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

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

When I spoke yesterday I detailed the radical transformation in the landscape of the vocational education sector of our educational system. The system in question goes back to 1930, when the first Act was introduced to consolidate legislation from 1899 regarding technical education. It was extended countrywide in 38 vocational education committees around the country.

In the 1990s, that was reduced and consolidated into 33 vocational education committees which were directly related to each county, including borough councils and county councils. What we now propose, based on a decision made by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government, is to consolidate this infrastructure into 16 bodies. I changed the configuration of those bodies. For example, County Tipperary was going to be divided into two different configurations - one with Waterford and one with Limerick. In the reforms announced by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, yesterday, he consolidated the two county councils in Tipperary into one. That logic is followed in what the Bill proposes to do in regard to vocational education.

I acknowledge the presence of the spokespersons for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and would like to say that, for other reasons, I will not be able to stay to listen to their contributions. They should not take it as disrespect. We will be able to follow up on this on Committee Stage.

When the debate adjourned yesterday, I was in the process of describing what the various sections of the Bill propose to do and I had got to the point where I was about to describe what sections 42 and 43 will do. They will provide for the establishment of committees of boards and require each board to establish a finance committee and an audit committee. Sections 44 to 50, inclusive, provide for financial and planning matters, including the setting of a board's annual budget, the preparation of annual service plans, deposit and borrowing of money, fees, accounts and internal audit matters.

Part 8 provides for the repeal and transition of certain provisions. Section 60 removes the bar on VEC officeholders having access to the Employment Appeals Tribunal under unfair dismissals legislation. This is an important industrial relations reform because that body of industrial relations legislation was introduced long after the VECs were first established. The original VECs had, in effect, contained their own internal dispute resolution mechanisms. A person who had a grievance had to follow a different path from a person in regular employment who could avail of the well-established machinery for conflict and industrial resolutions, such as the rights commissioners and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. We are now mainstreaming people working in the VEC sector, soon to be the ETB sector. If they have an industrial relations problem, they can avail of the existing State-wide industrial relations machinery rather than go down a narrow path of their own. Consequently, it is also linked to the removal of the sworn inquiry system. Inquiries in process at the time of the Bill's commencement will, however, continue under the existing provisions.

The intention of this legislation, which we will be able to debate extensively on Committee Stage, is to give a new kind of regional infrastructure of education delivery in 16 bodies which will be closer to the community, elected representatives and community interests. Those 16 bodies will have critical mass in terms of the skills they will have. We will get into this on Committee Stage, but I would like to see as our education system evolves that the education and training boards will be able, as desired by the other sectors of the education system, to supply support services to the primary and secondary school infrastructure and not just to their own secondary infrastructure and community national schools, of which there are five, although soon to be six.

For example, the summer works programme, which primary schools had in the past, required principals, although sometimes managers, to administer and manage, in their own time and their families' holiday time, small works schemes during the months of July and August, all of which were separate contracts. It would be possible and desirable that a summer works scheme could be done for an entire education and training board area. For example, it could be a combination of Waterford city and Waterford county and a summer works programme could be done at the request of the primary school management system and delivered through the management of personnel in the ETB. We have good and positive evidence that we are getting great co-operation. For example, Louth VEC is acting on our behalf as the Department of Education and Skills in managing building projects and giving us additional resources above and beyond what we have in the building unit in Tullamore.

A number of amendments will be tabled on Committee Stage and I apologise again to the House for not having them contained in the Bill as it is. I repeat what I said yesterday that I will make those amendments available as soon as I can and in good time, in particular to the spokespersons of the two parties who are present and of the Technical Group, and provide a separate direct briefing on the implications of what is proposed in the amendments should they request it.

This system will take time to bed down. It belongs to all of us. it is not a partisan project being run by one side of the House. I want to co-operate as much as possible with everyone involved. Many Members have been members of county councils and, in some cases, members of vocational education committees. That experience and expertise varies quite a lot throughout the country. Being a member of a VEC in a large urban area is very different from what one might experience in an area with an extended large rural population. All of that expertise should be brought to Committee Stage and expressed in a constructive way.

