Education and Training Boards Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Deputy Paul Connaughton is sharing time with Deputy Patrick O'Donovan.

I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to the Bill. Change is always a difficult but necessary process, and the change represented by this Bill is both difficult and necessary. In the end it will result in a much more streamlined training system, with significant savings to the Exchequer. For over 80 years, vocational education committees, VECs, 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, including the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme and 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 to the community school sector, where they are co-patrons with religious authorities, the VECs are very significant.

One may also consider the important role of post-leaving certificate courses and Youthreach programmes throughout the country, making it apparent that this sector is a significant player in Irish education. When the VECs were established in 1930, there were 38 bodies, and this was reduced to 33 in the 1990s. This Bill will see the creation of 16 education and training boards to replace those VECs. The Bill also represents a major step in legislation underpinning 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 arising from that. 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. Currently, each of the 33 VECs produces education plans and the newly created education training boards will publish annual strategy statements.

The new boards will also result in savings to members, given the reduced numbers of members nationally. These boards will comprise 18 members, with ten being local authority representatives, along with representatives of staff, parents and community business interests. I note that although the Bill provides for gender equality in the case of parent and community representatives, it does not do so with regard to local authority or staff members.

The increased focus on community and business interests is welcome and, hopefully, will result in increased tailoring of vocational courses to meet the needs of the business community. Given the investment the new boards will make in education, it is imperative that benefits accrue to local business, in particular to business in the small and medium-sized 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 FÁS staff. I also note that in the coming months, this Government will bring forward legislation to provide for the establishment of a new training authority, SOLAS, which will see the dissolution of FÁS and the transfer of training schemes to the newly established boards.

Another welcome development is the streamlining of the various awarding bodies. The new qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland will replace a range of bodies, including FETAC, HETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board. Once again, this change should result in significant savings in regard to human resources, physical resources and other costs. The Bill provides for the establishment of scholarships and also the provision of education at the request of any body which funds training out of the money provided by the Oireachtas.

Effective monitoring of the new boards will be key to their success. I am glad to note that the Minister will have the 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 by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The subject of VEC rationalisation was discussed at the Committee of Public Accounts 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 that headquarter functions cost €40 million, mainly comprising pay. The Minister has estimated that the merging of 33 VECs into 16 will save approximately €3.2 million annually and additional savings could be made via the disposal of property. Some 13 of 33 existing VECs own their own premises and the remaining 20 are leased. The decision whether to sell existing premises will rest with the CEOs of the new training boards.

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 in this Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation creating the education and training boards. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State with responsibility for innovation, Deputy Sean Sherlock. This Bill is another piece of a package of measures the Government has brought forward in terms of the reform of how education is provided at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. As the previous speaker said, there has been little or no change in the structural roll-out of education through the vocational education committees since the 1930s. This Bill gives us an opportunity to re-examine what we expect from the education and training boards, previously known as the VECs.

In my area, County Limerick VEC will be amalgamated with the City of Limerick VEC and County Clare VEC. They will be amalgamated under the auspices of the County Limerick VEC and the headquarters will be in Dooradoyle. It is a reflection of the regional need in Clare and in Limerick for a structure which will meet the needs of parents, teachers, managers and, more importantly, students, whether second level students or students continuing their education through night classes, back to education courses or PLC courses.

We are talking about this Bill the day after the reform of local government package was announced and it is important there is continuity. While we are seeing a change in the structure, we are maintaining some continuity as well. Local authority representation on the education and training boards is important and I welcome the fact there will be ten seats per education and training board for local authority members. In the case of Limerick city, County Limerick and County Clare, it will be distributed by determination of the Minister, which is good.

This is the first opportunity I have had to speak in the Chamber on education matters since the announcement of the reform of the junior certificate last week, which will be very relevant to those involved in the education and training boards. In what the Minister for Education and Skills announced last week, there is a move away from rote learning at junior certificate level, which I welcome. However, the move away from rote learn at junior certificate level cannot be done in isolation and it must be continued to the leaving certificate level. As a teacher, one of the things we were always told when being taught how to teach was that the worst possible way to teach is by rote learning and yet the biggest examination in a young person's life, which will determine their future career and where they will go, is based entirely on rote learning. There is something wrong with that.

On the one hand, the Department of Education and Skills has acknowledged that rote learning at junior certificate level has failed and is not meeting the needs of the children it is supposed to serve while on the other, it is continuing on the basis that the leaving certificate is fit for purpose. There is a major anomaly there. The leaving certificate is not fit for purpose and the education and training boards, the Department of Education and Skills and Members of the House have a role in restructuring and reforming the leaving certificate and the senior cycle and asking parents, managers, teachers, students, employers and further education providers what we require from the senior cycle.

This Bill makes provision for outside representation on the education and training boards. The Minister of State will probably agree that we must focus on how what we are doing currently will benefit the economy. It is, therefore, very important that we have representatives of the trade union movement and employers on education and training boards who can reflect what the marketplace, the workplace, employers and others require in terms of educational needs.

Third level institutions, in particular, are running courses which provide few, if any, job opportunities in Ireland and that is a challenge for the Department. We must be fair to, and honest with, the people embarking on those course. One of the universities which has been to the fore in meeting the needs of the local employment base and the students is the University of Limerick. I am not saying that because I am from Limerick but it is by far and away out on its own in terms of revolutionising the delivery of education to students which then benefits the local economy and employers. We need to get people involved at a much earlier stage and one of the ways we can do that is through the education and training boards.

The move to SOLAS - it is part of this because there will be a role for it - is a good thing. The rebranding of FÁS is a good thing because, unfortunately, FÁS became a very dirty word in the past few years. A small number of people used that organisation very meanly for their own particular purposes and benefited themselves. The move to SOLAS is a good thing but there is no point rebranding organisations like FÁS unless it is joined up to an overall strategy which, ultimately, will deliver an opportunity for the people who are going to avail of these courses, whether at second level or post-leaving certificate level, for gainful employment in their local communities. Ultimately, that is what this Bill must be about.

I support the Bill and in doing so, I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours. Over the next 12 months, he will be busy as president of the Council of innovation ministers. He has a huge responsibility in delivering part of the cake to Ireland and the other countries in the economic mess we are in. I have no doubt the Minister of State is more than capable of doing so.

I begin by wishing my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, well in his new job as education spokesperson for Sinn Féin. As the man said, he could not do a worse job than I did.

I told him Deputy Crowe was a hard act to follow. That is only because Deputy Crowe is from Dublin and Deputy O'Brien is from Cork.

I remember this issue came up at committee. I think there was a general welcome across the political spectrum for the legislation and the effort behind it. It ticks a number of boxes in regard to saving money but it is also about reform and change. As a result, some people will be worried about elements of change.

I should declare an interest in that I am on the board of management of Greenhills College in my constituency, which is a VEC school. It is a privilege to be on the board and I pay tribute to the hard work being carried out by the board members. They reflect the work of many VECs and school boards throughout the State. People give up a great deal of time to look out for schools and the positive role the schools have played in the past must be acknowledged.

The reforming measures in the Bill are unprecedented in scale and in what they set out to achieve. A new local ETB system will be provided by replacing the nine existing VEC Acts with one principal Act, which is positive. A total of 16 new training boards will replace the 33 existing VECs. An bord snip nua had originally stated that the number of VECs should be reduced from 33 to 22. That number has now been reduced to 16 and I recall the discussions with the Minister about arriving at this number. There was a great deal of concern about counties being left out of that process and about where the headquarters would be located. One of the positive aspects of VECs has been their flexibility and ability to change over the years. The original legislation was passed in the 1930s and, therefore, for eight decades, the VECs have been paramount in the State's delivery of education and training and this modernisation and overhaul offers opportunities and challenges that are part of a wider multifaceted legislative overhaul of the further education and training sector.

