Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Reform of Further Education and Training: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, to the House. Following the Minister of State's statement, group spokespersons will have eight minutes and all other Members will have five minutes. I will call on the Minister of State to reply not later than 1.20 p.m.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the major structural reform and policy changes under way in our further education and training sector and to set out the proposed changes to our overall apprenticeship model. The further education and training sector is undergoing major structural change and its reform is an integral part of the Government's overarching public sector reform agenda. The principal aim of that reform is to have a public service which is responsive to the needs of its users generally and, in this instance, to the needs of learners and trainees.
It has been acknowledged that the further education and training elements of the sector developed in a somewhat ad hocfashion as two quite separate sectors with their own ethos and practices. In my early days in this portfolio, I noted that significant duplication of delivery was a feature of certain sectors. Equally, there was not much sharing of knowledge, experience or educational content across all of our provision nationally. By establishing SOLAS, we are certainly setting out to face that challenge. The Government and the Department of Education and Skills recognised that the lack of co-ordination in the running of certain parts of the further education and training sector represented an obstacle to the provision of a highly regarded service that could assist the unemployed and learners.
The establishment of SOLAS has served to give the entire sector a unique identity and brand. This was sadly lacking in the past when it was seen as a kind of Cinderella sector, comprising what was left over when every other element of educational provision had been accounted for. It now has its own unique identity, as it should. That is what is happening under SOLAS. The Government took the view that major structural changes were required in this sector. We decided that a fundamental rethink of how we provide these services, and how people can access them, was needed. We realised that at a time of scarce resources, we needed to plan carefully and where necessary prioritise funding towards those most in need. The economic downturn saw the number of unemployed people increase to unprecedented levels. The sector struggled to provide unemployed people with relevant training and education programmes. It was recognised that programmes that were responsive to the needs of industry and would enhance the prospect of the unemployed obtaining employment had to be given priority.
I think it would be useful at this stage to outline the various structural changes that have taken place as a result of the passage of various Bills through this House. Following the establishment last year of SOLAS and 16 education and training boards, the former functions of the 33 vocational education committees and the FÁS training services were transferred to the new bodies. The Education and Training Boards Act 2013 and the Further Education and Training Act 2013 provide the legislative basis for these structural changes. The 16 education and training boards were established on 1 July 2013 and SOLAS was established on 27 October 2013. The education and training boards assumed responsibility for the delivery of primary, post-primary and further education from 1 July 2013.
SOLAS will bring a much-needed strategic direction to this sector. It will enable and empower the new education and training boards to deliver an integrated further education and training sector for our people. Seven SOLAS training centres located within the geographic areas of the city of Dublin, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire, Cork and Kerry education and training boards were transferred to the relevant education and training board with effect from 1 January 2014. The remaining 12 SOLAS training centres will be transferred to the relevant education and training boards on 1 July this year. The whole process of handing over the training facilities that were dotted around the country will be completed by July of this year. When these structural changes have taken place, the system will be able to focus on how we plan and provide education and training services. It should be noted that as the reform of the further education and training sector has progressed, it has become apparent that the sector has many similarities within its overall provision and has significant strengths which will be built upon. I think Senators will agree that bringing together the expertise and wisdom that have been accumulated over decades of provision in the further education and training sectors under one organisation will be a powerful development in the area of further education and training provision for the future. They will also agree that there are many challenges in developing an integrated further education model. I do not doubt that process will be completed in an efficient and effective manner.
Arising from a troika commitment, the National Economic and Social Council carried out a review of the delivery of further education and training in Ireland. The review primarily examined the changes might be required so that the current provision can meet the skills needs of the economy and, in tandem, address the unemployment challenge. The council's review will form a key input into the development by SOLAS of a further education and training strategy, which will give us a roadmap for the future. The development of this strategy is at an advanced stage. It is expected to be submitted to the Minister for Education and Skills by the end of this month. In addition to the further education and training strategy, SOLAS is also developing an integrated further education and training services plan for 2014. It will provide information on the entire range of further education and training that is funded by my Department. It will set out in detail how the State's investment of €826 million in 2014 will be used by the education and training boards and by SOLAS to advance current policy objectives. As I have mentioned, the newly configured education and training boards replace the vocational education committees. The Act articulates the functions of the boards to better reflect the existing and future role of these bodies in the provision of education and training to learners of all ages in schools and in other settings. The role is considerably wider than the original concepts of vocational and technical education which were set out in the 1930 legislation which governed vocational education committees.
