Thursday, 20 June 2013
Further Education and Training Bill 2013: Second Stage
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on Second Stage of the Further Education and Training Bill 2013. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon, a former Member of this House, who would otherwise have taken the Bill as he took it through the Dáil, is unwell. I spoke to him today and he indicated that he is making a recovery. He would have liked to have been here but I take the Bill on his behalf. I will probably take it right through the session as Deputy Cannon will not be back with us for a week or so. I will begin by briefly outlining the background and context for the creation of this legislation. Senators will already be aware of some of this background having dealt with the Education and Training Boards Act which provides for the restructuring of our VEC set-up into 16 new education and training boards. The boards will be formally established on 1 July 2013.
The scale of the unemployment crisis which has hit Ireland in recent years is without precedent. Many people have lost jobs in the construction, manufacturing and other domestic sectors of the economy where employment levels are unlikely, sadly, to return to pre-recession levels. Unemployment can have a devastating effect, not just on a person's earning capacity, but on his or her emotional state and ability and desire to participate in society. In particular, the troubling phenomenon of youth unemployment has returned to our country. Against this bleak backdrop, we must look towards a better future. The actions of the Government are inspired by such ambition. I want Ireland to be recognised as a fair, inclusive and equal society supported by a productive and prosperous economy. In the difficult economic circumstances in which we operate, that is not an easy goal. However, it is one I hope we can realise over time.
The Government must prove to the Irish people that it has credible answers for dealing with the immediate crisis and that it has a vision for the future. The Government must demonstrate its ability to create more jobs, grow the economy, improve living standards and build a brighter future for our children. Our politics must be about improving the lives of our people. Since March 2011, we have introduced a series of measures, including an off-balance sheet stimulus package and new training and work programmes to help the unemployed. I am and will continue to be a strong advocate within the Government for continuing investment in education. Mine is not a lone voice. It is joined by many Senators, which I very much welcome. While I will protect education to the greatest extent possible, our ambitions must be broader than that. Therefore, I have put the reform of the structures and quality of our education system at the top of my agenda as Minister.
The legislation before the House today is part of a necessary restructuring of the further education and training sector. It has been recognised that the further education and training sector - the FET sector - has grown in an unco-ordinated way without strategic direction over many years. VECs have traditionally delivered further education while FÁS has delivered training. As Ireland strives to restore its economic well-being, it is crucial that we ensure the social investment we are making in education is relevant to people's needs and helps assist our economic recovery. The State has a fundamental role in addressing this challenge. There is now a particular need to respond with measures that provide clear and purposeful pathways to employment or to further and higher education and training. In 2012, the Government published Pathways to Work, a blueprint to increase the employability of jobseekers and encourage them to be more active in their efforts to find work. As part of its commitment, the Government has decided to radically reform and restructure the further education and training system to encourage a restoration of public confidence. It must provide courses that are particularly relevant to the needs of school-leavers and the unemployed and that help people to develop as we recover from the economic and social crisis of recent years.
Last year, the Department invested over €900 million in the provision further education and training. A wide range of programmes are on offer which serve a variety of purposes for diverse groups of learners. However, many people are unaware of the opportunities available in the sector. It is very difficult for an individual to find out what courses are available, where they are on and whether a new qualification is what employers are actually looking for. It is a huge issue for the many unemployed people who are seeking support from our further education system. One reason for the lack of public awareness is that programmes are currently provided by so many different organisations, including FÁS, VECs, community groups, second-level schools and private bodies. Programmes have grown organically over the past few decades, too often in an unco-ordinated fashion. Remarkably, there is no single database or universal calendar covering the range of courses on offer in our further education system. We cannot expect people to get the most out of our system if they cannot get a good overview of what services are available. This has to change. There is an urgent need to bring coherence to a fragmented system and to create an integrated sector delivering high quality programmes.
There is also a need to ensure we deliver programmes that are relevant to the needs of both learners and the economy. It is not just a question of addressing the skills of teachers in the system. We want people to have access to courses and services which actually help them leave unemployment rather than just occupy their time. That is why the Government has decided to establish SOLAS and to bring this legislation before the Oireachtas. SOLAS will be to the further education and training sector what the HEA is to higher education. Let me be very clear about what SOLAS will and will not do. SOLAS will not simply be a rebranded FÁS. SOLAS will put the existing FÁS training centres under the remit of the 16 new education and training boards, which are replacing the 33 vocational education committees. SOLAS will not be delivering courses on the ground. That will be done by the 16 new education and training boards and other providers, including the institutes of technology. Just as there is no single designated HEA institution offering courses, SOLAS will co-ordinate courses which will be delivered by separate providers.
SOLAS will lead the process of making the further education and training sector a distinct one. For the first time ever, we will be able to measure both the inputs and outputs of the €900 million investment we make each year in further education and training. I want to ensure that the unemployed, particularly the long-term jobless, are prioritised for support. I also want to bring about a revitalised further education and training sector that is fit for purpose for all learners who wish to avail of programmes, including the unemployed and employed, school leavers, including early school leavers, those with disabilities and those who want to pursue particular interests through part-time learning. SOLAS will bring a much needed focus to this part of our education system for the first time.
We do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I have already referred to the legislation providing for the reduction of the current 33 VECs to 16 education and training boards. The Education and Training Boards Act 2013 was enacted on 8 May 2013 to provide for the establishment of education and training boards and the dissolution of vocational education committees. The new boards are to be established on 1 July 2013. We want SOLAS to work with education and training boards and other service providers to harness what is good about our further education and training system and make it even better.
We must ensure that we listen to learners and staff and use their valuable input appropriately in making decisions.
We all know that the FÁS brand has been badly damaged in recent years. The corporate governance failures exposed in FÁS dealt a serious blow to the organisation's credibility with the public. That is why the Bill will repeal the legislation underpinning FÁS and replace it with a new agency.
Much of the good work done by FÁS staff on the ground was overshadowed by the actions of a small minority at the top. In many respects, the failings in FÁS at the height of the Celtic tiger were symptomatic of the corporate governance failures throughout Irish society. However, there are many examples of the positive achievements of FÁS to which I pay tribute. For instance, the performance of our apprentices in international competitions exemplifies some of the excellent work done by FÁS. I am also aware of the excellent work done by the current board of FÁS in successfully addressing many of the governance issues that generated adverse public controversy and serious reputational damage in recent years. The work of the board to restore the fortunes of FÁS has helped to pave the way for the forthcoming transfer of functions from FÁS to the education and training boards, ETBs, and the establishment of SOLAS. I am genuinely thankful for the commendable public service the board and the chairman have given since 2010.