I would like to quote a well-known Irish educationalist. In looking at vocational education in Ireland, Professor John Coolahan in his seminal book, Irish Education: History and Structure, refers to two landmark dates. The first was the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in 1899, to which I referred earlier, and the second was the Vocational Education Act 1930. I put it to the House that we are embarked on a similar exercise in constructing a third landmark piece of legislation in this area. I commend the Bill to the House.

I commend the Minister and his officials on their undoubted work over recent months in researching and drafting this Bill and in looking at how best we can structure education and training throughout the country for the future. The Minister referred to two landmark dates in Irish education. I have no doubt this Bill, which is the first since 1930 to really reform how the work done by VECs is structured, will become a landmark one. Importantly and beneficially, it will consolidate nine pieces of legislation encompassing 600 statutory instruments and it will streamline the legislation around the regulation and administration of further education and training.

The VEC sector and the work it carries out has a wide impact across our education system. Schools under the direct stewardship of the VECs account for 24% of all mainstream post-primary pupils. When one includes the role the VECs have played in comprehensive and community schools until now, that encompasses an additional 17% of mainstream post-primary students. That shows the impact VECs have had and also the important role the new education and training boards will play in the future.

My party welcomes the Bill. We have particular issues in regard to it but we look forward to engaging with the Minister on Committee Stage. This is something initiated by the previous Government which the Minister has grasped and on which he has expanded and brought forward legislation.

The setting up of the ETBs must be about providing a better service for users, which is closely aligned with the needs of employers, both locally and nationally, which is cost effective and provides value for money and which is easily accessible for learners in each new designated area. We began the process of rationalising VECs in government and the Bill has potential for improving and strengthening the education and training sector and giving the sector a status of its own by bringing together further education and skills training to become one sector separate from the education system.

Until now, education and training has been an add-on to the post-primary sector rather than a strong sector on its own. We believe further education and skills training is a hugely important sector and we welcome any move to strengthen it and give it the status it deserves. Until now programmes had been provided by many different organisations, including FÁS, the VECs, community groups, second level schools and private bodies. We agree with the Minister that there is an urgent need to bring coherence to this fragmented system and to have an integrated sector delivering high quality programmes. There is a need to ensure we deliver programmes that are relevant to the needs of both learners and the economy. It must be ensured that certain aspects of further education and training are not lost with the establishment of the 16 new boards and SOLAS. The Minister must ensure, in establishing the new ETBs, that adult literacy and community and adult education are protected and given the same focus. We have witnessed significant improvements in this area over the years and they must not be lost. In recent times, as a result of the recruitment embargo, seven adult education officer posts have become vacant at VEC level and that has had a detrimental impact on adult education. It is crucial that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible to get the new structure up and running. The OECD PISA results relating to adult education are due out in October 2013 and the Minister will have to take strong cognisance of them. He will need to make sure that the new ETBs can respond to provide adult literacy and learning courses and that an opportunity can be given to those who did not complete second level education or who left the education system without being sufficiently literate. We must also ensure that there continues to be a focus on the provision of apprenticeships and this is not lost with the absorption of FÁS training centres into the ETBs.

With regard to the membership of the boards, Fianna Fáil suggested in January during a discussion on the heads of the Bill by the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection that it must be ensured no existing VEC would be disadvantaged in the new set up. The Minister should wait to ensure the interests of smaller communities are protected. My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, raised the example of the amalgamation of the Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo VECs because Leitrim has a population of only 30,000 and, therefore, a small VEC. Naturally, people in that county will be concerned about whether they will be fairly represented under the new ETB structure. The Minister has made provision in the Bill for representations in this regard to take into account the needs of smaller VECs that are being amalgamated. I urge him to give this serious consideration.

The Minister said the Bill reforms and modernises the governance provisions. However, the proposed membership of the ETBs reflects the same structure proposed in the heads of the Bill presented to the education committee earlier this year, which, in turn, is similar to the current make up of the VECs. While the Minister says the governance provisions have been amended, I would like to him to outline how this will be effected on Committee Stage considering the structure is similar to that of the current VECs. He also said the new ETBs will deliver programmes relevant to the needs of both learners and the economy. However, there are no proposals to include learners in the membership of the boards and there will only be four community representatives. Ultimately, there will be ten local authority representatives as well. I am disappointed that learners are not represented on the boards directly because they should be. Why have they been omitted when the reforms are about providing an improved service for learners? Surely if that is the case, they should be represented directly.

