Seanad Éireann - Volume 189 - 22 April, 2008

National Skills Strategy: Statements.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

  Deputy Seán Haughey: I apologise to the House because I have laryngitis and I hope Members will bear with me.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the national skills strategy and its implementation. Ireland’s ability to compete in an ever increasingly competitive global marketplace is now more than ever dependent on the skills and competencies of our labour force. The Government has long recognised that Ireland needs to have a competitive advantage in the area of skills to ensure it stays ahead of its competitors. Investment in education and training is key to securing competitive advantage. Our success in transforming our nation in both its economic and social development can be directly linked to our past investment in education and training and such investment will increase under the Government.

Investment in education and training is not the sole reason for the dramatic transformation we have experienced over the past 15 years. However, without this investment, our workforce would never have become the bedrock for our remarkable success over recent times. In the information age, only competitive and knowledge-based economies have a future. The capacity for adding value, high productivity rates, and a high skills profile of the population will create economic and social progress. As one of the world’s most open economies, these features particularly apply to Ireland.

We have been successful in attracting major international corporations to invest and support the development of indigenous business. However, key to both policies is the strength of our education and training system and the high level of skills of our graduates. The profile of employment has changed in this country over the years. We now have more and better paid jobs, an expanding services sector and a modern, expanding and evolving economy which is exactly as it should be. Our continued evolution as an economy is dependent on the skills of our citizens. Our future success will be determined by our ability to continue to meet the needs of enterprise.

4 o’clock

Recognising that future skills needs will play an ever increasingly important role in determining the future prosperity of our country, the Government established the expert group on future skills needs in 1997. The expert group is representative of the major private and public interest groupings. Its core function is to continuously and closely monitor changes in the labour market, to anticipate movements in demand for skills and to ensure necessary adaptations are introduced. In 2005 the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment asked the expert group to undertake a forecasting analysis and to map Ireland’s labour market and skills needs to 2020. This report, Tomorrow’s Skills — Towards a National Skills Strategy, was launched early in 2007.

The national skills strategy contains an ambitious vision for the skills profile in Ireland in 2020. It shows clearly that if Ireland is to progress ahead of our competitors then we need to increase our focus on skills development at a number of levels. First, it shows that more than [226]70% or almost 1.5 million of our current workforce will still be in employment in 2020. It is vital, therefore, for our continued economic success that this cohort achieves its potential. Second, and probably most important, an additional 500,000 people need to be upskilled by at least one level on the national framework of qualifications by 2020. Third, it needs to be ensured the output from our education system reaches its potential. This will involve increasing focus on improving participation rates in upper secondary level to 90% and ensuring the progression rate to third level increases to 70%. Fourth, we need to address the skills needs of the immigrant population and those wishing to re-enter employment.

The strategy also contains employment forecasts on a sectoral basis for the period up to 2020. These forecasts suggest certain sectors, such as the services and high value manufacturing sectors, will continue to experience employment growth in the years ahead. However, employment in other sectors is expected to remain constant or, in some cases such as agriculture and traditional manufacturing, decrease. This means we must prepare accordingly. The strategy has helped us to target specific skills and sectors that will become increasingly important in the next few years. It has allowed us to identify and address specific gaps in our skills base and it will help us to build an education and training system that will allow us to adapt quickly and respond to the changing global business environment. The national skills strategy will facilitate the development of Ireland’s competitive advantage in world class skills, education and training.

The strategy is not a stand-alone policy initiative. It builds on Government policy, including the strategy for science, technology and innovation, the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, and the national development plan, all of which contain specific commitments aimed at upskilling the workforce. These documents have set the agenda and objectives for what Ireland must achieve over the medium term if we are to continue to maintain and enhance further the living standards of our citizens. In an ever-expanding global marketplace the Government is committed to ensuring Ireland continues to embrace its transition to a knowledge-based economy.

The focus has turned towards the implementation of the strategy. Given the broad nature of the objectives contained in it, an integrated approach led by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Education and Science is required. An interdepartmental committee has been established to achieve this and I will chair the first meeting of that committee tomorrow. It will oversee the development of an implementation plan and its subsequent delivery and will consist of senior officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Finance.

The implementation plan will examine the existing provision of education and training and determine the key areas and initiatives that will require additional focus to achieve the objectives of the national skills strategy. It will also determine the key benchmarks and targets that will be monitored progressively over the 12-year period to 2020. I look forward to driving this process forward and am confident we will be successful in implementing the vision contained in the strategy.

