Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 21 June, 2006
Adult and Further Education: Statements.
Miss de Valera Miss de Valera
Miss de Valera: I am glad to have the opportunity to present this overview of recent developments in adult and further education in Ireland. In the knowledge society, a well-developed education and training system and a workforce that is adaptable and willing to learn new skills are necessities. Research throughout the world has demonstrated the central influence of education on life chances and there has been a growing realisation in recent years that education must be lifelong if we are to have an inclusive and democratic society that can adapt successfully to meet new challenges. In addition, we know that increasing children’s participation in and benefit from education is heavily dependent on also enabling parents to support their children’s learning. Globalisation, increased competition, new technology, demographic change, a continuing need to upskill the workforce, more leisure time and an emphasis on social and cultural development are all converging factors which make it an imperative to invest systematically in adult education.
The adult education service is funded by the Department of Education and Science and delivered locally, mainly by the vocational education committees. In addition, but on a much smaller scale, secondary schools, community and comprehensive schools and local community groups are also adult education providers. The adult education service has expanded considerably over the past nine years. This expansion has concentrated on giving a second chance to people who did not derive full benefit from their initial schooling, particularly those who did not receive upper second level education. National certification for participants in adult and further education is provided by the further education and training awards. Some programmes receive certification from professional bodies and from a number of bodies outside the State, such as City and Guilds qualifications.
Within the context of lifelong learning policies, the conceptual frameworks for further education, adult education and vocational education and training are becoming inextricably linked. Developments at European and national level are facilitating greater co-operation, co-ordination and cohesion between the Departments with responsibilities in these fields and the statutory bodies with responsibility for delivery at regional and local levels.
My policy is to ensure that available educational resources are targeted at the most disadvantaged people across all levels of the system. It is important to note that the principal objectives are pursued through a number of full-time programmes such as Youthreach, senior Traveller training centre programmes, the vocational training opportunities scheme or VTOS, post-leaving certificate courses, as well as part-time programmes such as the back to education initiative, the adult literacy scheme and the community education programmes.
Adult literacy is the top priority in adult education. This priority was accorded following an international literacy survey of adults aged 16 to 64 that was published in 1997. It found that approximately 25% of our population, some 500,000 adults, scored at the lowest literacy level used in the survey. Since 1997, funding from the Department of Education and Science for adult literacy has increased incrementally from €1 million to just under €23 million in 2006. As a consequence, the number of clients catered for annually has increased from 5,000 in 1997 to over 35,000 in 2005. In this regard, we are well ahead of the annual target of 18,000 set in the national development plan.
Referral networks were developed by the VECs to ensure that those who needed them most were made aware of the adult literacy and basic education services. The referral system involves collaboration with other agencies catering for potential literacy students, such as FÁS, employment offices, welfare and community groups and schools. A national referral directory of adult literacy services has been published, showing where services are located, what options are offered and the contact points and telephone numbers. Staff development programmes have been established on a modular in-service basis for tutors and literacy organisers, and family literacy groups, involving adults and children, are running successfully.
Participants on the community employment scheme operated by FÁS can be released half-time from their work experience programmes to avail of intensive literacy tuition by the vocational education committees. This arrangement enables them to combine work experience and ten hours per week literacy tuition. The National Adult Literacy Agency, known as NALA, has trained a number of tutors to provide literacy in the workplace and has promoted the availability of this facility among employer organisations. The programme is now available for local authority outdoor staff nationwide. There are also successful workplace literacy programmes running in two hospitals and in a trade union.
To supplement the general adult literary service, a number of specially-targeted literacy programmes have been introduced for those in need of particular literacy services, for example, deaf people, people with dyslexia and native Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas. To cater for the literacy and basic education needs of immigrant groups, vocational education committees have provided funds to afford free access to literacy, English language and mother culture supports.
Earlier this year, a new intensive literacy programme commenced within the VECs, in which six hours of literacy tuition is available per week instead of the usual two hours. This pilot programme is running for 14 weeks and an evaluation will take place later. If the programme is found to have operated successfully, funding will be made available for its continuation. A quality framework for the adult literacy service has been developed and published by NALA in collaboration with partners in the North, Spain and Britain. An assessment framework for the adult literacy service, which will be known as Mapping the Learning Journey, is being introduced by the VECs.
It should be recognised that these initiatives will take time to impact on the 500,000 people with literacy problems. Over the years we found that one of the most useful ways of dealing with this issue was through the television series, “Read Write Now”. It has been successful and popular with audiences because people feel they can access it in the privacy of their own homes.
In a departure from the format employed heretofore, it is proposed to provide a new multimedia literacy tuition initiative in 2006. This will be done in partnership with NALA, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and RTE. Funding will be provided by my Department, the commission and RTE.
It is not enough to provide courses and certification. Without support, many of those committing to lifelong learning will flounder. Those who have embarked on this journey need to be guided along the way and a coherent integrated system of guidance provision is essential. The adult education guidance initiative was launched in 1999 in response to the recognition of these needs. Some 35 projects have been established and the service is almost nationwide. Having trained in career guidance, I admit to a particular interest in the question of adult guidance and a commitment to furthering this initiative.
Annual grants are given to VECs towards the cost of child care support for participants in VTOS, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centre programmes. This is to cover the child care expenses of people for whom these programmes were designed but who were not able to enrol on them because of child care responsibilities. Demand and provision have increased incrementally in recent years. My Department is also funding Qualifax. If speakers wish to refer to that initiative later in the debate, I will be happy to expand on it.
The success of programmes dedicated to preparing participants for employment is continuing to be sustained. Some 90% of students who complete post-leaving certificate courses progress to employment or further education — in the case of Youthreach, the figure is 74%; for VTOS, 69%; and for senior Traveller training centres, 51%. This year, there has been an increase in the rates of non-pay grant for VTOS, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centres from nearly 8% for Youthreach and senior Traveller centres to approximately 19% for VTOS participants, depending on the category of the student and the programme being followed.
The back to education initiative, a part-time measure, plays a key role in addressing the needs of those with minimal or no educational qualifications and providing a re-entry route for those who wish to upgrade their skills in line with emerging needs. I have increased the number of places available on a yearly basis with regard to the BTEI. Community education opportunities have been expanded and supported as part of the initiative, given the success of the model in reaching very marginalised groups. When the programme commenced in 2002, 6,000 places were available and we were able to increase this to 7,000 in 2005. The cost of the programme this year is in the region of €17,000,000.
I have appointed 37 community education facilitators to the vocational education committees on a flexible needs basis, to develop networks and link with community education groups to promote and assist their role in adult education provision and develop partnerships between statutory and voluntary interests, particularly in addressing the needs of those who are most marginalised. This is a new category of post and a training and support service has been put in place for the facilitators. I feel we will achieve value for money, given that so many people will now be able to avail of this service.
