Dáil Éireann - Volume 536 - 10 May, 2001
Vocational Education (Amendment) Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,
Mr. Browne (Wexford) Mr. Browne (Wexford)
Mr. Browne (Wexford): I compliment the Minister on introducing this long overdue Bill which will effect major changes in the vocational education sector in Ireland. Having been a member of County Wexford VEC on and off for a number of years, I am aware of the tremendous work done in this sector. While criticisms are sometimes levelled against vocational education committees to the effect that there is too much political interference, the sector has served education well since 1930.
VEC membership comprises members of all political parties although the dominant party at county council level may have greater representation on the committees. I take with a grain of salt criticism about elected representatives serving on vocational education committees because they are elected by the people and, in many cases, their children attend vocational schools. There is a tendency nowadays to believe that any committee on which a Deputy, county councillor or urban councillor sits is in some way tainted. That is not the case; political representatives have done a great deal to promote vocational education in Ireland. The fact that committee membership comprises elected representatives, teacher and parent representatives and others reflects the democratic nature of the vocational education system.
When I was growing up in Enniscorthy, vocational education was regarded as the poor man's education. Thankfully, that view had diminished. There are eight vocational colleges in County Wexford which provide a broad range of educational options – junior certificate, leaving certificate, PLCs, VTOS, Youthreach and adult education. The vocational educational system has changed dramatically since 1930 and it is only  proper that the legislation is updated to reflect that and to increase the role of parents, teachers and staff on vocational education committees. It is important that the VEC structure is widely representative and that the numbers of teacher, parent and staff representatives are stipulated in legislation. The enrolment at Enniscorthy vocational college has increased from 300 to 750 due to the number of PLC students. That entails huge increases in staff numbers; there could be 100 or more staff members in such colleges and they should have an input into the workings of the VEC.
Educational partnership is very important and parents, teachers, students and elected representatives working together in harmony can only further the cause of education. Young people's current and future educational needs must be identified. Perhaps the Minister would consider the appointment of representatives from industry to vocational education committees in the future, particularly in counties in which there is a strong industrial tradition. When teachers are interviewed for VEC posts, it is common for a representative of industry to sit on the interview board.
I find VEC meetings boring at times. The chief executive officer comes in with a long agenda and the committee spends up to three hours discussing it. The agenda may include such items as Mary Murphy's entitlement to maternity leave or a school's proposal to visit Paris or London. Perhaps chief executive officers feel the need to protect themselves by discussing these issues at length but they should be trusted to make these decisions. No committee member will oppose a woman's entitlement to maternity leave, a teacher's application for leave of absence or a proposal for a school tour. The Minister should ensure that committees spend their time debating more relevant and serious issues. For example, they should discuss why first year students coming into some vocational schools have serious literacy problems. More often than not, children coming into second level with literacy problems fall behind because teachers do not have the time to address them. Such issues rarely appear on a VEC agenda.
Literacy problems must be tackled at primary level. We are not successful at primary level if some second level schools maintain that 50% of first year students have literacy problems. The INTO and the Minister have to seriously examine this problem as it is unacceptable that so many students enter second level with literacy problems.
VECs will play an increasingly important role. There is no longer such a thing as a job for life and people are changing jobs regularly due to the opportunities now available. The construction sector, among others, is booming and it is important that vocational education committees continue to play a role in training carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and so on. It is an important sector in terms of job creation. The  junior and leaving certificate examinations are important, but vocational training must not be forgotten in new legislation or new directions in which vocational education committees may wish to move.
VTOS, Youthreach and adult education are worthwhile initiatives. However, these services are all over the place in most counties whereby offices are rented at different locations. Some have proposed stand-alone adult education centres and it is important that the Minister examines this proposal. Such a service would have to be provided on a county basis, but there should also be a regional dimension. It is important that we introduce a one-stop-shop for adult education and training.
The VTOS and Youthreach initiatives have been successful and helped many back into mainstream employment. The programmes in Enniscorthy have an 80% success rate in placing people in employment and have helped people back into second and third level education. Most return to second level education as they dropped out at 14 or 15 years of age, but are now availing of opportunities provided by VTOS and Youthreach to re-enter mainstream education, including college. Such opportunities have been very good for those who may have felt they were going nowhere. Successive Governments have financed VTOS and Youthreach programmes and this must continue.
PLCs have also been successful. Three years ago, 30 people were placed in a PLC in Enniscorthy, but that figure is now 400. Enniscorthy has become the PLC centre for County Wexford. While institutes of technology have also been very successful, the Minister must consider developing PLC centres on a county basis. Many students would attend such courses and a variety of different courses are available. These courses would not just be confined to those who completed the leaving certificate last year and who do not wish to attend an institute of technology. Many, particularly women, have returned to take courses in beauty therapy, hairdressing and so on which are available through PLCs. Colleges are now linked with colleges in the United Kingdom. The PLC in Enniscorthy has links with British Airways whereby it trains counter receptionists and others for the company. This linkage has been very successful. PLCs offer tremendous opportunities. As these institutions are housed in prefabricated buildings at dispersed locations, it is important that we establish PLC centres.
When the Minister was in Wexford almost one year ago, he gave a commitment to develop a third level facility at the old St. Peter's College. This issue has dragged on and become a political football.
Mr. Farrelly Mr. Farrelly
Mr. Farrelly: Another press statement. What is new?
Mr. Browne (Wexford) Mr. Browne (Wexford)
Mr. Browne (Wexford): The project has been delayed and there have been major problems. The Minister of State should exert pressure on  the Minister to go ahead with the project for which the Department of Finance will provide funding, but, as usual, there are complications. It is important that it goes ahead as there has been much hype to the effect that a third level facility will be established at St. Peter's College which will be linked to Carlow Institute of Technology. The directorate must be appointed soon, otherwise courses will not be up and running by September. The Minister should give priority to this issue and ensure the project goes ahead immediately.
The Bill will modernise vocational education, a laudable objective. There is, however, a need for similar legislation to modernise the Department of Education and Science which still lives in the 1960s. The Department is too slow in dealing with building projects, the overall development of education and the demands for new ways and new thinking in education. For example, it can take six years or more from the time a building project is first mooted until one can walk into a new building. There was a crazy system in the 1940s and 1950s whereby one had to go through three stages or when it took three months to correct a faulty light bulb or other problems. The result of this system is that approval has been given for new schools to replace substandard buildings. However, these projects are being delayed because of the slowness of the building unit in the Department. This is unacceptable and the Minister should examine the issue.
There may be a need for a partnership system whereby contractors construct buildings and hand back the finished product to the Department on a lease or buy-back basis. The current system cannot be allowed to continue because it will undo all the good work of successive Ministers in recent years regarding modernising education systems and facilities while trying to teach students in substandard buildings. This is not good enough and the Minister should examine the problem.
I welcome the main objectives of the Bill as there will be a good mix of teachers, elected members and parents. However, students should have a say in how schools operate. As a result of the ASTI strike, students are no longer prepared to sit back and allow everyone else to run the education system. There should be one student on each county education committee and the Minister might examine this possibility.
I welcome the establishment of the service plan under section 21. This will provide for the introduction of the concept of the service plan to the VEC sector and prescribe in some detail the services which vocational education committees propose to provide in the year ahead. In fairness to most vocational education committees and chief executive officers, they provide a comprehensive programme at the start of every year. In Wexford we receive a comprehensive programme regarding what the colleges will do in the coming year, the number of teachers and the number of  courses that will be run. The vocational education committees provide a reasonable service in that area. The Bill provides that it will be the responsibility of the committee to adopt a service plan for the VEC. This will give committee members an opportunity for the first time to discuss the plan. Up to now, a basic plan was provided and it was adopted relatively quickly. Under the Bill, the members will have an input to the service plan. I do not suggest the committee members should interfere, but they should have the right to consider the plan and make suggestions about how it could be improved or what changes should be made. I welcome the Bill which is a step in the right direction. It is long overdue and I hope it will be passed as quickly as possible.
Mr. Farrelly Mr. Farrelly
Mr. Farrelly: I wish to share my time with Deputy Deenihan.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Farrelly Mr. Farrelly
Mr. Farrelly: I agree with many of my colleagues that vocational education committees have served education well. The system, which was introduced in the 1930s, provided wonderful opportunities up to the 1970s for many young entrepreneurs who would have left school after the intermediate certificate because there was no leaving certificate at that time. Many of those entrepreneurs did extremely well.
As other speakers noted, the VEC system comprises teachers, other staff and parents. It provides programmes such as Youthreach and there is a need for many Youthreach centres. In Meath, there is a centre in Navan and another opened in Ashbourne within the past 12 months. A centre is also required in the northern end of the county. These centres provide a much needed service for disadvantaged children, many of whom are in community schools.
Deputy Browne referred to the way in which the Department deals with schools' building programmes. When I first came into the House in 1981, people in Nobber in County Meath were seeking a new school. The matter went on for approximately 14 years after it was first mooted. It also took between 12 and 14 years for Ashbourne, a growing town 12 miles from the city centre, to secure a second level school. During that time, almost 1,000 children had to be bussed each morning from Ashbourne to schools throughout the city of Dublin.
Could the Minister put in place a system under which public private partnerships could be used to deal with such cases? Politicians who are elected to the House should not have to spend most of their time trying to get the Department of Education and Science to move from one stage to the next in a building programme. Decisions on where money will be spent on new facilities are completely at the whim of whatever Minister or Government is in office. Too many children  are in substandard conditions throughout the country. This is an indictment of those who are in a position to make taxpayers money available in a proper way to ensure all children have an opportunity to be taught in proper facilities.
I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science recently in relation to a student with special needs who needs a carer. The student is leaving primary school and going on to a community school in Dunshaughlin. However, there is no facility in the vocational system, through the Department of Education and Science and the VEC, to ensure continuity in terms of bringing the student's carer into the school in Dunshaughlin. The Minister said in his reply to the question that he is in the process of reviewing the situation to see how it could be implemented throughout the country. The problem is that students in primary schools are entitled to more hours and the carer is entitled to more pay. However, the facility does not continue in the second level sector. This is outrageous and it needs to be considered immediately if the care of individual students with health problems is to be guaranteed.
We are aware from our dealings with the Minister and the Department of Education and Science at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science that the Department is antiquated. It, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Health and Children are three of a kind. They move very slowly with regard to changes that would be in the interest of people and they leave much to be desired.
I am delighted new regulations on accountability will be introduced under the Bill. This will mean that in the future vocational education committees will not be able to act as Westmeath VEC did by buying property all over place without most people's knowledge. There will now be proper accountability at the end of each year. What happened in that VEC was wrong. It was not its duty or job to be involved in that activity. From that perspective, the legislation is extremely welcome.
In common with Deputy Creed, I have some concerns about the provisions of section 7(c) and (d) where two members will be elected by parents of students who are attending VEC institutions and two members will be elected by staff of the VEC. It is not clear if there will be ring fenced provisions for teaching staff. Members of the teaching staff should be entitled to two representatives and one additional member. However, it is important that there is continuity and that the different sectors involved, including parents and students, are represented. It is a good idea that students are represented. When the Minister has an opportunity to makes changes for the better, they should be applied across the board.
The Bill deals with one part of vocational education committees, but another aspect of their work over the years has been most worthwhile and useful to an enormous number of people. The adult education system was introduced  approximately 25 years ago and I compliment all those involved in putting it together. Huge progress has been made and the idea that two schools in smaller towns amalgamate to form a community school is worthwhile. Two days ago, the chief executive officer of the VEC in County Meath mentioned the possibility of an amalgamation of the VEC school and the girls diocesan school in Athboy.
That is the way to proceed. It has proved worthwhile in other towns and to some extent it removes competition between schools.
This is worthwhile legislation but much needs to be done. If a survey was undertaken of the problems in education encountered by Members of this House over the past 20 years, the need to cajole Ministers to make provision for accommodation would be highest on their list. That should not be the case. I agree with Deputy Browne's suggestion that public-private partnerships are the way to proceed. It should be a policy of the House that no children should be taught in unfavourable conditions, such as prefabs. If a health check was done on them 60% to 80% would be found to be inappropriate as centres for learning.
Mr. Deenihan Mr. Deenihan
Mr. Deenihan: As a former VEC member for some years and as a former teacher in a comprehensive school I am pleased to contribute to this debate. While the comprehensive schools are not governed by the same administrative structure as the VEC schools, there are links between both systems. vocational education committees have made a significant contribution over the years. As a member of the Fine Gael Party and coming from the same county as the late John Marcus O'Sullivan, I acknowledge his contribution to their establishment. It was an innovative and futuristic development and it should be recognised when we debate education, especially vocational education.