It is worth mentioning the establishment of Intreo offices by my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. These offices are designed to provide a more realistic and targeted approach to supporting unemployed individuals, particularly the long-term unemployed and young people, and helping them to stay close to the labour market. This approach will ensure regular and ongoing engagement with the unemployed to provide opportunities for work, education and training. Effective engagement between education and training boards and the Department of Social Protection, including the Intreo offices, is absolutely crucial as a vital component of a well-functioning further education and training system. While local protocols have been put in place to achieve that, a great deal of work needs to be done to better define recruitment and referral arrangements and ensure the relationship with employers works more effectively.
When an individual who is unemployed approach his or her local Intreo office, a suite of advice should be made available to him or her. The supports of the Department of Social Protection are available to help him or her through the time he or she spends without a job. More importantly, a map back to employment is developed for each individual. This involves determining what his or her existing skill set is and what sort of career path he or she intends to embark upon, and advising him or her on the excellent further education and training opportunities that can be availed of in the local region to help him or her on the path back to work. The education and training boards will be operating within their own regions. They will carry out ongoing research on the skills shortages that are currently occurring in the region and might occur in the future. On foot of that, training and further education opportunities will be tailored to respond to the skills challenges that are emanating from each respective region.
This is an exciting time to be involved in further education and training. There is a real opportunity to build on and integrate the range of provision developed over time and shape a coherent, strong and sustainable sector for the future. This sector has to be built around the needs of learners. When they approach their local Intreo offices or their local education and training boards, they have to feel they are being treated with the dignity and courtesy they deserve. People who are out of work have to be assured that they are embarking upon a meaningful interaction with their local education and training boards that might help them back into employment. Options should also be available locally to people who are in employment and who wish to advance their careers.
As part of the Government's action plan for jobs initiative, my Department undertook a review of the Irish apprenticeship system to determine whether the current model should be retained, adapted or replaced. The review was tasked with taking into account the needs of learners and industry and ensuring our system offers value for money and is cost-effective and sustainable into the future. The current apprenticeship system was developed and implemented in the early 1990s. Over the subsequent 20-year period, there have been major changes in our economy and in the way in which people are employed. As I mentioned earlier in the context of further education and training reform, the economic downturn highlighted a number of issues with the current system - particularly, the high level of apprenticeships associated with the construction sector. The system was seen to be inflexible. The relatively high costs to employers and the State needed to be examined.
By its nature, the apprenticeship system is employer-led. A key feature of any revised system would be the alignment of the education and training provision with the needs of the labour market. The review was undertaken in two stages. The first stage was the preparation of a background issues paper in the Department of Education and Skills.
The second stage involved the establishment in May 2013 of an independent review group, chaired by Mr. Kevin Duffy who is the Chair of the Labour Court. Membership of the group included employers - one of whom was a nominee of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation - representatives of business and unions and academic experts. The review group worked exceptionally well and undertook a substantial consultation process with all major stakeholders, as well as inviting submissions from members of the public. In that context, 69 written submissions were received by the review group. The group also arranged meetings with 25 organisations which provided their views on how best to develop a revised apprenticeship model. The group's comprehensive report was completed in December 2013 and was published on the Department's website in January.
In its report, the independent review group endeavours to find a solution to the various issues raised in the preparation of the background issues paper and the views expressed during the consultation process. The group made a number of recommendations regarding a new structure for apprenticeship, which is envisaged as being relevant to a much wider group of industries. For example, in Ireland there are perhaps 24 or 25 career options which one can take up through the apprenticeship model whereas in Germany there are 330. The question that arises is how we encourage young people and, more important, their parents to look beyond the normal understanding of what apprenticeship meant in Ireland in the past and recognise that it can apply to many other career opportunities which may not be apparent at this point. Recommendations were also suggested in relation to current apprenticeships.
The review group believes that the framework and recommendations set out in its report provide a workable model for a well-functioning apprenticeship system which will serve Ireland's future needs. The Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and I are in agreement with the broad thrust of the recommendations contained in the report. Those recommendations require further detailed discussion to identify how best implementation can be addressed. This matter is being progressed by my Department, with initial engagement with key stakeholders to take place as quickly as possible.