I also have concerns that the appointment of parent representatives has been transferred from local to national level and will instead be drawn from national parents associations. I refer to the principle of subsidiarity in that those who make decisions on behalf of the people they represent should be as local as possible. Until now, the selection of parent representatives to many VECs has been unduly costly and administratively cumbersome but I am concerned about decisions being taken at national rather than local level. The Minister should revisit this and engage with the IVEA and parents associations to ascertain how a structure could be put in place, which would allow parent representatives to continue to be selected at local level. I am concerned that they will become too far removed. Another consideration in this regard is where more than two parents associations are in play, the members of the ETB will decide which is selected. A 16-member ETB will have ten members representing local authorities and they will decide who the four community representatives are and, ultimately, who the parent representatives are and that raises issues. Section 28(7)(a) provides that a national association of parents must nominate one man and one woman but this must be revisited. It is a shame that there will be little staff representation on the new boards. The Minister attempted to introduce gender equality by providing for separate panels for staff selection but the Bill does not provide for gender equality in the appointment of staff.

I am also disappointed that there is not sufficient emphasis on representation from the business community. The four community representatives will be drawn from a mix of community groups and the business community. However, the Minister stated in his contribution yesterday that he will table amendments, which will require the ETBs to engage regularly with the business community. Ultimately, a key role of the ETBs will be the provision of education and skills training to people living within their communities. That training must be connected to the employment, business and economic development of the area. If there is not sufficient joined up thinking to ensure training meets the needs of business, which, in turn, will be crucial to those being trained because they will come out with qualifications that will make them employable, there could be a fissure in terms of ensuring the boards work the way they should. Unfortunately, that aspect of our education and training sector has not always been as responsive as it needed to be to emerging needs in the economy. There has been an effort at third level, particularly in institutes of technology, to ensure local business involvement in their governance structures thereby linking them to businesses in their areas. Given the role the ETBs will play, this should also be considered for them. I question whether regular meetings will ensure business involvement to the extent that is needed.

Perhaps we should consider permanent business representation on the education and training boards to ensure joined-up thinking between education and skills provision and the needs of the wider economy.

The Minister outlined the saving he expects from rationalisation and reform of the VEC sector and FÁS. So far, he expects savings of approximately €3.2 million. The current administration costs of 33 VECs is approximately €40 million but the total budget for the VEC sector is €1.1 billion. Savings of 1% amount to €10 million, so in the overall context of spending on the VEC sector the savings amount to one third of 1%. I would have expected a stronger analysis of where savings can be found and the impact on rationalisation, better working practices and better co-ordination of services. We have not yet seen a strong impact assessment. If the Minister has more detail on this, he can comment on where he sees savings and what work has been done to identify them. A welcome development is the incorporation of FÁS into the education and training boards, leading to the 800 FÁS staff in 16 centres amalgamating and joining the education and training boards. That will help to streamline the provision of training and provide a more co-ordinated approach. It will also lead to savings and avoid the duplication that undoubtedly existed in the past. Does the Minister have further detail? I have seen very little detail on the absorption of FÁS into the education and training boards. Perhaps the Minister can publish some of the detail on the progress made.

Fianna Fáil supports the broad thrust of the Bill, which is landmark legislation in respect of the education system and how it is provided. It can be a positive measure and it is also important that it becomes part of a reform in respect of how we deal with people who need to be upskilled and how we relate to people who find themselves unemployed, both from the perspective of social welfare and ensuring social welfare is linked to how their training and skills needs are provided for. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and my Opposition spokesperson colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, on Committee Stage. I commend the passage of the Bill on Second Stage.

I commend the Minister and his officials on the time, effort and research that went into the legislation. No one could argue but that there are ambitious reforming measures in the Bill. The Minister referred to landmark dates and this will be another landmark item of legislation in respect of education in the State. The scale of what the Minister is trying to achieve cannot be overestimated. We will look to work closely with the Minister, Fianna Fáil and the Technical Group on Committee Stage to ensure the Minister's objectives in this area can be achieved through the legislation.