The vocational education committees have made a major contribution to developing and expanding the skills base in a variety of trades and occupations, such as building, the hospitality sector and the agriculture industry. Across the board they have provided an adaptable and suitable labour force for the many different facets of the economy. While other post-primary schools concentrated on mainly academic subjects, the vocational education committees concentrated on technical education. This was as important, if not more so in certain instances, than academic education. The skills base created by the vocational education committees has been primarily responsible for bringing so many industrialists into the country, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when German and other foreign investors arrived. The light engineering skills they required were provided by the VEC schools. That must be recognised.
There has also been a major emphasis on sport and physical education in VEC systems. In some instances vocational education committees were  the main promoters of outdoor activity centres which have become popular. For example, in County Kerry the VEC established the Cappanalea centre, which is recognised as one of the finest outdoor facilities in Europe. People travel from Europe and beyond to look at it as a model of good practice in terms of establishing outdoor activity centres through the democratic education process. This development should also be recognised.
I support the principal aims of the Bill as set out in the explanatory memorandum. The Fine Gael Party introduced a Private Members' Bill some years ago to address the involvement of politicians on interview boards. The practice should be discontinued. Politicians should distance themselves from involvement in interviews. In the past vocational education committees have been bedevilled by their involvement, especially in the interview process. Perhaps the Minister may consider removing them from interview boards.
Members of local authorities who are councillors are not involved in selecting personnel for local authorities. That practice should be extended to the vocational education committees, which are an arm of local democracy. I will ask my party's spokesperson to move an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage. I argued for this nine or ten years ago in the House but nothing has been done. It is for the good and protection of politicians, who can be pressurised during the interviewing process. While the interview board structure has changed in that two independent assessors are on each board and while I am sure members of all political parties have been appointed by boards that do not include their party members, an amendment to this effect would remove suspicion. The present system has not helped the image of the vocational education committees and in some instances the power vested in politicians on interview boards has been abused. In the interests of vocational education and their own interest, politicians should not be involved.
When I served on a VEC staff members were nominated by the political parties but they were not nominated by right by the teachers' organisations. The Bill provides that two members of staff may be selected for membership on the committee. The term “members of staff” needs to be defined. Presumably it means the totality of staff and not only the teaching staff. By right teachers should have membership of the proposed new body and they should be nominated by the recognised teachers' organisations. That is very important. Staff members other than teachers, such as caretakers and secretaries, also deserve the right of representation on this new body. They should be elected by their staff members. This point was made earlier by Deputy Creed and I hope the Minister will refer to it when he concludes.
Four members are to be appointed by the county council to represent students, voluntary  organisations and persons in the vocational education area concerned with trades and professions in commercial or industrial activities. I believe the four people will be nominated by the political party which is in power within the VEC. It would be preferable if the students had some say in the matter; structures could be established whereby the students could make their nomination without referring to the local authority. With regard to the voluntary organisations, we have gone to great extremes to establish county development boards. The local board could also nominate a person or persons to the committee independent of the council. The representatives of the trades and other professions could be nominated through IBEC or some other appropriate organisation.
If the nominations are left to the council, it is obvious the political party with a majority on the council will pick its own nominees. That is the nature of politics. The Minister should look at this matter again. In the past the sub-committees of the vocational education committees were dominated by the ruling party. However, they should be representative of all interest groups in the area. They should reflect the entire community, not just a narrow political view as was the case in the past.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to comment on this Bill. It is an important measure because vocational education is important for the future of the country. Technical education is increasingly in demand and the vocational education committees can now play a greater role in progressing that area of education. This Bill will help in that regard.
Mr. M. Kitt Mr. M. Kitt
Mr. M. Kitt: I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to discuss it. I was a member of a VEC in 1975 so I am well aware of the good work being carried out by vocational schools and the vocational education committees throughout the country. The Bill provides for representation on vocational education committees for parents of students who are registered in VEC institutions and for staff, including teachers, of vocational education committees. Other provisions in the Bill provide for additional functions for vocational education committees.
The vocational education committees have always made a great effort to provide education. Recent figures indicate that almost 100,000 students or 30% of second level students receive their education in VEC schools. The VEC covers a wide range of education services from basic literacy to adult education. Adult education is a most important area. The Government has invested a great deal of money in it and vocational education committees will have a particular involvement in promoting adult education services.
The 1930 Act, which established vocational education and the vocational education committees, always referred to the important link between the vocational education system and the  local community. While it is mainly county councillors who are involved in each committee, there is also involvement on the part of people who are drawn from the general constituency of local employers, tradesmen and others. It was always envisaged that local representation would be a key part of the committee. This Bill attempts to improve that system.
An important point arises, however. The VEC in County Galway, for example, is involved in 14 schools in the county. There will be a difficulty getting parents and staff involved as representatives when there is such a large number of schools in a county. That issue should be addressed. It has also been pointed out that students, who were extremely vocal in relation to their education during the ASTI dispute, have also made a strong case for representation. These are important issues because the education system is changing and the vocational education committees must also change.
The vocational education committees are responsible for students with a range of educational needs, whether it is the 12 or 13 year old student starting second level education or persons in their 20s or older participating in a post-leaving certificate course. Regardless of the age group, vocational education committees have been involved in providing everything from night classes to VTOS and they have done a good job in that regard. I wish them well in dealing with the major changes that will take place in education in the coming years.
Sections 9 and 18 deal with, among other things, co-operation between vocational education committees. Section 9 provides that each VEC must co-operate with other vocational education committee schools and with persons providing services similar to or connected with their schools. That is most important. We must remove duplication. One of the abiding memories of my time on the VEC is the good co-operation there was between Galway county and Galway city vocational education committees. I hope that will be expanded to cover other vocational education committees. vocational education committees in the west of Ireland must come together to provide education services.
An example would be the provision of education for children from the Traveller community. In Galway, for example, there should be co-operation between the city and county vocational education committees to ensure that if there is to be a Traveller education centre, the vocational education committees could provide one to cover the county. If people believe such a centre would be segregationist, there could be a system where students go into mainstream education in the vocational school of their choice. That would involve a great deal of discussion on many issues, such as school transport for the students.
Section 18 deals with two or more vocational education committees co-operating for the joint acquisition of property. This is a most important  issue. We could have an effective system and prevent duplication if acquisition of property by a number of vocational education committees were possible. A relevant example is the provision of activity centres. Vocational education committees have been to the fore in providing outdoor education and activity centres and the one in Clonbur, County Galway, has been a great success. Such centres would be suitable for students from Mayo and Galway. Students from other parts of the country could come to Clonbur, for example, at weekends to participate in the different outdoor educational pursuits it provides. Sections 9 and 18 are extremely important.
I am not too happy about the five year plan. Nowadays, everybody talks in terms of five year plans, whether it is the local authority or the health board. Councillors often say to me that, although they have been elected, a plan is already in place in whose formulation they were not involved and they ask if any flexibility is attached to it. I hope there will be flexibility because vocational education committees have always been known for that. The Minister said there could be a review of plans and that vocational education committees could amend them. The chief executive officer must report each year to the VEC and the Minister. That is an important provision. It is not good enough to say that there is a five year plan. There must be necessary action with it. Serious issues confront us in education and major challenges lie ahead. To say we have a plan is not enough. We must study what is happening in the vocational education system each year.
I am concerned about the issue of school buildings. There has been rationalisation and proposed amalgamation of second level schools for many years. It is important these matters are discussed fully. I do not want a situation which happens in many towns throughout the country where the bishop, who is the trustee of one school, and the chief executive officer, who is the trustee of another, meet without the support of the board of management of the school or the members of the VEC. These discussions can take a long time, with students and teachers having to work in the meantime in prefabricated buildings and no improvement until the discussions are finalised. Measures to improve school buildings must be speeded up.
Mr. Seán Cromien produced a very fine report in which he referred to the increase in the workload of the building and planning unit in the Department of Education and Science. He said this increase arose primarily because of substantially greater funding for capital purposes. He proposed that, in the medium term, the building unit should become an executive agency with a national remit to handle the construction and modification of schools. This is a good proposal which should be examined. If these issues are not finalised, prefabricated buildings will continue to be used in VEC schools, secondary schools and primary schools.
 One of the roles of the chief executive officer is that of transport liaison officer. School transport is an emotive issue, as any rural Member knows, especially where catchment boundaries are concerned and parents, students and teachers want to extend or change them. I have great sympathy for chief executive officers of vocational education committees who must deal with this. Mr. Cromien referred in his report to the pressure to have decisions of the Department on school transport changed. He suggested a statutory instrument could be used, where appropriate. He also suggested that school transport could be removed from the remit of the Department of Education and Science and transferred to an independent contractor. This was recommended by the Deloitte & Touche study which examined this issue some years ago. The chief executive officer of each VEC has a very difficult task in sorting out school transport where pressure is applied by two adjoining schools to change or extend the catchment boundaries. If one school is granted a change in the boundaries, other schools ask why they were not granted one.
On the issue of students with special educational needs, good progress has been made in primary schools by providing resource and remedial teachers. A major problem is providing the same level of resources in second level schools. The vocational education system has provided many special classes and I hope further progress is made in that regard. Primary teachers ask second level teachers if they will be able to provide resource teachers, classroom assistants and other facilities, such as in the home economics area, for students with special educational needs who are going from primary to second level. Many second level schools have classrooms on the first or second floor which immediately begs the question whether a lift will be provided for students with special needs. These issues must be addressed by the Department and especially by the vocational education committees. I hope the initiative taken by the VEC in Galway, where special needs classes are provided, will be expanded to all schools in County Galway and throughout the country.
The chief executive officer of the first VEC on which I served was Mr. Oliver Hynes, his successor was Mr. Conor Morris and the current chief executive officer is Mr. Philip Cribbin. I have the highest regard for those people. One aspect of County Galway VEC I always liked is that it insisted on having a number of meetings each year in a different school. It had 14 schools at the time I was a member of the committee. It was a good idea to have a meeting in each of the various schools and discuss the issues and problems affecting the staff and students in those schools. It was a good idea of those men and those committees to do that.
The staffing and structure of the VEC sector is an issue. I notice in a report by Mr. Dermot Rochford of the staff relations service, included  in the IVEA News for February, that with all the new legislation being brought in, such as the Bill under discussion, the Youth Work Bill, the Education (Welfare) Bill and the implementation of the White Paper on Adult Education, many issues will have to be addressed locally by vocational education committees. Mr. Rochford made the point that the VEC sector has operated for too long on a shoestring and that serious efforts must be made to resolve some of the issues facing it. He mentioned that no survey had been conducted on the sector since the early 1980s. That obviously means much information is out of date. One positive note is that Mr. Rochford believed there was some optimism to be gained from the fact that extra clerical and administrative staff would be allocated to vocational education committees to ensure they were able to work and move forward together and to ensure their staffing and administrative structures were addressed.
Another issue has been raised by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, known as the NAPD. It referred to how the school year has been eroded by a number of factors. One is oral and practical exams and how there can be mayhem in schools in March, April and May as principals and deputy principals try to provide tuition for classes while other teachers are released for orals and practicals. The question of in-service training is another issue, as is school planning. Many days are lost while these take place. The Teaching Council Bill, which I welcome, also has serious implications for teachers in maintaining and improving teaching standards and in promoting and continuing education.
One of the strongest recommendations in the Cromien report was the establishment of a one-stop-shop. The report recommended the establishment of local offices to deal, for example, with the welfare scheme which was introduced in the Education Welfare Act and with the planned national educational psychological service. I agree with that recommendation. Local offices could also deal with adult education, which is being strongly promoted by the vocational education committees. The staff in these one-stop-shops would implement new education legislation.
The Cromien report referred to the question of appointing teachers to VEC schools. It is remarkable that the Minister for Education and Science must approve these individual appointments while the same is not true in relation to secondary schools. We must find ways to devolve responsibilities to the vocational education committees. I ask the Minister of State to convey my view to the Minister for Education and Science that further legislation should give more independence to the VEC sector.
I welcome this legislation granting representation to parents and staff of VEC schools. I hope the Bill becomes law quickly to ensure the progress of education in the VEC sector. This worthwhile sector has been in existence since 1930. It  is capable of dealing with the changes and challenges which lie ahead in education.
Mr. Ring Mr. Ring
Mr. Ring: I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill. I hope it will not take power from elected representatives and from the vocational education committees themselves. The hope has already been expressed in some quarters that this will not happen.
I am always worried when I see legislation referring to executive and elected representatives' functions. We have given too many powers to the chief executives of health boards and county managers. I hope this Bill does not give away power to the chief executive officers of vocational education committees. Vocational education committees have been among the most democratic organisations for many years. They provide representation for teachers, teaching unions, parents and elected representatives. This ensured that the community had some input into the education system while other mainstream schools, despite the representation of parents and teachers, were, in effect, controlled by the bishops. I hope this Bill does not remove these important representative powers from the community.