I reassure Senators that the Government is determined that the outcome of the major structural changes I have outlined will ensure we will have a further education and training sector that is fit for purpose and that is responsive to the needs of both learners and industry. The sector will equip people with the skills and training necessary to allow them to take up employment opportunities as they arise.
I must again state that I am grateful for the invitation to come to the House for this debate. I look forward to hearing Senator's views and contributions.
I welcome the Minister of State and commend him on visiting New York at the weekend for the "St. Pat's For All" parade. It was important there was a Government representative at that inclusive function in New York. Unlike the official St. Patrick's Day parade in the city, the "St. Pat's For All" event recognises the diversity and inclusiveness of modern Ireland. I am glad the Minister of State attended.
These statements relate to two topics, namely, the further education and training sector and the apprenticeship system. As the Minister of State indicated, the further education and training sector developed incrementally over time. It initially grew out of post-primary education and began life as a relatively small sector. Now, however, it is a huge element of the overall education system. More than 50% of students involved in further education are over the age of 21. In reality - if not in statute nor always in policy - the sector has become distinct and has developed its own identify over a long period. As the Minister of State outlined, this has not always been recognised by the education system or the Department. This has led to a great deal of incoherence. There have been occasions on which further education colleges have benefited from some grants given to post-primary schools but not from others. For example, they might benefit from one round of the summer works scheme but not the next. They have been covered in respect of broadband services under the IT grants but not for networking. I presume most of this occurred not on the basis of any deliberate prejudice or discrimination but rather as a result of a lack of thought. People whose attention is focused on other sectors sometimes forget to include the further education and training sector as a result of the fact that it has traditionally fallen between the two stools of higher education and post-primary education.
There was another example of this late last year when the general scheme of the education (admission to school) Bill was published. At the time I was contacted by the further education committee of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, which also made a submission to the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and which pointed out that under the general scheme, as published, it appeared the further education and training sector would be captured by the Bill. This is because the draft scheme states that post-primary schools cannot, in the context of admissions, distinguish between students on the basis of prior academic achievement, interviews, portfolios, etc., all of which are central to being able to decide upon someone's suitable for certain post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses. When I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, in respect of this issue and highlighted the concerns of the NAPD, he replied that an issue potentially exists and he will address it. This again highlights the fact that if the further education and training sector is not taken into consideration when decisions relating to other sectors are being made, then there can be unintended consequences for that sector. With the establishment of SOLAS, I hope the sector, which, as the Minister of State indicated, has a unique identity, will be given the credence and priority it deserves.
On apprenticeships, there is a need for a fundamental rethink in respect of vocational education in this country. The apprenticeship model developed in response to the needs of construction related sectors and traditionally involved the training of carpenters and electricians. However, it is relevant to many more areas. In its submission in respect of the review of the apprenticeship model, IBEC stressed that a large number of opportunities exist in this regard. The economy has changed dramatically since the model was first conceived and it is in this context that the opportunities to which I refer arise. There are those who advocate a system whereby people would be involved in a mixture of academic studies and on-the-job training. I welcome the review, which was published in January. I hope its recommendations will be given priority and implemented with some haste. This is because there is an issue with unemployment in the context of upskilling people and getting them involved in sectors where vacancies exist.
There is a need to engage in long-term planning to ensure we have the right mix and the correct type of education and training to meet emerging needs in a changing economy. The apprenticeship has taken a real hit in recent years. In the past year, the number of people pursuing apprenticeships was just 20% of the figure it was at the height of the boom. It is clear the existing model has all but collapsed and that a fundamental re-evaluation is required. In addition to considering apprenticeship as a separate sector and linking in with employers to ensure we put the right programmes in place, we must also learn lessons from the review and apply them in respect of second level education. We could learn a great deal, for example, from the German system of vocational education. From the age of 16, students in Germany are able to choose two very different routes. If traditional academic education is appropriate to one's needs, one can choose that path. I understand that 50% of students in Germany go the university route and the remaining 50% take the vocational route. The latter engage in a mixture of training in the classroom and work experience. This is exciting for young people because it gives them the opportunity maximise their talents, pursue their own interests and obtain relevant on-the-job training during their teenage years.
