Implementation of the recommendation of the fifth report of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs presents challenges which span the entire education system. These challenges relate to the output and quality of further and higher education, raising school completion rates and educational attainment, ensuring that we enhance the educational outcomes for young people, and providing alternative additional and flexible educational opportunities for those already in the workforce or who have finished formal education.
The National Qualifications Framework is an important element of the One Step Up initiative, in providing the opportunity for all learners to access national accreditation. The framework covers all awards in the State, ranging from basic literacy and education to post doctorate level, in the education and training sectors. It makes provision for major, minor, supplemental and special purpose awards and enables learners to accumulate credits towards an award.
OECD research highlights key areas where qualifications systems can promote change and development in such areas as widening access to learning, promoting progression, accumulating credits towards awards, widening modes of assessment, enhancing quality assurance, clarifying learning outcomes, levels and relationships between awards, promoting relevance and access to the workplace, and supporting recognition, and transparency.
The Expert Group Report highlights the importance of speedy progress in the implementation of mechanisms for accreditation of prior learning. In that context, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland has published a set of Principles and Operational Guidelines for the Recognition of Prior Learning in Further and Higher Education. These require that all providers develop statements of their policies, practices and processes for recognition of prior learning, that this should be embedded within their quality assurance procedures, that assessment criteria should be fair and consistent, that learners should meet the standards set out in the framework, and that guidance and support should be available for applicants, and an appropriate appeals mechanism. There are a range of contributions which my Department will make in relation to primary, second level and continuing education. Under Towards 2016, the Government and the social partners have agreed to work together over the next ten years towards a number of long-term goals for children including the goal that every child should complete a senior cycle or equivalent programme appropriate to their capacity and interests.
One of the high-level goals under the new National Development Plan 2007-13, and the recently published National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, 2007-16, is to work to ensure that the proportion of the population aged 20-24 completing upper second level education or equivalent will exceed 90% by 2013. The Education Welfare Act and the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board is an important part in the campaign to keep students at school and will provide a comprehensive framework for promoting regular school attendance and tackling the problems of absenteeism and early school leaving.
The key principle of early intervention underpins both the early childhood education measure and many of the literacy and numeracy measures being adopted under DEIS, the action plan for educational inclusion. The action plan will place a renewed emphasis on the involvement of parents and families in children's education in schools. The Department and the National Educational Welfare Board will work together to ensure that an integrated approach to children at risk is adopted.
Progression from primary to second-level is recognised as a crucial transition period in a child's education. Under the action plan, a continuing emphasis will be placed on the development of effective transfer programmes by building on the existing work of the Home School Community Liaison Scheme and the School Completion Programme. In addition, increased integration will be promoted between the work of second-level schools and centres catering for young early school leavers, particularly Youthreach centres and Senior Traveller Training Centres.
In the area of adult and further education, most of the elements of the recommendation are already in place to some extent. Policy on adult and further education is based on the premise that raising the basic skills of all individuals can have a larger impact on economic growth than investing in improving the skills of a select group of high-skilled individuals. The objective is to increase participation in Lifelong Learning, in particular among the workforce categorised as low-skilled/low paid, by enhancing opportunities to access education and training, the development of new skills, the acquisition of recognised qualifications and progression to higher level qualifications to equip all individuals with the skills, capacity and potential to participate fully in the knowledge-based society and progress to better quality jobs.
An adult guidance service is being developed and is available in most areas. It is designed to support access to Adult Literacy, VTOS, BTEI and community education programmes. The development of the guidance service in education also provides an important contact point for providers in the FAS Employment Services.
Adult and further education are funded by the Department and delivered locally by Vocational Education Committees (VECs) are responsible for ensuring that their courses are publicised and all the evidence suggests that they discharge this duty conscientiously. They are also encouraged to form local networks with other local organisations, such as FAS, the Local Employment Services, social welfare offices, Gardaí, the probation services, church authorities etc. to ensure that the availability of courses are brought to the attention of potential students.
In the higher education area, there are a number of strategies which will contribute to achieving the One Step Up approach set out by the ESFGN in its fifth report. The National Development Plan underlines our commitment to lifelong learning. One of the high level objectives is enhancing access to training, development of new skills, the acquisition of recognised qualifications and progression to higher-level qualifications. The implementation of policy in these areas will be supported through providing second chance education and training for those with low skills and addressing barriers through a strengthening of supports, guidance, counselling, childcare services and increased flexibility of provision.
I would also draw the attention of the Deputy to the Strategic Innovation Fund which has also been established by Government. The Strategic Innovation Fund is a multi-annual fund, which is directed towards support for innovation in higher education institutions. It will support new approaches to enhancing quality and effectiveness within higher education and research, incorporating the use of existing resources (including capital resources) more effectively, as well as new funding.
Following an independent and competitive evaluation process, in the 3rd quarter of 2006, €42 million was allocated to projects for institutions from both the University and Institute of Technology sectors. The projects approved are aimed at enhancing collaboration between higher education institutions, improving teaching and learning, supporting institutional reform, promoting access and lifelong learning and supporting the development of fourth level education. €60 million has been allocated in the 2007 estimate for the Strategic Innovation Fund, with a further €75 million available annually until 2013. This is subject to a major review of the SIF in 2010 to assess progress against the SIF objectives.
My Department has been working closely with the Higher Education Authority to develop a framework for a national Modular Accreditation Programme (MAP) which will focus on the upskilling of those in employment. Work is well advanced in the Department and the HEA on the development of this programme, with a view to commencement in 2007. Under the MAP, institutions would offer individual modules, rather than whole programmes, which would enable individuals to access higher education in a flexible way. The programme will also feature recognition of prior learning, to enable those with experience but not formal qualifications, to gain recognition and credit to pursue higher education courses.