I would like to see direct elections to vocational education committees. It is not right that the party which has a majority of seats on a local authority should control representation on the local VEC. Direct elections would be a fairer system. We would not see the cronies of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil appointed to vocational education committees and left there for 25 or 30 years. Elections to vocational education committees could be held in conjunction with local elections and substitute members could also be elected, as is done in elections for the European Parliament. I ask the Minister to examine this proposal.
The previous speaker spoke of teachers waiting for the Minister to appoint them. The Minister merely decides how many teachers a school may employ. More outrageous is the practice of teachers canvassing local representatives for appointment to a VEC school. This degrading practice may have been acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s but we are now in a more modern age and we must devise another formula for appointing teachers. In many cases the people who had most to offer to education were bypassed because they were not of the same political colour as the party which controlled the local authority.
The VEC sector was once the poor relation in education but that is no longer the case. VEC schools do an excellent job and employ excellent teachers. We need professional people but we also need people who are good with their hands. Students are sometimes forced into types of education to which they are not suited. Some years ago it was not acceptable for a student to be educated for a trade but I am glad that the development of the economy has meant that skilled tradespeople are now in great demand. The day of the tradesman has come while in the past they  were under-rated. The vocational education committees should encourage more young people, men and women, to enter trades such as plumbing, carpentry and block laying. Many of these skills are being lost because people are not being trained for them. Everyone wants to be a doctor or university lecturer but this cannot be the case. We need professional as well as trades people.
The school curriculum should place a greater emphasis on preparation for trades. In the past people were taught Latin, English through Irish and other stupid things. Twenty years later they found that Irish and Latin were no use to them in Camden Town or New York where common sense was much more useful. If these people had been taught useful skills at school they would not have experienced such difficulties when they went abroad. Many of our emigrants were very successful. Some of have returned to Ireland and some have become millionaires in their adopted countries.
I remember a teacher who used say of myself and another pupil that other teachers should not be too hard on us because we might be employing them one day. He was right. Years later I joined the VEC, although I did not remain a member for long. I found it frustrating and technical. At VEC meetings I could not understand that while the parents group was present, along with the teachers and the chief executive officer, the two union representatives were down at the back. That did not make sense to me. I support the vocational education committees which do a wonderful job. They take on the more needy in society – those who need more time, care and effort. The Outreach system has been a wonderful success as have the night classes which have provided training to many people who, for various reasons, had left the educational system but wanted to re-educate themselves. In the past, sufficient resources were not put into such education, although they should have been. It is important to cater for people who have had to leave the educational system for one reason or another. Such people have now been able to re-enter the labour market thanks to the training they received at VEC classes.
Over the years the vocational education committees have done an excellent job. They have taken care of those who could not read or write, by leading a campaign to help them. But for the vocational education committees, thousands of people would not be able to read or write. They came through the conventional school system but were not identified as having literacy problems, so the system failed them. At least the vocational education committees were there to help such people in a compassionate manner. They have given people confidence to take up employment and to live in the real world, rather than shyly hiding away because they could not write their names. There was not a lot of sympathy for such people but at least the vocational education committees identified the problem and dealt with it. I compliment everybody involved in VEC work.
 A man called Ernie Sweeney campaigned for years in my constituency on behalf of illiterate people. His one ambition was that ballot papers would carry photographs of the candidates so that people with literacy problems would not be taken in by political parties. In that way, if they were unable to read or write they could at least place a tick next to the candidate for whom they wished to vote. I am glad that Mr. Sweeney is now getting his wish. He did a great service for society because he was prepared to say he had come through a system which had failed him. There was somebody there to take him on board and re-educate him. When he appeared before a Dáil committee he did not let himself down. He is proof that if a person is treated in the right way he or she can be educated at any age.
I wish to ask the Minister a few questions about a proposed new school in Newport, with which the VEC is dealing. I tabled a parliamentary question in this regard recently and I would like the Minister or his officials to provide the information sought. If not, I will raise the matter on the Adjournment to obtain the information. At the time I tabled the question, a catchment area for the school had not been chosen. I want to know what exactly is being proposed, what funding will be put in place and how it will affect people whose children attend schools in Achill or Westport. If this VEC school is built in Newport, will it affect parents' rights if they want to send their children to Achill or Westport? Will this become the catchment area and what effect will it have on them? Has the catchment area been chosen? I want answers to those questions so that I will not have to raise the matter on the Adjournment. If these questions cannot be answered by the Minister when he is replying to the debate, perhaps his officials could answer them in writing. If they want clarification regarding the questions I will be delighted to provide it.
School catchment areas are a big issue and exceptions should be made in some cares. In north Mayo, at one stage, some children were not very good at Irish, even though they lived in the Gaeltacht. They wanted to attend an English-speaking school which was outside the Gaeltacht area but they were deprived of school transport because of that. At the time we did not have the financial resources to cater for them but if the case had been brought to court I believe the Minster would have been beaten. If children feel they are not capable of being taught through the medium of Irish, it is wrong to treat them in this way just because the only school within the catchment area is an Irish-speaking one. The matter should be examined, especially in circumstances where children living in a Gaeltacht area cannot speak sufficient Irish to attend the local gaelscoil.
We often hear it said that the Irish language is discriminated against but the reverse should not occur either. Anyone who wishes to be taught through the medium of Irish should be allowed to do so and facilities should be made available  to enable this to happen, but the reverse should also be the case. Therefore, if children are weak at Irish and have to be taught through English they must be catered for. There is no point in sending them to a gaelscoil if they do not understand what is going on and cannot read, write or speak Irish. An exception should be made in such cases so that they will not lose the right to school transport by attending a school outside the catchment area. The issue must be examined. It works in reverse when somebody wants to leave their catchment area to attend an Irish-speaking school. In that case transport is provided but the reverse should also apply. The matter should be taken further at a later stage and in another forum. It is wrong to put parents in the position where they have to go to court or to the Ombudsman to obtain their rights. The Minister should take action to accede to this reasonable request.
A recent report revealed details of sub-standard conditions in primary schools. It was amazing that most of the schools referred to were in the west. I hope that whatever money is required to effect repairs and to provide other facilities is made available. Money spent on education is an investment in the future of our young people and in the country generally. We should not be afraid to spend money on education. We spend a great deal of money on public relations people and reports which are rubbish. If we continue producing so many reports there will not be enough buildings in which to hold them. If enough money is paid to somebody to produce a report on education or anything else, he or she will provide the answers that one wants to hear. All the consultants do is visit the library, councils, vocational education committees or health boards, take out the last report that was produced, add a few extra words to it and charge a fortune for doing so. It would be better to put the money that is spent on such reports into education.
Mr. Bradford Mr. Bradford
Mr. Bradford: It is like speaking in the Dáil.
Mr. Ring Mr. Ring
Mr. Ring: It is like speaking in the Dáil. If a Bill is going through the Seanad I am sure people look to see what is being said, and if a Bill is going through the Dáil, Senators look to see what is being said. There is no need for all these consultants' reports and all the PR people. It is an outrageous waste of public money.
Sport is the poor relation of education. I feel strongly about this and I hope the Minister will take it into consideration. I heard Deputy Deenihan speaking about it earlier, although I felt he might have taken a strong line on it. It is a mistake to treat sport in this way. It should be a compulsory part of education so that all boys and girls learn to participate, whether it is in Gaelic games, soccer, rugby or running. Facilities should be made available for sports to encourage people to take part. It is not good for their minds and bodies if they do not participate in sport. People involved in football, boxing and other sports rarely get into trouble, which is not always the  case for those with idle minds who are not prepared to take part in the local football, golf or rugby teams. We should be spending more money on improving sports facilities for young people. I compliment the vocational education committees on making such facilities available. Some schools have wonderful gyms and other sports facilities, yet young people have to tog out in vans and buses at sports fields which do not have such facilities. The vocational education committees and other secondary schools should make all their sports facilities available to young people under 18 years of age, once they are prepared to look after them.
We are living in a changed world and, therefore, information on drugs should be on the school curriculum. We should educate our young people about drugs, drink and cigarettes which constitute the biggest scourge in society today. We should explain the damage these drugs do to the mind and body.
I would like this to be part of the curriculum. We are always afraid to take the lead or that we will offend people. I hope this issue can be placed on the agenda in order that people are provided with the facts. One cannot beat educating people and explaining the effects of drink and drugs through slide shows and so on to young people. This should be done in every school when students are at an early age.
Joe Langan is the chief executive officer of Mayo VEC and doing an excellent job. Vocational education committees, in general, do excellent work as they respond to the needs of communities. I am glad this legislation is passing through the House and that parents and students will be represented on the committees. Vocational education committees are democratic and hold public meetings. Everybody knows who are the members of their local VEC and they can make representations to them if they want to air a problem. The media also have access to meetings.
I hope powers are not being taken away from vocational education committees and given to people who are not answerable to anybody. We, as public representatives, must go before the interview board for vocational education committees. The interview is difficult and the board can decide whether they want us to be present at the next meeting. Some are appointed to public positions for life and, irrespective of whether they do a good job, they remain in the position. That is wrong. Everybody should be accountable. There should not be chiefs who are not answerable to anybody.
A local authority system was created. When Members table parliamentary questions regarding local authorities, they are not answered because the Minister for the Environment and Local Government says he has no powers in this regard. This is outrageous. If a parliamentary question is tabled, it should be answered in the House. We are the 166 directors of this country and if we want information from any State body  or agency, whether it be a VEC, health board or local authority, the Minster of the day should provide it. No Minister should be able to say that he or she does not have the power or responsibility. As democratically elected public representatives, we make the laws. These agencies should respond to us.
Mr. Killeen Mr. Killeen
Mr. Killeen: Fáiltím roimh an mBille seo. Rinneadh an chéad Acht Ghairm Oideachais sa bhliain 1930, tar éis tuarascáil a d'ullmhaigh coiste a bhunaigh an tAire sé bhliain roimhe sin agus a foilsíodh sa bhliain 1927. Ag an am sin bhí sé éigeantach ag páiste fanacht ar scoil go dtí aois 14 agus ní raibh deis ach ag fíor mhionlach déagóirí freastal ar mheán scoileanna go dtí aois 18. Ceapadh go soláthródh na ceard scoileanna oiliúint i gceardanna agus na scileanna trádála a raibh fostaíocht ar fáil dóibh ag an am sin.
Tá athraithe bunúsacha sa chóras ón am sin. Tá i bhfad níos mó daoine fásta, mar shampla, páirteach mar fhoghlaimeoirí sa chóras oideachais. Freastalaítear ar ghrúpaí le fadhbanna éagsúla. Bhí mé féin i mo bhall den choiste i gCondae an Chláir ar feadh 15 bliana. Roimhe sin, caithfidh mé a admháil nach raibh mórán eolais agam ar an gcóras, cé go raibh mé i mo mhúinteoir bunscoile ag an am. Chonaic mé gnáth daoine, comhairleoirí condae agus eile, ag freastal ar an gcoiste sin agus iad go hiontach mar bhaill den choiste, cé nach raibh stádas árd oideachais acu. Thug siad faoin obair agus rinne siad job iontach maith.
Faoi láthair tá timpeall 30% den daonra meánscoile ag freastal ar scoileanna gairm oideachais agus tá siad thar a bheith tábhachtach i gcóras oideachais na tíre.
The Minister outlined the age of uncertainty and change which underlines the context of the Bill and indicated that he is creating a legal structure to facilitate vocational education committees in planning for change. He intends to allow them the flexibility to provide an effective and appropriate service for the people living in their catchment areas. The Bill addresses this matter in a positive manner. While I am delighted that it has been introduced, it is long overdue.
The Minister seeks to address four primary areas. First, he wants a revision of the function of vocational education committees which will seek to address the changes that have occurred in their operation. He is also providing for a wider membership of the committees on a statutory basis, although many comprise a relatively diverse membership. He is further providing for a better reporting arrangement within the committees and between individual committees and the Department of Education and Science, which is of fundamental importance.
There is a need for such accountability nowadays. In the past we tended to take matters for granted and did not always plan ahead in the organised manner which the Minister desires for the future. Despite this, excellent work was done by vocational education committees. Some com mittee members, chairpersons and chief executive officers had great foresight and undertook projects about which others had doubts, but which stood the test of time and provided extremely well for the people whom they were serving.
The Minster is also providing for a modern financial structure, a desirable development. We have come to realise in many areas of public life that better reporting and financial structures are needed, not least to ensure those operating them understand them. Most Members have served on local authorities at some stage and pored over annual estimates. One could, certainly, be forgiven for concluding that their format was set out in such a way as to make it impossible to understand them. We learned over time to understand where the flexibility was and where the money was going, but the system did not lend itself to scrutiny by those charged with that role. The new system proposed by the Minister in the legislation will improve the financial and reporting structures within the VEC system.
