Education and Training Boards Bill 2012

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann 16th October 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

Change is always a difficult but necessary process and so too the change represented by this Bill is both difficult and necessary, but I believe that in the end will result in a more streamlined training system and significant savings to the exchequer.

For over 80 years the Vocational Education Committees have been a vital cog in the wheel of education in Ireland, providing a range of vocational education options, from Secondary Schools throughout the country, through VTOS schemes and of course many night classes. The vocational schools or community colleges currently educate almost a quarter of all mainstream post primary pupils and, given the increasing importance of the Community School sector, where they are co-patrons with religions authorities, the sector is very significant. When one also considers the important role of PLC courses and Youthreach Programmes throughout the country, it becomes apparent that this is historically a very significant player in terms of Irish education.

When the VECs were established in 1930, there were 38 VECs and in the 1990s that was reduced to 33 and this Bill will see the creation of 16 Education and Training Boards to replace the 33 VECs. The Bill also represents a major step in terms of the legislation that underpins the new boards, as the current Bill will replace nine existing Vocational Education Acts.

A number of benefits will arise from the streamlining of the Education and Training Boards, not least the reform of human resources and the savings that will arise from that and the current Bill will also end the statutory inquiry system used in removing a VEC member of staff from office. The annual planning process will also be greatly enhanced. At the moment each of the 33 VECs produce education plans and the newly created Education and Training Boards will publish annual strategy statements.

The new Boards will also result in savings paid to members, given the reduced number of members nationally. These Boards will be comprised of 18 members, ten of those local authority representatives, along with representatives of staff, parents and community/business interests. I note that while the Bill does provide for gender equality in the case of parent and community representatives, it does not do so in the case of local authority or staff members, which will make up the majority of the board.

The increased focus on community and business interests is welcome and hopefully will result in increased tailoring of vocational courses to the needs of the business community. Given the investment that the new Boards will be making in education, it is imperative that benefits accrue to local businesses and in particular to businesses in the small and medium sector.

The new Education and Training Boards will have a much expanded role in implementing Government policy on further education. The new Boards will also absorb a large number of FAS staff and I also note that in coming months this Government will be bringing forward legislation to provide for the establishment of a new training authority, Solas, which will see the dissolution of FAS and the transfer of those training schemes to the newly established boards.

Another welcome development is the streamlining of the various awards bodies. The new Qualifications and Quality Assurance Ireland will replace a range of bodies, including FETAC, HETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Boards. Once again, this change should result in significant savings in relation to human resources, physical resources and other costs.

The Bill currently before the house provides for the establishment of scholarships and also the provision of education at the request of any body which funds training out of money provided by the Oireachtas.

Effective monitoring of the new Boards will be key to their success and I am glad to note that the Minister will have power to direct a board which is not working effectively to take certain actions and may also require another Board to carry out the functions of the Board under investigation. In the event that a Board fails to comply, the Minister has the power to transfer the Board’s functions to the CEO or another person for up to two years and the Minister can also order removal of all members of a Board from office. Where a Board is dissolved, its functions can be transferred to another person on the passing of an order from the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The subject of VEC rationalisation was discussed at the Public Accounts Committee in January and on that occasion the Comptroller and Auditor General noted that the VECs had a combined expenditure of €1.1 billion in 2009 and headquarter functions cost €40 million, mainly comprised of pay. The Minster has estimated that the merging of 33 VECs into 16 ETBs will save €3.2 million annually, and additional savings could be made via the disposal of property. 13 of the 33 existing VECs own their own premises and the remaining 20 are leased and the decision whether to sell existing premises will rest with the CEOs of the new training boards.

I believe that the new Education and Training Boards provided for in this Bill will provide proper structures for the delivery of targeted educational programmes to a wide range of students and will also provide much-needed savings to the state from the timely and sensible provisions of this Bill.