SOLAS will be a different type of organisation from FÁS. It will be an oversight, advisory and funding organisation with a completely different mandate from that of FÁS and, notwithstanding the excellent work done to date, it is appropriate for the Oireachtas to disband FÁS and task SOLAS with driving a new chapter in the sector. Together with the restructuring and streamlining of the VEC system, this represents, possibly, the most significant change in the training sector in over 70 years and the most significant change in it since the establishment of FÁS over 25 years ago. SOLAS will be tasked with ensuring the provision of 21st century high quality further education and training programmes that are integrated, flexible, represent value for money and are responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changed and changing economy. One of its key tasks will be the development and implementation of a national five year strategy for the further education and training sector.
I am acutely aware of the barriers posed by illiteracy and innumeracy for so many in our society. This is one of the major policy challenges I have prioritised as Minister for Education and Skills and one I would like SOLAS to pay particular attention to. In the past I raised with FÁS literacy and numeracy issues and the difficulty people had in accessing training and remaining in training programmes. The response from FÁS officials was that it was not their problem. Not everyone learns to read at the same age and not everyone gets a second chance. In most armies with conscription in Europe the period after the war provided many young men, as it was in those days, with a second chance. They learned to read and write as adults because the skill had not been picked up in coming through the school system. I am acutely aware of this and have an interest in it because of that experience. SOLAS must act as a filter for those coming through the system to ensure they have basic literacy and numeracy skills.
During the discussion on Committee Stage in the other House Deputies put forward useful suggestions with regard to the literacy and numeracy strategy. Many of the suggestions were prompted by community education and other interest groups and I am pleased to say they have been addressed in the Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, who has led on various stages of this legislation met the relevant Oireachtas committee in formal session and a follow-up informal meeting. As a result, we have been able to address all concerns in a constructive and positive manner. Issues raised include consultation with community interests and learners in the devising of the further education and training, FET, strategy by SOLAS, the inclusion of a focus on the development of a literacy and numeracy programme as part of the overall strategy, the inclusion of a learner representative in the board of SOLAS and the promotion of equality of opportunity in further education as a core function of SOLAS. While this may seem like an abstract aspiration to some, it is important for the Oireachtas to give SOLAS an ethos that will guide its behaviour and actions. The development of the FET strategy will involve consultation with the key stakeholders such as the ETBs and other providers of further education and training, including the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Intreo, the new labour market activation office of the Department of Social Protection; Enterprise Ireland; the HEA; and other bodies, as appropriate, including the addition of consultation with the other interests I have mentioned.
SOLAS will not deliver programmes once the restructuring is complete. Its key function will be to provide strategic oversight and funding for the main deliverers - the ETBs and, where appropriate, the private sector and others. However, it will maintain the delivery of FÁS services, pending the completion of the transfer of the FÁS training divisions and centres to the ETBs. It will also monitor the outputs and outcomes of the programmes to ensure they are relevant and delivered in an efficient and effective manner.
I will now outline the provisions of the Bill. Its purpose is to give effect to the Government's decision to establish a further education and training authority called An tSeirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna which was carefully constructed in order that we ended up with the acronym SOLAS, under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills.
The main provisions of the Bill are to provide for the establishment of SOLAS, the dissolution of FÁS and the transfer of staff and property of the FÁS training division to the newly formed ETBs.
The Bill is divided into four Parts and one Schedule. Sections 1 to 4, inclusive, deal with technical matters such as the Short Title and commencement, the definitions of frequently used terms, expenses in the administration of the Bill and the repeal of FÁS legislation.
Sections 5 and 6 include provisions to enable the establishment of SOLAS. Section 7 sets out the key functions of SOLAS, many of which I have touched on. Section 8 provides that the Minister may confer additional functions on SOLAS with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 9 sets out the detailed requirements of the further education and training strategy, to which I referred. This section provides that SOLAS will prepare and submit to the Minister for approval a five year national strategy for the provision of further education and training. SOLAS will prepare the plan having regard to the directions of the Minister, the likely cost of implementing the plan and consultations with the Minister, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Minister for Social Protection. It may also consult appropriate stakeholders, including ETBs, other providers of further education and training programmes, the Higher Education Authority, Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, and employers.
Sections 10 to 14, inclusive, set out the structure of the board of SOLAS, the eligibility criteria for membership and conditions of office of members of the board. The board will comprise 13 members, including the chairperson. Eight persons will be appointed by the Minister, following consultation with the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, who, in the opinion of the Minister, have experience and expertise in matters connected with the functions of SOLAS or with finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. Two persons will be nominated directly by the Minister for Social Protection and appointed by the Minister for Education and Skills. One person will be appointed by the Minister from among persons considered to be representative of those in receipt of further education and training. The chairperson will be appointed by the Minister and the chief executive officer of SOLAS will be an ex officio member of the board of SOLAS.
Section 15 provides that where either a member of the board of SOLAS or a staff member is elected a Member of either of the Houses of the Oireachtas or elected to be a Member of the European Parliament, that person shall either cease to be a member of the board or the staff member in question shall stand seconded from SOLAS and will not be paid by it.
Sections 16 and 17 deal with board members or staff conflicts of interest and provide that where a member of the board has a material interest in matters being discussed, that person shall disclose the interest and not be involved in the decision-making process relating to that matter.
It is important to note that these provisions largely copy the additional safeguards introduced in the aftermath of the crisis in FÁS by the Labour Services (Amendment) Act 2009.
Section 18 prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.
Section 19 allows the Minister to give a direction in writing to SOLAS in relation to the performance of its functions. Section 20 provides for the Minister to advance moneys provided by the Oireachtas and the national training fund to SOLAS with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Section 21 provides that SOLAS may provide grants, subject to terms and conditions, to public and private training bodies with the consent of the Minister. SOLAS shall inform the Minister where an ETB contravenes these terms and conditions. This will allow the Minister to take action against such bodies, where appropriate. Section 22 permits SOLAS to borrow money subject to the approval of the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Sections 23 to 26, inclusive, provide for the appointment of a chief executive officer, his or her role and functions in the organisation and his or her accountability to the Committee of Public Accounts and other Oireachtas committees. The chief executive officer will also be an ex officiomember of the board of SOLAS.