The Minister referred to this comprehensive Bill replacing nine items of primary legislation concerning VECs and, in doing so, providing the basis for the education and training board system. The Minister outlined how we got from 33 VECs to the proposed 16 education and training boards. Some of the submissions during the discussion on the heads of the Bill indicate differing opinions on the ideal number but there is little disagreement that the Bill is an attempt, and has the potential, to ensure the co-ordination and better delivery of education and training across the State. In doing so, we are ensuring we have the potential to put in place modern, streamlined infrastructure to underpin our competitiveness in a rapidly changing education and business environment.

For decades, the VECs carried out their role and deserve great credit. The amalgamation of so many VECs into 16 education and training boards presents opportunities and challenges that could be replicated across the wider education system. Like all aspects of education and training in the State, it is important to have a culture embedded in our education and training systems to enable us to meet the challenges and changes in society. No one can argue VECs did not have the culture of change over the decades. The role of the VEC evolved and expanded to meet varying demands. The establishment of 16 education and training boards can be seen as the next step in evolution of further training and education in the State. I am sure the Bill will be passed and it will then be clear the education and training boards will enjoy an enhanced role compared to the role of the VECs.

One enhanced role has already been discussed, namely, the absorption of FÁS staff to ensure the delivery of a broad range of training programmes on behalf of SOLAS when that replaces FÁS. The Minister outlined that the SOLAS legislation will follow this Bill.

It will be taken during this session. It will be much shorter than this Bill.

This legislation is the transforming Bill and I understand why it took so long to get to this Stage. When the SOLAS Bill comes before the House, it will pass very quickly because most of the groundwork will have been done in this Bill.

Both items of legislation are important because they come at a time when the State faces a period of challenging economic reality. Dealing with such reforming legislation tends to make people nervous. What is proposed goes far beyond what is proposed in most legislation. This concerns transforming an entire system and the deliberations on Committee Stage can help to alleviate concerns.

Our society must do more to attract the type of industry to help generate the economic growth needed to retain our economic sovereignty. It will also help to develop our home-grown industry.

ETBs will have a key role in identifying, prioritising and improving education and training standards which are central to our economic recovery. I agree with the Minister that it is important we work with the major stakeholders to put in place a solid foundation from which to advance the training, education and skills of our citizens.

This is even more important at a time when millions of euro are being cut from our education budget. Times like these focus minds. We need a greater vision in identifying and implementing savings across the education sector. We know the forthcoming budget will make further reductions of €77 million on top of the multi-annual cuts announced last year. While we will disagree as to where those savings should be made and we will have that debate when we deal with the budget, we will agree on the need to achieve value for money. Efficiencies that improve and do not damage front-line services should be put in place. We would support any measure to do that. Protecting front-line services and the quality of our education system must be a priority.

In that regard, the ETBs will come into their own. They can ensure greater co-operation between a range of service providers within their regions, at least to identify possible savings if not actively help reduce the cost of running schools. That view is shared by the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA. At the IVEA annual conference, Mr. Michael Moriarty, general secretary of the association, said that in the face of the reduction in capitation grants for primary schools, the potential existed to enhance the range of benefits that would be seen under the ETBs. He suggested that ETBs could support stand-alone management in schools with regard to building projects and to getting better deals from service providers. The Minister outlined some of the cost-saving potential for work schemes. These measures all have the potential to reduce the cost of education. These savings must be reinvested in the education system. They must not go towards paying bank debt.

That is the intention.

We will hold the Minister to that commitment. Two weeks ago, the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection heard from a number of patron bodies about the cost of education to parents. The cost of education to many parents and the pressure put on schools to meet budgets is having an effect. Anything that can reduce the cost of running schools, with the savings passed on to parents, is to be welcomed.

Deputy McConalogue and I were recently appointed as our parties’ spokespersons on education so we were not involved in the initial discussions by the joint committee when the heads of the Bill were published. I have, however, read the submissions made in the lead-up to today’s debate. They give a great insight, not only into what the Minister is trying to achieve but also into what the stakeholders themselves see as the potential pitfalls and strengths of the legislation. I also acknowledge the work done by the Oireachtas library and research unit.

