Education and Training Boards Bill 2012: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on Second Stage of the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012. The vocational education sector has, from the outset, been imbued with values that are central to good public service. They include the necessity to be responsive to current and future needs, the ability to contribute to our overall competitiveness, to provide flexibility in what is delivered and how it is delivered, and to deliver for people at local level. These attributes, combined with a capacity to offer a diverse and broad educational package, were all hallmarks of the early days of vocational education. They remain so today.

From the time of its formal inception in Ireland in the late 19th century, vocational education has played an increasingly important role. Since their establishment in 1930, taking over from the former technical instruction committees, vocational education committees have evolved beyond all recognition. Today VECs provide a complex network of education and training provision in a varied range of settings. The role of VECs has grown far beyond what was envisaged and legislated for in 1930.

Under the Education Act 1998, VECs are the legal patrons of second level schools that they maintain, and these vocational schools and community colleges currently educate approximately 24% of all mainstream post-primary pupils. I refer to a total population in the order of 360,000. The VECs have an important role in the community and comprehensive school sector, where they are co-patrons with religious authorities of community schools. Community and comprehensive schools together educate approximately 17% of the mainstream second level population. Taken together, they comprise a very sizeable proportion of the total number of schools, which is approximately 730.

VECs play a central role in the provision of adult and further education programmes, including PLC courses, the Back to Education initiative, community education, the Youthreach programme and the VTOS, in addition to the adult education guidance initiative and child care measures. The VEC sector has been an important contributor historically in respect of Government labour market interventions, originally to tackle high levels of youth unemployment in the 1980s and more recently in the provision of additional places under the PLC and Back to Education programmes as part of labour-market activation strategies. Other measures supported by the VECs are designed to promote social inclusion. These include adult literacy courses and the senior Traveller training centres. The VECs also distribute funding to schools in their area that participate in the DEIS disadvantaged schools programme, and they support education provision in prisons.

Let me turn to the reasons for reform. When in 1930 the then Minister for Education, Professor John Marcus O'Sullivan, spoke during the Second Stage debate on the Vocational Education Bill in this House, he set out the case for new legislation. He pointed to the evolution of new issues that could not have been foreseen when the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction Act (Ireland) 1899 was enacted. He stated the existing provisions had not kept up with the times and highlighted the lack of proper provision in some areas. He said, "The system under which we are working at present stretches back, as far as its legislative foundations are concerned, practically a generation". The system VECs are working under stretches back almost three generations so reform and renewal are long overdue.

The reasons for reform are not dissimilar to those that obtained in 1930. At the core of this restructuring is the need to address the current low scale and size of operations in particular VECs in order to position the sector for future development. Originally 38 VECs were established by the Vocational Education Act 1930. Following a process of rationalisation in the 1990s, which merged a number of town VECs with their county VEC, this number was reduced to 33. In July 2009, the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes recommended that the number of VECs be reduced from 33 to 22 and aligned with the functional areas of 22 local authorities, which number was also recommended by the group.

In September 2009, interested parties were invited to make written submissions on a reduction in the number of VECs. Arising from this process, the previous Government decided in October 2010 to reduce the overall number of VECs from 33 to 16 and agreed on the merger of particular counties.

In June of 2011, the Government confirmed a reduction to 16 but decided to revise the configuration agreed by the previous Government. It also approved, in principle, the preparation of a new Bill to replace the existing VEC legislation.

In October 2011, following Government approval, the general scheme of an education and training boards Bill was published and referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education. Following discussions with my Department and relevant stakeholders, the committee prepared a report in December last year and I responded to it at a meeting of that committee on 25 January 2012.

The Education and Training Boards Bill was one of the first Bills to go through this process, which is part of a commitment in our programme for Government. This approach has facilitated earlier scrutiny of the detail of the Government's proposals by the Oireachtas in addition to engagement with a variety of stakeholders. This engagement has helped to shape the Bill and provided an important opportunity to reflect on how best we should approach reform of the sector.

I will now outline the provisions of the Bill. Its purpose is to give effect to the outlined Government decisions. Its provisions will allow for the establishment of the newly configured bodies as education and training boards and will reform and modernise the existing governance provisions. It removes outdated terminology and articulates the functions of the boards to better reflect the existing and future role these bodies will have in the sector in regard to the provision of education and training to learners of all ages both in schools and in other settings. The role is considerably wider than the original concepts of "vocational education" and "technical education” that are set out in the 1930 legislation.

This new Bill will replace the nine existing vocational education Acts with one primary Act that provides for the establishment and operation of the new entities. It reflects the enhanced role of the sector which will follow the establishment of SOLAS, the new further education and training authority that will replace FÁS. That new authority will operate under my Department and will co-ordinate and fund the wide range of training and further education programmes around the country. The proposals in relation to SOLAS envisage a key role for the new education and training boards in delivering further education and training in an integrated manner. This is why the legislation is entitled the Education and Training Boards Bill. I will introduce separate legislation to place SOLAS on a statutory footing. I hope to do so later this year.

The Bill has 64 sections divided into eight Parts and five Schedules. Section 10 sets out the functions of education and training boards.

They include providing for the establishment and maintenance of education and training board schools, centres for education and education or training facilities in their functional areas; establishing and maintaining such institutions at the direction of the Minister; planning, providing, co-ordinating and reviewing the provision of education and training in those bodies as well as in child detention schools, prisons and facilities maintained by other public service bodies; adopting strategy statements and annual service plans; delivering training for bodies that provide funding for this, such as SOLAS; supporting the provision, co-ordination, administration and assessment of youth work services; and assessing the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of its functions.