Sections 27 to 29, inclusive, deal with staffing issues of the new authority, including the transfer of staff and superannuation rights from FÁS to SOLAS. Section 30 provides that SOLAS will submit a three year strategy statement in respect of the organisation not later than six months following its establishment and the Minister will have a copy of the strategy laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Sections 31 and 32 set out the requirements of SOLAS in respect of delivering an annual report and set of accounts to the Minister which will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 33 allows SOLAS to accept gifts with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 34 is at the heart of some of the issues that brought about the end of FÁS. It provides protection for a whistleblower who, in good faith, reports an offence under the Bill or any other enactment that has been or is being committed or other serious wrongdoing relating to SOLAS. Section 35 prohibits the penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to a member of An Garda Síochána or a member of the SOLAS board that a provision of this Bill or any enactment or other rule of law has been or is being contravened. It prohibits the penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to the Minister that a direction given by him under the Bill has been or is being contravened. It also prohibits the penalisation of SOLAS employees for making a complaint to a member of the SOLAS board that there has been serious wrongdoing relating to SOLAS or for giving evidence in proceedings under the Bill or any other enactment. Section 36 provides that any person making a false statement in the context of section 35 shall be guilty of an offence.
Sections 37 to 44, inclusive, deal with the winding up and dissolution of FÁS, including the transfer of FÁS functions and property to SOLAS. It also provides for the transfer of FÁS rights and liabilities to SOLAS and the continuity of schemes created by FÁS, where appropriate. Section 45 relates to a definition of a term. Section 46 provides the Minister with the power to designate staff for transfer on a transfer day from SOLAS to the proposed ETBs under no less beneficial terms and conditions of service relating to remuneration and superannuation which they enjoyed immediately prior to the transfer day. Section 47 provides for the transfer of land and other property to ETBs. Section 48 and 49 relate to the transfer of other rights, liabilities and other matters.
Section 50 provides that the Freedom of Information Act 1997 shall apply to SOLAS on its establishment. Section 51 refers to an amendment to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012.
The Schedule provides a vehicle for seeking redress for contravention of section 35. It provides for the process of obtaining redress where an employee of SOLAS is penalised by it for making a complaint to a member of the Garda or a member of the SOLAS board that a provision of the Bill or any enactment or other rule of law has been or is being contravened, for making a complaint to the Minister that a direction given by him under the Bill has been or is being contravened, for making a complaint to a member of the SOLAS board that there has been serious wrongdoing relating to SOLAS, for giving evidence in proceedings under the Bill or any other enactment. The Government is determined that the establishment of SOLAS, combined with the establishment of the ETBs, will provide a framework for the positive future management and development of the further education and training sector. I, therefore, commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister and extend the good wishes of the Fianna Fáil group to the Minister of State. We have had good exchanges with him on further education and training issues and I hope he will make a quick recovery.
I very much welcome the legislation. It is the third Bill relating to reform of the further education sector that we have discussed in the past few months. It is a hugely important sector, given the high unemployment rate. It has the potential to make a major contribution to equipping people with the skills they need, not only in the context of their personal development but also in accessing employment. A sum of €900 million is invested annually in further education and training. The higher education sector is overseen by the Higher Education Authority and it is a shame, as the Minister said, that the administration of the sector has been disjointed in the past, with FÁS on one side and a range of providers on the other. Having a strong authority looking after policy and ensuring there is a national strategy will be a positive development. While the programmes will be run by other providers and not SOLAS, such co-ordination and strategic oversight will be important in ensuring unnecessary duplication of courses is avoided and courses are matched not only against current skills needs but also future needs and the need of employers.
This is positive legislation, of which we are supportive. A number of useful recommendations were made during the consultation process by different groups, but, in particular, by CDVEC and the TUI which I would like to highlight. Both groups stressed the importance of community education. I welcome the Minister's reference to this because there is a fear among community providers that they will be lost in the new system and that they will not be given the priority they deserve. Community education is one of the key pathways, particularly for the long-term unemployed, to access education and get on the ladder to avail of other opportunities. It is important that priority be given to community education, particularly to smaller providers that offer excellent courses. They should not be swamped by focusing on larger institutions. I refer to the NCU Training Centre for the Unemployed in Coolock in my area. Excellent courses are provided for the long-term employed and we need to ensure such providers are included in the overall picture and what they are doing is matched with what larger providers in the area are doing to make sure both are used to their full potential.
It is also important to avail of the opportunity to achieve two purposes at once. It is welcome that the authority will work with both the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection. There is significant potential to use the community employment scheme apparatus to make sure participants leave community employment programmes not only with work experience but also with appropriate qualifications to help them to secure jobs. I welcome the Minister for Social Protection's announcement two weeks ago of an additional 15 community employment places for Darndale village centre, which probably represents one of the largest approvals for a community employment provider in the State.
A new centre is being set up to provide home care day services for senior citizens. Those concerned have been operating on a smaller scale in the past few years using CE places. As a result of taking in CE workers and giving them experience in the area, and as a result of working with FETAC, it has been ensured that the employees leave with level-5 FETAC qualifications. Some 50% of the staff who began on community employment have already managed to find jobs with providers of home care services. This is an example of two Departments working together creatively while providing an essential public service. This is an example of good governance. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, is supporting this.
There is much more potential to engage with people who are unemployed and who want to work with local social services through CE schemes. It is a question of ensuring that, at the end of their CE programmes, participants emerge with qualifications and, ultimately, get jobs. I would like to see much more cross-departmental co-operation in these kinds of areas. I hope SOLAS, with its brief of working with various Departments and agencies, will ensure that happens on a much greater scale.
The VEC and TUI both stress the importance of community education and the need to prioritise adult literacy. I welcome the fact that the Minister mentioned this in his contribution. It is essential. The number of adults with problems with basic literacy is frightening. Illiteracy shatters one's opportunities to gain access to any other form of education. It is important that the new agency ensure that we focus on helping people with the initial steps and prioritising adult literacy courses and other programmes at FETAC levels 1 to 3, not just at the higher levels.
Guidance counselling has been stressed, as has the need to ensure people are getting advice on thinking through what course is best and on what employment opportunities a course is likely to lead to. The latter is important at this time. If people, especially those who have not been in education for a long time, encounter an obstacle while doing their course, they should have support and somebody to encourage them to stick with it.
While I welcome the legislation, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the considerable concern in the sector over the somewhat contradictory approach of the Government. It is important that legislation is introduced to reform the sector and that there is a national strategy. The stakeholders in the sector welcome this and are keen to see greater emphasis on further education and training, but they have seen a succession of budgetary cuts affecting the further education sector. In budget 2013, there was a two-point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. There have been cuts to training allowances and supports for Youthreach, a vital programme. The Minister mentioned youth unemployment. Youth unemployment is particularly chronic, yet support for Youthreach has been cut. It is all very well to have the right policies, words on paper and legislation, but if the necessary financial supports are not made available and if courses must be closed because of personnel cuts, they are of no consequence. We need to ensure we support the sector financially; otherwise the exercise is pointless.