We could learn a great deal from the German system, which is also good for employers because it gives them the chance to mould future employees in the context of their education. In addition to the review of the apprenticeship system relating to adults, I hope we will also consider the lessons which can be learned and then applied to the second level education sector. I do not believe adequate priority has been given to this in recent years. Many schools are struggling as a result of cuts to the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR. The Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, often states that schools now have more flexibility because, with guidance counsellors gone, they can use teachers for other purposes. The reality is that the ability of schools to offer subject choices has declined in recent years. They are experiencing particular problems in the context of offering some practical subjects.
It is a shame, especially in the current environment, and we are seeing a drop in the number of students taking the leaving certificate applied for similar reasons. These are matters of resources and esteem, as it is not seen within schools as being a route of education equal in value to the traditional leaving certificate and the move to university. There is a concept of a universal goal for everyone to get a university education and be a teacher, lawyer or doctor. We should instead encourage all young people, if they are good with their hands or more practical, to excel in such areas. As well as delivering on the changes in the adult side through SOLAS, will the Minister of State seek to ensure the Department of Education and Skills will embed the attitude of vocational education or practical training in our second level system?
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to address this very important issue. In an ever-changing world where many of the jobs that will be available in future have not yet been created, the provision of further education and training is a complex albeit essential part of our planning for employment. Although we are creating 1,000 jobs per week, the numbers of people unemployed, particularly long-term unemployed, are still very high. For many people, training in new skills is necessary to give them the opportunity to get back into the workforce. Training is also necessary for those in employment to give them security into the future.
For these reasons, education and training for employment and life is now a lifelong process. The provision of this type of education and training is the responsibility of education and training boards, and the Bills which came through last year on this issue were among the most important legislative developments in the life of this Government. The Minister of State mentioned the review of apprenticeship training in Ireland undertaken by a group led by Mr. Kevin Duffy, chairman of the Labour Court, which made several recommendations. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, accepted the broad thrust of those and looked to examine them, and it is in that context that I will make a few points on the report.
One of the recommendations was that every apprentice should be employed under a contract of apprenticeship. That contract should be with the State rather than an employer. For example, we do not have a contract for education with employer schools for trainee teachers, and that raises the question of why we should have a contract of apprenticeship and with whom it is envisaged the contract would be. Providing for future school needs from an apprenticeship perspective is equal in importance to providing future educational needs for third level education, and surely both sets of students should be treated equally. If there is to be a contract, it should be with the State in both cases. We fund third level education, so we should fund further education and training similarly and equally.
Another recommendation is that all apprenticeship programmes should be reviewed and updated, with potential expansion of apprenticeships explored. These new areas should be identified by employers and it is correct for employers to be heavily consulted. Ultimate responsibility in this regard should be vested in the further education section of the Department of Education and Skills, with SOLAS reporting on that. In this regard, the ESRI should be in a position to predict and inform us of future skills requirements in an accurate fashion.
For example, one could ask how many carpenters, plumbers and electricians are needed in the building industry and the answer would probably be none. Efficient planning demonstrates that, in future, it is estimated a certain number of carpenters, plumbers and electricians will be needed to service needs and give those who might wish to work abroad the necessary skills. The ESRI should make recommendations to SOLAS in this regard, as individual industries are more likely to focus on immediate needs. Additionally, it might be useful to have a quota system in place to regulate the numbers of skilled tradespersons for each sector and prevent oversupply. This may be similar to the cap system for further education and training or post-leaving certificate places. These should be divided among different colleges and training centres in the 16 education and training boards rather than concentrating on selected areas. It is estimated that 500 apprentice plasterers are needed to service future needs and I would encourage those places to be divided among the different education and training board areas, offering access to the trade nationally while training is offered locally. This can be repeated with other skills.
The setting up of education and training boards is a significant step forward and should lead to much greater expertise and efficiency in the delivery of much-needed skills for the students involved with the jobs market. I hope this will lead to less duplication of courses. The service of both FÁS and the old vocational education committees will be bigger and better under the new banner of education and training boards. I have yet to be convinced that we have gone far enough in recalibrating the training centres which were under the FÁS domain and are now the responsibility of the education and training boards within which they reside. There are five education and training board areas that have no training centres, including Cavan-Monaghan, Carlow-Kilkenny, Tipperary, Laois-Offaly and Kildare-Wicklow. These areas will be served under some form of service level agreement or memorandum of understanding with other education and training boards. I am not convinced this is the safest or best approach, and we should oversee the decommissioning of FÁS just once and correctly.
