then principal of Roscommon vocational school at Lanesborough Street, Roscommon, gave me an opportunity to start on the ladder of employment. I can look back with satisfaction and state that it was a good recommendation, and I received good support. I want to place on record my thanks to him and all of the teachers in that school, including Mr. Frank Kenny, Mr. Michael Hopkins and Ms Nonie O'Rourke. I learned a great deal from them and others. I will not go through the full list, but I want to place on record that at least I know something about it and that I served as a member of the Roscommon Vocational Education Committee and as a member of the board of the Institute of Technology, Athlone.

A Fianna Fáil Government will always do right as far as education is concerned. I have confidence in the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, in bringing about the ultimate finality in this regard and that there will not be an inter-county squabble as far as location is concerned.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I place on record again my admiration for those who serve on VECs. They are of the highest character and integrity, irrespective of what any other Senator would say.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Leyden has made the point.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for the latitude. No doubt he would concur with much of what I stated, but I understand he cannot make any comment.

6:00 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Haughey.

Senator Leyden's second last comment is worth dwelling on because people do not have confidence in the Tánaiste or the Government to deliver meaningful change. I am glad Senator Leyden did not join with his colleague Senator McDonald in pouring scorn on the members of the vocational education committees, who work tirelessly and who serve on boards of management, not for remuneration or travel expenses, but to do what is best for the parents, children and staff or the school, and that should be put on record.

I spent four years teaching in Cork county VEC in St. Aidan's Community College. Those were four excellent years in which I learnt a great deal and where there was excellent partnership between students, parents and teachers, the board of management and the Cork county VEC. Indeed, under the principal, Dr. Frank Steele, there was a strong ethos of education, which is the primary focus of the vocational education committees.

It is worth noting that the VEC sector is not only about one facet or sphere of education, but covers a multitude. For example, Cork county VEC includes Youthreach, back to education for adults and outdoor education, and there is added the crazy situation where it administers grant scholarships and school transport.

Cork city VEC, which is also a progressive VEC, includes three community colleges, Nagle Community College, Mahon, and Terence MacSwiney Community College and, in the city centre, Coláiste Daibhéid. Taking the facet of post-primary education and the further education which is done in the college of commerce, St. John's Central College and Coláiste Stiofán Naofa, which is the third-level sphere added to second level, it shows that the vocational education committee in the case of Cork city provides a diverse programme catering for over 4,000 in PLCs and 7,000 in adult education. When one also looks at the work being done in Nagle Community College, Terence MacSwiney Community College and Coláiste Daibhéid at post primary, it shows that reform of the vocational education committee is necessary.

Reform is about reducing bureaucracy. As Deputy Brian Hayes, my party's former education spokesperson, stated, it is about safeguarding the front line. I was pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, stated in his speech there would be no outside quango, bureaucracy or agency to drive this change. That is to be welcomed.

The following statistics may be of interest to the Minister of State. In 1968-69, there were 182,000 students in second-level education whereas in 2008-09, there are approximately 341,000 students. That is a massive quantum leap in second level education when compared with the number at first level, which remained almost static increasing only from 489,000 to 498,000. Also by comparison, the number at third level jumped sevenfold from 21,000 in 1968-69 to 141,000 in 2008-09. My point is there are now more people in education and we need to deliver, in the front line of the classroom, on the provision of proper, directed and resourced education.

Councillor Jim Corr, a former Deputy Lord Mayor and Lord Mayor of Cork and a member of the City of Cork VEC, stated in a good paper that historical development of Irish education has led to a highly centralised system rather than to the development of strong local bodies which would seem to be the norm elsewhere. That is an accurate comment. We must allow local democracy to have its say.

I do not agree with Senator Doherty's analysis that members of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or the Labour Party are excluding Sinn Féin from the vocational education committees for reasons connected with expenses. That is not the case. I do not know anyone for whom expenses were the reason for serving on the board of a VEC or school. They do so because they want to serve their respective communities.

Restructuring should not be introduced purely to save costs or reduce the number of vocational education committees. The purpose of the measure must be to realign the VECs in a manner that addresses the weaknesses in the system and results in a properly resourced system that meets the needs of teachers, students, staff and parents. We must not lose sight of the fact that the functions and objective of the education system is to educate and train. Through his involvement in County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, Senator Wilson will be fully aware that we must never stop providing training and retraining and offering educational opportunities to all.