The VEC sector has been an important contributor historically to Government labour market interventions, originally in regard to high levels of youth employment in the 1980s and, more recently, in the provision of additional places under the PLC and the back to education initiative programmes as part of labour market activation strategies. The sector has had a culture of change at its heart. Concerns were expressed about the legislation in the context of the ability of the VECs to change in the light of difficulties being faced while maintaining their ethos and the radical element the VECs have shown over the years being lost in the proposed changes.

The 16 ETBs will have a greatly extended role. They will absorb a significant percentage of FÁS staff and will be tasked with delivering a broad range of training programmes on behalf of SOLAS when it replaces FÁS. It is important that the new ETBs have board members from all sectors of society, including parents. This again was one of the concerns expressed. The VECs are very much seen as part of the community and people were concerned the board membership should include parents and others from the local community in order that people would buy in. People working in the sector are worried about their rights, conditions and transfer of obligations and that came up when we discussed the heads of the Bill at the joint committee hearing earlier this year and I have no doubt it will be raised again on Committee Stage. Staff are worried about whether the changes will undermine their conditions and leave them with less favourable conditions. The Minister pointed out at the time that this would not be the case but it is understandable that those who represent this sector would be worried and would articulate those concerns in the discussion on the legislation.

The capacity of ETBs to shape the Ireland of the future will be significant. The ETBs will have a key role in identifying, prioritising and improving the educational and training standards that are so important for our future economic prosperity. Flexibility and responsiveness to changing and emerging needs has been a general feature of the operation of VECs. A key strategic consideration informing the restructuring of VECs is the need not only to retain and support this demonstrated capacity for flexibility and adaptability, but also to position the VEC sector to meet future challenges across the education and training sector generally. Many of the courses must not only be suitable for the labour market; they must also promote the ability and skills of the participants. This should not be only about a market driven response; it should also be about developing people. It is a key component of the ethos of those working in the community education sector that they develop the concept of lifelong learning.

During previous education debates, one of the key issues I focused on was lifelong learning and the importance of helping women with literacy problems who were not engaged in the education system. In many communities, the husbands or partners of these women are not on the scene. They are single parents and it is important that they have literacy skills and an interest in education. This will encourage them to bring books, newspapers and magazines into their houses, which in turn, will encourage their children. We all want schools and centres of knowledge to be open to the public and the vocational education sector has spearheaded that over the years. However, it is important that when courses are rolled out in the community, the flexibility of the past is built on and they are adapted to people's lifestyles and offered, for example, when the children are in school and so on. Schools need to be seen as a safe, inclusive and secure space. In communities ravaged by drugs or crime, people say the local school can be a secure space where they and their children can go and talk and feel safe.

Clearly, there were training difficulties in the past and that is where flexibility comes in but there is huge potential if we can get this right. Hopefully, this will happen, as we are not at cross purposes in this regard. Education at every level from kindergarten to university should be a right, not a privilege. We continue to experience major cutbacks in education and increasing costs in getting education. The Government needs to recognise the benefits education and training can add to the economy and to the lives of individuals. As unemployment continues to grow, it has become increasingly urgent that communities be provided with a centre that provides training and educational opportunities, which will allow people looking to learn new skills and subjects to find a job in a rapidly evolving jobs environment. Ensuring that all people, no matter what their economic and educational background is, have an opportunity to upskill is one of the most measurable ways in which our citizens can empower themselves and open up new opportunities for them. That is why we need to grasp this opportunity and the Bill offers the potential to implement far reaching reforming measures. We need a greater focus on education and training for people who suffer from literacy problems or adults who are returning to education. This would not only improve people's independence but would also ensure they became more employable.

This helps to improve their finances and Government revenue. It is a no-brainer.

I see a stronger focus on second chance education. I genuinely believe in the concept of lifelong learning, which is not just a slogan. We need supports to help people but there must also be community and individual buy-in. We must have courses and training to reflect the needs and aspirations of those people. It is a question of building on people's educational experience. There is nothing more demoralising for someone who wants to take a course than being told one is not suitable and cannot make progress in education. It is about that ladder and the steps forward.

I hope the education and training boards will ensure schools can work together and capitalise on economies of scale to allow them to secure better deals for uniforms and textbooks. This issue arose at the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA. The general secretary talked about economies of scale, bulk buying and the importance of saving money for that sector. Reference was made to making savings on uniforms. I upset many manufacturers when I referred to the uniform racket but I make no apology for it. I stand by that position. A number of multiples have become involved in the market, leading to a drop in price. It is a scandal that a child, although he or she may be large, must fork out €80 or €90 for a school jumper because it has a crest. Manufacturers can produce school crests for €2 or €3 and they can be bought internationally. Many of the uniforms come from China and families can access the product on the Internet. The families know the price they are paying and they know they are being ripped off. Bulk buying can work and it can be used to reduce fees for ICT school supplies and so forth. Although it cannot be contained in legislation, there should be an instruction from the Department that we want to see such change and co-operation in the sector. There should be support for this.

Any change to the Irish education and training system, through reform of public services, must strike a balance between securing efficiency and making delivery of services more effective in terms of learner outcomes and more rewarding from the point of view of those who deliver the service. Therefore, the reform of education and training provision must not focus exclusively on the expenditure side. Adequate provision must be allocated to the implementation of the training boards Bills so that meaningful reform of education and training provision can be achieved. It is a case of trying to find out the budget and how it will operate in the future.

The Minister referred to potential savings through the reduction in the number of chief executive officers. There is concern about headquarters where VECs are tied into long-term contracts. Buildings should not be turned into white elephants. There is a need to use them for educational purposes in such cases. It is important the buildings are not used for only one or two days a week but are fully availed of for some community activity if not aid for education. They could be hubs of education and centres of learning in the areas.

The Bill presents an opportunity that may not present itself again for many years to come. When considering the legislation, we must also work towards the delivery of high quality education that meets the needs of the most disadvantaged in society. Almost 500,000 people are unemployed and need to be upskilled. They are looking for opportunity and hope. The length of time people must wait when trying to access these courses is a key component of the matter, although it does not concern the legislation. Flexibility and the type of course offered represent a major responsibility for the Government to deliver. I have expressed my concern in respect of the gender of the board members. There should be parental and community involvement and buy-in is important. I wish the Minister well.

I thank Deputy Crowe.

We will table amendments but there is broad support for what the Minister is trying to do. It is ambitious and has the potential to bring about major positive changes for society.

I propose to share time with Deputies Kevin Humphreys and John Lyons. I will focus on reform, literacy and empowering the public service. What the Minister is trying to do in primary, secondary and further education at third level includes junior certificate reform, a literacy and numeracy strategy, a review of the enrolment policy expected in the new year, anti-bullying strategies and a forum on patronage and pluralism. A major amount is happening in the education sector. It is important to realise we cannot achieve any of these without empowering the public service. Major reform is being undertaken. I stress that it is disingenuous of Government backbenchers to talk about the Croke Park agreement and to issue disingenuous statements on the agreement that undermine the respect we have for public servants and that completely misunderstand the relationship Departments must have with teachers and those involved in the education sector.

When we try to reform, we must bring people with us. When we try to reform the junior certificate, we must bring with us teachers, educators and school boards of management. When we reform elements of the further education sector, we must bring with us the people engaged in it. When trying to stress the importance of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, we must bring with us the people who will deliver such programmes. These people have taken a 14% pay cut and have been asked to work longer hours. They feel continuously under attack, under strain and undermined. I plead with so-called experts on the Croke Park agreement, who probably have not read it, to take time to pause and realise that none of this reform can take place without the goodwill of those involved in the sector. Many of our schools, further education bodies and universities run on goodwill. Undermining that goodwill undermines everything. It is almost impossible to achieve any reform without a sense of leadership and asking people to come with you. Issuing a poorly drafted, incoherent and disingenuous statement that completely misrepresents the Croke Park agreement and what it can achieve undermines the reforms these people are asking the Government to proceed with and deliver.