It would also be remiss of me in the Minister's presence not to refer to the special education cuts that have been announced in the past two days. Nobody in this House disagrees with the fact that savings must be made somewhere. I completely appreciate that and know the Minister is in a difficult position but I believe it is incredibly unfair that, yet again, people with disabilities are being targeted. They seem to be regarded by the Government as a soft target for cuts. Children who were receiving five hours of support, such as autistic children, will now just receive three hours and 45 minutes. There have to be other ways of saving the money. We must establish some priorities in this recession, draw a red line and state some developments are not good enough. For me, targeting children with special needs is one of the latter. While I realise we are present to discuss further education, I believe it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to implore the Minister to reverse the cuts. I ask Senators on the other side of the House to use their influence on the Government in this regard. We have seen revolts by Government backbenchers on other issues. The issue in question is particularly worthy of their time and efforts to lobby Ministers. Children with special needs are relying on all of us to stand up for them. I hope that Members will do so.
I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, well and a full recovery. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Quinn, will deliver my message.
The structural reform of further education and training must be recognised as unprecedented in scale and potential impact. It will affect the lives of all current and future students. It will affect the future economic growth of the nation, the working lives of many people in the VECs and up to 750 working in the FÁS training centres, which will become part of the new education and training boards. This legislation may be outside the scope of finance Bills but to me it is certainly the most important to come to the Houses of the Oireachtas in this Government's term. It will have long-lasting effects on the future of our country.
We must recognise that most of the people who worked in FÁS, and previously in AnCO, have contributed well. I am reminded of Hamlet, who said, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”. We will not lament the brand but we must distinguish between the brand and the majority of the people who are associated with it.
The Minister mentioned the VECs and their incorporation into the new 16 education and training boards. The 33 VECs will be no more. At one stage, there were 41 or 42 VECs. I attended the last meeting of County Louth VEC as a guest last Thursday evening. I was a member of the body for years. Had I not been appointed to the Seanad through the generosity - we will not talk about the perspicacity – of the Taoiseach, I would have been the last chairman of County Louth VEC. I have a great affinity with the VECs and the work they all did. Mr. Michael Moriarty, head of the IVEA, gave me a book on the history of the VECs. It is a big tome but I have been reading it and am very impressed. I congratulate the VECs on their work down through the years. The Minister may be aware that the CEO of County Louth VEC, Dr. Padraig Kirk, has been appointed to head up the new junior certificate implementation programme. The Minister always thinks in terms of integration. The new programme is a very important part of the process of reform and restructuring, particularly in terms of numeracy and literacy, which we talked about. We wish Mr. Kirk well and know he will do a good job.
This Bill is about the establishment of SOLAS to oversee education and training as an integrated network. The crucial role that education, further education and training will play in the future of our young people, and indeed for everyone in this country, cannot be overestimated. I believe everybody should be training all the time. Perhaps I am particularly aware of the need for training at present because of the proposal to abolish the Seanad. I am in training for a number of future roles I may have to take up. The levity is there, but the reality in this day and age is that everybody has to continue to train even while working. In addition to assisting the unemployed, I hope SOLAS will facilitate lifelong learning for the employed. That would be a crucial thing for me. Everybody knows it is easier to get a job when one is in a job than when one is out of work. One should always be preparing for one's next position while one is in one's current position. Senator Power is laughing. I know what she is preparing for.
I thank the Chair.
I would like to make a point about language teaching in County Louth. I met a Greek businessman lately, and we compared notes on our daughters. I mentioned that my daughters are doing this and that. He said that his daughters had completed business degrees and learned two foreign languages. When I asked him to elaborate, he said they did not speak pidgin versions of the two languages in question. He was very eloquent. It reminded me of the need for the new education and training boards to be proactive in promoting languages.
If the Minister does not mind us saying so, we must sweat our assets. We should open our colleges of further education and institutes of technology during the summer. They are closed at weekends and throughout the summer. Equally, our university facilities must be opened up to ordinary people so they can train at weekends and during the summer months. All of these things should be done more than they are done now.
I agree with what Senator Power said about skills improvement on community employment schemes. She made the very good point that those who participate in such schemes should emerge with new skills.
Before I conclude, I would like to take Senator Power up on her invitation to comment on special educational needs. I remind her that there has been no reduction in numbers in the last three years. The increase in numbers this year means there will be a 10% reduction in the amount of time that is provided. The National Council for Special Education has written to all schools to ask them to use group teaching to make up the shortfall. The use of team teaching would mean there was no actual reduction in the amount of time spent with pupils or the time pupils get for learning.
Deputy Nash and I were present when the Minister visited Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Kilsaran last Friday. We saw how the school operates. I know Senator Power is deeply concerned about education. I guarantee her that the Minister is absolutely supportive of special education in our schools. I am sure he will talk further about it with her.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Quinn. It is great to have him with us. I also want to extend my good wishes to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. It has been wonderful to debate these issues with him in recent times. He has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to them. Like the rest of us, he is on a learning curve in this regard. I regret he is not with us today. I ask the Minister to tell him I enjoy his tweets as well.
It is great to have the Minister for Education and Skills here for the debate on this progressive Bill, which is part of the Minister's overall vision for reform. It is wonderful to have an opportunity to say a few words on it in his presence. We have all spoken on this issue in the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. The Minister referred in his speech to the importance of social investment in this sector. It is great to hear about the relevance of such investment. The Minister's vision will be implemented when this Bill is enacted. We will have a strategic vision for this sector, the development of which has been somewhat ad hoc. As the Minister identified, for many years there has been a need for the delivery of coherent and high-quality training that is of relevance to the economy and also to learners. It is great to hear that too.
I suppose I could say I have prepared a happy speech. I am happy to say the Bill is a good and progressive one. I am delighted to see the changes that have been made to it since its initiation. I commend the Minister on his vision and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, on his work. I commend the Department. I also commend my colleagues in the other House - the Minister referred to many of the amendments that were made on Committee Stage in that House - on their collective efforts in making the changes needed to make this Bill a truly transformative piece of legislation for the further education and training sector. I acknowledge the support of members of the National Adult Literacy Agency and the community education section of Aontas, with whom I have worked closely. I expect many others have benefited from their influence and the support they have given to lawmakers. It has been great to work in partnership with them on this legislation.