We need strong local governance of robust bodies which operate in a system which delivers results. The location of offices does not matter, although the merger of the VECs will present challenges and difficulties.

The Department's White Paper refers to strategic planning. Vocational education committees are community based and have deep roots in local communities, with their members drawn from among local elected representatives, as well as representatives of teachers, parents and local communities. According to Mr. Michael Moriarty, the general secretary of the Irish Vocational Education Association, the "cornerstone of the VECs' success to date has been their deep-rooted local engagement in terms of services and supports."

We must collaborate with all stakeholders to make the amalgamation a success. It must not be done purely for budgetary reasons or to achieve a certain figure on a balance sheet. Its purpose must be to deliver positive outcomes. We need a well resourced education system that students leave having acquired a good education and in which staff are adequately rewarded and recognised for their professional role.

Senator O'Relly posed a number of questions. I am concerned about VEC staff at the lower end of the payscale, specifically ancillary staff, caretakers and administrators in schools and VEC offices. What will happen to them? We must be conscious of those on the lower rungs of the ladder because those on the top rungs never lose out. Let us not overlook those working hard at the bottom end of the system.

It is interesting that the Government has decided that City of Cork and County Cork Vocational Education Committees will remain separate. The decision demonstrates that Cork has a good education system.

I look forward to further discussion and analysis of the proposal before us. This is only the beginning of a process that must be managed and handled properly.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and commend him and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, for their commitment to education.

I should declare that for the past 23 years I have worked with the County Cavan Vocational Education Committee as a Youthreach co-ordinator. Prior to that, I received my second level education in Cavan vocational school. I am also a former member of County Cavan Vocational Education Committee.

My preference would have been to leave the VEC structure as it was. The 33 vocational education committees throughout the Twenty-six Counties have provided excellent educational opportunities for their client group since their inception in the early 1930s under the Vocational Education Act 1930.

Senator O'Reilly referred to my local VEC, County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, as did Senator McDonald, albeit in a different context. I am proud of it and the work it does. Some of those not familiar with the VEC system take the view that VECs merely manage a few schools and that further amalgamation of various county VECs is necessary. That view is wide of the mark. In County Cavan the VEC is responsible for four second level schools, Virginia College, Breifne College, St. Bricin's College and St. Mogue's College, which cater for more than 3,000 second level students. Cavan Institute in Cavan town, formerly known as the Cavan College of Further Studies, has an enrolment of more than 1,400 day students and 600 students attending night school. It could accommodate up to 2,500 day students with the appropriate teacher allocation and an application for an additional ten or 12 teaching posts was submitted to the Department. Unfortunately, while efforts in this regard both by me and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, have not been successful, we continue to hope the Department will see the light and provide the additional teachers required to allow the institute to provide much needed further education for up to 1,000 additional day students.

The centres with which I am most familiar are the Youthreach training centres, of which there are three in County Cavan. I am proud that almost 1,000 young people have successfully passed through the Cavan town Youthreach centre since it became the first such centre to open its doors in the county almost 21 years ago. Cavan Youthreach does not only provide young people who have dropped out of the formal education system for one reason or another with a second chance. In many cases, these young people are given a first chance to obtain an educational qualification. A recent survey undertaken by staff at the centre found that more than 93% of the students who had passed through it were still in gainful employment. I am pleased Youthreach was able to offer a way forward to these young people who had been neglected by the formal education system.

The adult education section of County Cavan Vocational Education Committee provides night classes and some day classes for almost 5,000 people, while the VEC's youth service provides other valuable services for young people on a daily basis. It is easy to understand the reason people in County Cavan are proud of their VEC. Since his appointment in 2005, the current chief executive officer has dramatically changed the profile and services provided by it.

I concur with Senator O'Sullivan that since it was established in the 1930s, the vocational education system has provided class-free education free of charge. It has earned its reputation and in some places was obliged to earn it the hard way.