Literacy is extremely important because we have convinced ourselves for so long that we are the land of saints and scholars. We have a literacy problem and it cannot be fixed by the education system. A three year old child from a welfare dependent family will have a vocabulary of 450 words, whereas a three year old child from a professional family has 1,200 words. The gulf exists before the children come near the education system.

The education system can only do so much. We have prioritised literacy and numeracy at primary level and have empowered teachers to deliver that. We are doing the same at second level in conjunction with junior certificate reform, which also has a significant literacy component.

I ask the Minister to act on the suggestion of the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, and make a space on each of the education and training boards for an adult learner in order that they can complete the circle of the literacy process. We must empower all those involved in the education sector, including adult learners, students, teachers and administrators. We cannot reform from the top down. We must reform in conjunction and in partnership, and with a fundamental understanding of what happens in schools and in colleges of further education.

I welcome the reform of VECs. This has been a good couple of weeks. We have seen this Bill as well as the reform of the junior certificate and the announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of reform of local government, all of which have been talked about for decades but did not happen. I am glad to see that the reform agenda is being pushed through.

It makes perfect sense to reduce the number of VECs from 33 to 16 - there were originally 38 committees - and to reduce the nine Education Acts to one. Having had to go through Education Acts as chairman of a VEC, I am aware this measure will simplify matters. I welcome the contribution of Deputy Seán Crowe. This is not just about saving money. It is about making the system fit for purpose, which it has not been for a long time.

The boards will reflect the reality that education boards do not need to be organised on a county basis but can reflect population and regions. Now that the boards will be rationalised, it is important to refocus and look at areas where the VECs can carry out a greater role in education and retraining.

It is notable that the word "training" is included in the title of the new boards. It is vital to recognise that alongside education we must train people with the right skills for the workforce, which has not necessarily happened in the education sector.

For a long time, VECs were associated with apprenticeships, and the apprenticeship model is now outdated. It must be reformed and looked at again. In the European model that operates in Germany and the Netherlands, the idea of apprenticeship has been expanded. We should look at that, now that we have reformed the education boards. There is much work to be done. If we are to have an export-led recovery, a focus on skills is needed and a structure that gives people a path to jobs, whether in services, manufacturing, agriculture or industry.

I am a former pupil of City of Dublin VEC. I was the first chair of City of Dublin VEC who was educated by a VEC. Nessa Childers MEP and I had the privilege of attending Ringsend Tech, which is now Ringsend College. The college was established to educate young people in fishing skills.

And boat building.

And boat building. This give us an idea how VECs can change and reinvent themselves.

From my experience of City of Dublin VEC, I can say VECs are reforming, innovative and enterprising. We have seen this with the roll-out of Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, where VECs deal with the new grants structure. We need to allow the new education and training boards to develop.

When I was chair of City of Dublin VEC, the principal of Crumlin College noticed there was a new type of unemployed person for whom the college's courses were not suitable. Some of these people had third level education. She went to the unemployment exchange, did a survey of recently unemployed people and considered the skills they needed to get back into the education market. From that, she designed a course covering ten modules. They were oversubscribed by people who had recently become unemployed. Many of them had degrees but were anxious to fill in the gaps they needed to get back to education. Innovation can be at that very basic level. The old VECs have very significant experience in building. Can we use that as a hub of knowledge in order that primary and other secondary schools can use this expertise in the building sectors?

Former pupils of Ballyfermot College are winning Oscars on the international stage. Ten years ago, no one would have thought a VEC would expand into that area and create real jobs and gain an international presence. We must allow the new education and training boards to look at the wide expanse and see where they want to go.

Ballsbridge College, which is close to the home ground of the Minister and myself, has partnered with the Chinese Embassy to look at ways of developing language skills for young unemployed people. That is the innovation we want. Reducing the number of VECs to 16 education and training boards will allow other colleges to develop in an innovative manner. The Minister must make space to allow the boards to grow into new sectors that we have not even thought about. He must say to the CEOs to come up with good ideas which he can support.

Programmes such as Youthreach must not be left behind. Youthreach, particularly in urban areas, gives a second opportunity to young people who have been left behind. A Youthreach group from the Parnell Street area of Dublin came into the House this morning. Education did not work for these young people. In Youthreach they are doing European studies and they came to Leinster House to see how the democratic system works. They were excited again about education. For these young people, now in their 20s, school was a bore, but they were delighted to be getting a second chance. We need to ensure this sort of thing happens.

In urban areas, VEC schools place great emphasis on ensuring no disadvantaged child is left behind. They work beyond the call of duty to keep such children in education. In my experience, where VECs have pulled out of mainstream second level education, such young people can fall out of education. Other second level schools do not have the necessary experience to deal with severely disadvantaged children, possibly with numeracy and literacy problems. The new boards need to stay in that space where they have the necessary experience. There is a wonderful opportunity for the 16 new education and training boards to develop and move into a new position and enhance the opportunities of our young people.

I am delighted to speak on the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012. I was part of this area when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection. Although I have since moved to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the work of this committee is intrinsically linked to the content of the Education and Training Boards Bill.

I will speak on two aspects of the Bill, which are the reform agenda of the Department of Education and Skills and the importance of further education and training for the large number of people who are currently unemployed. The Bill is one more in a series of steps being taken by the Department of Education and Skills. The policies of the Department are being spring cleaned. Officials are looking at best practice and at what must be done to make ourselves fit for purpose for the future.

The Minister said the Bill is about enhancing learning. I totally agree with that. I also commend the Minister on the other reforms that have taken place. Hopefully, some people outside the House, as well as some of the Deputies, are watching what is happening here today because this is real reform. We should stop what we are doing for ten seconds and try to understand what reform means and what reforms are happening through the legislative process in this new Bill. Radical changes are happening to our education system because of this. I will speak about a couple of them which are quite good.

Unfortunately, I will not be present when the junior certificate is due to be discussed in the Dáil. As a secondary school teacher, I would love to speak on it. The change is warmly welcome and overdue, and I am delighted the Minister is doing something about it. SOLAS is also due to be established. This will work in tandem with the education and training boards. It is a little like a jigsaw puzzle. This Bill is just one part of a jigsaw that will overhaul how education is delivered in Ireland at all levels, which will ultimately affect the individual and their employability.

It is 70 years since the Beveridge report was produced in the United Kingdom. Those familiar with the report will know that it was the origin of the National Health Service, NHS, which is similar to what we are trying to introduce here with the universal health insurance scheme. Seventy years ago, in 1942, the Second World War was ongoing, so in challenging times, when things are difficult, good decisions can be made. The Education and Training Boards Bill is being introduced during a challenging time but we will see its fruit in time.

I am familiar with the heads of the Bill. The Minister did something quite new in that regard. The committee saw the heads of the Bill and was able to discuss them before the Bill was brought to the floor of the House. It was a great privilege to be part of composing more than the heads of the Bill. Obviously a number of people from the VECs and other sectors appeared before the committee to discuss their concerns about the direction the Bill should take. From my perspective, the most important part of the Bill deals with the provision of education and training. It needs to meet the challenges of the workplace today. I am very concerned about that. I realise SOLAS is the new body that will be established, but the ETBs will oversee the delivery of the training and education which we are relying on to upskill people and ensure their employability, so they are a step closer to the world of work. We have only one shot at getting the service right. It was the 1930s when we last did something in this sector with the Vocational Education Act. Now, 80 years later, we are introducing this Bill. It will probably be after our lifetimes before the next change is made, so it is really important that we get the composition of this right. I hope that will be the case with all the services.