VECs are involved more widely in the community and this is addressed in the legislation. A number of speakers referred to the VTOS, which has been in operation for a number of years. It stands as a beacon of achievement by vocational education committees in addressing difficulties which early school leavers, in particular, have and has operated successfully. All of us in our daily lives, as political figures, come across people who did not make it successfully through their first opportunity in the education system, but who were rescued by the VTOS and managed to secure well paid and appropriate employment. They are better contributors to society as a result of the scheme.
A number of Members also addressed the importance of physical education in respect of which the vocational education committees have also been to the forefront. It must be acknowledged, however, that primary and secondary teachers have traditionally given much of their time to the promotion of competitive sports such as Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby and other mainstream sports. The weakness of the system was that only those who were good enough to make the grade on school teams were catered for in the manner which perhaps everybody should have been catered for. A substantial number of second level pupils did not have access to a desirable level of physical education. This will be addressed by vocational education committees more quickly than by other education groups. Eight or nine of them already provide outdoor pursuit centres, as does County Clare VEC in the Burren, where second level pupils in particular and others from various parts of the country can spend a few days getting an introduction to sports activities that they would be unlikely to ever encounter were it not for that opportunity. I am talking about activities like abseiling, rock climbing and canoeing, minority pursuits which should be availed of much more  widely than they are currently. That is an aspect of which the vocational education committees will be conscious when preparing their education plan.
The area of adult and continuing education has expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It ranges from basic literacy to technology education and all the traditional and other pastimes which were provided almost exclusively, up to three or four years ago, by the vocational system, although other second and third level institutions are now providing a certain level of education in this area. Adult and continuing education is hugely important for many people in terms of widening their job opportunities and providing for the day when their current employment is terminated and they have to up-skill. In some cases people are grappling with difficulty but in many others they are enthusiastically entering into the arena of adult and continuing education and are having their lives enriched by the provision being made for them. That provision often arises from the initiatives of the local vocational education committee. There are areas such as Traveller education, which has been dealt with by vocational education committees for a number of years and has been hugely successful in some areas and a little less so in others. That was particularly successful in dealing with young Traveller women but, sadly, considerably less so in the case of the men folk. However, it is an area in which there is an openness to change and a willingness to embrace opportunities that the vocational education committees will find challenging. They will find themselves better equipped to address the challenge in the context that is provided for in the Bill.
A greater number of people are availing of third level education immediately on leaving second level, which has been the traditional route, but substantial numbers of considerably older people are availing of the opportunity of getting third level qualifications at diploma or degree level. That would have been unheard of ten years ago. The vocational education committees have played a considerable role in providing some of those courses.
Many areas throughout the country believe they should have a particular third level facility, and County Clare is no different in that regard. The VEC in Ennis has been pursuing the various options with the two colleges in Galway and the two colleges in Limerick and, heretofore, whatever degree courses have been provided have generally been validated by outside bodies. I welcome the fact that the traditional third level colleges, which previously did not embrace this movement with any great enthusiasm, are beginning to at least take it seriously and see the role they can play in much the same way that the Galway Regional Technical College became the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, with a campus in Castlebar. There are many more possibilities in this area than have been explored and it is one of the areas the vocational education committees  will closely examine in their education plan. Considerations of demographics, distances, populations, etc., will come into play but perhaps we have been a little too conservative in that area. If we were more adventurous, the quality and accessibility of education would be greatly enhanced.
When I became a member of the VEC many years ago I was greatly impressed by the ordinary members, many of whom were county councillors and farmers. They would frequently say at meetings that they regretted not having the opportunity of getting the formal second level education that their children and those served by the VEC had, but I was always impressed by their commitment to the good of the community, the schools and the pupils who attended them. The service was well served by chief executive officers also. That was certainly the case in County Clare where Jim Lyons was the chief executive officer during the time of my involvement. He was a great man to keep abreast of changes and developments in education and he wanted to be the chief executive officer of a VEC that was at the forefront of whatever developments were taking place. That brought enormous benefits to people in the area of responsibility of the VEC.
An area on which we worked hard was improving co-operation with other second level institutions in the voluntary secondary sector, community and comprehensive schools and the primary schools. There was a time when the remit was delineated clearly and there was relatively little crossover but one of the strengths of the VEC system was that it provided a structure and a membership which was open to a crossover and dialogue with others in second level and primary education.
The regional technical colleges enabled the vocational education committees to have an input into management at third level, which brought a new vision to the VEC sector. It opened to the members, principals and teachers in the schools the vista of continuing education for people who had been through the vocational system but who wanted to go on to third level. The original regional technical colleges, a narrow definition which appeared to direct people in a particular way, are now called institutes of technology which sounds a little grander but which more accurately reflects the role we see for those colleges in a modern society. I particularly welcome the Minister's provision for a five year education plan. Anybody in this House, or in life generally, who takes the trouble to plan carefully sees the benefits four-fold or 40-fold. The harder we work and the better we plan, the luckier we get. That provision in the Bill will enhance the professionalism of their approach and greatly benefit the students at whatever level, from first year to the most elderly participant in adult and continuing education.
I welcome the service plan which provides for accountability and I particularly welcome the end of year review, the formal review, which will be a  little more interesting for the first year or two but which will become less adventurous in subsequent years. Nevertheless, that will set down a marker of what has been achieved and how the plan needs to be changed for the future. That will greatly help vocational education committees in examining the kind of work they do in reviewing, planning and co-ordinating for the future.
The original Bill provided for community involvement and a responsiveness to local needs that other structures and elements in education simply did not provide. It is now formally provided for in this Bill that teachers, parents, voluntary bodies and others will be formally represented. I believe that is the case on all vocational education committees but it is only right that it be provided for in the legislation. There is also provision for pupils to have their representative. Politicians and media people tend to believe that young people have no interest in community politics and development, and political parties for that matter. We are wrong to think that. Young people are rather open to the possibility of involving themselves in the development of their communities. I welcome that provision, which also relates to voluntary bodies, business associations, etc.
VECs have always had to be responsive to demographic changes, patterns of employment, economic circumstances and so on and have been very successful in this regard in the past. However, in the formal context being set down under the Bill, it will be possible for them to respond more quickly to the changes which may occur. Everyone hopes that whatever changes occur in economic circumstances will be positive in nature. History teachers us that these matters are somewhat cyclical and that those in education, in business or any other facet of life who are innovative are always out in front – they are the leaders and they benefit more quickly and to a greater degree.
We have consistently under estimated the role education has played in developing our economy. Vocational education has played a particularly strong role in that regard. The manner in which we have moved towards embracing advances in technology and emerging opportunities is to our credit, has been beneficial to the country and has given us an edge over others. That edge must be maintained and it will be somewhat more difficult to maintain in the future. There are other economies in which labour is a great deal cheaper. In that context, the advantage we have is that we have a better educated and more flexible work force. The vocational education committees have traditionally played a positive role in this area and will continue to do so in the coming years.
The Minister referred to the reserved executive model for vocational education committees which is somewhat similar to the local government model, which many Members have faulted more than they have praised in the past. It is important, however, that the roles of the chief executive officer and the committee be set out and that a  separation of powers be delineated. The Minister has done well to address that matter in the Bill, but it may need to be kept under review. I would not like a situation to develop where the role of the committee might be inhibited or restricted in a way that ultimately would have a negative effect. The way the Minister has set matters out, it seems the committee will be charged with the responsibility for setting policy – that is as it should be.
There are areas that need to be addressed which require a local input – I refer here to school catchment areas, etc. – and I would like vocational education committees to become involved in addressing them. That will also be possible under the Bill.
Mr. Crawford Mr. Crawford
Mr. Crawford: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Vocational Education (Amendment) Bill. The purpose of this legislation is to provide new structures and procedures in order that each vocational education committee can meet the needs of the area for which it is responsible in as effective and efficient a manner as possible. I welcome the involvement, on a formal basis, of the parents of VEC students and the staff, including teachers. It is important that these people will have their rights formally recognised, as a result of the willingness of politicians to effect change.
A further aim of the Bill is to classify the functions exercised by the vocational education committees into reserved and executive functions. I welcome that development because there are issues which must be dealt with independent of political procedures. The Bill also provides additional functions for vocational education committees and sets out revised reporting, accounting and financial procedures.
Section 9 sets down the additional functions, which comprise the planning and co-ordination of the provision of education and ancillary services in educational institutions established by a VEC; reviewing the provision of education and vocational education and training in the VEC area; advising the Minister on such provision; and making plans that are economic, efficient and effective for the needs of an area, using every opportunity to consult with all relevant bodies – including parents, students, staff and other people – likely to be affected as a result of the performance by the board of its functions.
Section 10 permits the Minister to confer additional functions on a VEC, subject to such conditions as he or she thinks fit. This is one of the areas in respect of which I would be slightly critical. The Minister will demand that the VEC and others will provide functions, but power without finance is not the way forward.
The country has not ever been in a more financially sound position in terms of its ability to provide funds for things that are necessary and important. An example of where such provision has not been made is in the Monaghan VEC area  where the Tanagh Outdoor Education Centre has been seeking recognition for many years. It has not received such recognition and, therefore, has been unable to obtain funding. This centre provides excellent services to all the schools and the various groups in the area. As a previous speaker stated, young people are being encouraged to become involved in outdoor and healthy pursuits. The Tanagh centre, which is situated in County Monaghan but is near Cootehill, County Cavan, is an example of an initiative to which funding has not been provided by successive Governments.
Monaghan VEC also runs MIFET, the only institution offering third level courses in the county. The opportunities available at MIFET are limited. Last year, the Minister promised to establish an outreach centre and other centres in Monaghan. Again, however, the funding for these has not been forthcoming and yet another year has gone by without progress being made.
I remind the Minister that St. Patrick's agricultural college was closed down almost two years ago and the site is now up for sale. There is an excellent opportunity here for the State to ensure that third level or outreach courses are provided to the people of County Monaghan. There are some modern buildings on the site and a number of older structures which could easily be converted into lecture halls. The former college is brilliantly situated, approximately one half to three quarters of a mile outside the town, in a lovely, quiet, rural setting. Is there any possibility that a public private partnership might be entered into to purchase the site and establish an institution there? It is vital that the Minister does not miss this opportunity to provide a necessary service to the people of the region.
It is well known that County Monaghan has one of the lowest levels of participation in third level education. That there are no local education facilities is part of the problem. Many people in the county are employed in the furniture or food industries and do not have massive incomes. However, they often find that, when means tested, they earn just a few pounds more than the cut-off point for qualification for third level grants and, therefore, their children often lose out. In the past, those children could travel north to further their education but such opportunities are no longer as freely available as heretofore.
There is a lack education facilities for those involved in the major industries located in the county. Those seeking to be educated or trained in a craft must travel either to the west or the deep south. If this was provided in a college in Monaghan, there would be a long-term guarantee that the furniture industry will be retained in the county because employees skills would be constantly upgraded and they would be able to produce higher class products – if that is possible – than those they already produce.
The lack of facilities is also a major barrier to high tech industries considering Monaghan as a possible base. Industries tend to locate their oper ations adjacent to third level colleges, such as those in Dundalk, Galway, etc., where they can avail of the opportunity to discuss with the college authorities courses which could be beneficial in terms of training students to become future employees, thus aiding their own methods of production. The provision of such a college in Monaghan on the site of St. Patrick's College would help to get good quality high technology jobs into the county. The Minister promised that third level outreach centres would be set up. The premises are available and we need them now.
As regards third level courses which could be supported by the VEC and by the Government, a community learning, social and cultural centre at Truagh parish near Emyvale village in north Monaghan has got planning permission and some funding, but it needs more. It intends to have child care, hospitality and energy conservation facilities. I know the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will join me in congratulating the Errigal Truagh parish group which received an energy conservation award today from the Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise, Deputy Jacob, in Buswell's Hotel. It intends to use energy conservation when it builds a new school and the community learning, social and cultural centre. I urge the Minister to immediately provide the additional funds needed to make that possible.
Section 18 clearly states that two or more vocational education committees can work together. I am glad about that. The vocational education committees in Cavan and Monaghan, for example, could become involved in the Tanagh Outdoor Education Centre, which is on the Cavan-Monaghan border. This would ensure they got more funds to service the area properly. I hope those two vocational education committees will use the opportunity afforded by this Bill to work together to ensure that the best possible provisions are available for both that area and a wider area, including all the Border counties or all Northern Ireland.