A departmental report entitled, Investing Effectively in Information and Communications Technology in Schools, made a number of recommendations, one being VECs should consider providing services outside their own systems. I understand Senator O'Reilly alluded to County Cavan Vocational Education Committee which, under the IT provision, has piloted a scheme under which it provides information technology backup for schools other than those within the VEC system in County Cavan at both secondary and primary levels. This indicates how progressive and far-seeing it is.

I wish to ask the Minister of State some questions, although I acknowledge some have been asked by colleagues. What will be the committee structure following the amalgamation of County Cavan and County Monaghan Vocational Education Committees? Incidentally, I welcome the amalgamation and look forward to our constituency colleagues in County Monaghan coming to work in the headquarters in Cavan. Will there be a particular number of representatives from each county? I seek the retention by local representatives of their positions on the amalgamated committees.

While I am sorry I did not hear Senator Doherty's contribution, I understand he alleged that Sinn Féin members were being kept off vocational education committees by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party. For his information and to set the record straight, in County Cavan two elected Sinn Féin members are active members of the VEC.

Moreover, community and staff representatives should retain their places on the amalgamated committees. While some committees interpret the phrase "staff representatives" to mean teachers, it encompasses all staff members employed by the VECs. In addition, parents' representatives should be retained on the committees.

As there will be more chief executive officers than VECs, how will this matter be decided? It is my desire that Mr. Colm McEvoy, chief executive officer of County Cavan Vocational Education Committee since 2005, will retain his position. What will happen to teachers' contracts? Teachers are employed by a particular VEC, but what will happen after amalgamation?

Senator Buttimer referred to grant applications which are being processed successfully by local VEC committees. It is easy to check the progress of an application at local level. What is proposed in respect of grant processing?

I hope the Minister of State will be in a position to answer my questions. I reiterate that it would have been preferable if the VECs had remained the same way, but that is not to be. It is to be welcomed, however, that there will be consultation on each step to be taken henceforth. As I am from Ulster, I defend the decision to retain a single VEC for County Donegal. As it is such a huge county, it is practical to do so with a single chief executive officer.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I will be brief as many questions have been asked.

It became clear in recent years that rationalisation in the number of VECs would take place. However, people got a shock when it was proposed to reduce the number eventually from 33 to 16, which is even greater then the number recommended by Professor McCarthy.

Rather than make a speech about VECs, I will ask a number of questions after noting that I served on City of Waterford Vocational Education Committee for many years. All Members recognise the excellent work done by VECs in parishes nationwide.

On the proposed amalgamation of VECs in three counties, there will be war regarding the location of the headquarters of the amalgamated body. Where will the headquarters be located following the amalgamation of the VECs in Waterford city and county and Tipperary South Riding? Who will decide the matter? As Senator Wilson mentioned, the same issue will arise in respect of chief executive officers. Which of the three chief executive officers will be chief executive officer of the revamped VEC?

On the composition of the boards, how many will serve on them? Will there be an equal number of representatives from Tipperary South Riding, Waterford city and county? Similarly, what will be the position on the composition of sub-committees of the board?

These are the questions being asked, to which Members must have the answers to make matters clear for the staff and members of the board, as well as for the most important group, namely, the pupils who attend schools, of which the VEC is patron.

Senator Wilson also mentioned grants. Will a single national grant agency replace individual VECs and deal with all VEC grants or even all third level college grants? Will this power be taken from local authorities and given to a single agency? While uniformity nationwide must be considered, has any homework been done on this issue?

It is all very well to make a statement or bring a Bill before the House, but answers to these questions are needed immediately by all of the stakeholders and the sooner we receive them, the better chance we will have. The proposed gestation period of 18 months is far too long. One should avoid putting one's foot further into the mire by having a scenario similar to the HSE in which people did not know where they were working or what were their responsibilities. The Minister of State should have some answers to the pertinent questions raised by many members.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. There is a certain irony about the contributions made from all sides of the House which rightly have been defending the role, history and tradition of the VECs, as well as the massive contribution they have made to advancing the education system. This is because the teachers' union, the members of which receive their contracts from these same VECs, has decided to remain outside the Croke Park agreement which is meant to improve the lot of everyone.