I have to leave the Chamber, as I indicated earlier. I apologise and mean no disrespect to the next speaker on behalf of the Technical Group. We will engage on Committee Stage.

Any reform of our education system, which involves the reform of public services, must strike a balance between securing efficiencies and making the delivery more effective for learners and more rewarding for those who deliver the services. That must be a priority. The reform of education and training provision must not be exclusively focused on the expenditure side. Adequate provision must also be made for the implementation of the Bill in order that meaningful reform of education and training, which the Bill sets out to achieve, can be realised. This opportunity may not present itself for many years. We should consider this when we debate the Bill.

We must always have in the forefront of our minds the holistic approach we want our education system to take in the next number of decades. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to work together to ensure the quality of education needed to meet the needs of an ever-evolving society is always at the forefront of our minds. We will differ as to how we should best achieve this but we must not allow those differences to get in the way of our overall aim, which is a top quality education, training and further education system.

The changes that will be brought about by the Bill must be accompanied by a progressive overhaul of the curriculum. I know that work has started, with project maths and the introduction of the new junior cycle curriculum. It is also Sinn Féin's firm belief that the implementation of a renewed national adult education policy with well-defined outcomes must be central to the way we proceed.

In the face of spiralling unemployment, it has never been more important to have training and educational opportunities in place that give those who want to upskill an opportunity to return to the workplace. That is one way of empowering people. We must grasp the opportunity to implement the far-reaching reforms contained within the Bill. That is why Sinn Féin will be supporting its passage on Second Stage today.

The Irish education and training system has delivered services in an incoherent way because it has been operated by a range of providers. For example, although there are 450,000 people on the live register, there remain significant shortages in certain areas of industry. Much work remains to be done in providing qualified people for the IT sector and in improving multilingual skills. We are not meeting the demands industry places on us. We must address these skills shortages. We must ensure the education and training boards can provide the type of training and education that produces the skill sets necessary to sustain and grow existing businesses and to make the State more attractive for employers. This will mean developing training and learning to meet the growing demands of a number of areas, such as the IT, biopharma, food and agrifood sectors.

One of the strengths of the VEC system has been the extent to which VECs have identified with the particular areas in their geographical remit. This brings us back to the question of how many ETBs there should be.

There were differing opinions on that in the submissions on the heads of the Bill. The IVEA in its submission, for example, originally opposed the amalgamation of the VECs on the basis that it believed it would not be in the best interests of communities that were served by the current number of VECs to have a reduced number of ETBs. At the other end of the argument the Educate Together patronage body suggested that 16 could be too many and that the figure should be less than that. Whatever about the differing opinions on how many ETBs there should be, there was very little disagreement from all the stakeholders in their submissions that the general thrust of what was trying to be achieved was progressive.

The vast majority of the stakeholders saw the composition, if not the number, of ETBs as very much in line with what they are trying to achieve. That is one of the reasons I was a little surprised by the structure of the ETBs in the Bill. The previous speaker referred to the composition of the ETBs. When the heads of the Bill were published, many of the submissions focused on their composition. The Bill was an opportunity to address some of those concerns but, unfortunately and for whatever reason, which I am sure we will debate on Committee Stage, the Minister has decided to stay with what was already produced in the heads of the Bill. The challenge for all of us is to ensure that the people on the committees reflect the diverse needs, interests and skill sets of all the interested groups that are so integral to the make-up and functioning of the boards. That is something we will have to discuss again on Committee Stage.

Let us consider the issue of gender balance, which has already been mentioned. The Bill confers regulation making power on the Minister is respect of staff elections. It provides him with the ability to establish gender panels for those elections. However, it is does not require gender equality in the final appointments of the staff, which is something that must be addressed on Committee Stage, especially when one considers the fact that the legislation provides that the parents' group and the community representatives will be subject to gender balance. That should be extended to all aspects of the board.