Section 26 is also important. It provides for a five year plan or longer if the vocational education committees decide. This is necessary. The only way things can be done properly and in order is if people know where they are going for at least the next few years. We did that for the roads at regional and county level. While many people do not like their county far down the list, at least they have an indication of the potential. This is more important in education so people know what classes or subjects will be available. I already mentioned that facilities are not available in County Monaghan for those in the furniture or engineering industries to get third level education. It is important that students and those in apprenticeships are able to avail of courses at home. That will be clearly indicated by the VEC in a five year plan. I am also pleased the Bill insists that plan should be drawn up in consultation with the VEC teachers, who often feel left out. New measures are often introduced without proper consultation with the students, their par ents and others who will be affected, such as the service and catering industries and the employers. They can discuss what is needed and what would help young people to get third level education at home.
I welcome the VEC's efforts in adult education. People lose their jobs from time to time and it is extremely important they have an opportunity to update their education, whether in computers or another area, so they can be re-employed. Many wives and mothers want or have to go back to work. It is important they have an opportunity to upgrade their skills and to learn new ones. People who worked in offices or other jobs ten or 15 years ago before they started their families see a major change in their work.
The Bill also deals with how vocational education committees control their finances and how they can be dealt with by the Minister if they do not perform their duties properly. It is important to have such controls, which will be debated at committee and other levels, and I welcome them. I hope the Minister does not have to use those powers, particularly in relation to the vocational education committees in the Cavan-Monaghan region which is dear to me and to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. There is nothing as good as having strict rules to ensure that people do not step out of line. Many members of vocational education committees are also members of political parties. They can have differences, but they usually work closely together, whether the committee or the administrators. They are not above any group. It is important for the Minister to have the right, if necessary, to take whatever steps are required to ensure that things do not go wrong. We have known this to happen in other areas of the country and that is sad. I support the Minister in ensuring the regulations are in place. I support the Bill.
Mr. P. Carey Mr. P. Carey
Mr. P. Carey: I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. As someone who has been privileged to serve on the City of Dublin VEC since 1985 and who was its chairman for a number of years, I have some understanding of how the vocational education committees operate and how they have delivered their functions and programmes effectively since the VEC sector was established in 1930. The Vocational Education Act, 1930, is probably one of the most enabling Acts passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. I wish this generation could pass legislation similar to that which allowed the VEC sector to do what it has been doing over the years.
It has been said both inside and outside the House that the VEC sector is political and is a politically driven system of education. It is composed of people who are elected by the public and who serve, without political or financial gain, for the benefit of the people in their area. Allegations have been made from time to time that appointments are made out of political motivation. That has happened on only a few occasions and it rarely happens now. The Bill tries to draw  together much current practice and to formalise it in statutory form. For example, the City of Dublin VEC has for many years had student representation on its committee. This was when the VEC in Dublin was responsible not just for the 22 or 23 second level schools, but also for the six or seven third level colleges of what is now the Dublin Institute of Technology. The Dublin Institute of Technology colleges always had student representation. This was a very positive step and I commend those like Mr. Paddy Donegan, who was chairman of the VEC for many years before myself, for their foresight in allowing and enabling membership by students. Students brought a breadth of vision and freshness to debate which there would not otherwise have been. I recall acrimonious debates with student representatives over inadequate services, the high level of fees and the high level of capitation being charged, but these debates were important nonetheless.
Since 1991, parents have been represented on the VEC. Long before the buzz word of “partnership” in education, parents' representatives were making a significant input to the VEC. The sector has been able to include parents and students through the setting up of sub-committees for second level schools. This allows members of local communities and the employment sector to debate issues which are then formalised at committee level. This has come a long way. There has also been staff representation on the VEC. I pay tribute to the teacher representatives, and in particular to the members of the TUI, for the strength they brought to the VEC. They are now also members of other committees.
All who are in touch with education know of the contribution made by the vocational education committees. I first got to know of their work many years ago when I saw their Outreach services. The VEC in Kerry was providing farm advisory classes, home economics classes and budgeting classes in the early 1960s. I commend them for their flexibility. Civil servants in Marlborough Street were often angered by the pushing out of boundaries by vocational education committees which allowed for innovation, but that has been the strength of the sector. It has been able to respond to the needs of local communities, whether rural or urban, and to develop appropriate programmes. It has also been good at evaluating those programmes.
The VEC sector, in co-operation with the Department of Education, promoted the Regional Technical College sector single-handed. Without the regional technical colleges, regional development would not be half as sturdy as it is. The Regional Technical Colleges brought to the regions opportunities for people to participate in third level education outside the university sector at a time when few people could avail of universities. It was a natural development of Mr. Donagh O'Malley's initiative for free second level education. The Regional Technical Colleges  have now become institutes of technology, driving regional development. In Dublin, we see the colleges of the Dublin Institute of Technology becoming an institute.
One concern is that the institutes of technology and the Dublin Institute of Technology are drifting academically upwards and are in danger of leaving behind the important one and two year courses. They are also leaving behind the idea of apprenticeship which is equally important. Those colleges have served the area of apprenticeship extremely well. At a time when there are labour shortages, those colleges should be supporting this area of apprenticeship training and innovation in a more proactive way.
The higher level courses in the Dublin Institute of Technology became the National Institute of Education, which in turn has become Dublin City University, and is a thriving hub of learning, research and academic excellence in my constituency. I compliment Mr. Danny O'Hare, the founding president of that university on the work he has done, and welcome his successor Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski. Mr. von Prondzynski will bring renewed strengths to the development of the university. However, the university should not forget that its roots are in the VEC sector. It is rooted in the community and I believe the university understands that.
Long before it was profitable or popular, and before free post-primary education, the vocational education committees were taking in those who were good with their hands. There was a tendency to shepherd those not academically gifted into the local “tech”, and these students studied for the group certificate. However, as the numbers striving for second level education expanded, so too did the capacity of the vocational sector to respond to those developing needs. They did not have streaming and entrance examinations. They took in anybody who arrived on their doorstep, irrespective of means, ability, or intelligence. I compliment them on that.
To an extent, they have not been rewarded for this. They inevitably ended up with many weaker students and that continues to be the case in many instances with which I am familiar. A Member mentioned in this debate that many students with serious literacy and numeracy deficiencies are now transferring to the vocational sector. Because of that, the Department of Education and Science and the Minister need to vigorously address the needs of vocational schools by way of additional resources. In many cases, while classes are small by comparable standards, a smaller class of weak, often behaviourally difficult students, needs additional teaching resources. This requires additional hardware and software, and additional curriculum programmes. The Minister should be enabling and resourcing these schools to respond to the needs of students, and this can be tackled in sections 9 and 26 of the Bill.
Ireland is as near to full employment as it is likely to get and large numbers of students are working part-time from their early teens. They  work in places such as corner shops, and in some instances they are even working in the IT industry. I have seen the serious effects on the progress of these students of an over-involvement in part-time work. It is an area of concern. Initiatives such as the eight to 15 year programme initiated by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, some years ago, should be continued and expanded. These initiatives need to be localised. The Minister and his officials will be aware that in partnership and drug task force areas there is a tendency for specialist staff to be recruited to work with these people.
I would prefer to see these allocations being made directly to the schools as I am not convinced that agencies such as partnerships and task forces have as good an understanding of students' needs.
The transfer of students from vocational schools to third level must be addressed. It is unsatisfactory that in constituencies such as mine third level participation rates are as low as 3% or 4% in spite of the introduction of the free fees initiative. This initiative, with which I fundamentally disagreed, has had no impact whatsoever. It has done very little for students from my own area and third level education generally.
I compliment the Minister and previous Ministers on facilitating the development of vocational schools in the post-leaving certificate area. PLCs were devised at a time when we had high levels of unemployment and needed to benefit from the European Social Fund in order to keep students in education for as long as possible. I recall numbers falling in the junior cycle in some of our schools and the attempt to devise programmes which would benefit students in the senior and post-senior cycles. The Department was extremely well disposed towards addressing this problem. I compliment the Minister for Education and Science who, when Minister for Social Welfare, made post-leaving certificate courses, such as VTOS, eligible for social welfare allowances. He did this in the absence of the imposition of any great administrative restrictions.
The fact that post-leaving certificate courses are now validated by the NCVA is an important development. The curriculum development unit, a partnership between Trinity College and City of Dublin VEC, has piloted and structured new courses appropriate to the needs of students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in mainstream third level education.
The issue from which I have derived most personal satisfaction is the manner in which the vocational education committees developed the vocational training opportunities scheme. At a time of high unemployment, there was a need to initially address the provision of literacy and numeracy skills, but, laterally, the focus moved towards providing opportunities for early school leavers. I recall teaching in an all boys' primary school in the Finglas area and seeing students leaving school at 14 years of age to work as van helpers with the local bakery and dairy and as  apprentices in companies such as Unidare, Whessoe and Gateaux, which was a very big employer in the area. When Gateaux closed down, Unidare downsized and Premier Dairies was taken over by a larger co-op, these young people ended up on the dole. VTOS was established primarily to address their needs.
It is to the eternal credit of some very visionary people – chief executive officers, members of the Irish Vocational Education Association, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCVA and NCEA – that they ensured VTOS courses were properly underpinned and thought out. It is a source of great satisfaction to me and others that some of the participants in the early scheme are now working as permanent teachers in vocational schools. I recently met a VTOS participant who qualified as a barrister and is working in the Law Library. I know of someone else who lectures in history in Maynooth. It is a great testimony to the flexibility of the VEC sector that people have been able to proceed so far.
The Youthreach programme has also addressed the problem of early school leaving very effectively. Some criticisms have been made to the effect that the programme operates on a parallel system to the community training workshops sponsored by FÁS. I disagree with this argument as I have seen young people, who have not fitted into the mainstream school system, blossom under the Youthreach programme. Many have proceeded to sit junior and leaving certificate examinations, albeit in a restricted curriculum. Those students take great pride in their achievements.
VECs have also been a pioneering force in the area of adult education. I welcome the fact that, under section 26, vocational education committees will be obliged to draw up a five year plan. If I have any criticism of the VEC system, about which I am passionate in terms of its ability to respond to local needs, it is that issues have often been addressed in an ad hoc manner and rationalised retrospectively. In regard to adult education, dynamic people, primarily volunteers, have tutored people with learning difficulties in their local communities on a one to one basis. The fact that the Government has published a White Paper on the subject further legitimises adult education and will finally put it in its proper place.
The area of youth work has also been legitimised or will be in the near future. This is a further aspect of VEC provision which is not often publicised. Together with this Bill, the Children Bill and the youth work legislation will copperfasten this area and ensure the effective delivery of services to young people and adults alike.
I compliment Omega, a young enterprise company from Finglas, which won an award yesterday. I expect it will represent Ireland in Moscow in October, following in the footsteps of previous companies in the area.
Mr. G. Reynolds Mr. G. Reynolds
Mr. G. Reynolds: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. Like Deputy  Carey, the VEC is close to my heart as I have served on Leitrim VEC for some time. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to be the chairperson because Fine Gael did not have sufficient members on the committee. We will fight that battle another day.
I welcome the Minister's proposals in the Bill as the democratisation of education is a laudable objective. My fundamental difficulty with the Bill is that those nominated for VEC membership – student representatives and representatives of voluntary and business organisations – must be approved by the local authority before being entitled to take up membership. This provision is unnecessary and the Minister should reconsider it prior to Committee Stage.
My criticism of the VEC system is that it is sometimes perceived as being abused by whatever political party has a majority on a committee. The Minister should not introduce legislation which gives local authority members a veto on the membership of VEC boards. A preferable option would be to allow student bodies, voluntary organisations and the business community to nominate representatives to boards. Nominees should not have to receive the blessing of politicians on local authorities who would not wish to have such powers or to have to make such decisions. If local authority members are asked to make such decisions, matters will become political and we are trying to avoid that problem.
I was a member of County Leitrim VEC for some time but stood down after the last local elections. I am happy with the role played by vocational education committees in recent years. However, I question the process involving boards of selection. The general view of vocational education committees was that it did not matter how good a teacher was but which political party he or she followed. That was an undesirable situation. In the case of County Leitrim VEC, the majority political party incorrectly made appointments based on the fact that people were aligned to it. I am not just blaming Fianna Fáil as I have no doubt that other political parties could be accused of a similar practice.
I hope the Minister will use the opportunity presented by the Bill to deal with the composition of selection boards. I have no difficulty with people from local vocational education committees being members of such boards. However, I experienced a situation in which a five member board, comprising four members of the VEC and an inspector, carried out interviews for a senior teaching position. Of the four VEC members, only two had a third level education. I am not suggesting that a third level education is necessary, but the other board members made decisions which many regarded as unfair. The board should comprise one member of the local VEC, one member of an outside VEC, the regional inspector and the chief executive officer or the principal of the school involved. This  would remove concerns about political bias in the VEC sector which still exist within the teaching profession.