While the first meeting of the interdepartmental committee takes place tomorrow, significant progress has occurred already in terms of implementing several of the objectives of the strategy. For example, in parallel with the establishment of the interdepartmental committee, the expert group on future skills needs was asked to examine the potential of a number of innovative measures to incentivise both employers and employees to engage more fully in education and training. The measures under review include paid learning leave, individual learning accounts for employees, brokerage services to help firms identify training needs and source suitable [227]training, tax measures to increase the numbers undertaking training and upskilling, and the potential of regional advisory groups. The findings of the expert group will be considered in the context of developing the implementation plan for the skills strategy.

While the State has a key role to play in achieving the vision contained in the national skills strategy, enterprises and individuals also have a major role to play. Enterprises need to identify clearly and articulate their short and long-term skills needs. This needs to be communicated proactively to education and training providers at regional, sectoral and national levels. Enterprises also need to work in collaboration with providers in developing programmes that respond to these needs.

Public funds must be targeted at those who otherwise would not receive training, especially the low skilled. In this regard, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has instructed its two key training agencies, FÁS and Skillnets, to increase their focus on this cohort, and has been active and innovative in the provision of training for this group. This has resulted in new measures being launched which aim to work with employer and trade union representatives in providing training for the low skilled. In particular, the strategic alliance project between FÁS and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has allowed for the training of trade union representatives in identifying the education, training and personal development needs of members and work colleagues.

There is a special challenge for the higher education system as we strive to achieve key objectives, such as doubling the number of PhDs and growing our participation rate from 55% to 72%. This growth will be accompanied by a greater diversity in our student population, including diversity in terms of previous academic attainment, which in turn will create challenges regarding the development of new and appropriate teaching and learning methodologies. The growth must be managed so that high quality teaching, learning and assessment continue to drive the system.

The Government is committed to the implementation of the national skills strategy and to continuing to improve and refine publicly funded education and training programmes. Over the course of the current national development plan, we will invest approximately €7.7 billion in the training and skills development programme. This will include investment in the upskilling of the workforce, offer enhanced opportunities for school leavers, invest in the activation agenda and increase the participation and engagement in the workforce of individuals who are not participating at present.

We must realise that the achievement of the vision set out in the national skills strategy will be dependent not only on the Government but also on the willingness of employers, trade unions and individuals to commit to the need to upskill and participate actively in lifelong learning which will be crucial in enabling all learners to engage in the pursuit of ongoing education and training. Education and training should be seen not only as the preserve of the younger generation but as an essential tool in the development of people within and outside of the workforce at whatever stage of their life they may be. Only in this way will we enhance and contribute to the development of a knowledge-based economy.

Accordingly, we must encourage greater participation in lifelong learning by facilitating and motivating employees to increase their skills levels and qualifications, to acquire new skills and knowledge in different areas and to renew existing skills to stay abreast of technology and other developments. This is something on which the Government has been focusing in recent years and it will continue to do so. I am determined the interdepartmental committee will work effectively to realise the objectives of the national skills strategy. Given the positive commitment of all, I have no doubt measurable progress will continue to be a primary feature of our education and training systems.

[228]  Senator Jerry Buttimer: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is an important debate because the national skills strategy is of paramount importance to the nation, not just for the short or medium term but also for future generations. As the Minister of State said, our competitiveness is at stake and it is essential we succeed in upskilling the workforce.

The Opposition side of the House supports the overall goals of the national skills strategy in terms of moving Ireland towards a knowledge-based society, the need to create high value jobs, emphasising arts and crafts and the need for higher qualifications. As a former director of adult education, I urge that the importance of adult education be stressed for all. We need to upskill and retrain constantly to maintain our necessary knowledge-based economy.

We must focus on some of the statistics. Almost 30% of the workforce, 650,000 people, have only junior certificate qualifications. Some 10% have only primary level education or have no qualification and some 25% of adults have issues with basic literacy and numeracy skills. How realistic are the aspirations of the Government to upskill 330,000 members of the workforce up to leaving certificate level by the year 2020? I wish the Government well with that goal and hope we will all be here in 12 years to see if it has attained that.