I have much more to say but I have run out of time. I am passionate about this area, and I know the Minister of State shares that feeling. I am the son of a shoe factory worker and I know the future of the ordinary people in this country is at stake. We need to give this our very best shot, and I know the Minister of State is giving it everything.
I have a point on the provision of courses in education and training boards. Traditionally, for example, a fantastic photographer may give a photography course but with the new structure, the likes of Neven Maguire cannot give a cookery course. A fitter or joiner from Moffatt's engineers or Tara Mines cannot teach students the trade.
We should look at some way, perhaps by means of a tutoring system, to allow those people to continue to be involved in further education and training. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I encourage him to keep up his good work.
I welcome the Minister of State and I thank him for his address on this important subject area. The Minister of State referred to the 330 apprenticeship options Germany compared to 24 to 25 in Ireland. We need to achieve the German level of apprenticeships without the inferior status associated with apprenticeships in Ireland. I refer to the OECD paper, Getting Youth on the Job Track, which takes up the Minister of State's point. Countries such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland have a long-standing tradition of apprenticeship schemes based on a dual approach and associated with good labour market outcomes for participants. The dual system is a combination of apprenticeship and vocational training. The main characteristics of the German model of apprenticeships combines learning time at a vocational school with learning time at a host company. With reference to Senator D'Arcy's contribution this would mean an apprenticeship could spend some time in school and some time with Neven Maguire. That is a great idea. I can think of no better man to be involved in something like this. If he is as good in the classroom as he is on the television screen I have no doubt he would inspire people. Any course in leadership training should include the participation of people like Seán Boylan or Neven Maguire. We should take the advice of our German, Austrian and Swiss colleagues.
In the German system, employers and social partners are engaged in the design, running and financing of the system. It is important to have employers involved in order to help to bridge the gap between education and employment and to prepare students to be ready to turn up on time and stay for the day, to get to know the customers and work colleagues. Those are very valuable skills. Schemes in which employers are involved tend to have higher success rates.
We have heard many sermons from IBEC on the deficiencies of the education system. In return for the 12.5% corporate tax rate - one of the lowest in the world - I suggest IBEC members should put money into some of the schemes. If there is a shortage of skills in a particular area then I suggest IBEC puts its money where its mouth is and join with the education system. We are among the most generous countries in terms of low corporate taxation and the corporate sector should know that the Government and Members of this House would want some reciprocation for that.
The third characteristic of the German system is that employers have the opportunity of hiring young workers who are ready to work, with a resulting reduction in spending on recruitment and training. The employees have a recognised qualification, together with related and relevant work experience. That is why I headed back to my office to get some of these documents when I heard the Minister of State speak about the 330 apprenticeships because he is on the right track in this regard.
I refer to the very fine Oireachtas Library and Research Service which has provided a briefing paper to Members. Up to 2013, the cumulative decline in youth employment in Ireland was almost 60%. This represented a drop from over 357,000 employed youth in the summer of 2007 to 148,000 at the beginning of 2013. While there has been a modest increase in overall employment figures recently, these increases have not materialised in the youth category, with many young people continuing to exit the labour force either by returning to education and training or emigrating.
I refer to mistakes made in the past and about which the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has spoken. During the boom there was a tendency to reclassify people as "disabled" or those on invalidity benefit. Keeping them in education and training has much to commend it. Much of the apparent reduction - down to 4% at its lowest - in the unemployment rate was as a result of this reclassification. Opting out of the labour force and becoming a permanent dependent category does not have anything to recommend it.
Ireland's youth unemployment rate used to be one of the lowest at 9.1% before 2008 but it is now 30.4% as against the EU average of 23%. We have ground to make up. Even though it was hard medicine there was method in the Government's cut in social welfare payments to young people in the recent budget because we want people to continue to acquire qualifications in advance of an improvement in the economy. There is a need to re-adjust between the high prestige attached to higher education and the lesser prestige attached to further education. I regard one as the route to the other, in that success in further education will provide a basis in classroom study for future higher education to degree level. There are some concerns that courses in higher education with very low points requirements might not be of any great use and that instead, a spell in further education and staying in touch with the workforce and then progressing to higher education, might be a better proposition. Some CAO courses have a very low points entry requirement. One questions whether those students at 18 years of age with low points are able to take on the full responsibility of a full-time higher education course.