People running vocational schools regret that the Bill will result in a continuation of the domination of the membership of committees by political appointees. Staff representation is seen as inadequate. The Bill provides that two members of the VEC will be elected by staff. The staff of the VEC will consist of a number of categories including teachers, staff involved in administration, maintenance and youth services, adult education organisers, educational psychologists and principals and deputy principals. The two persons elected will represent the teaching staff, leaving all other categories unrepresented. I am concerned that some principals and deputy principals will not be represented, despite the fact that, together with the chief executive officers of vocational education committees, they have a legal responsibility for the performance of their duties. Many staff within the system may not be represented on these boards. I am not suggesting the membership of boards should be large and unmanageable, but this issue should be reconsidered before Committee Stage.
Section 9(e) refers to the consultation process. vocational education committees will consult a number of groups. However, principals and deputy principals, who are responsible for running schools, are excluded from this process. They may be consulted but it would be preferable if the Bill provided that they must be consulted. Principals and deputy principals take an overall view on how schools and the school system should be run, and it would be wrong if the legislation does not provide that they have to be consulted. The Minister should consider this issue before Committee Stage.
Section 16 allows the chief executive officer to delegate any functions performed by him or her to a member of staff. This is a broad provision and I would question whether this could mean that a chief executive officer could ask someone on the administrative staff to run a school for a day if the principal or deputy principal was unavailable. The wording of this section needs to be tightened to prescribe which categories of staff are regarded as appropriate to be delegated such tasks.
The Bill proposes new methods of reporting service plans, annual reports, education plans and other issues. However, resources have not been provided to facilitate this important work. We are wonderful at introducing well-meaning legislation without provided the necessary finance to carry out the work. The Minister must tackle this issue.
The Bill also provides for the funding of vocational education committees, but not of individual schools. There is much disquiet in the VEC sector that the level of funding for schools is not the same as for State schools in the community schools sector. There is no accountability in this matter. If I tabled a parliamentary question in this regard, the answer would probably be that it  is a matter for the chief executive officer of the relevant VEC, that he or she has to act within the constraints of funding made available and that schools are not allocated specific amounts of funding. Community schools are given a budget within which they have to operate. The Minister could consider this, although a number of chief executive officers would not be in favour of such a process because they would consider it a diminution of their position. However, administration might be easier if each school had its own budget and had to live within it. The chief executive officer could then deal with the many other aspects of vocational education in which the VEC is involved. I ask the Minister to respond to this suggestion in his reply.
As many of my colleagues said, vocational education committees throughout the country have done excellent work in areas such as adult education, the education of the Traveller community and post leaving certificate courses. The visionary and voluntary work of the VEC sector with regard to adult education should be complimented, encouraged and congratulated. There are still problems in relation to literacy and the adult education system has played an important role in educating people in that regard over the years. This should be encouraged and I hope it will continue. I agree with my colleagues that adult education has been effective. Most vocational education committees run post leaving certificate courses and they are most welcome. It is a progressive idea and the courses give young people who may have had a difficulty with their leaving certificates an opportunity to continue in education. Such courses should be encouraged.
A number of schools in County Leitrim are awaiting progress reports from the Minister for Education and Science. There are two schools in Mohill, County Leitrim – the Marian College and Mohill VEC. Due to the inadequate and dangerous buildings at the Marian College, the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, announced that a new school would be built on the site. I understand the main reasons for this were that the structure of a number of the classrooms was inadequate and there were health and safety issues. The decision to demolish the classrooms was announced approximately 18 months ago.
The decision to amalgamate the two secondary schools in one town was a departure from education policy. However, the matter has been the subject of ongoing discussion in Mohill and agreement has been reached between the two schools that a new school should be built on a site beside the Marian College provided by the Sisters of Mercy. However, the Minister must decide whether it will be a VEC run community school or a community college. Will the Minister make up his mind as a matter of urgency given that the buildings that were considered a health hazard two years ago are still in existence in the Marian College and children and teachers use the  classrooms every day? A decision by the Minister is awaited and I hope he will make it quickly.
In my home town of Ballinamore, successful co-operation in second level education has evolved over the past 27 years. The local VEC school and the local secondary school for girls and boys have co-operated effectively and the only difficulty is that one school is located at the northern end of the town while the other is located at the southern end. This means students must walk the half mile, sometimes in inclement weather, from one classroom to another. Teachers and parents have requested the Department of Education and Science to consider building a new school in the town on a new site. The local community has provided a state of the art community hall and sports complex and I suggest the new school building should be located close to the new hall. This would ensure all the facilities are together. A decision by the Minister on that is awaited. He said he has no difficulty in principle with the building of a new school and we are awaiting a decision on whether it will be a community school or a community college. I ask the Minister to make an announcement on that matter as soon as possible.
In the context of the education sector in general, it is a good idea to have students, voluntary organisations and the business community represented on VEC boards. The VEC system as it stands is the most democratic in the education sector. Why are the same measures not proposed for the primary and secondary sectors? It is imperative that students, parents, voluntary organisations and businesses are given a say in the running of the primary and secondary education sectors. The Bill is an ideal place to address this issue but, unfortunately, the Minister does not have the courage of his convictions. He is tinkering with the edges because the vocational education committees are easy to address. The changes should be general policy and I hope when the Bill is enacted the Minister will seriously consider implementing them in the primary and secondary sectors.
Mr. Bradford Mr. Bradford
Mr. Bradford: Deputy Reynolds referred to the management of schools throughout the country. The Minister's proposals relate to VEC education and schools, but there will be a fundamental change in school ownership and management in the next few years. On that basis, it is imperative that the Minister and his Department closely examine how the educational system operates, how it is managed and its ownership. In the past 20 years, there has been a significant reduction in the number of religious people available to teach in voluntary secondary schools. A number of schools run by either nuns or brothers have closed and in many cases the VEC was able to respond positively.
Five years ago in the town of Buttevant in my constituency, the numbers attending the local convent secondary school fell dramatically over a ten year period and it was forced to close. The  loss of a secondary school in a town of that size could have torn the heart out of the community and I was glad that the then Minister for Education, former Deputy Niamh Bhreathnach, created an opportunity for County Cork VEC to take over the school. It was agreed on the basis of being an experiment for a two or three year period. Fortunately, as a result of the intervention of the excellently managed County Cork VEC and the support of the local community, the school has been a spectacular success to such an extent that a new school is proposed for Buttevant by the VEC. It is a an example of what can be done when the vocational education committees work closely in conjunction with local communities, parents and students. I hope there are other examples throughout the country.
It is a positive development because it shows how things have changed regarding the way the VEC system is viewed by parents and the wider community. Fifteen or 20 years ago VEC schools had a status problem in a number of towns, especially where there was a voluntary sector school in the area. It may have been due to the fact that the VEC sector concentrated more on technical and practical subjects rather than academic ones. There has been a fundamental change in perception as the subjects taught by the vocational education committees in the 1960s and 1970s have become necessary core subjects in the second level curriculum. The excellence, good management and vision shown by vocational education committees has placed their schools at the top of the education league. As a result the inferiority complex which many in the sector felt obliged to accept has disappeared. I welcome that.
It is more than 70 years since the Cumann na nGaedheal Government led by William T. Cosgrave laid the foundation for the VEC system. That Government and Dáil, which formed the State and created the Garda Síochána and the Army, developed industry and started the process of modernisation and change, did a fine job in establishing the vocational education system. It was a very far seeing development in the late 1920s and early 1930s and it has stood the test of time. Many of the towns and students who had no prospect of access to a voluntary secondary school were facilitated by the development of second level VEC schools. It generated huge economic and social change and progress and educated tens of thousands of young people.
However, the system needs to be modernised and changed. While the Bill does not provide all the necessary changes it is a positive and welcome initiative. I especially welcome the decision to give a greater role at VEC management level to parents and students. I agree with the views expressed by my party's spokesperson on Education, Deputy Creed, on the apparent veto which the vocational education committees may impose on the selection of parents and students.  Nevertheless, I support the concept of strong parental and student representation.
Student representation is considered the norm at third level where student unions looking after the interests of third level students is taken for granted. Unfortunately, it was only during the recent industrial action in secondary schools, which affected leaving certificate students, that the possibility of student representation at second level emerged. This must be welcomed because the education system is designed to provide not for the parents or teachers but the students. It is, therefore, opportune and appropriate that students would be represented at VEC level in a fair and equal manner.
I was a member of County Cork VEC from 1991 to 1999 when I was perhaps not much older than most of the students whose careers I was supposed to look after. I often considered it a weakness at VEC meetings that issues affecting students in a fundamentally important way were discussed with only second hand information on their views on any of the changes we proposed to introduce. I hope there will be a clear opportunity for students to have their voices heard at the policy making forum, which will take place at county VEC level.
My colleague, Deputy Creed, has pointed out the danger of having a political veto over certain appointments at both parental and student level. That cannot be condoned. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the occasions when the local authority or VEC would not accept nominations by parents or students. If we want parents or students to nominate representatives to the VEC it should not be within the powers of the VEC or local authority to reject a nomination unless there are exceptionally good grounds for doing so. There is no indication in the legislation that such grounds are to be provided for. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this aspect.
A number of Deputies referred to the situation regarding interview boards. In County Cork I served on interview boards on more than a few occasions. I found the process very fair and transparent. Perhaps members of other vocational education committees have had different experiences. There is a need to address even the slightest doubts that may arise regarding the fairness of the interview system or favouritism, be it on political or other grounds. We need to put in place a system that is clearly seen to be fair and open.
Under the Freedom of Information Act candidates, including unsuccessful ones, are entitled to access interview notes. That is to be welcomed. However, I understand this provision is causing difficulty for interview panels. Some of those involved in panels have advised me they no longer like to write notes on candidates because they do not want them read afterwards. There is a need to look at the make-up of interview boards. If there is a problem, even in only one county, it is one too many. We need to ensure  the system is seen to be fair, open, honest and transparent.
Section 18 provides for co-operation between two or more vocational education committees.
This is welcome. A county as large as Cork can, perhaps, carry out its business effectively, but other VEC boards would do well to reflect on the possibility of co-operating with adjoining vocational education committees. This would be particularly appropriate with regard to providing access to third level education and third level courses. We are moving away from the simplistic notion that third level education can only be provided in a university, regional college or institute of technology. We must aspire, in forthcoming years, to putting a system in place – the VEC system is the ideal vehicle for doing so – to ensure at least some amount of third level education is available in every large provincial town. There are many wasted classrooms and buildings within the VEC system. It should be possible to provide third level courses across a wide range of subjects in those facilities. There are great opportunities for a number of vocational education committees to come together and work to that end.
Counties in the more peripheral areas of the country should work together to ensure VEC schools in their larger towns can provide a certain number of third level courses. Access to education must apply, not just regardless of financial means, but also of geographical location. I hope the vocational education committees, under the co-operation powers conferred by section 18, will make progress in that regard. The VEC system helped to transform Irish education since the 1930s and ensure that people throughout the country can access second level education of the highest standard. It now has a role to play in ensuring some amount of third level education is also available to students throughout the country from all backgrounds, regardless of parental income or geographical location. I hope section 18 will be seen in that light by the vocational education committees. It might not apply to large vocational education committees such as that in County Cork, but smaller vocational education committees could use the section to make progress.
Perhaps we should look again at the number of vocational education committees. The sector has worked well, but the fact that 70 years after their establishment there has been no examination of amalgamation for some vocational education committees does not mean it should not happen. Our interest should be to ensure the best level of service for pupils. Some of the smaller vocational education committees might not have the facilities to operate as successfully as they could or should. This issue should be considered by the Department. The Minister does not claim to address all problems in the VEC system with this  Bill, but the fact that he ignores the issue of amalgamating some of the smaller vocational education committees means he is failing to address an important issue.
The Bill is welcome. It marks a further step in the advancement of the VEC system, a system which has served the country well. I am particularly glad that parents and students will have better representation at decision making levels in an area which has such a huge effect on them. I hope the Minister will reflect on Deputy Creed's contribution and ensure there will be no political vetting or veto applied to the selection of students' and parents' representatives.
Mr. McGrath Mr. McGrath
Mr. McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Many speakers have referred to the legislation which established vocational education committees and vocational schools. The Vocational Education Act, 1930, was introduced by the Cumann na nGaedheal Government. That Government was in office for a number of turbulent years during a difficult time. During its term of office it put together a tremendous range of services and, in effect, took the gun out of Irish politics. It put in place a number of institutions which have lasted extremely well. It also put in place legislation to provide that Secretaries of Departments were made accountable for what happened in their Departments.