We need to improve access to adult education. There are still obstacles to people’s involvement in education. The Minister of State was in Cork last week for the lifelong learning festival which aimed to inculcate a love and desire in people to participate. I pay tribute to Tina Neylon, the organiser, and her crew and volunteers. Information empowers people. By giving citizens information and making it easy for them to participate, we demystify the learning experience. I commend people like Máirtín Ó Fathaigh of UCC who have brought third level institutions into townlands and villages and the suburbs of our cities. They have made education accessible and removed the snobbish element attached to it. That is welcome. I note the role that community schools play, acting as providers. I have met with the National Association of Community Education Directors, NACED, in my role in Ballincollig Community School as has the Minister for State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Seán Haughey. This role of community schools maintains the traditional ethos of bringing people in, which is important.

It is also important that we enhance the lives of people through participation in education. I ask the Minister to examine the role of the community education provider in regard to the self-financing ethos which inhibits some schools and directors of adult education from putting on courses because of the cost factor. We should not preclude the options for people because of cost and financial burden.

People in the workforce at present with reasonably good qualifications may in ten or 12 years’ time, or less, have no job. This is because of the changing work environment, the evolution of different jobs and information technology becoming outdated. We need to work to prevent this. We need to invest in research and development and the Minister of State alluded to this in his report. We need to do this so that we can remain competitive and keep jobs in Ireland.

The life long learning festival in County Cork has a simple motto, which is “Investigate, Participate and Celebrate”. In that simple motto, the investigation allows people to be part of the learning process which is creative and different from the three R’s which applied before we moved into the more innovative educational techniques. The festival encourages participation, which is fun and this helps to demystify education so that it is no longer a barrier and the formality is gone. We celebrate, whatever the educational achievement or level attained, which is important.

I sometimes worry about the role of FETAC. I welcome the organisation and the framework being put in place, but schools and providers dealing with FETAC do not always get the necessary support. There can be difficulties in terms of trying to log on to the system with a [229]PIN number — I refer to the provider here — and access can be difficult. Perhaps the Minister of State can examine this system to see how it can be made more user friendly. It is critical that people have the right skills. It is essential, given that this underpins the whole national skills strategy, that we have people in the correct categories and that we upskill people. We are committed to this. The obstacles that persist are those of time and finance and we have not addressed these. I hope that if the Minister of State survives the departmental changes next week — if he is not promoted of course — he will take on board the need for adult education to be given priority. Adult education is critical to this national skills strategy and it is critical for the evolution of society.

The leaving certificate should be the minimum target for everybody. I may get assassinated by the teachers unions for saying this, since I am a member, but perhaps it is time to examine the leaving certificate and change it completely. We should not be afraid to have a debate about this issue because the minimum standard for everybody should be the leaving certificate.

I am a teacher of applied leaving certificate which is a wonderful addition to the school curriculum. It gives people who would have left school with no qualifications an opportunity to stay on and learn and, to use the life-long learning festival motto, “Investigate, Participate and Celebrate”.

We are behind the target for participation in adult education compared with other EU countries. The minimum level is 12.5% and we have a level of 8%. This compares to 35% in Sweden and 29% in the UK. Ireland is way behind.

I reiterate to the Minister of State that we must equip people. Training people in employment must be a part of this process. Our party has made several proposals which I hope the Minister of State will consider. These include the proposed overhauling of the role of FÁS. It is doing a wonderful job and I commend it and the community employment scheme. The amount of money devoted by FÁS in its budget to re-training and up-skilling people is inadequate in the overall picture.

I am concerned that the Minister announced only today that the first meeting of the new interdepartmental committee will take place tomorrow, given that the formation of the committee was announced to much fanfare some time back, nearly six weeks ago. I am open to clarification on this.

The profile of our employment has changed. However the skills, up-skilling, training, investment in life long learning, investment in education for adults and investment in education for people who leave school early needs to be continued. This side of the House will be vigilant regarding the literacy and numeracy rates and we will pursue this issue. Deputy Brian Hayes will bring a motion in this regard before the Dáil in the coming weeks. It is important that we devote moneys and ample time for debate in this area. It is also important the resources are in place. I ask the Minister to recognise the role of adult education providers in community schools under the umbrella of NACED. They are doing an excellent job and deserve greater recognition.