We have increased the number of post-leaving certificate, PLC, course places by 60% since 1996-97. Indeed, the number of PLC places approved for 2005-06 is up by more than 1,600 on the 2004-05 level. The number of approved places in the sector now stands at over 30,000. Government support for the sector is evident not only in the expansion of approved places and teachers, but also in the introduction of maintenance grants for students with effect from September 1998. Tuition fees for PLC courses are waived and the PLC maintenance grant scheme operates on the same basis as in higher education. There were nearly 8,000 PLC grant holders in 2005 and they received some €23 million in direct support. PLC students are included in the calculation of non-pay budgets issued to schools in respect of running costs. A supplemental non-pay grant towards running costs specifically for PLC schools is also payable. This amounted to €5.5 million in 2005. It is evident that Government commitment to the sector, by reference to the resources applied in teachers’ pay, non-pay running costs, student support and certification costs, is very significant.
The McIver report contains 21 over-arching recommendations, incorporating 91 sub-recommendations. It has been estimated, in consultation with management and staff interests, that the recommendations for staffing would involve, at a minimum, the creation of at least 800 new posts at a cost of over €48 million. This level of additional provision cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of education and the future of PLC provision is currently under active discussion. In their consideration of the needs of the PLC sector into the future, my officials have been examining, inter alia, the non-teaching educational tasks particular to PLC teachers, the demands on the management side and the challenges presented by the variation in size of the 200 plus PLC providers. When their deliberations have been completed, further discussion with the management and union side will be necessary.
In the whole area of further and adult education, non-pay expenditure has risen to approximately €146 million this year. Overall, this provision represents an increase of €8 million on 2005 and will provide for an expansion on existing services in the sector throughout 2006. The principal increases are in the rates of non-pay grants for the vocational training opportunities scheme, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centres. In addition, on my request, the Minister for Finance recently provided an additional €2 million for adult and further education. I have decided to spend €500,000 of this additional money on adult literacy, €500,000 on the further development of the adult guidance service and €1,000,000 on the expansion of the Back to Education initiative. This will enable my Department to continue to develop the various services we fund in order to address the needs of adults who wish to improve their education levels.
I look forward to the debate.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: It is appropriate that this debate is taking place at the moment as it highlights what has happened over the past week. It highlights the fact that the adult and further education sector is the Cinderella of the Irish education system.
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: That is no longer the case.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: The Minister of Stateat the Department of Education and Science clearly stated that the recommendations of the McIver report demand a commitment of €48 million and the creation of 800 additional posts. It is obvious from what the Minister of State said that the commitment to service that need has not been made. The 21 recommendations of the McIver report are in response to the failure of successive Governments and Ministers for Education to deal adequately with the needs of the further education sector.
A welcome announcement was made last week on higher level education and the availability of €3.8 billion for new scientific research and development projects. The reality is, however, many people long to participate at that level and cannot achieve it. Most of the Minister of State’s speech relates to adult literacy which is a problem that we all recognise. However the causes of this problem indicate the failure of the Minister for Education and Science to deal adequately with it at primary and second level.
Is it not a shame that 1,000 young people do not transfer from primary school to any form of second level education? That is the 2005 statistic. It is incomprehensible that this problem cannot be solved and nothing has been done to solve it. We were told welfare officers would be put in place. Only 73 are in place, yet there is a need for 300. Does this represent a commitment to solving the problems of adult and further education?
Educational research published as recently as 2005 shows some schools have a 60% dropout rate. The Minister for Education and Science and those involved in education today cannot be unaware of this. Research in urban and rural areas shows it affects the country as a whole. Given that some schools have a 60% dropout rate, how can we expect a highly successful labour force as grandiosely announced by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, the Minister for Education and Science and others last week.
The Minister of State referred to the Back to Education initiative, which was a wonderful scheme. Unfortunately, Deputy Coughlan, the former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, withdrew a good deal of support for it. This provoked an uproarious response which forced her into a U-turn that saw the initiative reinstated. How can the Minister of State suggest, on behalf of the Government, there is a commitment to Back to Education programmes when such uncertainty has been sown? This uncertainty reverberates down to the people who want to go back to education and commit themselves to a new way of life. They become despondent, turn their backs on education and are lost forever.
Finances were provided, in response to the McIver report, in last year’s budget. Unfortunately, whether through the fault of the Minister of State or the Minister for Education and Science, most of that money has been left unspent or has not been utilised in the intended way. This is the sad reality of the commitment given to adult and further education. I agree with the Minister of State that were it not for the vocational education committees and the initiative taken by forward-thinking chief executive officers and adult education officers, together with staff, we would not have any worthwhile adult and further education structure at a national level. We commend them and acknowledge their work in that area. Unfortunately the many suggestions from the VECs to the Department and the Minister gather dust on the shelves as many other reports and initiatives have done.
I was a member of a VEC for approximately 15 years and I have witnessed the endeavours it has made to bring this problem to the fore. In further education, back to education and adult education, Ireland has the lowest participation rates in Europe. Some 2.5% of the student population in third level education is over 26 years of age while in other European countries up to 20% of the student population is in third level education. What does that say about us? It means there is not the commitment for people to have access to third level education.
Post-leaving certificate courses have been a tremendous asset in recent years in encouraging those who dropped out of the education system at primary or second level to re-enter. The McIver report clearly indicates there should be a specialised section to cater for that sector. If the Minister of State is serious about establishing further and adult education as a parallel to the other sectors in education, she cannot ignore this proposal any longer. If today she announced her commitment to establish an independent sector for adult and further education it would be a good day for those in that category. At least they would see there is a commitment to education and realise there is a Minister for Education and Science who is concerned about the issue. When I hear the response of many Ministers that they want to educate the workforce, wherever it might be, and that workers have to get an opportunity to change jobs during their lifetime, I am sceptical of their commitment to that objective other than to pay lip-service to it by way of statements and otherwise.
If we are serious about further education those who provide it, the tutors and the teachers, must have different work practices and a different structure of payment and status from those in second level. I appreciate that the Minister of State said she is in negotiation with all the participants. I hope those negotiations can be moved forward quickly to avoid delay. If there is a recognition of the need for the delivery of the service, special conditions will be put in place for the providers.
I would welcome a positive initiative in order that the problem can be resolved. An integral part of that recognition would be a change in hours and delivery of service because of the many difficulties involving child care and so on. There must also be a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. delivery of service and, as McIver proposed, there must be weekend availability of the service, all of which will put demands on the Minister of State and her officials who have to negotiate a response from those involved at ground level. If we are serious we will not short-change those involved and say it is disappointing we cannot get agreement if it is a matter of finance. The money must be available given that €3.8 billion has been allocated to the higher level for research and development. The strongest will survive in that area but unfortunately adult and further education has not been able to demand and receive adequate resources as distinct from the other sectors in education. The onus is on the Minister of State, as the person with responsibility for these negotiations, to demand the necessary resources for an adequate response in this area. The central point of the McIver report is that the Minister of State establish an independent sector that will not depend on crumbs from second level.