The Vocational Education Act was one of its legislative measures which has withstood the passage of time. However, the Minister who introduced the Act, former Deputy O'Sullivan, was, perhaps, a little naive about how some of the provisions might operate. He put in a place an elaborate procedure for the appointment of members to the VEC, but it was subsequently used and manipulated by certain vocational education committees in ways which were not to the benefit of the VEC, how it did its work and how it selected personnel.
The county council in my constituency is dominated by the political party of which the Minister is a member. In the aftermath of the last three council elections, the party used the system provided for in the Vocational Education Act to maximise the number of people it could appoint to the VEC. There was no question of coming together with other groups and deciding who were the best people for the job. The party monopolised the places and filled them with people who had not been elected and so forth. That was a shame. It also reluctantly agreed to include teachers' and parents' representatives. The party was so mean about it that only one of each was elected in order that the party could maximise the number of its political representatives on the board.
That was sad, particularly when one considers what happened in 1985 and subsequently. The VEC appointed in Westmeath at that time  brought about one of the greatest scandals to occur within the vocational education system. It subsequently came to light that, for example, it bought property in France without ministerial approval. That was outside its jurisdiction. It also bought property in Delvin, County Westmeath. Subsequently, a petrol tank was discovered under the building. It was, therefore, unsafe to use for any purpose. The VEC had a petty cash account which was overdrawn by £900,000.
A parents' group in Athlone ran bun sales, dances, walks and so forth to raise £25,000 to purchase a bus in order that the school could transport pupils to swimming and other activities. What did the enlightened chief executive officer of the day do? He mortgaged the bus to the bank and raised a loan of approximately £35,000. The money was used to improve kitchens and other facilities in the school, but there was no recourse to the tendering process and other procedures.
All this came about because in 1985 the Fianna Fáil group on the VEC had its own chairperson in place. A decision was taken at the time that no further chief executive officers would be appointed to vocational education committees. However, it decided to appoint an acting or temporary chief executive officer. While there are very strict regulations on the appointment of a chief executive officer of a VEC, no such regulations govern the appointment of an acting chief executive officer. The committee had an eminent chairperson and she subsequently went on to do great things in this House and occupies a Front Bench position in this Dáil. She was chairperson of the VEC at the time and it decided on who should be chief executive officer.
The nine Fianna Fáil members arranged to have a meeting at which eight turned up. There were two nominees for the position, both of whom happened to be Fianna Fáil councillors. The vote was split at four all. On the casting vote of the chairperson, the acting chief executive officer was appointed and from that came the difficulties which emerged within the VEC. While the legislation worked well in most areas, it was manipulated in some which led to some vocational education committees being given a bad name. That said, the corruption which existed within the organisation at the time fortunately did not spread to schools within its remit. They operated extremely well and the dedicated teachers in them did a tremendous job. Those schools are a credit to those teachers and their principals.
In discussing the Vocational Education Act, 1930, we must mention the advance made in further education in the late 1970s in the form of regional technical colleges, subsequently renamed institutes of technology. They came under the jurisdiction of vocational education committees. It is interesting that the legislation designed in the 1930s was able to accommodate  the establishment of those colleges, albeit with some amendments. The institutes of technology have since removed themselves from the VEC system. Perhaps the institutes were not happy dealing with the vocational education committees, but the committees did serve them well for a long time and that worked well.
There are a number of thorny issues in the VEC system, the greatest of which is, perhaps, the rationalisation of schools. Some small towns have two or three schools and the population is not sufficient to sustain that. If a school is to provide a full range of services and subjects, it needs to have about 500 pupils. That is the break even number for offering a variety of subjects, careers advice and so on. While rationalisation has fallen into place quite easily in some places and great progress has been made, there are major difficulties in some areas. The Department needs to give a tremendous lead in this area. It needs to put in some of its best people to resolve those difficulties. It is not fair on pupils and wrong that they will lose out while discussions on rationalisation are ongoing. Some cases take years to resolve. Will the Minister of State examine the trouble spots and identify three or four roving diplomats, so to speak, who will be in a position to draw groups together and make recommendations on rationalisation to bring it to fruition?
There is nothing as bad for an area as uncertainty about a school. If there is uncertainty about which school will close, the result will be pupils being bussed out of the area to another school. They will often be the good students and it will create an atmosphere that one must go out of town to get a better education. That is not right and the Minister of State should take note of it.
Funding is another issue which must be examined. There is a great deal of debate, difficulty and ill-feeling about the level of funding in different second level schools. Voluntary secondary schools feel hard done by and believe VEC schools get a much better deal and have permanent caretakers and secretaries. Voluntary secondary schools receive block grants to cover those and cannot afford the same cover because of the level of funding. They feel hard done by and believe it is unfair. It is unjust if one assumes all children of the nation must be treated equally. Equal funding should be given to the different types of schools for their operations. The Minister of State might say vocational education committees cater for further and adult education. They do a great job in the cases with which I am familiar.
An example is, Coláiste Cionn Torc, the local vocational school in Castlepollard, County Westmeath, in which 150 students are enrolled and 180 adults are registered for further education in various courses. There is a great air of success about the fact that adult education is seen to be important in the area and that many adults  will further their education. Many of the additional studies are in the information technology sector.
While that is welcome, the sad aspect to it is that an extension and possible new building for the school was approved in 1987, 14 years ago and before I was elected to the House. It was given priority status in 1996 by the then Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, but a site has only now been bought for a new school. Little else has happened and it is very sad that Fianna Fáil dominated Governments since 1987 have not progressed this.
An eminent Senator lives in the town a stone's throw from the school. It is interesting to hear him speak of his commitment to the area but he has failed to progress the project. There will be a great deal of huffing and puffing on his part in the run up to the general election with him declaring what he has done for the school, but the record speaks for itself. It was approved in 1987 and a site has only been bought now with planning permission obtained. The project needs money to be progressed. Perhaps the Minister of State can bring that project forward and give it priority so that the children in the area will get the opportunity they deserve.
Another item which deserves mention is the processing of higher education grants. It has always fallen on deaf ears, even when my party was in Government, when I have said that the processing of such grants needs to be streamlined. There was a proposal to centralise them at one stage. I do not agree with that. They should be centralised locally. There should be one body processing higher education grants in a county, be it the county council or the vocational education committee. I am sure the Chair has the same problems in his busy constituency as I have. A person will tell me queries have been raised about his son's grant application and will ask if there is anything I can do about it. I contact the county council to be told the application was not made to it and was possibly made to the VEC.
There is a great deal of confusion and people do not know where to apply to. That is why grant application processing should be centralised locally. It would ensure a standardised approach to the processing of applications. There are 74 processing bodies for higher education grants. That is ridiculous for the size of the population. Perhaps the Minister of State will bear that in mind. Perhaps she might also bear in mind that the processing of higher education grants within the VEC system is paid for by the Department whereas the processing within county councils is not paid for at all. That is not fair. Why should that be? Why should it not be the same approach across the board?
The Vocational Education (Amendment) Bill introduces many worthwhile improvements. Five year plans must be made within vocational education committees. This is welcome and worth while. Annual reports are also welcome. I hope these reports do not become mere prospectuses for vocational education committees, full of glossy photographs of high profile local people. They should promote education and set out what is happening within it.
Section 19 controls expenditure and is particularly welcome in the light of the Westmeath experience. It says vocational education committees must operate within the expenditure limits set down by the Minister. Over the years a number of vocational education committees spent money they did not have and had to be rescued by the Minister. Millions of pounds were paid to vocational education committees which had overspent. Approximately 15 vocational education committees erred in this regard and County Westmeath VEC was one of these. One might wonder why the Department should come to the rescue of these vocational education committees. Is it fair that a VEC should be rescued when it overspends? That is a large debate for another occasion. Section 19 deals with this area and obliges vocational education committees to operate within their budgets. If they do not, their budgets for the following year will be reduced accordingly. I welcome this new regulation.
The inclusion of parents and teachers on vocational education committees is worthwhile. It is time this representation was placed on a statutory footing. However, I am concerned about the representation of students. The Bill does not guarantee the presence of students on the committees. Students will be among the nominating bodies but other members of the vocational education committees will choose the actual representatives. This might exclude important student voices from vocational education committees. We heard extremely articulate second level students being interviewed during the recent teachers' dispute. Such students would have an important role to play within the VEC system. We should strengthen the legislation so that specific places are reserved for students on vocational education committees.
The Bill states that regulations can be made by the Minister and laid before the House and that those regulations will become law unless they are annulled by the House. In recent times attempts have been made to change that negative system. The Minister should be obliged to get the agreement of the House for the regulations to come into force rather than wait for someone to put down a motion of annulment. It would be more appropriate for regulations to be laid before the House for its approval. This would be a more positive approach.
Mr. Hayes Mr. Hayes
Mr. Hayes: I join colleagues in welcoming the Bill and I am glad to make a contribution to it. Deputy McGrath has referred to the involvement of students in the newly composed vocational  education committees, as set out in the legislation. The legislation does not make it clear whether students will now be part of the newly composed bodies. Section 7 places the responsibility for bringing forward students who may or may not become members of the VEC on the local authority. This is a retrograde step. The biggest interest in the vocational education committees is that of the pupils. The controversy of the recent student protests highlighted this issue. A huge constituency of well motivated, articulate young people had much to say about education. Much of what they said was positive and did not merely consist of ranting and raving. The voice of this constituency was expressed during the recent student demonstrations which followed the Government's handling of the teachers' dispute. This legislation does not recognise this constituency.
It is clear that the rights of teachers, parents and the local authority to be represented on vocational education committees have been set out in law but this right is not being extended to pupils. They will be considered. Section 7 says they will be considered “from among persons nominated by such bodies as, in the opinion of the council concerned, are representative of students”. This must be changed on Committee Stage. The Bill does not give students recognition on the new vocational education committees as of right.
Section 9 deals with the new functions to be ascribed to vocational education committees. This section sets out in law the right of vocational education committees to assess themselves and state that one of the functions of a VEC will be to assess whether “the manner in which it performs its functions is economical, efficient and effective”. This is a bad move. We cannot repeat what happened in County Westmeath. There must be an independent monitoring system, either by one VEC of another or by the private sector. We are loath to introduce independent assessment of the performance of schools, vocational education committees and other educational institutions. We need to build upon this area. If we are to provide economical, efficient and effective performance by vocational education committees this performance cannot be assessed by the people whose performance is being assessed. It must be done by an independent body. I encourage the Minister to respond to this point.
I welcome section 21 which deals with the service plan. The Minister is proposing that a service plan “shall be in such form and shall contain such information as the Minister may determine”. We need to put this in law and the Minister needs to spell out exactly what he wants in a service plan. From my brief knowledge of the House in the few years I have been a Member, I am aware that we  regularly pass legislation which does not describe exactly what we want in the final product. We give considerable powers to Ministers to make up their minds as they may determine. It is a matter for the House which should have the final say as to what ends up in the service plans. The issue should be debated on Committee Stage.
Many colleagues have rightly paid tribute to the work of the vocational education committees since they were first established in 1930. Most regard them as flexible institutions in dealing with educational needs within a local area and in providing a community focus. The community colleges which have been established directly under the vocational education committees have shown the way to involve the wider community in education. There is a much more approachable, democratic structure within community colleges, for instance, than in other secondary schools. We should continue to focus on this and replicate it in other sectors. Many sectors of education can learn a great deal from the vocational education committees. Unfortunately, however, we have this kind of pitched warfare from time to time that takes place between various sections of education, with no one learning from the other. This must change.
One of the most radical departures for the VEC structure in recent years was the establishment and expansion of post-leaving certificate, or PLC, courses. In the Dublin area they have made a huge difference to the quality of third level courses now being provided for students, which are directly linked to the needs of industry and lead to jobs at the end of the process. I urge the Government to give students who undertake arduous examinations and are part of the PLC structure the resources to remain in college. Currently, a flexible labour market provides incentives that encourage people not to take up PLC courses on offer. The Government has not been judicious about this matter and has not provided financial support for students who need to stay in college. That is the case throughout the education system, whether it involves PLCs, institutes of technology or universities. Students are, therefore, finding it difficult to make ends meet. The lure of industry means that big money can be earned by 18, 19 or 20 year olds and, consequently, people do not want to pursue these courses. When the economy goes the other way, however, and the cycle is on the downside, these are the very same jobs that will be lost. It is essential, therefore, to support the work of vocational education committees by providing adequate financial support for students who wish to remain in third level education of one form or another.
Another aspect of vocational education committees has been the extension of Youthreach programmes throughout the country. I congratulate all the teachers and administrators working within these programmes. Recently, I had an  opportunity to visit a Youthreach programme in Killinarden in Tallaght in my own constituency. They are picking up children who have fallen through the system. It is to the VEC's credit that Youthreach has been such a fantastic success.