I wish to refer to some of the improvements that have been made. I raised a number of concerns when statements on further education and training were taken in this House in February. I said it seemed that the volunteering community in education was being sidelined in the proposed legislation. This concern, which was raised by others as well, has been addressed. I am particularly pleased that one of the functions of the new agency will be to promote an appreciation of the value of further education and training. As the Minister mentioned, the agency will also be responsible for promoting equality of opportunity in terms of access to the sector. I am thrilled that a reference to community education providers has been included in section 9 of the Bill. I know others who have worked in support of that sector will agree that the inclusion of those words in the Bill will send a powerful message to those providers about the value of their work.
I welcome representatives from the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, adult learners, individuals who are involved in adult learning programmes and who are present in the Visitors Gallery. One of them might be one of those whom the Minister appoints to the board. It is great to see that inclusion. It is right that this invaluable sector and adult learners will now be consulted by the new agency as they prepare the strategy. I hope that there will be deep consultation in that regard as the sector carries a wealth of expertise. Consultation involves asking people what they think, hearing what they say and incorporating that into the strategy or if what they say is not incorporated explaining why it is not. That is the kind of relevant consultation that I hope will take place. Policy makers must give serious weight in the Bill to a commitment to consult with adult learners and include them on the board.
While welcoming the inclusion of the community education sector I think we need to be careful that it is not undermined by wider changes within the significant reform process of further education and training. For example, we must ensure that the funding streams that affect the capacity of community education to provide important services are protected and that we invest in education in this manner. Senator Power also referred to this. The Minister might be willing to comment on that point. We know that on taking office the Minister made a commitment to a literacy and numeracy strategy. It is a striking improvement in the Bill that SOLAS will develop this strategy. I note that the section dealing with the strategy could be interpreted narrowly to cover adult literacy and numeracy provision at National Framework of Qualification levels 1 to 3 only. Having heard the Minister's speech I do not think that is what he means but could he perhaps clarify for the House that it can be interpreted more broadly to cover the embedding of relevant literacy and numeracy development across further education training systems and all programmes in the State from levels 1 to 6? I presume that it is the deliberate purpose of the literacy strategy to raise adult literacy and numeracy levels by working across all further education and training programmes such that if someone at level 4 needs some literacy and numeracy support he or she will receive it.
In 1997 OECD research found that one in four, approximately 500,000, Irish adults had problems with even the simplest literacy tests. I understand that in October it will publish follow-up results of that research for Ireland. I hope that will inform the development of the further education and training strategy. This legislation represents an effort to take an integrated approach to this vibrant and diverse sector, and caters for all the needs of adult learners. Given the Minister's and Minister of State, Deputy Cannon's openness to making this Bill strong I am hopeful that it will be as strong as possible and look forward to the development of the further education and training strategy and to continuing to engage with these issues.
I too welcome the Minister back to the House this afternoon. I extend the good wishes of the Labour group to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and wish him a speedy recovery. I also welcome the representatives of NALA who are here today. I commend the Minister on ensuring that there will be a learner representative and for accepting the recommendations to include a learner on the board of SOLAS.
The Government is committed to reform of our public services and to delivering an overall better public service. This Bill seeks to reform how further education and training are delivered to thousands of people within the community and to ensure our education and training programmes are fit for purpose. In order to see through such reform we have to embrace change. We all know that there has been duplication across this service for many years and taxpayers have not been getting best value for money. There are currently 9,000 staff employed in centres offering over 270,000 places to learners on full-time, part-time, formal and informal courses. The investment total in agencies across the country is approximately €900 million at present. FÁS alone provides 81,500 market-led and client-focused training interventions for unemployed people, with a total investment of €420 million. These agencies and staff provide a key service in their communities and the aim of this Bill is to make this service run more efficiently—as we need now it more than ever. The establishment of the new training and education authority, SOLAS, which this Bill proposes, will see a major transfer of responsibilities and the running of a more efficient service. SOLAS will be responsible for commissioning and funding the delivery of the service from the 16 new education and training boards, which, in turn, will replace the 33 existing VECs. The 16 new boards will be responsible for the planning and delivery of all vocational training and further education in their regions and SOLAS will have the freedom to commission private sector providers as deemed appropriate. I believe the provisions in this Bill will give an identity to the further education and training sector.
As in all areas of education the student should be at the centre of the process. I again commend the Minister on referring to this in his speech. With so many providers and programmes, quality control and student-led learning have been an issue. Having some experience of Youthreach courses I am very aware of the need to provide interesting and useful courses instead of the 'gap-fillers' which existed down through the years, courses that were designed to suit the qualifications of the teacher rather than the interests of the students. Many of the students attending Youthreach or other courses needed the added incentive to be kept in education and kept interested. SOLAS will have a role in auditing and quality-assuring the programmes that are delivered and will have the task of ensuring that teachers and trainers undergo continuous professional development of which I am a major supporter. Another core part of SOLAS's role will be to ensure the referral of jobseekers to appropriate courses, and therefore the inclusion of a guidance service will be extremely important. SOLAS will also have the function of consulting the Department of Social Protection and employers to determine the types of education and training programmes to be funded by the authority and delivered to the public. It is imperative that learners are the focus and that we provide them with the best possible programmes to aid them in their future prospects. I welcome the recognition that the learner-centred approach is fundamental to providing the best experience. We should not forget why we are teaching and training: it is not to put forward what we think is important but what the learner finds important. This can be seen most recently in the report of the EU high-level group, chaired by former President McAleese, that was published this week. This group has recognised the importance of a student-centred approach in third level education and I am delighted that we are also adopting a similar approach in the further education and training sector. I believe these functions of SOLAS will greatly aid in the experience of the learners and hopefully will positively impact on their employment outcomes.
That SOLAS has wide ranging functions is welcome and needed. Not only will it be involved in shaping the training and programmes presented but it will also have the function of ensuring efficiency of the service, which to date has been lacking. It will promote co-operation between bodies involved in the provision of further education programmes. It will also be able to assess whether training boards perform their functions in an economically efficient and effective manner, which is key at a time when every cent counts. It will also have the power to conduct research relating to its own functions. I believe this new umbrella body will ensure that taxpayers' money is handled efficiently and that a useful and comprehensive service is delivered to those seeking employment and looking to upskill.