Subsection (2) makes provision for boards to consult relevant people and bodies. On Committee Stage, I intend to include business and employers' groups on the list of people to be consulted by boards in carrying out their functions.

The legislation maintains the distinction between functions that are reserved to the elected members of a board and the executive functions performed by the chief executive and his or her staff. Section 12 sets out which provisions of the Bill are reserved functions. These include requesting a change of name of an education and training board; appointment or suspension of the CEO; adoption of a strategy statement, annual service plan and annual report; acceptance of gifts or becoming a trustee; authorisation of members' attendance at certain events; establishment and dissolution of committees and related matters; keeping of accounts; and acquisition, development or disposal of land.

Sections 14 to 18, inclusive, contain provisions relating to the chief executive and staff of an education and training board. These include appointment and disciplinary matters, terms and conditions of employment, functions and powers. The provisions allow the Minister to designate a person to be appointed the first chief executive of an education and training board before the establishment day. The system of suspension, holding sworn inquiries and requiring ministerial consent to remove a vocational education committee, VEC, officer from office is to be ended. In future, disciplinary issues affecting staff will be an executive function vested in the chief executive. In the case of disciplinary proceedings against the chief executive, a new provision modelled closely on a similar one applicable to county managers has been adopted.

Section 19 allows the Minister of the day to direct an education and training board to establish or maintain a recognised school or centre for education or to establish, maintain or resource an education and training facility in its area. This vital new power may be necessary where there is inadequate provision for education and training.

Section 20 facilitates education and training boards co-operating with one another in the performance of their functions and allows the Minister to direct them to perform a function jointly. It also allows the Minister to request the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, to assist boards in the joint exercise of functions that are the subject of ministerial direction.

The published general scheme of the Bill permitted education and training boards to operate education facilities jointly with bodies that are not education and training boards and introduced an enabling provision allowing them to provide support services in respect of other providers. While this is not included in the published Bill, I propose to introduce the necessary amendment on Committee Stage. As we will introduce a number of amendments because of the way the Bill has been accelerated, I assure the House that I will circulate these well in advance and facilitate the Deputies opposite. They will receive the amendments in good time. If they wish to be briefed on the amendments, a briefing will be made available to them.

Section 21 allows the Minister to direct a board to carry out a function in another board's area. This provision may be of particular value in terms of the additional training functions that the new bodies will be tasked with through SOLAS after it is established.

Section 25 provides for the making of five-year statements of strategy by each of the 16 education and training boards. The section provides for consultation with relevant stakeholders and that considerations of policy and financial resources must be taken into account in preparing those statements.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with membership issues affecting the boards. Section 28 sets out the composition of the new boards. There will be ten local authority representatives, two staff representatives, two parents' representatives and four community representatives. Deputies who have served on VECs will be aware that the proposed system differs from the current position where there are nine local authority elected members - 12 in the case of County Dublin VEC - two members of each urban district within a county area of up to four urban districts or one member for each urban district where there are more than four urban districts, two parents' representatives, two staff representatives and four community representatives appointed by the local authority following consultation with the other members appointed by the VEC.

Under the new Bill, the Minister may determine the proportion of members to be drawn from each local authority having regard to relative populations. Each national association of parents must nominate one man and one woman. Where more than one national association of parents is permitted to nominate parent representatives, the local authority members and staff representatives must pick the two parent representatives from the nominees.

The Minister will draw up a list of bodies that can make nominations for membership. I have received a number of representations to have specific bodies included on this list. I will give consideration to these representations in drafting the list. The core board - local authority members and staff and parent representatives - will co-opt four people from the nominees of the listed bodies.

Existing members of VECs will automatically become members of the new education and training boards and will continue on in office until the next local elections. Having given great consideration to this provision, I believed it only right and proper that sitting members of VECs who were elected to those bodies following the last local elections were entitled to serve out their term, provide a continuity of institutional memory and bed down the organisation in its new format. The provision also adheres to good practice in the transitional periods of merging organisations. Where executive boards or committees have merged, they have encompassed representatives from both organisations during the new entity's formation. This practice struck me as being the right approach. However, it will attract a certain amount of negative criticism. Where three VECs join together - at least three or four such amalgamations are envisaged - their joining will attract a great deal of adverse public commentary, as the fully merged committee will be quite large. Perhaps Members might have an opportunity on Committee Stage to articulate how this issue could be discussed. People who are not as well informed as others might make comments that could be of an adverse nature.

Sections 29 to 36, inclusive, deal with membership issues such as elections, appointment, eligibility, ceasing to be a member, disqualifications, casual vacancies and expenses.

Part 4 provides for the regulation of education and training boards. This includes a power to issue legally binding directions on a board, the appointment of a person to investigate the performance of a board's functions, the transfer of functions to another person in limited circumstances and the removal of board members. Under the current VEC legislation, the Department's inspectorate has the power to inspect any place maintained or assisted by a VEC. It also makes it a criminal offence for a person to obstruct or impede an inspector in exercising his or her functions. When the draft heads of the Bill were published, some people viewed this provision as excessive in light of what would be required. In fact, it was embodied in earlier legislation. It simply had not been activated or utilised.

We are not adding a new draconian instrument of compliance or forced obedience. I will take into account on Committee Stage the concerns expressed by some of the representative organisations on this provision, particularly the question of interpreting what is an obstruction or impeding an inspector in the exercise of functions.

Debate adjourned.