That the Minister of State has appointed 37 community education facilitators to the vocational education committees is welcome. The concept was initiated at ground level within the VEC sector. These people are at the coalface and know the problems at ground level and the need for co-ordination at that level. That many voluntary and statutory groups provide literacy programmes is a recognition of need. Frequently the literacy problem initially manifests itself in the workplace. As a result of intimidation, bullying or other social reasons, and the work situation, there is a need for greater co-operation and employers must be prepared to give a little. Some are not prepared to recognise there are people within their workforce who are in need of and want to further their education. Many of these people are told that if that is the case they will be replaced by someone else. That has happened and I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of it. Some employers are callous in regard to the needs of workers, particularly those who want, of their own initiative, to further their education. In the long run, if the employee was allowed to further his or her education it would be of great advantage to the employer.
Unless the Minister of State takes adult and further education out of the sandwich and puts it into a sector on its own we will always be against the tide. Sufficient funds were never available to the sector. Given the high drop-out rates at primary and second level education, what chance have those people of getting access to third level if the Minister of State’s colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, does not deal with the issue? It is a shame that the funds provided in the 2006 budget have not been utilised fully and to the best effect possible.
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: I request that I be given two minutes notice to conclude. Senator Ulick Burke is operating in reverse. Our journey is to bring adult education to the centre of the lifelong education experience.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: It is not encouraging.
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: That Senator Ulick Burke suggests the Minister of State should establish an approach outside the education system and segregate it is missing the point. Partnership has been a recurring theme of late and is a good topic on which to start my contribution. Partnership, vision and education are one and the same issue. Sylda Langford recently defined partnership, in a tongue in cheek and off the cuff remark, as “mutual loathing temporarily set aside in the interests of funding”. All of us across the country and in every area of society would do well to ponder upon that. It is full of nuggets of insight if we dig deeper.
I welcome this debate. Contrary to what the Minister of State has heard, she has been and is held in high esteem by many members of the National Educational Officers Association. She will be held in such esteem in future also. They also acknowledge the high regard she holds for adult education, which derives from her rich and varied educational and professional experience. The Minister of State has referred only briefly to this and she has not done justice to herself in the fleeting reference made.
I have no authority from Members to say this, my authority is based on my many frequently challenging exchanges with a number of the members at my clinics and other educational and social functions. I derive authority from this to make such statements with conviction and without fear of contradiction.
We all share a dream about adult and future education, appropriately adopted in the strategic plan of 2006-10, which the Minister received from them late last year. She warmly welcomed the members, gave them much time and there was a mutual exchange of views. They warmly thanked the Minister of State. The members with whom I constantly engage and are challenged thank the Minister of State again today, not only for that experience, but for the many exciting initiatives she has introduced, promoted or brought forward as part of the vision for adult education on her watch.
I wish to put on the record the vision shared by the Minister of State, the members of the National Educational Officers Association and myself. It states: “Our vision is of an inclusive Irish education system that provides equal access to lifelong learning opportunities for all adults”. This epitomises everything the Minister and Government stands for with regard to adult and future education.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: Dream on.
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: I will not refer to further education today, as every time I speak in the Chamber I seem to refer to further education. I will restrain myself today on that score.
Adult education today is not seen as a separate and fragmented silo. Everything in education is geared to see it as a partnership of equals and not the separate entities referred to by Senator Ulick Burke. Everybody contributes their own professional input which results in an adult education sector that is integrated and inclusive for every sector of the community. It is not segregated.
The White Paper on adult education — the only one on adult education in the history of the State — that was initiated by the former Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy O’Dea, has elucidated that adult education must be viewed differently to the past. Senator Ulick Burke seems to be returning to the past. It is now seen holistically, with each part in the educational journey from pre-school up to and including third level and adult education knitting into other sectors. This results in lifelong learning in its truest meaning. I would hate to go back on the other road. The Minister has no intention of doing so, and everything she has done so far has projected the vision I seek to articulate.
It is important to acknowledge people who have been traditionally excluded from the educational system, both formal and informal. These are people with disabilities or who, through no fault of their own, had to opt out of education. This may have been because of a lack of money or opportunity. The problem may have been geographical, as people may live in very remote areas. People may also have child care issues that were never dealt with. They may also have had to care for aging parents, and as carers they may not have been free to look after their own needs.
Everybody is now included. The Minister of State and the Government have seen that those people who need education, regardless of means, can access it. We are supporting them through the Minister and the Government.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: What of the cuts in back to education funding?
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: We cannot speak of the provision of adult education without speaking about supports. We must facilitate people in getting true access by providing such supports. One of the main supports is child care. The Minister of State has spoken on this in detail. This Government acts and funds child care mainly through the back to education initiative, the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS and especially the equal opportunities child care programme.
Real inclusive education, particularly for people with disabilities of both of a physical and learning type, and anybody else excluded from the mainstream — as hundreds of thousands have been since the foundation of the State — calls for a recognition that access is not just physical access for people going into buildings. Curricular access is every bit as important as physical access. In a way it is cruel to invite somebody into an educational establishment where there is physical access, but a blind person would not have Braille materials. This sums up my point.
The Government recognises the supports that people need for specific disabilities. It is putting such supports in place, and the Minister of State has today given many examples of this. I will go back over only one or two of these later. These supports exist so that everybody is on the same level playing pitch. This issue concerns equality of access and esteem.
The Minister of State has pointed out many important initiatives. I will refer to some. I cannot proceed without referring to the VTOS. It targets people who are long-term unemployed and in receipt of social welfare payments. These people can now access full-time education free of charge without losing social welfare or secondary benefits. There are 5,000 people nationally accessing this and moving on. They are not only finishing their secondary VTOS training but going on to third level, becoming professionals and contributing significantly to the economic prosperity of the country. I wonder in what country is Senator Ulick Burke living.
Another important initiative is the community education programmes. These are free of charge and operate in 33 VECs around the country, providing a huge range of education across the board, again empowering people to participate in society. I cannot skip the adult literacy programmes either, as they are famous, not only in Ireland but internationally, for the wonderful work done in teaching people to read and write. They enable people to become visible in society. If a person cannot read and write in today’s literate world, that person will disappear.
Traveller training centres also do a wonderful job. They promote an inclusive education for those who are outside mainstream education and have been since before the foundation of the State. These people are now being targeted for education. Although it would be a wonderful experience, there are significant challenges. From speaking to teachers involved in the area, I am aware of the challenges, particularly the inter-generational issue of bringing members of the Traveller community into mainstream education. Other challenging issues include culture and other matters. I am friendly with many teachers involved in this initiative and they will speak to me on the roadblocks which are there. I will not speak on them now, but I will mention the issue to the Minister of State again.
The Youthreach programmes target young people whom the secondary education system has failed. We must look at education within the context of local development generally. However, we cannot speak of local development, leading to national development, without including lifelong learning. It is at the centre of this continuum.