While I have outlined many of the positives that this Bill, specifically the implementation of SOLAS, brings to the table, challenges do exist and will need to be addressed. One major challenge for the immediate future will be the differing terms and conditions of employment of teachers in further education services and those of FÁS trainers. I have received representations from people who are in this position so I would appreciate if the Minister would comment further on this. I know that annual leave is also an issue due to the fact that courses run by FÁS, Youthreach and SOLAS are to be run year-round whereas school terms are shorter. The task of integration will not be easy but I believe it will be worth it.
I hope that SOLAS and the further education and training sector will be able to lead the charge in providing the appropriate courses to meet the demands of some of Ireland's emerging sectors such as technology, foreign languages, engineering and many more. We constantly hear of the need for more upskilling in these key areas and my hope is that we will begin meeting the needs of these international investors in the very near future through new, existing and revised courses and programmes. I would like to look further into the future and point to the need for our further education and training sector to recognise the emerging employment fields. In ten years' time we do not want to be playing catch-up, having been left behind. In ten years' time, we should be able to meet the needs of the emerging fields of employment and be able to supply them with well-skilled and educated individuals who will be immediately able to meet that employment need.
The further education and training sector has been crying out for reform for many years. There is no doubt that excellent work is being done by passionate and dedicated people in the VECs, FÁS training units, colleges of further education and so on. I would like to pay tribute also to the current CEO of Louth VEC, Dr. Pádraig Kirk, who will take over as CEO with responsibility for the junior cycle, and I wish him well in that role. The Further Education and Training Bill will most importantly place learners at the heart of the process. That may be my former role as a teacher coming out in me but that is what we need to keep in mind. This will ensure that learners are empowered to access the courses they need and that they can progress through the system and achieve their goals.
I commend the work done by Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and the Department on the implementation of the greatest change to further education in more than 70 years and the greatest change in the training sector since FÁS was established more than 25 years ago. I commend the Bill.
The Minister is welcome to the House. Like previous speakers, I ask him to pass on to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, our wishes for his speedy recovery. I welcome the Bill. I have had the experience only in recent years of being involved with Springboard and I am reminded of very different touches that are needed. There is no one solution to this problem. People are unemployed, looking for work but their skills may be in a different area from the area in which vacancies may arise. The Minister has ensured that what is provided in the Bill is not only a replacement for FÁS - he explained that well - and he has avoided the duplication that might have occurred in many other ways. I welcome his efforts in this area. Proper organisation of future education and training is vital for the economy.
I am glad the Bill proposes a strong relationship between SOLAS, the Department of Social Protection and the employers, which is the relationship on which I want to touch. We must concentrate on linking the provision of further education and its relationship with the private sector. Through my involvement with Springboard I learned of the number of different organisations that are involved in training, teaching and education at quite a high level. It is not only the traditional colleges that are doing this, many others are also doing it.
The Government must look more closely at what other countries are doing in terms of relating training to social welfare. The real point of legislation such as this is to get people back to work and back into the workforce. We cannot think of education and training in a vacuum. The Government must sometimes implement measures to nudge people back into the workforce. We need more emphasis on the so-called principle of activation. I will give the example of Denmark. The term the Danes use in this context is "activation". The Danish state offers an activity such as training on the job or whatever it may be - be it to an unemployed person or a volunteer - and the person is obliged to accept it. There is no option of simply continuing on benefits if one refuses to work or refuses training. That is the basic principle applied in Germany, the Netherlands and in some other EU member states. The state will help a person find work or provide training but after a certain period if the individual refuses all jobs, all offers or the training available, the person will return to being on social welfare.
I was startled to read in the Sunday Independent recently that one in every seven people on social welfare has never worked a single day in their lives. I could not get over that and did not realise that was the case. The benefit claimed is jobseeker's benefit and it used to be called unemployment benefit. Other reports show that one in three people offered a place on the back to work scheme failed to show up for interview. I am not generalising but highlighting a reality which the Government needs to face.
We need to ensure that we introduce this principle in tandem with the reorganisation of further education and training, which the Minister has done efficiently in this Bill. We must also recognise that degrees have become, if I dare say it, slightly devalued because so many people have them and some real world skills desired by employers are at a premium. Many countries are now trying to bridge the gap between education and work by upgrading vocational schools, encouraging standard schools to form closer relationships with local companies and embracing apprenticeships. We have moved away from this. We spoke in the House recently of the danger of concentration on academic skills only and losing touch with the ability to do things. In 2010, South Korea created a network of vocational meisters schools - the word "meister" comes from the German for master craftsman - to address the country's shortage of machine operators and plumbers. It had concentrated to a very large extent on academics. The South Korean Government pays the students' room and board as well as their tuition. We have a massive shortage of ICT professionals here. Could we consider something similar here to address that skills gap? We know there is a skills gap but what are we doing to address it and in the real world what can SOLAS do to forge links with the private sector?
In the UK some further education colleges are embracing the principle that the best way to learn is to do - l love that term. If one is going to learn, one is much better doing what one is learning rather than sitting at a desk learning about it. North Hertfordshire College has launched a business venture with a gymnasium. Bluegrass College in Kentucky and Toyota have created a replica of a car factory where workers and students go to classes together. I would love to see something like that being done here. I remember reading a book about Toyota many years ago and noting how dramatically it changes things.
While not strictly related to further education, I would like to mention some practical changes that could improve our education system. Could we offer voluntary catch-up classes, as are offered in France? During the summer months in France such classes are offered to students who feel they have been left behind. Could we follow the model in Finland where teachers get shorter holidays and the long breaks are typically used to take training courses? Those are only some of some of the changes that could be made. A number of those points were made by previous speakers.
I wish to touch on one further point about which I have a strong view, namely, the need for language development. We must find a way to solve that. It was interesting to hear other speakers mention this issue. We have five children in our family, as the Minister will know, and we sent them all to school in France. That was dangerous in as much as the two girls fell in love with French men and are now married to French men and so we have got a very strong link with that part of the world. We have one French grand-daughter in Paris who is in her third year in college in China. She is studying law and Chinese and she was encouraged in France to study in China. I am not sure that we are doing enough in that area - there is so much we can do.
I have referred in the House previously to the Michel Thomas method of teaching, particularly French. An article in The Guardian newspaper described the Michel Thomas method of teaching French in a school. The article states:
He astounded staff at a school in north London by teaching a group of teenagers deemed incapable of learning languages. In one week, they learned the amount of French it normally takes five years to acquire.This method is taught without the giving of homework and, as I understand it, without even books. Imagine the possible application of this method in terms of further education and training? Could we try it out and be truly innovative in this way? There are a large number of vacant jobs in Europe but we are being excluded from that market. We can do something about it ourselves but it needs a firm concentration on learning other languages. If we could do that, we would take a large step towards helping to bring in the foreign companies that come to Ireland.