There is one issue I wish to highlight in respect of the education and training section. As Members know, I am a secondary school teacher. I believe one is always a teacher. One might leave the profession, but one is still involved in teaching. I value what education means. Education is not just about getting somebody a job. I understand the intrinsic value that education brings to somebody's life. As the Minister said, education is the great liberator. It allows people to move to a different place in their lives, which would not have been possible otherwise. I am an example of that. However, given the constraints of the current economic crisis, what must be centre stage in the delivery of further education and training is the employability factor that the course will offer the person who undertakes it. The ETBs will have a strong role in this. To ensure the employability factor is part of the further education and training sector, we need to get rid of courses such as ECDL, European Computer Driving Licence. There must be a proper audit of the courses.

With regard to the composition of the boards, I regret there is no designated nomination for a business person on the board. That would be crucial. Although they can be nominated as one of the four representatives, it is a pity they are not a designated nomination. If we are to be truly successful in integrating education and training into the world of work, we must have the pulse of what is happening in industry, and the best people to tell us that is the people in industry. They would be able to guide us in a way that nobody in the Department of Education and Skills or possibly even in this House could do, with no disrespect to anybody. FIT, Fast Track to IT, is a good example of where this model is practised well and where industry has been invited to be the pulse for how it proceeds. FIT is funded through the Department of Education and Skills and has a 70% job progression rate for the people who do its courses. Its board is composed of the IBMs, Intels and so forth of this world so it is constantly addressing the needs of industry and developing courses, along with the VEC, to meet those needs. The result is that seven out of ten people who complete those courses gain full-time employment within two years. There is a lesson to be learned from that.

People need to have faith. We all have anecdotal evidence of people not having faith in the systems in place to date. One of them is FÁS. I am aware of an unemployed electrician who went to FÁS recently and the only course he was offered was fork-lift driving. His employability factor was not going to change much as a result. We must invest in career paths. When all the jigsaw pieces of SOLAS, the one-stop-shop and the ETBs we are discussing today come together, they will provide a career path to people to ensure they will be closer to the world of work when they finish, if they do not secure a job straight away.

I see the Leas-Cheann Comhairle gesturing to me to conclude. I welcome this legislation. It provides for real reform. I admire its aims. Although the Minister and I might disagree on things sometimes, I fully support all the reforms he has introduced to date and I look forward to future reforms from the Department of Education and Skills.

I thank the Technical Group for allocating this speaking time to me. I believe the first Minister for Education in this country was a Kerry man, from Cahirciveen.

That was a good start.

The trouble was the Bishop of Kerry was his uncle.

I am getting a good history lesson.

The aim of this Bill is to give effect to the Government's decision to provide for the establishment of newly configurated bodies, the education and training boards, to replace the vocational education committees, VECs. I wish to remember the VECs in a special way. I have a vested interest in this because from my early days in politics I worked closely with members of the VECs. My father was a member of a VEC for many years. Given how we are proceeding, I wish to acknowledge those people. The Minister over his long career in politics and other Deputies, like myself, will have known people who were members of VECs. Indeed, some of the Deputies might have been members of VECs. Great work was done by the people in VECs, and that should be acknowledged on the floor of this House. The people who are still alive should be thanked and the families of those who have passed on should know from the record of the House that I, and I know I speak for everybody else, respected them for the work they did. They were very committed to the job and were proud of the role they fulfilled in the education process.

I will speak a little about how things are changing so fast. We are not simply doing away with VECs but a myriad of things is coming together to take their place. While I am happy with that, the opposite decision to this is the Government's recent announcement about the abolition of town councils. That is a retrograde step and I will not support it. Sometimes the Government Ministers might get things right, but at other times they get them wrong.

The Deputy is straying a little.

That is no harm.

When it comes to linking up the training process, we must liaise with potential employers. We live in an era of constant upskilling. The days where a person went to national school and that was it are past. Then there was the group certificate, which was enough to get a person a job working for the State in Telecom Éireann or Bord na Móna, or to secure an apprenticeship. Then the system progressed and children needed an intermediate certificate and then the leaving certificate and now it is college. Even a person in a job still needs to train. The other day I was with a doctor who has retired from public practice. He is in his 70s and every month he must go away for a few evenings a week to train and upskill. There are other doctors like him in their 80s who still operate private practices and they must constantly train in new methods. That is the world we live in today. It is not a case of being educated and finding a job, and that is the end of it. The whole area is evolving and what is before us might be right for now but in a couple of years' time further change will be needed.

Liaising with potential employers is vital. We do not want to churn out people for the sake of it; we want to ensure the skills they learn will equip them to find work. Tús is a great scheme but 12 months after joining it, the person is dropped off the edge of a cliff and there is nothing else. We must watch what we are doing. Community employment schemes are great but we must watch what happens to people in the years ahead. It should always be about making sure people will be able to get gainful employment.

Last week, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was in Kerry to launch a booklet by KES that for the first time brought all of the opportunities for people to upskill together in one publication. In view of the current environment, people must be versatile and say that although they might have been doing A, they must now train to do B. This booklet gave a comprehensive overview of what is available in the county. I wish those behind the booklet every success, it is a valuable publication.

I would like to see the institute of technology in Tralee being granted university status. It would be good for the county and the institute and I see no reason that the IT could not do it.

I read in one of the reports that there would be a projected annual saving of €3.2 million arising from these proposed measures. That is welcome but I am bothered by other issues. The Minister has tried to deal with the exorbitant cost of books. The company Educate.ie in Castleisland in County Kerry proved beyond all doubt that it can produce school books for all the different curricula at a fraction of the cost being foisted on parents of schoolchildren. The Minister has been proactive on this. We should work to reduce the cost of books because the world we are living in today is one where people can devise new and different methods of producing publications. I visited Educate.ie and saw the excellent work the company is doing. It can still provide jobs and pay people properly while supplying a quality product at a fraction of the cost previously.

The changes in the junior certificate are welcome progress in the examination process. We were always told not to put our eggs in one basket. Young people face many different problems and pressures in their lives that we did not have as young people. A person could spend years studying and then when everything is supposed to be done in one week, the pressure could lead to a bad week where his results would not be a fair reflection of his ability. Continuous assessment is preferable; it is a smarter, more prudent way to adjudicate on a young person's ability to take exams over a longer time and to take into account the work over the course of the year. What weight will be given to each aspect?

The exam paper will be worth 60% and the year's work will be worth 40%.

That is a fair balance and a smarter way to assess a young person's progress. I consider that to be a sensible step.

Being able to afford to go to college is a serious issue for the new poor and one of the many problems they face. There are those who might have a very good job and who are on a good wages but who, because of negative equity and debt, week to week do not have enough money to keep the household going. When it comes to wanting to send their offspring to university, they would be automatically debarred from the grant. There are hardship funds in the universities but I hear that universities have a very small pool of money every year.

Some years ago, so few people looked for the hardship grant that virtually every person who applied got a contribution towards their fees.There are so many people falling into that category today that the colleges cannot help them all. Those who are eligible for the grant receive the grant. In regard to the new category of people, it would appear from the outside that their parents would be able to pay for their college education but they cannot. If one was to conduct an audit of their finances, it would be proven beyond all doubt that they cannot afford to send their children to college.

I have encountered cases of children who have had to take time out and go abroad to work. While I would not be slow to send a young person out to work, they have to interrupt their studies and go away for a year or two to build up some money to come home and return to college. That is happening a good deal. I do not know the solution but I am aware of the financial position. There may be two families living next door to each other, one of whom is on a much lower or no income, except assistance, and is able to send their children to college while the other, where a parent supposedly has a good job, is unable to do so. That is a new problem. Even going back to the 1980s, Ministers for Education did not have to deal with that problem. Also at that time there was not the same number of students going on to third level education. I believe no other Minister for Education and Skills has had to deal with this new issue.