Many children dropping out of secondary education have nowhere to turn. On 2 May, I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science in which I asked him if he could tell me the number of children who had been expelled or suspended from all secondary schools for each of the past five years, but he could not. We are supposed to be putting in place laws and regulations to deal with this area, yet we do not have the relevant information for the past five years. The Youthreach programme provided by County Dublin VEC and in other parts of the country provides the exact care, tuition and help required by children who fall through the system. The Department of Education and Science, however, cannot tell us how many children have been expelled or suspended from secondary schools in the past five years. In his reply on 2 May, the Minister said, “As expulsion from school is a matter for each school authority, my Department has no information on the number of pupils who may have been expelled over the past five years”.
There is a growing problem of school expulsions, although we all understand the reason schools have to expel students. There is no institution or person, however, intervening with the families of those children in order to help them. Unless politicians provide direct help, there is nothing else there, apart from Youthreach which does a fantastic job. A child can be expelled from school and may be sitting at home or doing some work at 14, 15 or 16 years of age, yet no one from the Department of Education and Science is following up the matter. The scant resources available are not being provided for direct intervention in such cases.
Youthreach is a model programme and I support its work which has had a huge impact on the lives of children who have gone astray. We need to introduce all such children to the work of Youthreach, but this is not happening. The Education Welfare Bill is providing some initiatives in this area, but it is not good enough. One of the big problems in education that we are failing to deal with concerns the number of children not just dropping out of school, but being expelled from the system. We have not put in place a structure to monitor the number of children involved, or any kind of formal links between their educational and training needs and wider family problems in such cases.
I wish to deal with an issue that came to my attention this week in my constituency involving the number of qualified teachers in our schools. It relates directly to vocational education committees as much as any other aspect of education  and, specifically, those schools in disadvantaged areas. It is becoming increasingly difficult for local national and secondary schools of all descriptions in disadvantaged communities to retain teachers. I will cite one example from a letter I received from a school principal earlier this week, although I will not name the establishment concerned. The total allocation of teachers in the school is 32. Of this number, 25 are qualified, five have no qualifications whatsoever, yet they are teaching, and there are two unfilled posts. We must deal with this problem. It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract teachers to disadvantaged communities to work either at primary or secondary level and keep them in those schools because of the difficult circumstances they face. The Government should urgently bring forward a package of measures to help retain teachers in disadvantaged schools and attract new teachers. Such a package is necessary. From my conversations with a particular school principal in my constituency, I am aware of the frustrations which exist at board of management level, in the staff room and among parents due to the fact that it is impossible to keep qualified teachers in the schools.
I wish to outline a number of proposals to address the above problem. Teachers who work in disadvantaged communities should receive a top-up on their basic pay because the problems they face, if not unique, are quite different to those experienced in schools in other communities. Teachers who remain in a school in a disadvantaged area for five years should be entitled to six months' or a year's paid leave to recompense them for the time and effort expended in dealing with a variety of problems in that school.
It is essential that a greater degree of flexibility is introduced to ensure teacher numbers are maintained at high levels in disadvantaged communities. The school to which I refer, whose name I will not mention, takes in children from a primary school in which the Breaking the Cycle scheme operates and in which the pupil/teacher ratio is 15:1. When those children enter second level, they encounter a pupil/teacher ratio of 30:1. We are aware from St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, and the excellent work carried out under the Breaking Cycle Scheme that children's numeracy and literacy skills are enhanced by a small and focused classroom environment. It is very difficult to encourage students in disadvantaged communities to proceed to third level and to provide them with life chances similar to those afforded to students in other parts of society. It is imperative, therefore, that we maintain teacher numbers to ensure the optimum pupil/teacher ratio in these schools and introduce a package of measures which will attract the best teachers into them.
On the social services side, there are 13 fewer social workers in the area in which the above  school is located than in similar areas. It is increasingly difficult to attract qualified, highly motivated teachers into disadvantaged communities because it is virtually impossible to provide them with the type of flexibility they require to avoid burn-out.
I concur with the point made by Deputy McGrath in regard to the establishment of a local processing body for higher education grants which would bring together the grants and supports offered by the VEC and those provided by the local authority. People are completely confused about how and where they should apply for these grants and I urge the Minister to address this confusion.
I welcome this Bill. My comments on student representation, the service plan and its accountability to this House should be embodied in Government amendments on Committee Stage. I would certainly support any such amendments.
Mr. Roche Mr. Roche
Mr. Roche: I welcome this progressive legislation. The VEC sector has served Ireland extraordinarily well. I represent a county in which the VEC is the biggest provider of second level education of a quite superior standard. The VEC seems to be particularly capable of dealing with current challenges such as VTOS and other local initiatives. County Wicklow VEC has a remarkable range of services in its remit, an example of which is the arts support it provides.
The Bill proposes to revise the composition of the vocational educational committees to include mandatory parent and staff representation. That is eminently sensible. I also concur with the view that student representation should be provided for. There are certain ambiguities in regard to the issue of representation, not just in vocational education committees but also on boards of management. The Department does not seem capable of offering any clarity on these matters. There is currently a controversial case in my constituency in which a group of people who are not members of the parents' group are attempting to remove parent representatives, as a result of which an excellent school will suffer. Institutional arrangements must be put in place in a new environment to deal with the challenges which arise.
The VEC system requires modernisation and innovation. I welcome the progressive provisions in regard to the preparation of an education plan. That should be stipulated in legislation. I am, however, concerned that we will again split a VEC's functions into reserved and executive functions. That has happened since the 1920s. The idea that policy and its implementation are divisible is mythical. Policy and its implementation is a continuum, not a dichotomy. I hope the splitting of functions will not result in similar destructive forces entering the VEC system as have entered the local authority system in recent  years whereby elected representatives deeply resent the oppressive role played by management from time to time.
By and large, chief executive officers have operated very well in the VEC system but I would not like to see a greater proportion of power being vested in them than in VEC members who represent a great deal of common sense. There is an adage to the effect that if one gives people too much power, it will go to their heads and have a destructive force. A balance must be struck in this area and I do not believe sufficient time or effort has been devoted to considering the potentially damaging impact of a lack of balance in this area.
The Bill's provisions relating to reporting, accounting and financial procedures are well recognised and are needed. Deputy McGrath made reference to the adventures in Westmeath, for example, and there were one or two other cases in which it was suggested that some accounting and financial procedures were not dealt with properly, so these legislative steps are welcome in that regard.
I want to make a final point. I am sure it was not intentional but there has been some disservice to the vocational education committees in the debate because the old myth which is regularly trotted out about the VEC system of appointing teachers being subject to abuse was again trotted out on a number of occasions. As on the previous occasion a number of years ago when we had a similar debate in this House, there was a remarkable lack of evidence produced to support that particular thesis. Indeed, one or two speakers today made the point that they believed the system was potentially open to abuse but went on to make it absolutely clear that they had involved themselves in committees of selection at VEC level and that, in their particular vocational education committees, all was as pure as the driven snow.
There appears to be a requirement to bring this particular arid debate to an end. It is a debate which is ultimately destructive. I have been a member of a VEC for approximately 15 years. I was a member of an Regional Technical College board before that and as a public representative, I have always refused to serve on those boards because I believe there is something wrong about that selection process. If there was to be an addition to the Bill I would like to see a more professional selection process introduced, not because there has been any systematic or systemic abuse but because there have been individual instances from time to time which were exaggerated out of all proportion. They do some disservice to the vocational education committees, to the people who serve on the VEC selection boards and to teachers. That is something we should address on Committee Stage.
 Overall, this is good legislation. It tries to modernise and it will bring about some incremental changes in the VEC system which has served us well. We do not serve the VEC system well if we exaggerate. The VEC system is flexible and, as Deputy Hayes said, it could be adopted to other schools. The Deputy made the point that the Minister could not say how many students had been expelled from schools – we are not supposed to use the word “expelled” any more – or subject to disciplinary action. It is bizarre when the Department of Education and Science cannot provide those details but those details could not have been provided five, ten or even 15 years ago by the Department because of the system that existed. The VEC system offers a democratic model which has served us well and which could and will be improved by this legislation.
Mr. Cullen Mr. Cullen
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Cullen): On behalf of the Minister I would like to thank all Deputies for their observations on the provisions of the Bill. The level of interest and attention to detail shown by Deputies in their consideration of the Bill is indicative of the pivotal role played by vocational education committees in education provision to date and I anticipate further constructive debate on Committee Stage. At this stage, however, I would like to respond on behalf of the Minister to a number of key issues raised.
The Minister has noted the point raised by Deputies Creed and Shortall in relation to the Title of the Bill and the use of the term “vocational education”. In a changing world it is right that our institutions, behaviours and even our titles should change, reflecting new emphases and new ways of doing traditional tasks. However, no process of change should be entered into lightly. In the case of the vocational education sector, it is well to remember what a change would mean.
Vocational education committees are a fundamental part of our education system. As the Minister said at the beginning of the debate, they were established at a time when the State was in its infancy. They began the provision of second level education at a time when it was the preserve of the few. Through successive decades they have continued to offer this education but also have been at the forefront of change in our system. The VEC sector led the way in the development of local colleges of education, which developed into regional institutes, which are today the institutes of technology, a crucial and progressive element of our third level sector.
In second level education today, VEC schools have been to the fore in embracing the new ideas of transition year, the leaving certificate applied and the leaving certificate vocational programmes offering new opportunities for second level students to learn in a manner and structure that  suits their needs. Based on such innovation, the title “VEC” is today associated with a commitment to provide for a modern education and a desire to continually meet the changing needs of students. I would be wary lest such an image might be lost amidst the inevitable confusion which might accompany any change of name.
I am not aware of any demand from the partners for a change to be made in the title of the sector. I know that for the partners too, the existing name has become very much part of their own operation, for example, in the titles of Irish Vocational Education Association or the Parents Association for Vocational Schools. However, the Minister accepts the principle that change can often be good, perhaps to reflect existing change or to lay a signal of an organisation's own commitment to change. One solution that offers itself at this time might be the introduction of an amendment to allow for a name change to be made by regulation by the Minister following consultation with all the interested parties. I understand the Minister will consider that matter further.
Deputies Creed and Shortall both referred to the desirability of extending the principle of partnership to all schools. This Government has made such a principle one of our central objectives in all education legislation. One crucial instance is the Education Act, 1998, which expressly provides, in section 14, that schools should be managed in a spirit of partnership. Further sections of the Act make provision for the involvement of students and parents in the affairs of the school. Another important instance is the national education welfare board, to be set up under the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000. This board, which will be established shortly, also provides that all the partners in education – teachers, parents and managers – will have a seat on the board to ensure their full involvement in the tackling of a key component of educational disadvantage.
I do not accept the views of the Deputies on the reintroduction of the regional education boards proposed by the previous Government. This Government was not prepared to see the diversion of millions of pounds of educational investment diverted into bureaucratic structures with so many other needs in education. What this Government has sustained are huge increases in investment to a total of £3.7 billion this year in all sectors of education since taking office, increases which are channelled directly into the classroom.
Deputies referred to the recent examination of the operation of the Department by Mr. Séan Cromien, an examination undertaken at the Minister's invitation. Mr. Cromien's report has highlighted a number of areas in the Department where action might be taken to improve and streamline services, and the Minister is currently considering the implications of such recommendations. I understand the Minister is committed to  the ongoing reform of the Department and will report back further to this House when such changes are agreed.
The Minister has noted Deputies Creed's and Shortall's comments on the membership of vocational education committees as proposed by the Bill. The intention in the Bill is to maintain the traditional model of partnership between vocational education committees and the local community and to allow for further dedicated representation for the parents of students attending VEC schools and for the staff of the VEC. The Bill also allowed for a further and wider category of representation on the VEC to include persons drawn from voluntary groups, the business community and students. On balance, I am happy that the provisions of the Bill, as they stand, allow for meaningful representation on the committees, giving full expression to the principle of partnership that has underpinned the success of this sector.
Deputy Shortall suggested extending the principle of partnership to the sub-committees of vocational education committees. Sub-committees, however, tend to have a particular and limited task. Their membership tends to be drawn with a view to meeting some technical problem or particular challenge. As such, it is an area where decisions should be left to individual vocational education committees in respect of the individual issues they will face.
Deputies Shortall and Creed also raised the issues of rationalisation of the VEC sector. The rationalisation model has been discussed at great length, both in this House and in other places. Indeed, much rationalisation has taken place.
I know the Minister will be anxious to deal with other matters Deputies have raised on Committee Stage, and he looks forward to that.
Question put and agreed to.
Dáil Éireann 536 Vocational Education (Amendment) Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).