When Hewlett Packard, or a similar company, announced the creation of 100 jobs, a reporter asked what was required and was told that jobseekers needed another foreign language. The reporter replied that would exclude the Irish. It was a matter of no Irish need apply because we are not very good at languages. There must be better ways to improve language education. The Michel Thomas method is just one way to learn a language. I urge the Minister to do something to improve the teaching of languages.
I welcome the Bill and the Minister's commitment. The changes made to the Bill in the Dáil will enhance the legislation and help achieve its goals.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak about the Bill and I congratulate the Minister for bringing it to this point. We badly need a co-ordinated focus on further education and training and co-ordination will play a very important part.
FÁS had a bad name but, as the Minister pointed out, the legislation will not redraw the organisation. It will co-ordinate FÁS courses and improve further education and training facilities.
It was important that the Minister laid out how SOLAS will operate. SOLAS will prepare a national five-year strategy involving consultation with both Houses. Therefore, we will know its direction and what content will be provided to service users, the most important element. The strategy will give certainty to people who avail of further education and training and will ensure courses are essential and reach a certain standard.
I welcome the fact that SOLAS will determine the type of education programmes to be funded and delivered. I hope it will work in consultation with the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs which regularly prepares valuable reports for various sectors. The group does not get much air time in these Houses. The group will get attention from SOLAS which will establish and deliver the skills required for industry.
I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Therefore, I am aware that Fastrack to IT, FIT, recently produced an excellent ICT skills audit. It examined various sectors and discovered that there are vacancies in games development, web development, call centres, cloud computing of games, etc. It also examined the entry level requirements, competencies and necessary expertise. We are all familiar with the headline that there are 4,500 vacancies in these companies but there are many vacancies in other companies too.
The FIT report was broken down into the exact needs at various levels and the type of skills required. We do not need everyone to be a Java programmer or have a high competency in ICT. There are many areas such as media which require people who are competent in using technology but need to be supported. SOLAS will do the important work of co-ordinating training. It will give everyone confidence in the system and prove that it works well.
Everyone is aware that FÁS provided a very valuable service and employed many competent individuals. I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts. Therefore, I am very familiar with the investigations into FÁS and that only a small number of people sullied its good name.
I welcome the section of the Bill that addresses corporate governance and the provision for whistleblowers. People learn from their mistakes and we must ensure that controversy does not happen again.
I welcome the Minister's comments on literacy and numeracy. Both are extremely important but many people have slipped through the education system without gaining a competent knowledge of these skills. I, like other Senators, am a former member of the VEC. I found the experience invaluable. It made me aware of the services that were available and what ones were needed. While a member of the VEC I was also on an adult learning board. At the time the construction industry actively promoted literacy competence among its employees. It found that employees did not have a necessary competence in one area so tried to rectify the matter. I also was a board member of further education colleges which led me to value identifying the needs of individuals and providing the correct support. SOLAS will be learner centred and based on outcomes. SOLAS will give individuals clear direction and provide integrated and co-ordinated services. It also needs to provide proof that such things are happening.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh an Bille seo. Ach an oiread le gach duine eile, ba mhaith liom mo bheannachtaí a chur chuig an Aire Stáit, Deputy Cannon, mo chomhghleacaí as Gaillimh. Tá súil agam nach fada go mbeidh sé ar ais i mbarr a mhaitheasa.
Sinn Féin is pleased to support the Bill. Too often, political debate in the Oireachtas is divisive and unproductive. Government Ministers, more often than not, are unwilling to take on board constructive proposals from Opposition Deputies and Senators. When Ministers break with that approach, as Minister Quinn did with this Bill, they are to be commended.
The legislation is progressive and will be instrumental in shaping the future direction of the further education and training sector for years to come. I hope that the establishment of SOLAS, under the Further Education and Training Bill, will bring closure to one of the worst scandals to arise from the workings of a State body since the formation of the State. The scandalous misuse of funds and expenditure in FÁS dated back to 2004 and was common in the higher echelons of the organisation. Spending controls were routinely bypassed and there was a serious failure to provide good corporate governance.
In some of the most appalling examples of unaccountability in competence and wastage - characteristics of some of the worst excesses of the so-called Celtic tiger era - the activities of certain senior personnel in FÁS greatly undermined its capacity to discharge its duty. This all happened at a time when labour activation measures, through training and learning, were badly needed. The actions of certain personnel discredited an organisation that did a lot of good work to generate employment since its inception in the 1980s. During the period investigated the organisation spent almost €1 billion of taxpayers' money annually even though it was a time of full employment. It was a time of decadence and wastage. In 2011, when reviewing the extent of the scandal that became fully apparent in 2008, the OECD director of employment labelled the controversy as a national disaster.
I shall return to discussing the Bill. I wish to acknowledge the hard work done by both sides of the House during the Dáil Stages of the Bill. A lot of serious debate took place. As a result, today's Bill has been significantly improved even though it was already a good piece of legislation.
I am happy with the Bill's focus on adult learners and people with literacy difficulties. Sinn Féin has argued for the Bill to provide enhanced levels of support to marginalised learners who were least well served by the education and training systems in the past.
The Bill commits the current and future Governments to the promotion of equality of opportunity in further education and training. It ensures that there will be close consultation with learners and community education providers because there will be learner representation on the SOLAS board. It also ensures that SOLAS develops a strategy to promote and develop adult literacy and numeracy.
I welcome representatives from the National Adult Literacy Agency and AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation. I pay tribute to both organisations for their input into the Bill since its first publication. Their contributions have proved invaluable. I commend the work done by both organisations and the work that they do in the community education sector.
When the Bill concluded in the Dáil, my party colleague and education spokesperson, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, described it as a once in a lifetime opportunity for the State to raise adult literacy and numeracy levels. I commend the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, for taking on board the majority of the most important amendments tabled by Sinn Féin and others. Despite adult literacy being a top priority in further education and training since the publication of the White Paper in 2000, adult literacy and numeracy levels in Ireland are unacceptably poor. I hope that the enactment of the Bill will lead to a co-ordinated response at national level that will greatly improve matters and ensure there are enhanced opportunities for adult learners. Sinn Féin is happy to support the Bill and commends the Government on its open and inclusive approach to its passing.
I wish to make a brief comment on the Irish language. SOLAS does not come under the remit of the Official Languages Act or Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla at present. The organisation that must have such a scheme and I ask the Minister to table an amendment for same.