Speaking at the IVEA congress, the general secretary, Mr. Michael Moriarty, expressed the opinion that there may be great potential to enhance the range of benefits for all providers. He suggested that the education and training boards could, for example, support stand alone boards of management in other schools in regard to the management of building projects and in the provision of IT supports. He also pointed out that some VECs provide psychological support services and suggested that there may be potential for extending such roles to all schools within an education and training board catchment area. He also emphasised the benefits that could accrue from co-operation, particularly in the current constrained economic circumstances, and expressed the hope that the future ETB structure would provide the local framework to facilitate a more co-operative approach between school managers.

The matter of psychological support services raises another issue which has been debated here forcefully, that of career guidance teachers and the recent reduction in same in all schools. That is an issue of serious concern. Career guidance teachers were given a wrong title as their role involved much more than career guidance. Their role expanded to assisting young people in difficulty. The young person who was in a dark place could speak to the career guidance teacher who would give the individual time and could be of assistance at a critical time in that young person's life. I do not wish to refer to recent events but the Minister will be aware of occurrences in certain parts of the country which were alarming. It related to the lack of provision of a career guidance teacher or another suitably qualified person to deal with a young person's situation. That is a concern.

Psychological support services are very important. Young people going through the education system are in a funny place in comparison to where we would have been when going through the education system. Given the alarming increase in suicide, young people get distracted, mithered and upset and need a level of support that would not have been required in the past. It is an awful thing to say but it is the truth - in the past people had a tougher mentality and it took a good deal to rattle them, whereas today young people appear to get upset more easily. Leaving the local national school and entering secondary school is a daunting proposition for children.

They are leaving the security and sanctity of the group they were with for many years. At secondary school they have a longer day and are meeting all new young people. The work ethic is great in such schools and the curriculum large. They are well educated but in its own way that brings psychological pressures to bear on them which they may not be able to deal with. There is also something we never dreamt of, bullying on mobile telephones, e-mails and so on. There are awful pressures on children. We may think technology is great but when we hear the stories about cyber bullying we have to ask what we have done to ourselves and our lovely young people. That is where we are in the world and we must ensure the providers of education are doing their best to combat it. The aim of the Minister and each of us and those who provide education to our young people is to ensure they are safe, happy and educated and throughout their lives that they continue to be upskilled by the various arms of the State and that they will be available to assist them all the days of their lives. I refer to my earlier point about doctors who at 70 and 80 years of age are still being educated. That is an eye opener that people are on a life long learning curve.

I call Deputy Michael Conaghan who I understand is sharing time with Deputies Tom Hayes, John Paul Phelan and Anthony Lawlor. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Bill will build strong new structures to continue a long tradition of local community centre delivery of education and training. The new structures will be built on a remarkable foundation, that is, Ireland's proud tradition of vocational education. The new structures which the Minister is proposing are necessary. These measures will ensure the structures are fit for purpose. They will allow for greater accountability, efficiency and co-ordination. The education and training boards with SOLAS will re-orientate a core part of the education and training system to meet the unique challenges which Ireland faces. These combined measures will place further education and training within the one educational framework and offer full educational recognition to further education and training courses, which is a welcome and progressive step.

The VECs work with and within the communities and have always been responsive to community needs. The reduced number of education and training boards, 16, which will replace 33 vocational education committees, will pose a challenge to this but one which can be overcome. The core purpose of the Bill is to reform the structures with the aim of addressing the low scale and size of operations of some VECs.

The Minister has said that these new structures will "strengthen locally managed education". They will position the vocational sector for further growth. However, structures do not make values. In creating these new structures, we must not abandon the values, practices, philosophy and traditions of what went before in the long distinguished history of vocational education provision.

This transition from a system of VECs to the new ETBs is the latest stage of the development of vocational education in Ireland, which dates back far beyond the Vocational Education Act 1930 to a new vision for education, which emerged in Europe in the mid-19th century. This vision is as valid today as it was then and has served the sector very well. The VECs have been animated by this history of educational thought and philosophy, and by the values and ethos traditionally identified with the sector - openness, democratic nature, inclusiveness, responsiveness and accessibility. It is vital that this history and these values be transmitted in this legislation so that they animate the new structures.

Over the years, the VEC has delivered so much, in Dublin and in other communities across the country. The vocational sector has been by far the most inclusive and egalitarian provider of education. The VEC will not exclude anyone and no one has ever been turned away from the gate. The VECs are broad-based, democratically accountable and firmly entrenched in the communities in which they operate. The new measures the Minister proposes will maintain and enhance this democratic link to local authorities and communities. Most importantly, the VECs have always operated with a focus on the needs of the community and the needs of the labour market. Classroom practices have a clear eye to future employment patterns. They engage with different aspects of young people's formation and development - not only academic, but also practical, technological and artistic - and are always responsive to the changing needs of the labour market.

The VECs have a track record of successfully straddling that continuum of education, training and employability. They have pulled these three aspects together in a very dynamic, creative, purposeful and productive way. Given the chronic unemployment that faces a generation of young people and the need to re-orientate our education system to meet the evolving needs of the workforce, many lessons can be learned from the VECs. I wish to mention the work of City of Dublin VEC in the past with the establishment of successful colleges that are now household names, including Kevin Street, Bolton Street, the College of Art and Design and the College of Music. That flair and imagination that typified the vocational sector in the past still lives on, and today is exemplified by the ground-breaking and award winning work in the fields of film­making and animation in Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

As the VECs evolve and become education and training boards, the flexibility and responsiveness which has been at the core of vocational education in the past will prove invaluable into the future. When this issue came before the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection last November, I asked the Minister if he would consider overtly stating the values and tradition of vocational sector in this legislation. It is essential that a statement articulating the values, traditions and philosophy of vocational education be incorporated into this new legislation so that the strength and vision of the old can animate the new. I ask the Minister to consider introducing a preamble to the Bill to include a statement of these values, traditions and strengths.

I congratulate the Minister on his work in reforming our education system. Reform is good and necessary. However, in this quest for reform we must not lose sight of what is good, what the past has to teach us and what works. We must build on it and take it to the next level. The VECs represent some of the very best of our education system. The education and training boards must build on that tradition.

I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012. In these challenging times the way we manage education through VECs and other schools needs to change. Yesterday, we discussed the reform of local government and today we are discussing the reform of how VECs are managed. These are examples of the Government facing up to the reality that we need to do things differently and better. I welcome the streamlining of the management of vocational schools as provided for in the Bill. There were proposals to amalgamate the VECs in Tipperary and Waterford, but now it has been confirmed that south and north Tipperary will be amalgamated, which will have a positive effect on the management of schools across the county. Those are very effective institutions which play a great role in educating many people in the county.

I wish to refer to areas in which the VECs have excelled in the past, which is in adult education and education for people who are out of work or want to change their careers. More than 400,000 people are unemployed. Many skilled people from the construction industry now have no work or opportunity. There is a real challenge for the country and the Minister for Education and Skills is prepared to face the challenge to re-educate, retrain and refocus all those people. We all know them and they do not want to be unemployed. They had a good standard of living some years ago but it has been taken from them because the entire industry collapsed. We need to stand up to that challenge and find opportunities for those people because there are opportunities. We could be negative and say nothing is happening and the situation in the country is deteriorating. However, by way of an example to counter that, the ICT sector has 3,000 unfilled jobs. I could see opportunities to retrain all those unemployed people.

There is considerable involvement in the agricultural sector in my county. We have challenges to educate more young farmers. Quotas will disappear in coming years, beef markets are opening up and alternative organic food can be produced. Beyond the farm gate there are great opportunities for employment but we need to upskill people to have them ready to take up those opportunities.