The Minister of State referred to the role of the education boards as the delivery of primary, post-primary and further education. I ask the Minister of State to expand on the precise role of the education boards in primary education. Senator D'Arcy referred to spare buildings which could be used for primary school purposes. I do not think the role of the education and training boards in primary education was spelled out during discussion of the legislation in the House. I would be interested to hear how it is progressing.
As the OECD has said and as the Minister of State has hinted, it is most important to learn the lessons from Switzerland, Austria and Germany and to bring our apprenticeship system up to their level. So much of the adjustment has been by means of the huge reduction in the number of young people employed in Ireland, from 357,000 in 2007 to only 148,000 in 2013. We owe that generation a lot and I will support the Minister of State in any measures to remedy the situation.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House to discuss the reform of further education and training and the apprenticeship system. The review group was set up in May 2013 with the remit to examine the future of apprenticeships and to consult with the relevant stakeholders such as training-providers, employers and unions. We are still struggling to transition from an apprenticeship system centred on the construction sector and related trades. There is ample opportunity for an apprenticeship culture to take hold in other employment sectors.
This will require us to build on the already close partnerships that exist between training providers, Departments, employers and apprentices to collect data in order to make the system as effective and relevant as possible and to branch the system into new sectors.
The findings of the review group were published at the end of January. These highlighted the strengths in the current system, including positive feedback from learners and employers - such feedback is always important, as it is from this that we learn the most - the close partnership between education, training providers and employers, active participation by the trade unions, the significant contribution made by craft persons to energy provision, infrastructural development, manufacturing, the high-tech sector, transport, construction and the high demand for Irish apprentices internationally. We have a strong foundation on which to build these reforms.
The group proposed actions that would change the landscape of the apprenticeship system, one of the most important of which was the expansion of the system into new business and industrial sectors, with employers taking on the role of identifying occupations that would be suitable for apprenticeships. Another key and commonsensical recommendation was that of a constant review of apprenticeships and adapting placements and qualifications on a trade-by-trade basis over time. Flexibility and expansion in the system are crucial to providing quality placements for those seeking to pursue apprenticeships.
I strongly echo the call by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, earlier this year that apprenticeships should not predominantly appeal to men. I recall the first time I called an electrician to my house many years ago. I believe I was just married. I was amazed and delighted to find that a female apprentice accompanied the electrician. Senator D'Arcy referred to Mr. Neven Maguire, the male chef. Thank God we are branching out from occupations being predominantly male or female. It is good to see men in the kitchen, too.
This weakness was identified by the review group and could be addressed by refocusing our apprenticeship system to encapsulate the new business and industrial sectors. We could see an increase in female interest in and take-up of apprenticeships if this were to be done. A part of the male-dominated nature of apprenticeships was the strong focus on construction-related work.
A key component has been in place since the start of the year when SOLAS came on stream. With the establishment of the 16 regional education and training boards, ETBs, this has put the structural elements that are required to reform the apprenticeship system in place. I look forward to continued engagement and debate on the ETBs' performance and reiterate my hope that they will actively and positively engage, not only with the relevant government structures, but with the apprentices, employers and trade unions, and will continue building on the strong foundation. The Minister has requested that the review group's recommendations be discussed further with stakeholders with a view to progressing to implementation. I look forward to the completion of this process and a further debate when the outcomes have been announced.
Since long before the collapse, there has been a call to align training and education with job market demand more closely. The Department of Education and Skills and the Minister of State were instrumental in ensuring that this specific goal was included in the Action Plan for Jobs 2014. While live register figures have decreased for 19 consecutive months, we still have an unacceptable unemployment rate and continue to strive to provide opportunities for the long-term unemployed. The Action Plan for Jobs 2014 places a priority on further education and training for these people. Prior to the plan, the Department of Education and Skills co-ordinated with employers in the Irish market and Dundalk Institute of Technology in my area to establish courses that focused on in-demand skills.