It is probably an oversight. I ask the Minister to take this on board and, if not, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage to this effect so that from its inception it will be covered by Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla. FÁS and the VECs have always done great work in Gaeltacht areas and the provision of courses through the Irish language has been a central part of their work. I hope this is a sign of how Oireachtas business will be conducted in the future. Tá suil agam go n-éireoidh go maith leis an mBille.
I welcome the Bill before the House and I compliment the Minister on many of the educational initiatives he has taken since coming to office. He has our full support. I was delighted to hear him state SOLAS will not be a rebranded FÁS. My understanding was that SOLAS would sit down with the former community welfare officer service and social welfare service, and work together to get people either back to work or retrained. I am not quite sure whether this system is up and running as we speak. I have an example of where it should be up and running and the type of bureaucratic nonsense which goes on.
I am aware of a young man who would qualify for the back to education allowance on age grounds and is long-term unemployed as he has spent more than two years on the dole. He failed two subjects in his leaving certificate and while he was on the dole he decided to study physics and mathematics online. At all time he was available to take up work if it was offered to him. He studied at night at home and decided to do the GCE exam in the UK. He spent one day in the UK doing the exam and passed it. He then decided to come back and apply for the back to education allowance, but was told he was not eligible because he was not long enough out of mainstream education, despite the fact he had been on the dole for two years. He is being told he will not be given the back to education allowance but that he will be left on the dole, and given the same amount of money to sit at home and do nothing. This is the type of bureaucratic nonsense which has been going on. I do not think we should be finding excuses to deprive people of further education. This particular incident does not add up or make sense. Will the Minister and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, get together on such issues and ensure people are not deprived of further education because of such nonsense rulings?
I thank all of the Senators who have welcomed the Bill in a fulsome way. I acknowledge the work my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has done in the other House and the exchange of dialogue which, I must say, is not confined to the other House. If we need to examine issues in this House let us do so, and if it means changes we can return to the other House. This type of legislation will not come around again very soon and it is important we get as much input into it as we possibly can while we are doing it. I will also convey the good wishes expressed by so many of the Senators to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and I know he will be back fairly soon.
I recognise the point made by Senator Averil Power regarding the input from various groups and the importance of community employment groups and their relationship with education. I introduced the original social employment schemes, and the thinking on them was very much related to what my cousin, Senator Feargal Quinn, spoke about with regard to the interaction between entitlement to financial support in return for doing something. What the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, is trying to do with Intreo, and the merger of FÁS placement activities into the Department of Social Protection and its training activities into the Department of Education and Skills, is to move to the Nordic Scandinavian model. If one no longer has a job for whatever reason, one is assessed by Intreo and if one is of an age, ability and attitude one will be offered training places and opportunities to work in return for income support. If one turns down these places and opportunities there will be a financial penalty. We must move to a culture where entitlement to an income is not automatic. Full employment in most economies of our type is recognised at 4% unemployment.
I take the point made that this is not a rebranding of FÁS. SOLAS will co-ordinate the provision of courses in all of the 16 education and training boards and the 18 training centres which, in the next 18 months, will transfer legally to them. Many of the courses will be provided by the private sector.
Senator Moran made the point we have a cultural conflict in that FÁS was open for business in its training centres 12 months of the year while the VEC educational sector grew out of the educational culture which existed previously, not with regard to the original training of apprentices which is what it had been doing, but in getting onto the academic calendar which is nine months of the year. This must change and it will be difficult to do. One way in which we could start to change it is to take people in the further education sector coming out of the VECs and instead of having 22 hours a week as their allocation for employment, to annualise this and give people a certain number of hours a year. This would not interfere with the actual amount of money they get but would certainly change the way in which they deliver these hours. It will be difficult, and there are no easy solutions, but we need to do it and we can do so if there is goodwill on all sides. From our point of view there will be.
The interaction between SOLAS, further education provision and the education and training boards will change the landscape of the provision of higher education and further education in this country. This is something we need to do and we will do so with the support of the players in the system, in particular the learners. I am glad so many of the Senators put an emphasis on the primacy and centrality of the learner. There is the old comment that sometimes one gets the impression hospitals are run for the benefit of the staff who work in them and not those who get sick, and sometimes one is tempted to say courses were adapted to meet the ability of the teacher to teach them rather than the needs of the pupil to learn them. This is part of a bigger and wider agenda we must address.
Senator Clune spoke about the expert group on future skills needs. This will be an ongoing part of what SOLAS must do. Senator Quinn spoke about Springboard and we must recognise there are many different roads to the same destination, and that one road does not have priority or primacy over the others.
On the question many Senators raised on adult literacy, and I mentioned it in my comments at the outset, we have so big a scandal in this country that we were not even prepared to measure it in any real way. I remember when Fianna Fáil was in government in the previous Administration a Minister of State at the Department, in response to repeated supplementary questions by me asking him to put a number on the scale of illiteracy, finally conceded reluctantly that it was 500,000. This is data from approximately 2009. We will publish information later and I hope the figure will have reduced. I do not hold out great expectations quite frankly because the scale of the problem is enormous and for many years, in this country in particular and we are probably not unique, if a problem was not measured it could be ignored because one did not have data. One must start with measuring the extent of a problem and then find strategies to address it and not expect overnight successes in getting it done.
The central role of the second chance, and I will not repeat my comments, is that literacy and numeracy will be an integral part of assessing ability to move up the qualifications ladder. In this regard I welcome the work done by NALA and Aontas, and representative learners will not only be on the board of SOLAS, but representative learners will be nominated by learning organisations and elected to every one of the boards of the education and training boards. There will also be representatives of educational stakeholders and the business world and employers on the education and training boards.
In each of the 16 education and training board areas, IBEC, chambers of commerce and ISME will be asked to nominate a man and a woman from the area to join a panel from which the council will appoint one person to the board. It will no longer be the traditional approach of deeming someone who lost a county council seat and now runs a shop to have a knowledge of business. It will be more structured and realistic.
I have taken note of the various submissions that have been made. I am unsure as to when Committee Stage is due, but I would be open to considering any amendment that could improve the Bill. Having discussed the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, I was open to amendments on Committee Stage in the Lower House, where there was a great deal of discussion and many improvements were made to the legislation. No Department has a monopoly on wisdom as regards legislation, although there is a great deal of experience and expertise. The job of the Oireachtas is to fine-tune and examine legislation from a different angle.
I thank Senators for their wholehearted support of and welcome for this legislation.