Ireland is becoming more competitive in tourism than we were and there are opportunities for more tourists to visit. However, we need to educate those unemployed people to become guides or get involved in other opportunities in the tourism sector. That is the challenge for the adult education sector. We need to open up in those three areas to educate the unemployed people in the areas of agriculture, tourism and IT in order to take large numbers of people off our dole queues which would in turn lead to a more prosperous Ireland. At the end of the day, the challenge to create jobs in the coming years will be immense. However, we cannot face that challenge without educated people. That is why the Bill is so important. We need to face the challenge and I know the Minister for Education and Skills is up to it.

I join previous speakers in welcoming the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012, which I support. Previous speakers also referred to the fact that we have numerous Bills dealing with the VECs. There have been efforts made across different Departments, including the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills and others, to update and consolidate various pieces of legislation into one piece of primary legislation, which, too, is to be welcomed.

The primary thrust of this legislation is to bring about a change in the structure of the VECs across the country by way of reduction in numbers and amalgamation, which I welcome. Reform has been mentioned a great deal in this debate. Reform of the education sector is badly needed. I join Deputy Tom Hayes in commending the Minister, who is a man determined to proceed with a number of reforms and is doing a good job at it, on his work thus far. I wish him luck in his work, in respect of which he will have my support.

I would like to put a couple of specific questions in regard to the new VEC structure for Carlow and Kilkenny to the Minister although I will not be able to remain in the House to hear his response as I have to leave to attend a meeting. I have been approached by a number of people who work for the VEC in Kilkenny who are interested in knowing when the new amalgamated structures will come into force.

It is hoped the process will commence in January next.

That is good news, which I will relay to the people concerned. Questions have also arisen in regard to the allocation of sub-offices to particular parts of the country and not to others. Carlow-Kilkenny, which politically has been one constituency in all bar two or three elections since the foundation of the State, is an obvious choice for an amalgamated VEC. Also, a number of other services serve both counties. As such, it makes sense they would also share this service.

Like other speakers, I, too, would like to speak about the education sector in the context of the juncture of this country at present. I often speak of the need for Government and education to be responsive to industry. However, education is about more than just the economy and trade union and industry representatives. There is much more to going to school, be it primary, second or third level, than just examinations. I welcome the Minister's recent announcement in regard to reform of the junior certificate, which we will have an opportunity to discuss at a later stage. Concerns have been raised with me, although not by teachers, with regard to the possibility of subjects such as history not being as prominent in the future for students in the junior cycle. However, I hope to have an opportunity at a later date to discuss this further with the Minister. As the Minister knows only too well, education is not only about meeting the needs of the economy. While that is crucially important, education is also about ensuring we have responsible citizens.

I would like at this stage to comment on the important role played by VECs in the country. Deputies Conaghan and Humphreys spoke specifically in their contributions about VECs in Dublin. There is an old building in virtually every rural parish or community, not least in my own area, which once housed the local technical college. My late father, who was born in the 1920s, never received a secondary education but attended the old technical college in Listrolin, which has been closed for many years now. My father, his friends and many of his neighbours took part in educational courses at that technical college, which fulfilled an important role. While there are no longer technical colleges in every rural community, what is provided for in this legislation is an update of the old technical schools. As stated by Deputy Tom Hayes, it is important these types of facilities are available to people who left the construction and other sectors and wish to retrain or upskill and also, as stated by Deputy Conaghan, to people who may have a third level qualification but wish to fill gaps in their education. The role of the VECs in filling these gaps is crucially important. I welcome this Bill.

I recall that when the Minister appeared more than a year ago before the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection to speak to us about reforms in this area, many members were positive about the changes proposed.

I did my H.Dip in the local VEC school in Naas, following which I spent a year teaching in the VEC school in Maynooth, which was an enjoyable experience from which I learned a great deal about the workings of the VEC. When my mother passed away, I was co-opted onto the VEC, from which I learned a great deal about the workings of the board. When I was asked in 1999 to again become a member of the board of the VEC, I declined because I believed at that time - perhaps I was a young headless chicken and am now an older headless chicken - that the board did not have any real role in the running of the VEC. For this reason, I welcome the dramatic changes that are proposed, not alone the change proposed by the Minister in this legislation, but the changes in local government proposed by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, which link directly into this legislation.

I would like to speak about two issues, the first of which is the new boards. The legislation stipulates that populations will dictate from where the local authority board members will come. I am thinking in this regard of my own area of Kildare-Wicklow. The Minister might consider also taking into account the number of VEC education facilities in one county versus another county. While the population of each county might be the same, the number of schools in a particular county would be more relevant. I hope the Minister will take that point on board.

Another issue is the gender of board members. A person nominated to the board of the VEC in Kildare could not take up his position because he was of the wrong gender. This may become an issue in terms of what is provided for in this Bill. I am aware that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, has introduced changes in this regard. However, they will not come into force until after the 2014 local elections. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, when making the regulations, might also address the issue of gender balance on the boards.

The legislation provides board members with more power, which I welcome. Members of local authorities do not realise how much power they have. It is important this is pointed out to them. I have raised with the Department of Education and Skills its awarding, under its tendering process, of contracts to build schools to companies whom the dogs in the street know are going to fail. I welcome that decisions in respect of the borrowing of money must come before the educational training boards. I would welcome positive input from board members in terms of examination of interested parties.

On the question of amalgamation, we previously amalgamated our health boards.

Instead of having 12 slim trim health boards, we had one bloated HSE. I welcome the provision for staff to transfer to training boards or other public service bodies. It is important that what we put together is not like the bloated HSE and that we have slim, trim, fighting education and training boards designed for what is required in their communities without excess staff.

The Bill is excellent and I support it wholeheartedly. I love the reforms being made not only by the Minister for Education and Skills, but also by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.

I call Deputy Heather Humphreys who is sharing time with Deputies Tony McLoughlin and Áine Collins.

I welcome the Bill, the purpose of which is to provide for the establishment of newly configured education and training boards to replace vocational education committees. Prior to my election to the Dáil, I had the pleasure of serving as a member of Monaghan VEC and I can confirm that VECs have made a significant contribution to education at local level. The Bill will bring together a number of VECs, including the two county VECs in Cavan and Monaghan. I have no doubt that with the right leadership the joint VEC for Cavan and Monaghan will have the capacity to take on additional functionality and provide additional services to all schools in the remit of the education and training boards. It will continue to expand and support education in the region.

Support can be given in a wide range of areas, including synergies in ICT through amalgamation and shared services. HR support and industrial relations issues can also be supported by the new education and training boards. These are all specialised areas and most individual schools would prefer to be supported on a centralised basis. It will also create opportunities to achieve savings. We live in a more complex world and more and more we need a specialised and expertise-based approach, particularly in HR which we all know is highly specialised. I agreed with the Minister when he stated this type of support service should be expanded and offered to primary schools. Support could also be provided for the procurement of goods and services and building projects, which is another specialised area. It is difficult for school principals to balance their teaching duties with a building project.

Under the education and training boards, the amalgamated VECs will have great opportunities to provide support and services. The best example is in my constituency is the ongoing construction of the new education campus in Monaghan, which I know the Minister has visited. It comprises 16 classrooms for Gaelscoil Ultain, a post-primary school for Coláiste Oiriall, and the 700 student Monaghan Institute of Further Education and Training, MIFET. It also includes a theatre which received funding through co-operation between Monaghan Town Council, Monaghan County Council, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Department of Education and Skills. It is a good example of organisations coming together and achieving great things. The Garage Theatre in Monaghan is a pioneering project in that it will have a dual purpose. At night it will be a theatre and during the day it will be used by students studying drama and theatre in the institute of further education, thereby maximising use of the facility.