Of similar importance, and this is something on which my party will focus on Committee Stage, is the need to provide a voice to adult learners in the new ETB structures. The role that groups such as the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation or AONTAS and other organisations have played in giving a voice to adult learners must be incorporated into the ETBs. Given that there are only four community representatives on the board, we must ensure that one of those four provides a voice for adult learners. The Government's policies contain targets for increasing adult numeracy and literacy. However, as NALA points out, there must be a more collective and holistic approach to ensure the implementation of a more robust plan when it comes to the integration of numeracy and literacy into further education and training. With forward thinking and planning this can be done relatively inexpensively.

Consider the situation where somebody wishes to avail of further training and education by, for example, undertaking an apprenticeship to be a plumber. It is very important that there is some type of system put in place within those training and education courses which improves the literacy and numeracy of those availing of them. There is no point in somebody going on a training course to become a plumber if the person has difficulty understanding angles and measurements. The numeracy and literacy policy must be integrated into all of the training courses and into the further education sector at all levels. That issue must be re-examined. Undoubtedly, this legislation offers the opportunity to implement positive, reforming measures to ensure adult learners are represented on the boards. Not only should they be represented, but we also have a duty to ensure the necessary supports and measures are put in place to enable their voices to be heard at that level.

I am sure that much of the debate on Committee Stage will revolve around the composition of the boards rather than the scope and powers they will have. There is general agreement on the latter, if not the former. One submission to the committee emphasised the importance of the ETBs developing effective two-way communication channels with all the stakeholders. The ETBs will have a significant role to play as key partners in formalising structures for gathering local labour intelligence, for example, by identifying local labour skills which are critical to the creation and sustainability of local employment opportunities. This is particularly important for rural areas. They will have an important role in identifying the needs of particular towns, villages and regions, identifying the skill sets that are required and then tailoring the training and education courses to meet those needs.

We must work to ensure the ETBs have a common organisational structure in each region which fully supports the management and delivery of full-time and part-time learning programmes and learner support services. This will mean enhancing the current arrangements for co-operation between education and training boards and the business community. There must be very close correlation between what courses will be set and what the needs are.

There will be a number of challenges in the Committee Stage debate on this Bill, as I outlined earlier, but there are significant opportunities under this legislation as well. I appreciate the Minister's commitment to provide his proposed amendments in plenty of time to enable us to study them, and also his offer to provide further briefings on the proposed amendments if we require them before Committee Stage. We will probably avail of that. In conclusion, we will support the Bill on Second Stage and look forward to Committee Stage. There are a number of areas on which we wish to focus but there is no doubt that this legislation has the potential to be one of the most reforming legislative measures in the area of further education and training. We will work closely with all parties and none in the House to ensure that what is ultimately passed by the House does what it is meant to do.

I am sharing time with Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett. I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, who is standing in for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who had to leave. The Minister could not have found a more able and capable stand-in. I believe the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was a Minister for Education in the past, although I am not certain of that.

I am delighted to speak on the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012.

It is a bold initiative, although there was opposition to it from the VECs. Having been a member of a VEC board for a long number years, and both a member and chairman of the adult education board, I have in-depth knowledge of the work the VEC has done. Ar an chéad dul síos, I pay tribute to all the different members of South Tipperary VEC over the years, particularly the different CEOs and officials. The board of the VEC was completely different from the county council in that it was more like a family. While there were elected members, community and business representatives and representatives from Teagasc, a lot of creative work was done. We should never forget that.

In fairness to our VEC and its current CEO, Ms Fionnuala McGeever, her adult education officer, Eileen Condon, and other staff such as Mary Roche and Veronica Crowe, and the team around them, the input they have and the value they have given to people's lives in south Tipperary is immense. I am delighted to see a member of the VEC in the Public Gallery, Councillor Richie Molloy, with a group of carers from south Tipperary. He understands this. The members work hard and this system has worked well.

Going back to the 1950s, when there was little educational opportunity, the VEC was the group that took up cudgels. Often they were regarded as the poor relations, called technical schools, and students at the tech were not considered to be the brightest students. The architects, engineers, carpenters and skilled people came out of them when they were needed to build the country. Now it has gone full circle and private schools are better to attend and be seen in, with better marks for the students who come out of them rather than the VECs. Now we are back to basics and back to our shoulder to the wheel.