Education must be at the heart of any development programme. In recognising the involvement of education, the participation of partners must also be recognised. This comes back to partnership. There are many partners, and the holistic approach is the only way forward. We have cast away the segregated and fragmented sectors to which Senator Ulick Burke wishes to return. We have rid ourselves of silos and we now look at education in terms of its full potential and how it can make a holistic impact.
It may not be fair to single out an issue, but I wish to highlight the back to education initiative. This affords people who have left the upper second level of education a chance to return and make up the deficit in their education. It targets people who may have worked in the home all their lives, who have left school at 14 years of age to take up an apprenticeship that is now obsolete, people who have the group certificate or those, like myself, with the old primary certificate. These people may have a good level of skill, but it is no longer needed.
This initiative recognises the prior experience and learning of these people. It offers accreditation for the wealth of knowledge that was not recognised until now, when the Government and its immediate predecessor came into office. I commend the Minister for giving €17 million this year to the area. It is a glowing tribute of her achievements. Rather than denigrate and denounce the Minister, as has been done by the previous speaker, I commend and salute the Minister for what she has achieved.
These initiatives go hand in hand with accreditation. The importance of such accreditation must not be underestimated and it can never be overstated. Unless a paper indicating an accreditation is in a person’s hand now, in an Ireland full of graduates walking around with degrees, masters degrees and doctorates, that person is going nowhere. He or she would still be at an educational disadvantage. I commend the manner in which the Minister of State and her colleagues in Government have brought forward accreditation. It is a shining example of the projection of the vision of the Minister of State and the Government.
Ireland in 2006 is different to the Ireland of 1997, which this Government and its immediate predecessor inherited on coming into office. There has been a major influx of people coming to Ireland to look for a better life and the challenge for the Government is to grasp the opportunity to enable them to integrate and contribute to the economy. They are doing what many of our forefathers did in the 1920s and 1930s in Great Britain, America, Australia and elsewhere. Many of them came from high mountains, deep valleys and poor bogs and they had to take the hard road when they went abroad. They found it hard to integrate in their new homelands and were often ghettoised.
We have a golden opportunity as the educational structures and supports are in place to make it a little easier for our new Irish citizens of the 21st century. If we empower them through education they will make their contribution to society both culturally and financially. By doing that we are changing a challenge into an opportunity. I know the Minister of State has a deep conviction about this approach and is most supportive of it. I am inordinately proud of the fact that this year’s leaving certificate exams were available in 22 languages. For the first time, students had the opportunity to be tested in their mother tongue in curricular and non-curricular areas. This was a magic moment in Ireland’s celebration of its recent new diversity.
As we acknowledge the past and celebrate current achievements, our new challenge is to build on the structures we have provided. We must create an environment where adult education is part and parcel of everyday education and, as stated by other speakers, is not segregated and sidelined. Currently, 98% of teachers involved in adult education are working on a part-time basis and this simply cannot continue. If we are to keep the expertise and the wonderful skill base that the Minister of State and her predecessors have promoted and built up in this area, we must value these teachers equally with staff in other educational sectors. All are constituent parts of the continuum that is lifelong learning. There must be equality of esteem, and if there is anything less we will not succeed. We have a wonderful resource and we must nurture it and build on it because if we do not,these valuable people will go elsewhere. If we do this, I believe the future of adult education is assured.
One of the most important supports provided by the Minister of State in recent years was the setting up of an adult guidance support service. This is a revolutionary concept. I have found nothing on a par with it elsewhere in the world. People do not have to flounder around any more not knowing what to do. Professional advice is available to guide people and enable them to make decisions for themselves. In other words, those involved in guidance are walking along the journey with us. Educational experience is a lifelong journey from poverty, inadequacy and heartbreak. In many cases it has transformed people’s lives and ensured success and a happy life for generations to come.
Mar fhocal scoir, is fearr beagán cúnaimh ná mórán trua, which simply translates as, a little help is better than a lot of pity, and the Minister of State is providing that help.
Mr. Feighan Mr. Feighan
Mr. Feighan: I welcome the Minister of State. Adult education is an important topic and while I may not be as enthusiastic as Senator Fitzgerald, I will try to be measured in my contribution.
Resources for adult education have improved. At the time when I finished school about three students from a class of 50 went on to do a university course, some went to technical colleges and others joined family businesses. As Senator Fitzgerald stated, it is wonderful that today’s school leavers have the choice and confidence to continue with their education. We have come a long way as a nation and I do not wish to return to a situation where unskilled people lacking in maturity and confidence leave education at the age of 18. In the past 30 years, interest in third level and adult education has significantly increased.
Although I consider myself to be relatively young, many of my friends who have raised their children are now returning to education. It is wonderful to see their enthusiastic attitude since they were given a second chance to access education. In the past, people were obliged to go into the workplace or were busy raising families and were not privileged to go into full-time education. It is wonderful to see such people now getting a second chance.
More resources should be directed into adult education. I accept I may be biased but I am most impressed by the effect it can have on people. We are all victims of our environment. Those from a farming background tend to follow the previous generations and continue the farming tradition. I come from a business background. I am a small shopkeeper. My parents followed my grandparents in this endeavour. We are all affected by our environment. If the preceding generation did not complete secondary education or attend third level, it is less likely for the present generation to pursue education to a high level. By giving those people who missed out on furthering their education 25 years ago a chance now, we are breaking that cycle and offering hope and self-belief to people. This also provides an incentive to the children of such people to further their own education. I wish the Minister of State well. The funding spent on adult education is of immeasurable benefit.
I have much grá for the Youthreach programme which has provided a wonderful opportunity for young people who were not comfortable in the formal educational environment. They have been given an opportunity to learn skills in a friendly environment. Some of the young people involved may be from the margins of society or have been in trouble with the law. I accept that the programme was not set up specifically for this purpose, but some of the young people involved come from difficult backgrounds. The funding for this area has been money well spent.
I pay tribute to those involved in this sector. I have met many teachers and principals involved in this area. I commend the VECs on the choice of staff employed on this programme. Their ideals and demeanour fit in well as they work closely with the students. They know how to get the best out of their students. I am always pleased to be invited to an event involving the Youthreach programme.
The cap on PLC courses is a problem and I urge the Minister of State to further examine the matter. If restrictions were put in place then those who are lacking in confidence can be put off by financial or child care concerns. We must focus on the needs of the service users. It is sometimes beneficial to get people out of their home environment, which may have been the same for 20 years or more. It is not a question merely of receiving an education but also relates to the benefits of getting out of one’s comfort zone and meeting new friends. The funding expended on adult education may help prevent illnesses and other problems and is money well spent.