There is a certain inevitability about this proposal. I remember a proposal being made in the 1990s to regionalise the VECs which was shot down in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I remember being united with many colleagues in the view that regionalisation was not the way forward. However, the mandarins in the Department of Education and Skills have finally got their way. The culture in the permanent Government - I do not know from where it came - is to centralise everything, do away with local democracy and ensure there will be less of a decision-making role for publicly elected representatives. As a result, over the last 20 years we have built an enormous number of non-elected, or quasi-elected, bodies, all of which have their own autonomy, and local democracy does not seem to count. This is another example of that.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills has inherited this proposal, which was in gestation even before her predecessor came into the Department. From discussions I have had with members of VECs throughout the country and of the Irish Vocational Education Association, it is clear this initiative has been lying in the files of Marlborough Street for decades. I would love to know who the people are who decided these things and if they feel they are in the best interests of the country and of the education of our young people.

I am a strong advocate of local democracy and I cannot understand why we in Ireland, who have such a strong tradition of democracy and democratic accountability, have separated ourselves from many of our European Union brethren. Denmark is a perfect example of democracy at its purest, where even the most local village has its own council. France is another example, where they have several tiers of local and regional government bringing democracy to the people and feeling more accountable.

I appreciate those who say it is ludicrous, administratively speaking, that a county like Leitrim, with five VEC schools and a total school population of around 1,500, should have its own administrative structure. The same could be said of Sligo, Longford or Roscommon. However, it is now proposed that Leitrim, Roscommon and Longford be amalgamated, which not only cuts across county boundaries but also across provincial boundaries. Those of us who have been in the political arena for a long time and have looked at various constituency reviews can testify that these amalgamations do not always work out. Senator Cummins cited an example. I am sure he and many of his colleagues in the south east are looking with some curiosity at the new configuration of south Tipperary and Waterford, although I know there is a certain relationship between the two.

I add my voice to the questions as to how these administrative structures will be set up. I am particularly interested in parents' representation. Parents' representatives are the only externally elected group on the current VECs. Teachers nominate their representatives through internal elections. Only parents' representatives have to go before the people - in this instance the electorate is made up of parents whose children are attending VEC schools - and put themselves forward. I did it. How will we ensure parents in the three counties of Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon are adequately represented? The schools will continue to operate. In my case, the geographical spread of the schools will make my work more challenging.

I will not re-echo the other questions on administrative structures but I hope the Tánaiste will come back to the House and at least give us a progress report on the discussions with the IVEA and other interested parties. If there is a gestation period of 18 months I would like to think we will not be presented with another fait accompli but will be given an open and transparent process so Members of the Oireachtas can have an input into these discussions and deliberations. It may not be practical to do that but it would be the right thing to do.

I am the third generation of my family to be involved in VECs, going back to my grandfather, Andrew Mooney, my father Joe Mooney and my mother. My five children all attended the vocational school in Drumshanbo and received an excellent education. I do not agree with the suggestion that VEC schools are a step-down, in terms of academic prowess, from other schools. For example, since the 1960s there was a clamour in Country Leitrim for a merger of the schools in Carrick-on-Shannon. It would have involved the vocational school, the Presentation Brothers school and the Marist convent, which became Marymount. By the time the decision was finally being taken in the 1990s, the parents were voting with their feet by sending their children to the vocational school and enrolment numbers there outnumbered Marymount by 2:1. The academic record of the vocational school was seen by parents to be superior to that offered in the other schools. I am not inventing this. Parents voted with their feet. It would seem obvious that the merger should have resulted in a community college under the VEC, but some people in the Department, led by Church authorities, decided that the Catholic ethos would be lost and that the VEC consisted of a bunch of ultra-left-wing communists who would dissipate and eliminate religion from a community college. That was the view. One may talk about people having a snobbish view of VECs but this was much more basic. It was a power struggle which in my opinion missed the point completely. The curriculum of a community college would not have been different but there would have been a difference in terms of public accountability. VECs are, in the main, made up of elected councillors and other elected people, and I believe in accountability at local level.