I compliment the Minister and his officials for the work that was done on this Bill and the way they presented the amendments in time and the offer from the Minister to meet the committee and other interested parties to discuss further amendments. It is a good way to move forward.

The help people gave to people in education, counselling and advice was immense. The voluntary board members gave of their time week after week and month after month. When amalgamations of schools started some years ago, as happened in my town of Cahir, where three schools were amalgamated into one, there was huge cooperation. The rural people and their local representatives are not afraid of change or to engage with it - 99.9% are anxious to do better for their community and the people they represent. That is their ambition, it is the meitheal idea and Canon Hayes's vision of self-help and realising the potential in every citizen. The VECs have been at the forefront of that through the courses they have offered.

Control was from the bottom up, something which is lacking now. The Leader programme is trying to achieve it again but we have moved too much to central control. That is the worry I have about the Bill. It cuts the numbers of education and training boards from 38 to 16 and they will be made up of ten elected members, two parents and four community representatives. We need more than four community representatives because we need businesspeople who have innovative ideas to create jobs, skills and products to get us away from the bricks and mortar. Tens of thousands of people need to be upskilled and retrained. I do not view them as a commodity but they must change focus to suit present demands. The Minister is well aware of the multinationals in the country that are always telling us that they need people with better skills, science subjects, maths and that we are not fit for purpose. One told us boldly lately that if it hopes to create 400 jobs, 300 of them will be filled by people from their home country. That is a massive pity because the IDA, Enterprise Ireland the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation have done huge work to secure these investments. It is not much good, however, if we cannot employ our own people. The Constitution enshrines the right to employment and the right to be able to work and earn a living to provide for our families.

I must put on record my appreciation of the work done by the VECs. When the newcomers arrived in our country - I do not like calling them foreign nationals - they were welcome. The first bodies involved in training them on language courses and literacy were the VECs. They did tremendous work on a shoestring budget. A huge voluntary effort was made by literacy and language skill teachers. I know people in Cahir who take in five or six foreign nationals every couple of months and train them in English and cúpla focal as Gaeilge. We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. We must be capable of recognising what was done at that level and never forget it.

The VECs have laid down the template for continuing and further education. We might have a new education and training board but we should use the VEC model because it has the path worn. There could be some small adjustments but they have been hugely successful in adult literacy training and integration of new comers. That has been seen at the education awards in the last number of years. At one time there would be no one from outside the country but now there are people from different backgrounds getting awards and being involved. It is so sad much of the time that they are here in communities but isolated, not involved or interacting. The VEC and adult literacy organisers, many of them volunteers, did so much work to integrate those people and it was done unseen and unsung. It should be pointed out that it is recognised.

Section 46 on the financing of the boards is vital. Funding is so important now and with the cutbacks being so bad, there must be a facility for borrowing. We were used to signing off overdrafts at the end of the year and then further Estimates would be voted through here. I am not saying it is money from heaven, money is always there but those facilities are carefully thought out and carefully nurtured in the Bill and that is very important.

I have heaped much praise on the VEC but I have one issue of concern. A constituent of mine represents a professional training company that is recognised by the Department of Education and Skills and is fully FETAC accredited. That company believes there is undue interference from the Department of Education and Skills and from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government through Kerry County Council when it wants to advertise training conferences to upskill elected members along with everyone else. It is a professional organisation. Why should any administrator not bring before the boards of the VECs the information the company submits to county councils?

There is something rotten in the State of Denmark because it is not acceptable.

The procurement laws here should be advertised. When a professional company responds to express its interest in the conference, it is up to members as to what conference they attend. There is an obligation on the two Departments and the officials to ensure a fair playing field and that there is not undue interference for whatever reason. However, there is a reason and registered letters and solicitors' letters have been sent to find it but no replies have been received. I ask the Minister and his officials to convey this matter to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, to check out this issue because what has happened is not good enough. Given that we have strict procurement regulations, surely individuals and professional companies, fully accredited, are entitled to advertise and sell their wares. As the notice has only to come to the notice of the vocational education committees and county councils, the elected members can decide where they wish to go and the group from which they wish to receive training. I ask that issue be carefully examined and any wrongdoing rooted out.