Another important element of adult education is prison education. Prison is a difficult teaching and learning environment for teachers and prisoners, respectively. Although it is one of the better prisons in the State, I was relieved when a visit to Castlerea Prison some years ago as part of a VEC delegation was over. We must allocate sufficient resources to this sector. I understand that while prisoners who work in the prison workshop are paid a small allowance, the same does not apply to those who avail of prison educational facilities. Has this anomaly been rectified? If so, I congratulate the Government. Otherwise, I ask the Minister of State to consider it. I wish her every success in her endeavours in the area of adult education.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State whom I have heard speak eloquently on this subject many times. She has a great understanding of the problems that exist in this area and how we must tackle them. I support her observation that education is a lifelong process and one from which we should all benefit on a daily basis. I look forward to working with her on this and any other issues she may decide to pursue in the future. I am sure she will return often to the House to lecture us and provide guidance on those issues.
Our society has improved dramatically in the last decade and the economy is strong and competitive. The development of new technologies means new skills are required as well as new methods of networking those new skills. It is in this context that we must review the current status of adult education and examine future requirements in this area. As part of my work in adult education, I have tried to assist people from the age of 14 and upward who dropped out of full-time education in returning to the education system, whether through the Youthreach programme, post-leaving certificate courses and so on.
It is important that these young people who have fallen outside the net are identified and reclaimed as early as possible. Home-school liaison programmes are particularly important in identifying those students in difficult home circumstances who may potentially end up in low-level employment or even a life of crime. If we identify such persons at 16 years of age, we can move quickly to engage them in adult education services.
I am aware the Minister of State has included provision for this area in various programmes. Adult education is extremely important because it is about targeting those who cannot help themselves and offering them a second chance. For those people living in an unhappy home environment, whose children may be reared and who do not know what to do their lives, adult education can be their saviour. It can assist not only those who are economically disadvantaged but also those who are emotionally disadvantaged in terms of enduring a dysfunctional home environment. Dysfunctional behaviour on the part of parents is often replicated by their children. The danger is not so much that these children will struggle with a low IQ but that their emotional development will be stalled.
We must ensure the infrastructure and networks are there to tackle these problems. The Minister of State has assured us the relevant programmes will be in place. The VECs are doing a super job in terms of targeting those in need through the provision of various types of programmes. The Minister of State referred to post-leaving certificate courses, which have been a major success story since the 1980s in catering for those who find themselves unsuited to the mainstream system and who prefer a hands-on rather than an academically oriented approach.
The adult guidance service is vital but there are still not enough counsellors. Funding should be provided to allow each VEC assign additional counsellors in its area. The main difficulty in this regard is that insufficient training places are available for those who wish to attain a counselling qualification. Courses are available in NUI, Maynooth, and Trinity College, Dublin, but I understand UCD has discontinued its course in guidance counselling. We must provide more training places. Many young teachers who would like to become counsellors cannot secure a place despite the severe shortage of counsellors in schools. Members of the immigrant population, in particular, need all the help they can get. An enhanced adult guidance service provided through the VECs could facilitate their integration into Irish society.
The difficulties in this area are not down to the Minister of State, who is doing her bit; various factors are causing delays. Much work is being done in regard to adult literacy programmes for immigrants. I am not convinced about the accuracy of the findings of the recent OECD report. I am in regular contact with educationalists and find there is no indication that a problem exists to the extent indicated in that report. There is a core element of persons with literacy difficulties in every area but the problem is not so great as is suggested.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has one minute remaining.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: I could talk for Ireland on this subject.
Mr. Feighan Mr. Feighan
Mr. Feighan: Senator Ormonde has already talked for Ireland.
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: She is doing very well and should keep going.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: If career guidance teachers are available in every VEC area, they can tap into the locality where problems exist. VEC colleges provide a ready made network, as do FÁS offices.
Duplication in the provision of some courses must be examined because money is being wasted. VEC committees should not run two courses in the same area on, for example, engineering. This is not solely an issue for the adult education sector but it is important that money is not wasted when it could be put to good use elsewhere.
The Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, is doing a wonderful job and I wish her well. I know she enjoys her role and she has my full support. She has made a significant difference in this area.
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the Minister of State and her officials to the House. I also welcome the statements I have heard today. In April of this year, I voiced serious concerns in this House about adult and further education. I sneaked my comments in under the radar when statements were being made on youth affairs. I would not have done so had I realised today’s debate would take place. During the earlier debate, I expressed my unease about the PLC and further education sector.
Ireland’s education system has been the basis for the rapid economic progress we have made in recent years. In his Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, stated that a disproportionate amount of emphasis is placed on taxation policy as the key element in our economic success. While taxation has been extremely important, the single biggest contributor to our success has been the availability, to both indigenous and foreign investors, of an exceptionally well-educated workforce. There are many aspects to this issue, including the sound basis of our primary and secondary curricula, although I have some reservations about the points system, pressure on students and the issues of subject choice and incentivisation. Another aspect is the proud and distinguished performance of our students and educators at third level.
I have expressed the view in this House and elsewhere, that we must be in a position to provide targeted investment in third level education. We must also adopt a strategy that insures that investment delivers the excellence that is so closely associated with the Irish education system. While this becomes increasingly complex as we move away from being a natural economy to a knowledge-based one, the measures outlined in the last budget, the developments on foot of the Fottrell report and the very significant programme announced last Sunday, demonstrate that the Government and my party are committed to maintaining that standard of excellence.
Our primary, secondary, third and fourth level sectors are producing the goods for our students, economy and society and are getting the recognition and attention they deserve. I regret to say, however, that the same is not true for the adult and further education sector, although I must stress that my criticism is meant to be constructive. On 6 April last, I made reference to a negative stereotype regarding education and in particular, the post-leaving certificate sector, which holds that further education and PLC courses are only for disadvantaged students. This is a crass and uninformed viewpoint that may contribute to a situation where PLC courses become the Cinderella of our education system.
Ten years ago there were 18,000 enrolments on PLC courses. Now there are over 30,000 enrolments, which is greater than the number of school leavers entering the third level sector every year. A national network of over 250 centres delivers PLC courses in vocational, secondary and community schools, providing over 1,000 courses in more than 60 disciplines. I am concerned that the stereotype suggests that the 30,000 PLC students are in some way settling for these courses and accepting second best because they did not achieve their preferred choice. This is nonsense. The fact that many students opt for PLC courses as their first preference seems to be lost on some people. Many people seek specific training or an alternative educational experience that has a focus on work. The problem with the lazy stereotype is that it may have negative repercussions for the treatment of the sector. In fact, the sector has received less than satisfactory treatment in the past 20 years.
My contribution to the debate in this House ten weeks ago focused on the McIver report. While I do not wish to repeat the points I made previously, it is important to point out that despite being commissioned by the Department of Education and Science in 2002 to review the further education sector, Mr. McIver’s recommendations had not been implemented when I spoke. Therefore, it was with a sense of hope rather than expectation that I checked on what has happened in recent months.