This is not a good day for vocational education. It is a sad day. As Senator Cummins said of the HSE, it might come back to haunt us.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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As I was watching the debate on the monitor in my office I decided to take the opportunity to raise some concerns about my area of Kilkenny. Following the McCarthy report, there was an expectation that rationalisation in the VEC sector was inevitable. In Kilkenny, there was an expectation that the report's recommendation to amalgamate the VECs of Kilkenny and Carlow would be implemented. However, there was, understandably, some degree of consternation when an arbitrary line was drawn to include County Kildare with Kilkenny and Carlow. I ask the Minister of State about the rationale for this. It is altogether too coincidental that the Minister's county of Donegal hangs on to its VEC while we create a thing in Leinster which stretches from Dublin city to Waterford city and call it Kildare, Carlow and Kilkenny VEC, or whatever its name will be. Where will its headquarters be? On a geographic level it makes no sense whatsoever. The population of that area is more than twice the population of County Donegal and it is comparable in area. I do not see the logic of combining those three counties together. It would have made some sense to amalgamate Carlow and Kilkenny with either Laois or Wexford. Kildare, Carlow and Kilkenny looks like something that was picked out of the sky. I do not know how the decision was arrived at.

Equally, it is bizarre that County Tipperary, which has two local authorities, will continue to have two VECs. An amalgamation of north Tipperary and south Tipperary would appear obvious, rather than putting south Tipperary with Waterford and north Tipperary with Clare. What sort of criteria were used to draw up these boundaries? I know population and the number of schools would have been factors. Surely common sense was a factor at some point. I do not see how the reconfiguration of County Tipperary can be explained. Although a member of Kilkenny County Council, I never had the privilege of being a member of the county's VEC. I am aware of the tremendous education the schools operated by County Kilkenny VEC have provided over the years.

I agree with much of what Senator Mooney said. Five or six years ago, the HSE was presented to us as the panacea for the country's health services. Now, however, even Government supporters acknowledge in private that the HSE has been a disaster from start to finish and, more importantly, the public is aware of its failures. The Minister of State now proposes to establish a similar series of education structures without a clear rationale for the decision.

In regard to staff roles, will we face a repeat of the HSE's policy of keeping everyone in the same position? The rationalisation the Government is seeking in these amalgamations will be defeated if all the staff remain where they are. That was the biggest fiasco to emerge from the establishment of the HSE. There are three chief executive officers at present in counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Kildare and while I understand one plans to retire in the not too distant future, the others will remain. Who will be appointed chief executive officer of the new committee?

I am a firm believer in local government and democracy. I understand the Government's logic and my party supported the McCarthy report's recommendation on reducing the number of VECs but the operation of local government should have been examined closely before these proposals were finalised. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government promised a White Paper on local government reform more than a year ago. Vocational education, health service reform and joint policing committees have roles to play in local government. If the Government is serious about building local authorities that deliver services locally, education provision should be part of their remit. In most EU countries, local authorities play a role in the provision of education. Perhaps the Minister of State can indicate whether local representatives will be involved in the new committees.

The Minister of State mentioned a transition period of 18 months. Will the existing VECs be disbanded or will the new committees be appointed first? How does he envisage this change taking place in practical terms?

Students are facing serious challenges in the provision of third level grants because of delays in processing. Given the cost of processing grant applications by VECs and local authorities, surely it is time they were managed by one body within each county. Perhaps the Minister of State can clarify whether such a change will form part of his proposals. Students should not have to wait as long six months for their grants because it is impossible for many of them to find part-time employment. For these students, a grant means the difference between being able to stay in college and dropping out. It is unacceptable that some counties are taking months to process grant applications. I hope the changes being announced to the VEC structures will mean we can expect applications to be processed more promptly in the future.

Some of the proposed changes to the geographic areas of VECs appear bizarre but perhaps the Minister of State can shed further light on them in his concluding remarks.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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As always, Senators have provided a very useful and timely discussion on the restructuring of VECs. A number of speakers, including Senators Ormonde, O'Sullivan and Leyden, paid tribute to the valuable role played by the VEC system since its inception 80 years ago. VECs play a wide and important range of functions, as legal patrons of schools, members of boards of management of comprehensive schools, providers of adult and further education, players in the Government's labour market activation strategy and flexible and responsive promoters of social inclusion. Since I was appointed a Minister of State four years ago I have worked closely with VECs on the provision of further education. They play a crucial role in our upskilling and employment activation agendas.