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Go raibh maith agat. Ba mhaith liom glacadh leis an deis seo fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Haughey, go dtí an Teach inniu chun an national skills strategy a phlé. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Seán Haughey to the House. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of the national skills strategy. The Minister of State referred to the national skills strategy in September 2005. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, under the stewardship of Deputy Micheál Martin, requested the expert group on future skills needs to undertake research to underpin the development of a national skills strategy. This [230]was to include the identification of the skills required for Ireland to develop until 2020 as a competitive, innovation-driven, knowledge-based, participative and inclusive economy. The terms of reference of the study included the identification of skills required for Ireland to make the transition to a competitive innovation-driven, knowledge-based economy by 2020; to provide projections of the skills profile of the labour force necessary to make the transition required to such an economy and to compare that profile to that which current projected output would yield; and to provide training and education objectives where gaps and deficiencies are evident between the desirable situation and the likely supply.

Skills and human capital development have played a significant role in productivity increases, economic growth and improvements in living standards in Ireland. Human capital development will continue to play a key role in economic growth into the future. Therefore sustained and enhanced investment in the educational and training infrastructure is essential to our economic and social development over the medium term.

The national skills strategy report advocates and comprehensively justifies the need for a more highly educated workforce by the year 2020. This will involve both increased participation of young people in second and third level education, as Senator Buttimer mentioned, and the up-skilling of half a million people into the labour force. Accordingly, as the Minister of State mentioned, the Government has made provision for an investment of €7.7 billion in training and skills development under the National Development Plan until 2013. This includes €2.8 billion to improve workplace adaptability. The budget will include providing training for people in employment, upskilling those affected or likely to be affected by industrial restructuring, enhancing the apprenticeship system and providing progression opportunities for school leavers. The Government has significantly increased funding to FÁS and Skillnets in recent years and has provided training opportunities for employed persons. Funding available to FÁS has increased more than fivefold between the years 2004 and 2007 and up to last year totalled €43 million. Funding provided to Skillnets has increased almost threefold to €23 million for the period up to 2007.

The expert group on future skills needs was asked to advise on a number of possible approaches to realising the objectives of the national skills strategy. We all need to be clearly informed by considerations of how best to make both employers and individuals more aware of the benefits of training and how significant resources and facilities can best be provided in an equitable way. The national skills strategy sets out clear, long-term objectives in developing Ireland’s human capital through upskilling, training and educational opportunities up to the year 2020 in just 12 years’ time. The strategy will be essential in ensuring Ireland’s education and training systems are able to meet the future demands of industry in the medium to longer term.

One of the key recommendations of the national skills strategy is the need to raise the educational and skills levels of 500,000 people in employment. The upskilling of 500,000 individuals within the workforce leading to awards on the national framework of qualifications is a significant challenge which will require new and innovative delivery models. It will require convincing both employers and employees of the need and value of upskilling in a knowledge economy. The Government, employers and individuals will have to work together if we are to achieve this objective through significant additional investment in the labour force.

Approximately €7.7 billion will be used in the course of the national development plan to support training and skills development. This is indicative of the importance the Government attaches to having a skilled, productive, flexible and mobile workforce that will support national competitiveness and sustain economic and social prosperity into the future.

[231]In 2006 the Department invested almost €480 million in training programmes operated by FÁS, Skillnets and other organisations to upskill the labour force. Out of this sum, €280 million was allocated to training programmes to prepare people to enter employment. A further €70 million was provided to train those in employment, a significant increase on allocations in recent years. In addition, €130 million, a significant increase on the previous year’s provision, was made available to fund apprenticeships and training programmes in 2007.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Seán Haughey, recently announced a new interdepartmental committee with responsibility to implement the national skills strategy. The first meeting of that committee takes place tomorrow and will be chaired by the Minister of State. It brings together all the stakeholders and is critical to the future development of skills. I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours. The committee brings together for the first time all the key agencies responsible for adult learning and training and enables us to develop an integrated implementation plan for the upskilling of our workforce. This committee will have a strong and hands-on role. The national skills strategy sets an overall objective of upskilling 500,000 people by 2020. This is a significant undertaking and a very challenging task.

The balance of skills demanded for the workforce is changing and we must respond fully to these changes to facilitate the growth of a knowledge economy and ensure Ireland’s global competitiveness well into the 21st century.

  Senator Brendan Ryan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The report from the expert group on future skills needs, entitled Tomorrow’s Skills, is an excellent resource based on sound research and will be very useful if acted upon to plan for the delivery of the skills required for our future economic growth. It sets out a sound and well-crafted vision of Ireland in 2020 in which a well-educated and highly skilled population contributes optimally to a competitive, innovation-driven, knowledge-based, participative and inclusive economy. If Ireland is to prosper and generate more and better jobs, we must invest in our people. A knowledge-based economy requires a skilled, flexible and adaptable workforce based on strong educational attainment and ongoing training and skills enhancement.