We must acknowledge that the Government’s commitment to the PLC sector, if assessed in terms of pay, non-pay running costs and student support and certification costs, is not insignificant. The number of PLC places has increased by 60% in the past decade. The number of PLC places approved last year increased by 1,600 on the previous year. Maintenance grants have been extended to PLC students, with almost 8,000 grant holders receiving approximately €23 million in direct support last year. There have been other positive developments in the area of tuition fees for PLC courses, non-pay budgets in respect of running costs and non-pay grants and capital funding for work at 11 post-leaving certificate colleges.
What of the broader McIver recommendations? The McIver report contains 21 overarching recommendations, incorporating a further 91 subrecommendations.
Mr. O’Toole Mr. O’Toole
Mr. O’Toole: We are waiting with baited breath to see how many will be implemented.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
 An Cathaoirleach: Senator Minihan, without interruption.
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: Senator O’Toole had a very significant contribution to make.
Mr. O’Toole Mr. O’Toole
Mr. O’Toole: I spoke on this ——
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: I know that the Senator will take credit for all of the successes and disown the failures.
Mr. O’Toole Mr. O’Toole
Mr. O’Toole: Senator Minihan should give us the numbers ——
Mr. Minihan Mr. Minihan
Mr. Minihan: He should let us have our say now. It has been estimated, in consultation with management and staff interests, that the recommendations for staffing would involve, at a minimum, the creation of at least 800 new posts at a cost of over €48 million. While this level of additional provision cannot be considered in isolation from other areas of education, I am worried that it is not being properly or adequately considered.
The non-teaching educational tasks particular to PLC teachers, the demands on management and the challenges presented by the variation in size of the more than 200 PLC providers are being examined by officials and the Minister of State expects to receive proposals in this regard shortly. It is intended to table concrete proposals for a discussion on the way forward and I hope this will be set within a specific timeframe. I fully accept that a one-off investment of €48 million presents a problem but we must have achievable and focused targets, delivered within a definite timeframe. I hope that will happen and the process will commence in this year’s budget.
The positive engagement of the main partners will be sought in advance of pursuing this agenda, but the pace of progress is exasperating. It took 15 years to recognise that significant resources were needed to support the great and valuable service being delivered to further education and for a report to be commissioned to make appropriate recommendations to support it. In May, when I read of an intention to table concrete proposals for discussion regarding the way forward, I did a double take. As a result, I find myself doing the same regarding my April contribution in the House. I assure Members that it disappoints me as much as anyone.
Further education centres were originally meant to accommodate student populations much smaller than they have become. The funding structure was designed for second level education rather than to meet the needs of today’s excellent further education sector. Despite being commissioned by the Department of Education and Science in 2002 to review the further education sector, the McIver report’s recommendations remain unimplemented. We are still at the stage of intending to table concrete proposals. Today I appeal for us to move forward in this year’s budget.
Meanwhile, the administrative, management, staffing and ancillary support structures for the PLC sector continue to be those designed for second level education. The facilities, the number and size of classrooms, laboratories and work spaces continue to be unfit for the purposes of the PLC sector. The average floor space for further education centres still needs to be doubled. Library resources are inadequate, and there are still too few computers. We also now have additional difficulties with the migrant population and adult language training, which is eating into the sector.
While I have great confidence in our ability to deliver, I am concerned that this sector will fall between two stools and become a Cinderella sector. I appeal to the Minister of State that we must have three years to implement the recommendations, something acceptable to everyone. I congratulate her on her work today and her personal interest in the sector. I know from her announcements regarding her intentions what a fantastic legacy she could have.
Mr. O’Toole Mr. O’Toole
Mr. O’Toole: I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and echo Senator Minihan’s final comments. I thank the Minister of State for her continuing contribution. It would be a fantastic legacy to have at least begun implementing the McIver report.
This issue is a source of serious anxiety. I cannot say that any better or more clearly than Senator Minihan. Whenever one speaks to people on the ground regarding this area of education, the first thing they mention is the McIver report. We saw these people outside the gate last year and discussed it in the House. At least those recommendations with which the Government agrees must be implemented. Time begins to catch up with some of them. I recognise that the financial commitment is very large and agree with Senator Minihan’s point that these demands must take their place alongside others. Interest on this side of the House is no more wise than on the other, but we must see movement. As Senator Minihan said, we must move from intentions to actions. If we started ticking off what had been done, it would deliver a great boost to morale.
There are elements of the McIver report about which I have some questions. I would debate further education centres. I try to view things in the round, determining how the sector might advance in parallel with other aspects of society. I will begin by recalling something that I heard on radio a week ago. I was listening to Ryan Tubridy’s show last Monday week, on which he had a group of people aged over 80. I was abroad, and it did me a great deal of good to hear those people aged between 80 and 100, with their zest for living and utterly optimistic view of the world. I have obviously never listened to Joe Duffy. Those people enjoyed living life. One woman aged 89 had provided a plug for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, who had presented her with her European computer driving licence, ECDL. To me, that is all that I need to hear about adult and further education.
Everyone will know whom I mean when I speak of a man who came before committees perhaps once a month over the past ten years. I am referring to the former head of IFSRA, who retired on 1 February this year. He moved the organisation from being the Central Bank to a new role. His management was well regarded, and he attended committee meetings. I crossed swords with him in many different contexts and recognised and respected his contribution. I met him the week after he had retired at a brief function for him and asked him what he would do with himself. He said that he had enrolled in college, where he would begin a postgraduate degree in pure physics on 1 September. That is what we need to hear. He lived in the university city of Dublin and intended to return to third level education, while the woman of whom I spoke went down to her local further education centre to study for a European computer driving licence.
Those are the success stories, and there is great demand for such services. In September of any year, the No. 1 bestseller in any town is the list of night courses for the year, showing what appetite exists. I want to move that forward and examine what we could and should be doing.
That brings us back to the issue of broadband. We have all heard the debates, and we are on overload. The roll-out of broadband is simply not happening. I remember saying from this seat that the day we sold Telecom Éireann and lost ownership of that copper wire it was clear we would never get broadband to Belmullet. While I acknowledge that Belmullet now does have broadband, there are many places between here and there that do not, including north Dublin. The only way to do that is to forget about ground connections and have satellite broadband all over the country. It would not be a huge investment, but it would be a very good one, meaning that one could have broadband everywhere.
I say that because just across the square is Hibernia College, which is now offering postgraduate teacher training courses. There is a great deal of controversy, since opinion is divided as to whether that is the way forward. The fact is that it is happening, and if there are problems, they can be resolved. There is certainly a process. The college is also offering degrees for professional people. I raise that because an adult in Kilbaha or Loop Head in the Minister of State’s constituency is a long way from a university and other centres. There is great potential, particularly in women in the west of Ireland, who are bursting with energy and intellect that might enable them to make a different kind of contribution. I do not suggest for a moment that they are not making a contribution in what they are doing, but they could advance themselves by taking on new roles.