The new education campus is the largest school building project in the State this year and it is a tremendous asset to the town of Monaghan. It is being built on the site of the old Army barracks. I pay tribute to the CEO of Monaghan VEC, Martin O'Brien, and all the members of Monaghan VEC who have worked tirelessly to ensure the project is almost completed. It is a pilot project which was devolved to Monaghan VEC to develop the mechanisms and standards by which further projects could be devolved. The aim of the project was to afford the VEC the opportunity to demonstrate what it could do at local level. In this respect, Monaghan VEC has proven beyond any doubt that the system can be a success.

While change brings challenges, major opportunities exist for the new education and training boards. I welcome the fact that the Bill makes provision for representation from all parties in the entity, with staff, parent and community representatives as well as elected representatives. It is very important that all of these parties are represented. The future success of education will also be in patrons joining together to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and education and training boards can also play an important role in facilitating school amalgamations. We have a perfect example of this in Clones, County Monaghan, which had a small VEC school and a small secondary school with the bishop as patron. The two patrons came together and the result is that we have an excellent school in Clones in Largy College. It is a model of good practice and an example of co-operation between church and State.

The new education and training boards will have an important role in education and they will be able to provide support in many aspects of the education system. They have broad range of skills which can be relied upon and used to the advantage of everyone. For the new education and training boards to be successful and effective, the Minister and departmental officials need to show leadership and be confident enough to assign meaningful functions and responsibilities to the new boards, and use their skills, experience, interest, commitment and enthusiasm to the maximum so that education can thrive. I commend the Minister on bringing forward the Bill and the large amount of work he and the Department have done to reform the education system.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak in the debate on this important legislation before the Dáil. The House will be aware the McCarthy report in 2008 recommended the reduction of VECs and other associated local government committees and organisations. Originally a reduction of 22 was mooted. However, the previous Government decided on 16, with which this Government agreed, and we now have the proposal set out in the Bill.

I warmly welcome the evolution from the vocational educational bodies which dealt only with education to educational and training boards. This will see the eventual amalgamation of the FÁS training division into the local education and training boards. It is prudent to have vocational and skills training under one roof. I look forward to further legislation later this year which will establish SOLAS to oversee the educational and training boards and provide a co-ordinated structure for the best delivery of skills training and local education. As Members are aware, it is proposed is to bring the FÁS training centres under these local educational and training boards, which makes fundamental sense because some early school leavers from the current VEC school structure can be attracted to follow up on a trade skill such as carpentry or plumbing or to become electricians to ensure that they do not leave the education and training board structure devoid of a skill in the blue collar workplace.

The transfer of the current 16 FÁS training centres to the education and training boards is significant. At present, FÁS targets up to 87,000 learners annually, with an average of 22,000 learners participating monthly. The responsibility for this training will now rest with the education and training boards, which will mean the footprint of the education and training boards will be pronounced in their local communities as they will have greatly extended responsibilities across the entire spectrum of education and training.

In the past, as a member of Sligo VEC I witnessed the great work done at local level by teaching staff, principals and VEC administration staff to develop and expand the VEC school network. VEC members comprising staff and community, teacher and local public representatives drove the educational agenda throughout Ireland. Adult educational courses, evening courses and post-leaving certificate courses were all sought by members and pursued by school principals resulting in the retraining and upskilling of many people in society, especially in rural areas throughout Ireland.

This has enabled many people to enter, and indeed re-enter, the workforce with renewed skills and confidence, and we can thank our vocational educational committees for this.

It is acknowledged that the connection with local authorities and VECs will be severed and the new ETBs will be an agency of the Department. Yesterday, the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, announced a massive change in the structures of local government, and it is significant that we also see the formal severing of relationships between local authorities and local educational boards through this Bill. My constituency of Sligo-North Leitrim will be affiliated with the new Sligo-Leitrim-Mayo education and training board. This is a vast area, ranging from the Cavan border as far as Achill in County Mayo and from the Longford border to Ballinrobe in County Mayo, and I have concerns about the geographical spread of such a large region. I am aware the population is sparse but this occupies a land mass of about 15% of the country. With almost 20 post-primary schools, this new regional structure is a mammoth task for the staff from the three counties and, indeed, for the incoming CEO to manage.

Section 38 confers on the Minister power to inquire into the performance of an ETB. This provision allows the Minister to appoint an investigator to carry out an investigation into the performance by the board of general or specific functions. The investigator, having taken the ETB's views into account, will submit a final report of his or her investigation to the Minister. In this, there is no proposal by the Minister to review the proposed structures after a prescribed timeframe. I am anxious to see a review of these structures within two years and I ask the Minister to ensure evaluations are done on all 16 ETBs to ensure all counties, especially the smaller ones, and existing schools get a fair crack of the whip in respect of funding and services from the ETBs.

I note the boards will have 18 members. There were many submissions to the Oireachtas committee which recommended that the composition of the boards should differ in various ways from that proposed in the general scheme of the Bill. For example, the Irish Vocational Education Association recommended that the ETBs comprise 21 members where the ETB is established through the amalgamation of two VECs, and 24 members where the ETB is established through the amalgamation of three VECs. However, the Bill as published retains the overall composition proposed in the general scheme. I ask the Minister to reflect on this on Committee Stage in order that where three counties have been amalgamated, he would look at increasing the membership to 21 to allow for three more local authority members as representatives on the board. This would ensure a more balanced regional representation at board level and allow fair representation for counties like Leitrim, for example, which have a large geographical area but a smaller population and a strong pupil number at the current VEC level.

I am glad to say my Government, under the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has set out a clear path forward for education at this level. Mr. Michael Moriarty, CEO of the Irish Vocational Education Association, stated recently: "The re-focus of F[urther] E[ducation and] T[raining] on the world of work and the skills needs of job seekers and other learners will streamline a more efficient service, from government policy level, to SOLAS strategic level, to Education and Training Board (ETB) implementation level." This is a significant endorsement of Government strategy which effectively sees the break-up of FÁS and the establishment of the national employment and entitlements service, to be managed by the Department of Social Protection. This is a one-stop-shop to support people in establishing their benefits entitlements, advise them about their training options and assist them in securing employment. It is high time this level of reform was established in our country considering our difficulty with almost 438,000 people out of work. I strongly believe this reforming Bill will provide the foundation for a fresh start on tackling long-term unemployment and I commend this legislation to the House.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on bringing this Bill to the House and commend him on the work he has done to date. This Bill will provide for the establishment of the education and training boards which will replace the existing 33 vocational education committees. This reform process is part of the programme for Government. It promised to review and streamline State institutions to make them more effective and ensure they provide better value for money. Many organisations like the VECs are in need of this type of overhaul. The national circumstances and the educational requirements of citizens have changed drastically since the establishment of the VECs.

In establishing the education and training boards, the Bill gives the Minister the opportunity to reform and modernise their governance. It will remove outdated technology and clearly lay out the functions of the new boards. This will reflect the changes that have taken place in society and education generally. The Minister emphasises the new system to be established will strengthen locally managed education. It will enhance the scale of local education and training. The rationalisation represents a major component of the public service transformation agenda.

The composition of the new boards is a recognition by the Minister of the contribution made to the VECs by locally elected representatives. The proposal is that ten out of 18 members will be local authority representatives. It is equally important that the board will include two parent representatives and four members from bodies that represent community and business interests. This will underpin local democracy participation and will also provide valuable knowledge that outside organisations can bring to the board.

It should be remembered that this legislation only deals with the re-organisation of VECs. The Minister intends to initiate other legislation to provide for the new education and training authority to be known as SOLAS. This will provide for the dissolution of FÁS and the transfer of its training centres to the newly established ETBs. This will give more rationalisation and co-ordination in the whole sector, which is very welcome. Section 10 sets out the function of the education and training boards. It clearly demonstrates the intention of this Bill to rationalise and strengthen all the services.