In modern economies, an increasing number of people will move jobs several times in the course of a career and retraining and upskilling beyond the traditional education years will be essential to enhancing productivity and protecting the employability of individuals during these transitions. Education and learning also should be valued for their own sakes. The opportunity to learn should be flexible and open to people of all ages, backgrounds and needs, whether in work, at home or retired.

This report is about upskilling the workforce, however, and I wish to deal with some of the issues involved. As well as the vision, the report sets out a number of specific objectives based on analysis of current skills, albeit 2005 figures; a projected skills profile for 2020 if there is not a policy shift; a projected demand for skills based on current economic mix; and the skills required if we are to realise the vision. The specific objectives are as follows: 48% of the workforce should be qualified to NFQ levels six to ten, as against 38% if we continue as is; 45% of the workforce should be qualified to NFQ levels four to five, as against 44% if we continue as is; and 7% of the workforce will remain at NFQ levels one to three, down from 28%. This is a major challenge which should not be underestimated, especially at levels one to three, because our participation rates in continuous learning are quite low compared with other countries.

An additional 500,000 people will have to progress by at least one level and the estimated cost over a 13-year period is in the region of €460 million. Much of the work will need to be done pre-employment while a great deal will need to be done within employment. Major chal[232]lenges exist. The challenge of upskilling 500,000 people in employment is immense. We must increase support for employer-led training networks delivered through Skillnets and the enterprise development agencies. Greater support should be provided for training networks that focus on transferable skills such as information technology literacy, particularly in the case of low skilled workers. We must accelerate the development of a national framework of qualifications which is well understood and recognised by individuals, employers and providers and which makes access, transfer and progression a reality.

This will require the rapid development of the certification and accreditation system to ensure workplace learning can be properly certified and recognised. The one-step-up approach to skills enhancement being rolled out by FÁS is a very good idea which has been well communicated and will continue to form part of the solution. The role of FÁS must be enhanced and it must be challenged to achieve greater focus and efficiencies. FÁS should be given a strong mandate to expand work training schemes and apprenticeships and to empower individuals and small businesses to access relevant training.

We must provide for and encourage workers to take two weeks’ paid study leave from work. This should be paid for out of the social insurance fund. We should make this mandatory for the employer and employee and this should be based on a proper training needs analysis and should be individually tailored where possible to avoid putting unbearable pressure on any individual. A proper training needs analysis for all employees, together with an individual training plan for every employee and a target spend of at least 3% of turnover, should be made mandatory to achieve certain supports or else incentivised in some way to achieve greater supports.

Many employers and employees, particularly in the small and medium enterprises, SME, sector, cannot see the day when their company or job might cease to exist. They are operating in their comfort zone and see no immediate benefit in moving out of it. However, the changes that are happening must be confronted. Business models that made sense and were successful a decade ago are rapidly running out of time. Trade unions and employer organisations have a role to play in bringing about a change in mindset in this regard. Both are rising to the challenge. Employers must be convinced that identifying skills needs and providing training for their employees will benefit their firms to the extent that they are prepared to make the investment.

This report sets out the vision for and objectives of a national skills strategy, deals with the key issues to be addressed and acknowledges the difficulties and costs. However, it does not provide strategies for the delivery of those objectives. In fairness, it does not purport to do so. Instead, it proposes that an implementation mechanism under the auspices of the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science be put in place. The first meeting on the implementation of such an approach will take place tomorrow. This process must include all the stakeholders, without becoming too large and unwieldy. The report rightly states that a one-step-up approach must include a broad range of providers, including universities, institutes of technology, vocational education committees, Skillnets, FÁS and other Government agencies and education providers. Trade unions, through the ICTU, and employer bodies should also be involved.

This is a useful and worthwhile report which sets out the overall vision and identifies the objectives and the issues to be tackled. The time has come to deliver the strategies that will meet this vision. In preparation for today’s debate, I contacted Forfás to ask when the first meeting on the implementation strategy would be held. I was informed that it took place in March. I am pleased the next meeting is tomorrow but surprised at the news that it is the first [233]one. I commend the strategy but urge that it be acted upon without delay. There must be a high-level commitment to its delivery.