I could make the same point regarding teachers in peripheral areas, who I know would like to study further. Many of them use the Open University. I do not know how one could make it accessible in a supportive way, with grants and so on for people around the country, but it offers a useful way forward. It is crucial that we open up to people, showing them what is available and allowing them to obtain qualifications and move on. It is now possible to gain professional qualifications on-line, such as through Hibernia College, which provides courses in teacher training, criminology and other legal subjects. One must have contact time at various points in the year, but one can do that at one’s own convenience. There are great savings, and such courses contribute a great deal.
Another area is that of arts and culture, in which the Minister of State has gained experience over the years. If one was to visit the National Concert Hall, which is located in my constituency, on a Saturday night, one would discover that the audience is upper middle-class. Those who attend performances at this venue tend to be people with swanky accents. Why is this the case? At one stage, fine writers such as Brendan Behan and Seán O’Casey emerged from the ranks of the artisan, craft and trades classes. However, this is no longer the case. It now appears that one needs to be a graduate or have a white-collar job to understand Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is not the way it should be. It would be wonderful if we could show people from my own social class that an appreciation of good music and art is as likely to be found in the Willie Clancy Summer School as it is in the National Concert Hall. A confidence gap exists. People must believe and understand that art is their milieu and that whatever activities Muiris Ó Rocháin is engaged in down in Spanish Point is part of further education and the appreciation of our culture. At the same time, these people must realise that there is nothing wrong with playing jazz in Carrigaholt or wherever the jazz festival in County Clare is held. I have tried to wander around the Minister of State’s constituency in my mind and I do not think I am doing too badly.
The Minister of State’s own town of Ennis was the leading town in Ireland for establishing itself in the IT field. It was either the first or second ranked town in Ireland in the league of best-connected IT towns some years ago. This produces extraordinary potential for energy which we are not using.
There is considerable interest in alternative and renewable energy in the west of Ireland, about which we must learn. There is a considerable amount of material to be learned. People must be drawn into further and adult education and understand how they can contribute to alternative and renewable energy, appreciate nature and have a love of the environment, which does not mean one cannot build a house. They need the confidence to make these judgments.
We must constantly connect further and adult education with developments in the wider world. Therefore, it must be tied into broadband and IT and the needs, policies and issues of the day so that ordinary people begin to see how waste might be managed and object to ridiculous proposals. I want people to be immersed in cultural activities if they so wish. Every apprenticeship should include a period of time spent examining drama or music because it would unlock a considerable amount of energy. I know a very successful Irish artist, one of whose paintings was featured in last week’s newspapers and who painted the last portrait of Charles Haughey. He explained that he discovered his artistic bent when he began teaching art in primary school. Both of us have agreed many times that it is not enough to trust to this kind of serendipity. The education system failed him because his artistic nature should have been discovered as he progressed through the system. There must be many people like him who may have artistic talents within them which must be drawn out. I conclude by thanking the Minister of State for her continued commitment to adult and further education. The real measure will not be our words but the ticking off of the recommendations in the McIver report as they are being implemented.
Ms Tuffy Ms Tuffy
Ms Tuffy: I welcome this debate on an issue about which I feel strongly. Adult and further education is a key area of the education system. Mention has been made recently of fourth level education, which appears to be a new term because I do not remember it being used in the past. Adult and further education should be called fourth level education. The concept of lifelong learning should be the central concept in our education system from which everything else springs.
Our education system is still very much based around giving individuals one shot at its different levels, albeit to a lesser extent than before. Individuals get one shot at primary and secondary education and the leaving certificate, which presents the opportunity to go on to third level education. Therefore, if a person fails or does not sit the leaving certificate, he or she has missed out on his or her dose of education. We must move away from this model. The way to vindicate people’s right to education is to make lifelong learning the central concept in the education system.
Our society will also benefit economically from lifelong learning. I agreed with the point made by Senator O’Toole when he spoke about the wonderful talents which can emerge in mature students. I was not a mature student for the majority of my time at university but it appeared to me that mature students were often the most motivated. A friend of mine who has returned to university to study for a degree is obtaining very good results, is extremely motivated and loves the chosen subject. Mature students are possibly more motivated than students who enter university from second-level education because they are not pursuing their course of study because of family expectations or peer pressure. They are pursuing particular courses of study because they want to study these subjects. They could be taking a step back in terms of their career or the course could take up a considerable amount of time because they will continue working but they have decided to return to education because they are very interested in their chosen subject. Mature students often receive distinctions or first-class honours degrees so a considerable amount of talent enters the system. Senator O’Toole spoke about an individual who returned to pursue a postgraduate course in pure physics. These people possess expertise which could be very important for our knowledge economy and ensuring Ireland’s competitiveness.
Lifelong learning must become the central concept around which the education system is built. A flexible model of education is needed, particularly at third level. People should be able to study as part-time students during the day or night and transfer from full-time to part-time study and vice versa. People should be able to study in different stages. If I had dropped out of my degree course, the chances are that I would not have had the opportunity to return to education. The system should be organised so that if a person pursues a third-level course for two years, he or she should receive some kind of qualification to which he or she can add at a later stage. This should be the basis of our system which should also allow students to study for short or long periods of time. I agree with the call by AONTAS to extend the free fees initiative to cover part-time study.
For any course covered by the free tuition scheme at full-time level, a part-time course should also be available. If there is a flexible model of education, the cost of such would be absorbed, as people who have already paid for full-time courses may drop out and there are thousands of vacant places in the CAO system each year. Some of the vacant places could be filled by part-time students who would get the benefit of the free fees initiative. A costing has been carried out by AONTAS and the amount of money involved is not significant. One would see benefits to the economy in other ways. Our system should take this route.
Ireland needs an open university-type system similar to that in the UK. One can study for Open University courses here. Recently, I examined a brochure for such and it appeared to be an attractive way of pursuing further education. One can do short courses for a few months each, but they can be added together to form a degree. A number of subjects are interesting. For example, if one is studying science, it could relate to drugs in society. They are attractive as short courses and can be used towards full-time degrees.
Although Open University courses are available here, a number of courses are UK-specific, such as the criminal justice system. As such, it is important for Ireland to have its own open university system, but not one in which one must go to Maynooth or wherever. One should be able to access the system anywhere in the country and it should not be tied to any university or a number of universities. An Irish system could be undertaken in partnership with the UK’s Open University.
Senator O’Toole mentioned the use of technology. The Department supports the idea of outreach centres to provide opportunities for third level study. A plan was adopted for the development of Adamstown, a requirement of which was ICT incubation units with a third level outreach aspect. For this to succeed, the Government must be more proactive in driving the initiative so that there would be outreach centres in various parts of the country. In Adamstown, the idea of the centre was to access studies from the Institute of Technology, Tallaght, National University of Ireland, Galway, or so on.
Technology and, for example, webcasting should be used more in further education, which I suggested in respect of providing literacy education. Many people will not go to literacy classes provided in a particular building. However, if material were provided on the Internet, it would be one way to reach out to communities, such as foreign nationalities who would then be able to access education. This matter should be developed and supported by the Government.