I continue to be concerned about the collection of data. In this regard, I noted Dr. John Sweeney's autumn 2013 review for the Department. He shared the same concern, citing a list of principles that should guide the strategy for further education and training over the short to medium term with the robust evaluation of outcomes based on ongoing collection and assessment of data key to creating and adapting successful programmes. We have been left with the previous Government's legacy of little self-assessment. The main focus will always be on assisting the long-term unemployed, school leavers, early school leavers, persons with disabilities and others who wish to upskill. However, we must also focus on assessment in this area if we want to continue providing the appropriate training, apprenticeships and education.
We have many legacy issues to deal with, but more than could previously have been imagined have already been addressed. The Government is working to achieve reform through the establishment of SOLAS and the 16 ETBs, a complete and ongoing review of the apprenticeship system with further consultation, the alignment of job market needs with education and training courses and opportunities, and continued engagement with the relevant stakeholders. Unfortunately, reform on a whole-country basis may not come as quickly as we would like. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments voiced by Senator D'Arcy, in that, if we are to do it, we must do it once and do it right.
However, it must be recognised that major changes in the structure and culture of further education and training and the apprenticeship system are under way. This is welcome. I look forward to the continued progress and development of further opportunities for the long-term unemployed, school leavers, early school leavers, people with disabilities and those who wish to upskill.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, back to the House that, not so long ago, he felt should be abolished because it was surplus to the requirements of our democratic process. Nevertheless, the people of the country spoke. I hope that the Minister of State did not reluctantly enter the House, an important pillar of our democracy.
I expect that, when the Minister of State says something, he also means it. I was merely drawing his attention to the fact that he firmly believed that this House should not exist as part of our democratic system and campaigned to that effect in his constituency. That is a fact.
If the Minister of State wants to disagree with that fact, he is welcome to do so. This is a democracy, after all.
The further education and training sector provides an important educational pathway for unemployed, disadvantaged learners and second chance learners to access specialist labour-focused courses and to secure employment. During the debate on the legislation that established the ETBs, I stated my firm belief that this is one of the most important sectors of our education system. I paid tribute to all of the personnel working in that system, particularly those in the further education and training sector. It is an area with which I am familiar and I am proud to have been associated with it for many years, having worked for the County Cavan Vocational Education Committee, VEC. As the Minister of State mentioned, the 33 VECs became 16 ETBs on 1 July of last year with responsibility for providing primary, post-primary, further education and, importantly, training for their jurisdictions.
I commend everyone who has contributed to this debate, particularly Senator Jim D'Arcy, who said everything that I wanted to say. I am aware from the Minister of State's speech that some of the training centres have been given over to a number of ETBs, with 12 still to be transferred. However, the Cavan and Monaghan ETB in my area of the north east has been given no resources to provide training.
I firmly believe that the board is entitled to the necessary budget and personnel to provide training in its area. If we are going to dismantle FÁS and establish SOLAS then we should do it right and I agree with Senator Jim D'Arcy in this regard. Senator Moran referred to the matter in her contribution as well. The education and training boards charged with the responsibility to provide training should be given the necessary personnel and resources. Otherwise, we will end up with the former FÁS training centres remaining as FÁS training centres, albeit under a different name. I wish to alert the Minister of State to the fact that our education and trading board will be demanding the budget and the personnel to which we are entitled under the legislation. Senator D'Arcy pointed to the fact that joint service agreements can be signed. However, I put it to the Minister of State that the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board will not be signing any agreements with any other education and training board. I am not mentioning the other four because I am not aware of their attitude to this. Anyway, we will provide our own training in our area. We are entitled to the budget and we will demand it.
Reference was made to apprenticeships and I agree with the sentiments of many speakers in the House this afternoon in respect of how vocational education and apprenticeships run hand-in-hand. The vocational end has worked successfully and I am very familiar with it in respect of Youthreach trainees who have progressed to pre-apprenticeship training. The vocational and apprenticeship elements worked hand-in-hand and were successful in this area.
Senator Barrett referred to Neven Maguire, who is a proud west Cavan man. Rightly, he would not be entitled or qualified to teach in some of these institutions but he is an excellent instructor in his art. He is opening a culinary college in County Cavan in the near future and we wish him the best of luck.
I cannot emphasise strongly enough that we will be demanding that education and training boards are provided with proper funding and personnel to carry out the training that they are mandated to carry out under the Act.