  Senator Dan Boyle: This is an important debate at a time of economic change and adjustment. During the height of the Celtic tiger, the economy perhaps relied too greatly on the construction industry. For example, some 14% of GDP was produced by the house building boom. Now we have a situation where fewer houses will be built and where those involved in the construction industry must seek either to regrade their skills or secure alternative employment. Thankfully, one opportunity already exists. Although some 50% of our housing stock was built since 1990, many of these properties were not constructed to proper energy standards. This presents a great opportunity to augment the skills of workers in the construction industry so that they can retrofit the existing housing stock to make it more energy efficient.

The Government has an important role to play in helping to implement the targets and objectives outlined in the national skills strategy. In particular, we must consider the changes required in the education system. I recently attended several events in Cork that gave me great heart for the future. One of these was an awards ceremony for participants in the Ballyphehane-Togher community development project. While there has been much talk of third and fourth level education, informal education in community settings is playing an increasingly important role in helping people attain basic skills, including literacy, communications skills and computer and information technology skills.

At this event, certificates were handed out by the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Carey. It was a joyous occasion celebrating those who had acquired particular skills in a community setting, a service that would not have existed ten to 15 years ago. Such projects are a welcome development in terms of providing basic skills education for people in their community. In the case of Ballyphehane-Togher, the project is also used as an education centre for workers from An Post who are located nearby. The links between community education, formal education and further education will be an important element in rolling out our skills strategy in the future.

The term “upskilling” is unsatisfactory. It is a question of adding to people’s skills and putting those skills in a new context. People’s skills are valid throughout their working lives. We must look too to reskilling people in skills that may have lost their practice. The second event I attended in Cork in recent days was the Irish Heritage Trust function arising from the announcement of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in regard to Fota House. Much of the restoration work involved in that project, including carpentry, plastering work, the restoration of windows and so on, involves skills that are fast disappearing. As well as teaching the new skills of information technology, we must look to reviving skills that have been lost. If we can make that marriage of convenience, I am confident the skills strategy will achieve its objectives.

  Senator John Paul Phelan: I propose to share time with Senator Ormonde.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That is agreed.

  Senator John Paul Phelan: As Senator Boyle remarked, it is opportune to have a debate on the skills strategy at a time when there is some difficulty within the employment market. Previous speakers have observed that the unemployment rate is the highest for several years, with the ESRI predicting a rate of 6% by the end of the year. This represent a significant change from the situation that prevailed in recent years. It is appropriate that we take stock at this juncture.

[234]As a former maths teacher, I have a particular interest in this issue. I hope I never have to return to my former occupation. In the midst of the general discussion on upskilling, there are some startling statistics on the problems in the education system at primary and second level and the difficulties experienced by many adults as a result. A recent survey by the National Adult Literacy Agency showed that up to one quarter of adults have difficulty in filling out official forms. Some 40,000 adults are currently availing of adult literacy courses run by vocational education committees throughout the State. It is a deep-rooted problem but this section of the population seldom receives adequate consideration. Upskilling efforts must include the entire workforce instead of focusing only on those who aspire to go on to third or fourth level education. I encourage the Minister and the Department to provide greater investment in services for adults seeking to improve their literacy. We must ensure that all children have attained basic literacy levels on leaving primary school. Sadly, that is not the case at present.

  Senator Ann Ormonde: I thank Senator John Paul Phelan for sharing time. I have a particular interest in the issue of how we may assess future trends. I welcome the skills strategy, which highlights the current situation and outlines what can be achieved via education and training between now and 2020. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, spoke about access to career guidance. That is crucial. Community education is of vital importance. Those involved in such projects can link up with employers and identify trends. They know the service industry is on its way up. They know that areas like traditional manufacturing and agriculture are on the decline. Such people can come together. The community should help to develop the skills of the future. I ask the Minister of State to concentrate on community education.

We need to use awareness programmes to identify and highlight the benefits of education and training. We need to consider how we can reach every household. Many people want second chance education. Some people did not even get a first chance. Many people want to get back into education and training. Like Senator Boyle, I hate to use the word “upskilling”. Many people want to change job styles in some way. We need to increase awareness of what is available. I spoke this morning to a lady who asked me what the House would discuss today. I said we would debate second chance education and lifelong learning. Adult education, which can be described as the scenic route, is the way forward. I know the Minister of State’s heart is in the right place. I ask him to identify how we can reach out to people as part of an awareness campaign. The community does not know what is available. People do not know what they can pursue. Are the courses flexible? Are employers flexible? Will those involved in adult education be given time off? We need to keep community education fairly simple and tight if we are to get to the root of it. Small is beautiful. If we start in the community, we will quickly identify certain trends and we can have a competitive, knowledge-based economy by 2020. We can reflect the needs of this country as we go along.