Miss de Valera Miss de Valera
Miss de Valera: I thank Senators who contributed to this debate. I am appreciative of the kind remarks made by those on both sides of the House.
I will do my best to address the general issues raised by Senators. Senator Ulick Burke mentioned that I made many references to literacy in my initial contribution. The reason is that the Government has prioritised the area of literacy. If we do not have literacy, we do not have the foundation stones on which to build. When examining the core matter of literacy, I recognise that one of my responsibilities in the Department of Education and Science is the promotion and determination of initiatives to tackle disadvantage. Literacy problems are often compounded by poverty and the social exclusion that follows. When addressing literacy, one tries to provide a one-to-one situation for those who have few literacy skills and to build such up to the point where tutors can take over. One also tries to promote literacy in the family, which is the way forward.
The Senator also referred to the importance of workplace literacy, in respect of which I could not agree with him more. We need to place further emphasis on this area. The National Adult Literacy Agency is working with the Department to determine how to promote the issue of workplace learning, particularly concerning men, as fewer men than women take up literacy courses. I spoke with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, who has been working on the issue of workplace learning and has provided €2 million in the Estimates to ensure his Department carries out its responsibilities in that regard.
Further discussions must take place with employers. I had an opportunity to talk to those who provided literacy programmes in other countries, particularly the United States, which is far ahead of Ireland. There is a recognition among employers in the US that literacy courses should be provided. A great deal of discussion must take place before we can advance the issue, but I am sure there will be good will on all sides.
Regarding further and adult learning, it is important to realise that the most disadvantaged groups must be given priority. I have referred to literacy, but we must also address Youthreach, VTOS, BTI, senior Traveller training centres and plcs. Upon examination, the numbers involved are interesting. A total of 35,000 people are involved in literacy programmes — 3,300 in the Youthreach programme, approximately 1,200 in the Traveller centres and 5,500 in VTOS. Under the recently completed partnership talks, we hope to have an additional 1,000 places in the Youthreach programme by 2009.
These areas have great need in terms of funding and support from the Department. As such, they are our priorities. In so doing, we have paid particular attention to the PLC area. I agree with Senators who said the growth in that area has been organic. There was a need in the community and, because of it, PLCs have been provided. For this reason, it is important to recognise that the number of places has increased by 60% since 1997. Indeed, this year has seen a substantial increase on last year.
We recognise the importance of expansion through approved places and teachers. We introduced maintenance grants for students with effect from September 1998 and tuition fees for PLC courses have been waived. As such, there is a definite recognition of the importance of PLCs, not only for the individual concerned, but for society, which will gain as a result.
I thank all Senators for recognising the good work of the VECs, which form the network through which this provision is laid for participants. As the Minister of State with responsibility for adult and further education, my role is to fund VECs. After discussions with them, we realised that further co-ordination and the development of necessary supports were necessary. As such, we welcomed the 37 new community education officers in the VECs.
From time to time, we have all had the opportunity to discuss the McIver report, in respect of which I will provide Senators with an update.
Discussions are ongoing with the IVEA on issues in the McIver report. Once I receive the official document from my officials I will consider it. The decisions agreed may require further discussion with the unions but I want to extend the role of PLCs and have every intention of working with the IVEA on that agenda.
I will reiterate the words of the social partnership draft agreement on the McIver report and PLCs in general: “Having regard to developments in the PLC sector, including the McIver report, concrete prioritised proposals in relation to PLC provision and focused in particular on the larger PLC providers will be prepared and will be the subject of further negotiation between management and unions”. In the context of the PLC sector, McIver stated that the top 43 colleges of the 210 PLC providers have over 150 students. Those colleges are a focus of the report and I will try to support their progress, and to further the development of the other PLCs, as well as all other elements of further and adult education. In recognition of the importance of further and adult education the Government has provided €146 million in funding.
Senator Fitzgerald was correct to advocate partnership because that is the way forward for further and adult education, indeed all education. Partnership is a sound base on which to work from a community point of view.
Senators also referred to the importance of certification. The national qualifications framework has been very helpful for all elements of the education sector. It has been particularly important for adult and further education because it recognises the possibility of progression. In that context guidance is particularly important. That was referred to by many Senators this morning, not least Senator Ormonde, who has extensive professional experience in the area.
Senator Feighan acknowledged that resources had improved in the area of further and adult education but asked about second chance education and choice. I agree with him that the funding of adult education is important for the individual but can also have a positive knock-on effect on the economy. It breaks the link with poverty and provides employment prospects and the greater potential for higher earnings. It provides people with an opportunity to escape the clutches of crime and poor health, and relieves dependency on social welfare. It also provides an opportunity for socialisation for people who might not otherwise have such an opportunity.
Senator O’Toole called for recognition of the contribution of older people to society. Until now many were forgotten and did not have the opportunity of second chance education. Like Senator O’Toole I have heard at first hand from those who have had the opportunity at second level. Failure to recognise the potential contributions of such individuals would represent a tremendous waste of talent. We must ensure second chance education is provided to all those who wish to avail of it.
It is also important to get the message across that such courses are available. It is not enough to provide courses unless people are well aware of them and appreciate the value of learning. That emanates from the family.
Senator Tuffy stressed the importance of flexible models. Further and adult education must be flexible because people of an older age group have very different responsibilities and obligations. If they are to be in a position to take up the education that is offered then we must ensure it is flexible and we are working toward that.
I congratulate those who took part in the debate. Much is happening in the area. Senator Ormonde referred to home school completion programmes and the importance of tying in learning to the family. The DEIS programme emphasises the importance of those links as a way of eradicating disadvantage. Family literacy will have a similar emphasis.
There was a reference to migrants and migrant learning. Some 35,000 avail of literacy programmes 10,000 of whom are in the ESOL programme, which shows how Ireland is changing and points up the needs to be met of new entrants to programmes, who may come from a different cultural and linguistic background. We need to upskill and demonstrate how skills can lead to further progression along the education continuum. The networks are in place and adult guidance plays an important role. There is a strong PLC sector which we acknowledge by funding and staffing.
Under the social partnership draft agreement the Youthreach programme will contribute an additional 1,000 places by 2009. We believe every person of working age should have access to lifelong learning and we want to enhance the national literacy service, delivered by the VECs, by the provision of an extra 7,000 places by 2009. Guidance counselling will be provided for literacy and language learners and the needs of migrants will be considered in the context of the education equality initiative. Measures will also be adopted to monitor and evaluate progress in this area. The back to education initiative will be expanded by 2,000 places by 2009.
At every level there are indications of how we wish to progress. Investing in further supports and measures for further education will include needs assessment, technology support, community-based strategies, child care support and access routes. Adult and further education is a wide area but constitutes an important element in the progression of the individual and in the search for further inclusiveness in our society. I assure all Senators that as long as I am in this position I will continue to work as hard as I can to secure further funding for the sector.
Sitting suspended at 1.20 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.
Seanad Éireann 184 Adult and Further Education: Statements.