Senators raised a number of detailed questions. The only firm decision taken thus far by the Government is to reduce the overall number of VECs from 33 to 16 and the merger of particular county committees into a revised configuration. The details of the restructuring will be worked on by the Department in conjunction with the VECs concerned in advance of mergers.

A number of Senators advised us to act quickly. The projected timescale for the restructuring is 18 months but departmental officials will meet the IVEA as early as tomorrow to advance their agenda and work has commenced in the Department on the heads of a Bill which will go to Cabinet for approval in due course.

In regard to industrial relations issues, the Croke Park agreement will be the guiding document for staff redeployment and the new structures. Issues will be addressed in consultation with VEC staff and there will be no interruption of service delivery or programmes in VEC schools and centres of education. The restructuring programme will be delivered under the management of senior officials in the Department but VECs will be consulted at all stages. A question was asked about the €3 million in projected savings. This figure represents ongoing annual savings.

The break with county structures was referred to. The continuation of strong links between a new VEC and the counties from which it is formed will be a fundamental feature of the new structure. Each county involved in a merger will be represented on the new VEC.

A number of Senators, especially from the Opposition side of the House, asked why County Donegal VEC was not amalgamated with another VEC. As matters stand, on the basis of budgets, the largest VECs are, first, City of Dublin VEC, second, County Dublin VEC, third, County Cork VEC, fourth, County Donegal VEC and, fifth, City of Cork VEC. The Government considered that these VECs should be retained as is, except for the inclusion of Dún Laoghaire VEC with County Dublin VEC. The retention of County Donegal as a stand-alone VEC was recommended by officials in the Department of Education and Skills prior to the appointment of the Tánaiste as Minister in that Department.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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A happy coincidence.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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In arriving at this configuration, officials of the Department of Education and Skills also took account of other factors such as the total area covered by a VEC, the distance between extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures. In addition, officials also took into consideration the fact that County Donegal is geographically isolated and is a large county in itself. A merger with any of the smaller adjacent VECs would have limited the Government's scope to create other viable units in Connacht and-or north Leinster.

Senators asked why north Tipperary and south Tipperary were put in different groupings rather than together. The revised new structures aim to bring each VEC area up to a critical mass of activity level. Where possible, this requires a budget as close as possible to €50 million. In addition, the officials in the Department of Education and Skills took account of other factors such as the total area covered by a VEC, the distance between extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures. In this new configuration, the combination of the existing Clare and Tipperary North Riding VECs currently has an operating budget of €56 million. It is already linked with Clare in other regional structures, such as the mid-western regional drugs task force and the Mid-West Regional Authority, and contains the hub town of Ennis in County Clare and the linked gateway of Limerick and Shannon. The combination of the existing County Tipperary South Riding VEC along with Waterford city and county VECs also creates an entity which has an operating budget of €56 million. County Waterford and Tipperary South Riding are already linked in the other regional structures such as the south-eastern regional drugs task force and the South-East Regional Authority and contains the gateway town of Waterford.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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City.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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Consequently, I am satisfied that the educational needs of the people of County Tipperary can be best served by having north Tipperary and south Tipperary in different groupings.

Senator Mooney asked why some of the proposed amalgamations crossed provincial boundaries. The revised new structures aim to bring each VEC area up to a critical mass of activity level. Where possible, this requires a budget as close as possible to €50 million. In addition, officials of the Department of Education and Skills took account of other factors such as the total area covered by a VEC, the distance between extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures. Having selected combinations on the basis of these criteria, one of the 16 new VEC areas will cross provincial boundaries. Although counties Leitrim, Roscommon and Longford are not linked in any other regional structures, I am satisfied that the combination of these VECs will provide a VEC which has the critical mass of activity level to meet the educational needs of the people of these three counties.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. It was worthwhile having this debate shortly after the Government announcement. None the less, that announcement is but the first step and the detail of this announcement has to be worked out in full consultation. I hope I have given some pointers to the House as to how the various issues will be dealt with. I look forward to keeping in contact with this House as this process evolves and to giving the required information to Senators.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.