I wish the Minister of State well. The ideas which underpin this concept are excellent. This national strategy will help us to think about these matters. I know the Government has invested more than €25 billion in the national development plan, which will help us to pursue the Minister of State’s agenda in this area. If I can help the Minister of State in any way, I will be happy to do so. I have been interested in this area for some time. I made a career in this area before I came to this House. Like Senator John Paul Phelan, I do not want to go back to that career. I am very interested in this matter.

  Deputy Seán Haughey: I thank Senators for the contributions they made during this evening’s constructive debate on the implementation of the national skills strategy. I welcome the support of all Senators for [235]the validity of the strategy, as a national policy, and the importance of its aims and objectives. I thank Senator Buttimer, who raised a number of issues, for his general support for the strategy. I accept that the targets set out in the document are ambitious and that it will be challenging to achieve them.

A number of Senators, including Senator Buttimer, mentioned the question of literacy, which is extremely important in the context of this discussion. The acquisition of adequate literacy skills is necessary if participants are to derive any benefit from the education and training courses in which they engage. Adult literacy involves not only reading and writing, but also numeracy, social and personal development, learning to learn and information technology skills. The Department of Education and Science attaches great importance to improving literacy levels. It has increased its funding for adult literacy from €1 million in 1997 to more than €30 million this year. As a consequence, the number of adult learners catered for annually increased from 5,000 in 1997 to almost 44,000 in 2007.

Some speakers mentioned the role of the National Framework of Qualifications. It is important to note that the establishment of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the subsequent development of the National Framework of Qualifications, in 2003, revolutionised how we compare various educational qualifications and levels of learning outcome. These developments have brought a welcome degree of transparency to learners of all ages and stages. They emphasise the potential for further broadening and growth of routes of entry to continuing, further and higher education.

A number of Members, including Senator Ormonde, spoke about the importance of community education. As Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, I fully accept, acknowledge and support the role of community education in the overall context. The budgets which have been made available in this regard have increased substantially in recent years. The vocational education committees are doing a great deal of work on the ground to promote community education.

Senator Ó Domhnaill correctly highlighted the importance of the national skills strategy and pointed out that a substantial amount of money — €7.7 billion — has been earmarked for training under the national development plan. It is extremely important, in the context of our overall economic development, that such funding is provided and the necessary training is made available.

I thank Senator Ryan for his constructive suggestions, many of which are being considered by various organisations. The expert group on future skills needs is examining a number of issues on foot of the publication of its initial strategy. It is involved in ongoing work in that respect. Many of the subjects the Senator mentioned are being studied and reports on them are expected in the coming months.

I assure Senator Boyle, who expressed concerns about the construction industry, that FÁS and the expert group on future skills needs are examining the upskilling needs of construction workers. The Government is conscious of the fact that many workers will need upskilling as the construction sector slows down. Reports and recommendations to tackle this urgent issue are being prepared by FÁS and the expert group. I look forward to receiving those reports.

The establishment of an interdepartmental committee comprising representatives of the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment was formally announced in the Dáil on 22 February last. Some discussions have taken place since then at Civil Service level to prepare for the first formal and official meeting of the committee, which I will chair tomorrow. I am not sure about the other meetings to which Senator Ryan referred. I can state categorically that the interdepartmental committee will have its first formal meeting tomorrow. Its agenda will be set out during the discussions which will take place at that meet[236]ing. The committee was established on foot of an essential recommendation made by the expert group on future skills needs. It is now up and running, in effect. I hope an implementation plan can be agreed before the end of the year, at the latest.

Senators have suggested that financial problems are making it difficult for people to engage in adult education. The Government’s back to education initiative is an important part of this country’s adult education system. It is being availed of free of charge, on a part-time basis, by many people who do not have upper second level education. Some 9,500 places are offered as part of the initiative, which was announced last year to make it easier for people to undertake adult education. There is lots happening.

I thank Senators for their support. I think everybody is agreed on the strategy. It is now a question of implementing it in the most effective way, as soon as possible.