Wednesday, 3 July 2013
Further Education and Training Bill 2013: Committee and Remaining Stages
Will the Minister of State provide further clarification on when it is expected FÁS will be dissolved, with particular reference to arrangements in the interim? Given that the VECs have evolved into education and training boards, what will be the relationship between the boards and FÁS in the intervening period, particularly in respect of the training aspect of their brief and how it is to be managed? Is there to be a co-ordinated planning relationship between the two bodies over the summer and into September, with the delivery of training courses during that period? Will all of its budget stay with FÁS until it is dissolved, or is any of it to be given to the education and training boards to fund any training provision they might undertake? I seek clarity on these points and also on the issue of when FÁS will be wound up to give SOLAS full responsibility for the sector.
FÁS will be gone and SOLAS will have responsibility for the entire sector. I ask what arrangements will be in place in the interim.
The legislation allows the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to decide on the commencement of the legislation, thus signalling the dissolution of FÁS and the creation of SOLAS and the further education and training authority. It is envisaged that will happen in the near future. It will certainly happen in the next two to four months. I cannot provide an exact timeframe at this stage but I will be discussing the issue further with the Minister and my officials in the coming days. It certainly will not be left lingering for any lengthy period.
In regard to the relationship between ETBs and the existing FÁS structures, the SOLAS implementation process has involved considerable work at VEC level in a number of locations, including Dublin and Cork in particular, to determine how the amalgamation of further education and training provision should proceed. In essence, the process involved a paper-based merger in order to determine what issues might arise. It has provided us with valuable information and I have already seen a number of instances of collaboration between senior FÁS officials and VEC officials at local level. That collaboration reflects the ethos that underpins the ETB model. Once FÁS ceases to exist and SOLAS is created there will be a seamless transition and the collaboration will continue for the foreseeable future.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I acknowledge that a considerable amount of preparatory work has been done over the lead-in period. It is important that the transition is as seamless as possible, particularly in respect of amalgamating courses and getting rid of the duplication that existed in the past. This is very progressive legislation and we strongly support it because it has potential for bringing greater coherence to the sector and making it better for learners at the end of the day, provided the process is properly planned and the services come together in a well-managed way. The service provided by the sector could be improved in respect of vocational education and training.
When the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, was in the House for our previous discussions on the Bill, many of us expressed our appreciation for the way that the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, approached the Bill and for accepting amendments in the Dáil. He also took on board suggestions made by interest groups and people involved in VECs and other bodies.
I thank Senator Power for her kind comments. This is ground-breaking legislation that seeks to introduce significant reform in the way we provide further education and training in this country. It provides a structure and a delivery mechanism to ensure that every time a person seeks our support and assistance in accessing further education or training, the programmes provided will be of the highest standard and our intervention will be meaningful for the individual concerned. Our intention is to provide opportunities for every learner who wants to enter education for the first time or re-enter having exited the education system at some point in the past.
We often look to other countries for benchmarks and examples of how things should be done in education. Having worked in this role for the past two and a half years and after meeting numerous people involved in the delivery of further education and training in Ireland, whether they work in FÁS, the VECs or the private sector, I believe we provide excellent education and training opportunities. Rather than looking to others for examples, we can and will set the standard for the future. We are bringing together the collective expertise and wisdom of two sectors that have done excellent work in the past and I am convinced their roles will be greatly enhanced by the provisions of this Bill.
In regard to how the legislation developed over the past several months, both the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and I were anxious to engage in a strongly collaborative process rather than an adversarial one. The Minister and I agree that legislation as important as this Bill undergoes an evolutionary process while it is in draft form or travelling through the Houses of the Oireachtas. Any good idea on how we can improve legislation, irrespective of where it emanates, should be taken on board.
On Committee Stage we were careful to take on board good suggestions on how the Bill could be improved. This is how we should work in future when developing legislation. There should be a strongly collaborative process across all parties and none to ensure that the legislation we ultimately pass is the best it can be. This has been a very rewarding experience not only in working with my colleagues and officials in the Department, who have worked incredibly hard, but also in terms of engaging with spokespersons from other parties to hear their ideas for improving the Bill and those who work in the sector who offer valuable experience. To all of these individuals I offer my sincere thanks. At the end of the process we will have a job well done and a Bill of which we can be proud.
I welcome the passage of this Bill. It is the third Bill on further education we have taken in recent months as part of a process of improving co-ordination across the sector and ensuring that individuals can access education and courses that meet their employment and personal development needs.
As we conclude, I would like to mention the importance of community education. It is very important to get people on the first rung of the ladder so that they can then progress through the education system. It is important that people get basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. It is very positive that this Bill is passed today. About €900 million is spent in the sector and we need to ensure that the focus is on the learner and on constantly changing the services we provide to make sure that they meet current needs. The strategy to be put in place by SOLAS when it is planning for the full sector gives us the potential to do that.
I welcome the fact that the Bill is being passed. As we head into the budget process, I would ask the Minister of State to be cognisant of the importance of this sector and to fight for it. It is all very well to have the right framework and strategies in place, but we also need to have the finances on the ground to be able to deliver programmes. I have one word of criticism for the Government, rather than for the Minister of State. The PTR cuts that were brought in at the last budget have had a very negative impact. PLC colleges and further education colleges are finding it difficult to deliver important courses at a time when they are most needed. That is not just the responsibility of the Minister of State; I would like to see the Cabinet prioritising education for the next budget. Education will help people who are currently unemployed but will also plan for the future. If we are going to turn the country around, it will be through education. While welcoming the Bill and congratulating the Minister of State, I would plead with him to fight for the sector at the budget table, and to ensure that the Minister for Education and Skills does so as well.
I compliment the Minister of State and his officials on bringing this very important Bill through the Houses. Hopefully it will lead to a bright new start for the workers in FÁS who will be moving on to work in collaboration with the education and training boards and the VECs. FÁS definitely was a toxic brand, even though most of the workers in it were blameless in that respect. It will be a bright new day for them. I support Senator Power's request that it be done quickly. There is no better man than the Minister of State to do that.
The Education and Training Boards Act 2013 and this Bill are very important pieces of legislation. Our future depends on the education and training our young people and our unemployed receive. The Minister of State has a big task and I wish him well, but today I would just like to congratulate him and his officials on how they dealt with this Bill. We all wish SOLAS well.
I join with other speakers in commending the Minister of State and his officials for their work on this Bill. It is an extremely important Bill and it will certainly pave the way forward. I agree with his assertion that Ireland can now lead the way in this area. The collaborative process has been very important and the Minister of State is to be commended for taking on board people's views in this House and in the Dáil. That is testament to how serious he is in his work. It is a new era for education in this sector, and the important thing is that it must be learner focused. I have every confidence that this Bill will achieve that.