There has been a lot of duplication, with each VEC having its own HR department, finance department and payroll department. Section 20 facilitates the ETBs in co-operating with each other in the performance of their duties. This section allows the Minister to direct ETBs to perform a function jointly. This process of rationalisation has begun with the establishment of one centre for processing and granting third level education grants. Until recently, each county council and VEC had departments doing this job separately. In current economic circumstances, we must achieve the most effective outcomes for what are now scarce resources. This Bill allows for this implementation. Co-operation and sharing of data between all State agencies must be the order of the day if we are to create an effective empowered public service. Accountability and transparency is a strong commitment in the programme for Government as well as effectiveness and this Bill has built in articles to ensure this happens. This Bill ticks many of the boxes. It rationalises services and saves money and is designed to produce more effectiveness which will produce better outcomes for Irish citizens. It provides mechanisms for transparency and openness. These are essential in the new type of governance being advanced by all members of this Government. I commend this Bill to the House.

As no one else is offering to speak, does the Minister wish to reply?

Yes, I would like to read some comments I prepared into the record of the House. We have had more than 20 contributions from different Deputies. Deputy Áine Collins has simply confirmed that the response has been broadly very welcoming. It is significant but not surprising that many of the people who spoke were themselves former members of a VEC board and, therefore, have an intimate knowledge of it.

It is intended that this legislation would be both an enabling and reforming legal instrument. All Deputies have paid tribute to the role played by VECs both in the education sector and in society. Flexibility and responsiveness to change and emerging needs has been a defining feature of the operation of the VECs going back to the 1930s. Deputies Anthony Lawlor and John Paul Phelan referred to this. A key strategic consideration informing the restructuring of the VECs is the need to retain and support this demonstrated capacity. We must also ensure the VEC sector is positioned to meet future challenges across the education and training sector.

Deputy McConalogue said the new education and training boards, which originated under his party's Government with the former Minister for Education and Science, Batt O'Keeffe, must be about providing a better service, ensuring stronger links with employers and delivering value for money. Deputy O'Brien for Sinn Féin referred to the need to strike a balance between securing efficiencies, maximising effectiveness and ensuring those within the sector have a rewarding experience. Deputy Boyd Barrett perhaps put it more succinctly by saying that it is important we get this right.

It is important that we get this right. I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments and believe the Bill will deliver on these goals.

There are a number of issues raised by the Deputies to which I want to refer. The issue of ensuring representation of local parents on education and training boards was raised by a number of Deputies. We have moved away from the existing system of elections to one of nominations from national associations of parents. This is because of the very cumbersome procedures that are currently in place. However, in moving to a system of nominations, we will not be diluting the local dimension of parental representation; rather, we will be strengthening it. Under the current legislation, the two parents' representatives are elected by parents of VEC students but do not themselves have to be parents of a student. Under the Bill's proposals, the two parents' representatives must be parents of students currently registered in an ETB school or centre.

With regard to business and learner representation, the most significant issue on which submissions were made on the general scheme of the Bill, before it came to this House, was that of the composition of the new boards. I want to ensure that the new bodies are effective and efficient. In trying to accommodate too many interests, we run the risk of undermining their efficiency. However, the need for representation on education and training boards of particular groups, specifically those representing learners and business interests, was a strong and recurring theme in today's debate. I will, therefore, reflect further on this between now and Committee Stage.

Deputies McConalogue and Bannon spoke about the need to bring together the further education and training sector in its own right, as did many other Deputies later this afternoon. This is the basis on which the decision to establish SOLAS was made. It will be a single national agency to provide overall strategic direction for further education and training policy. It will work with the new network of 16 education and training boards, which will provide the local and regional expertise in order to enhance the service and experience of learners.

Some concern was expressed that SOLAS could be competing with education and training boards in various parts of the country. The further education sector is the only sector that does not have a co-ordinated and clear role with the backup of an agency to implement and augment what it wants to do with delivery agents on the ground. In a sense, SOLAS will be for the further education area what the HEA is for higher education. There is no college with a notice stating "HEA college". The HEA is the policy body in addition to having financial and other roles. The role of SOLAS will not be precisely the same as that of the HEA but, in terms of the identity on the ground, there will not be a SOLAS identity in the education and further education sectors. That will be branded by the name of the local education and training boards in the 16 areas in which they are to be located.

The published Bill differs from the general scheme by including provisions which reflect the role education and training boards will have in regard to skills training and learners. I hope to introduce legislation to establish SOLAS later this session. As I said in an interjection this morning, this will be a much tighter and smaller Bill than the legislation involving the consolidation of nine items of primary legislation plus many statutory instruments associated with the work of the VECs over 80 years.

The SOLAS legislation will be enabling legislation. I intend to have it brought before the House so it will nearly run in tandem with this debate. I hope that, with the co-operation of the Houses, both Bills will be passed with the intention of activating them as soon as possible in January of next year.

The issue of savings was raised by a number of Deputies. It was asked whether this is the raison d'être of the Bill. Clearly, the Bill will deliver savings but its real potential is to tap into the skills and experiences in the sector by augmenting the functions of the VECs. I hope the incentive for such rationalisation will be that savings that are secured in this area will be retained within the education and training board sector.

The basis for the proposed changes in the VEC structure has a direct resonance with the strategic objectives of the reforming public service agenda. Deputy Tom Hayes referred to that in regard to the local authority reforms announced yesterday.

Through the changes proposed, the sector can be enabled to contribute more significantly in terms of driving improved outcomes for education and training provision within its schools and centres and in other programmes. Many Deputies, including Deputy Heather Humphreys, talked about the desirability of shared services. Without in any way threatening any other sector of the education system at either primary or secondary level, I hope there will be some sharing of services - in respect of IR, the temporary provision of staff should somebody call in sick, or the small building programme, for example - so that teachers can concentrate on being teachers. I refer in particular to principals of relatively small primary schools. Managing a small building works programme over the summer takes up all their time, bearing in mind that their skill may not necessarily be project management.

The current VECs, as I said in my opening speech, are delivering on the ground, very effectively in some cases. Reference was made to the campus in Monaghan. There is a similar one in County Louth and there are examples in Kildare and elsewhere. There may be an Educate Together school, Gaelscoil and second level school on the one campus, with each sharing facilities. This makes a lot of sense.

The last succinct point made by Deputy Michael Conaghan, a former chairman of CDVEC in addition to being a lecturer or teacher in one of its further education colleges, was on the values of the VEC sector. The Deputy spoke somewhat nostalgically but very assertively about the need to allow somewhere in the legislation capacity for the VEC sector, as we still call it, to state very clearly its ethos or values. There is such provision in regard to primary schools as there is an ethos that animates the primary schools under various patrons. It may be about language, religion or multidenominationalism. In the free voluntary sector, there are similar declarations of values or ethos as an integral part of what the education system is for those schools. This is because education is not value-free, nor is it just about preparing people for the labour market.

In response to what Deputy Conaghan said and to references to a less explicitly stated sense of the role of VECs and their relationship with the communities in which they are located, perhaps I could make provision in the legislation. We can talk about it on Committee Stage. I do not believe we will have 16 different sets of values. Perhaps the IVEA could be invited to facilitate a discussion on this. Perhaps we could have an enabling provision in the legislation, formulated on Committee Stage, that would enable the education and training boards to indicate unambiguously the educational ethos or set of values in primary, secondary and further-education levels. The one body will span all three sectors. There is no other integrated institution that will actually have that range and cover.

I referred a number of times to the VEC sector. What I am doing in this Bill is creating a new structure for the education and training sector, as reflected in the Title of the Bill. In so doing, we will be ensuring that the sector is enabled to meet the considerable challenges that now arise and will arise. I look forward to further engagement with all the Members who have been engaged in this debate. I thank everybody for his contribution and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.