I commend the Bill and, if possible, will attend Committee Stage and participate fully. I thank the stakeholders who have made submissions. Too often we have public consultations and then changes are made here. We do our best but there is no engagement with the public or stakeholders. An honest attempt has been made by the Department to do so and it behoves the stakeholders to get involved.

I have nothing against Educate Together schools but I do not want any rush to get rid of the Catholic ethos from schools. We have to be a pluralist society and welcome all but I do not want a takeover. Religious orders, while they have been stained with heinous activities by a small minority, have played a major role in nurturing education. It was wonderful that members of all religious denominations sat on the vocational education boards where the discussions were open and transparent. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know the service they provided and the amount of work they did at little cost. They did it for love of community and society and did not seek reward. It cost much less to run the schools when it was done by religious orders. We now know the full cost of paying for qualified people. It is a huge transition.

The same considerations apply to the hospitals and the Health Service Executive. When the hospitals were run by matrons they were much better and there were no layers of bureaucracy. I compliment those religious orders. I have worked on projects with various religious orders who were solely committed to the project and then the furtherance of adult education, Traveller projects and so on. I advise that haste be made slowly in order that we do not end up with a system where those people are hurt and cast aside but with a void we cannot fill which costs quite an amount to address.

I will encourage community groups and community representatives to get involved. The selection of community representatives can be difficult as it can and has been abused politically and enables the larger parties on the vocational education committees to be on the education and training boards. That is not right. There should be no political interference. They should be business people who are willing to give of their time and have the experience and vision and are good community representatives. I look forward to a further discussion.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. We will support the Bill.

That is a bonus.

Contrary to what the Government sometimes claims when something positive is being done we are willing to support it. The Bill deals with an important area. Given the huge levels of unemployment, the new education and training boards and the new agency, SOLAS, will have an important role to play in trying to upskill and retrain large sections of society who have been forced into unemployment as a result of the crisis and need to be facilitated to upskill and retrain in order to re-enter the workforce. It is important that we get the Bill right and that the new structures, when established, genuinely respond to the needs of people for education and retraining to return to the workforce, whether those coming through the post-primary system or adults who require retraining. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien mentioned literacy and numeracy, the importance of which is further highlighted in the context of the need to retrain and upskill. Many of those who are without work and want to find a place in the workforce have serious literacy problems. The literacy problem is a real barrier for large numbers of people to find work and contribute to a modern economy that is advancing rapidly. We must get all those issues right and do our best to provide the education and training that people need for a new economy.

It is welcome that the legislation and the infrastructure are being rationalised for the VECs, now the education and training boards. The Minister for Education and Skills said this is running parallel to and matching, at some level, what is being proposed for the structures of local government reform and the rationalisation of same. That is welcome and we all understand its importance. In so far as it can deliver savings where there is unnecessary replication of administration that does not contribute to the delivery of front-line services for which the system is supposed to provide, then all of those things are welcome. However, we need to enter a caveat here in that in the current climate the terms "reform" and "rationalisation" are often used to cover over what, in many cases, are cuts. It is important that rationalisation does not become a euphemism for cuts. There is a problem if that is what is it and if we are talking about cuts. I do not have a problem with cutting unnecessary administration nor with cutting the remuneration for chief executive officers in the education and training boards. There will be cost savings at that level because there will be 16 education and training boards as opposed to 33 vocational education committees. The remuneration for the chief executive officers is generous, ranging from €103,000 up to €127,000.

It seems quite high we may need to look further at that. I have no problem with making savings at that level, but not if it runs alongside cuts in the education budget generally, with the cutting of capitation grants paid to schools and further cuts imposed on primary schools as a result of the correct decision by the Government to back off on the cuts to DEIS schools. All the restructuring and rationalisation in the world does not mean very much if we are cutting funding and resources to the schools and education services and do not have adequate teacher numbers and so on to provide the education and training that is so desperately required. It is required now more than ever given that an additional 10,000 pupils are joining the education system every year and the numbers unemployed who require retraining and upskilling are significantly greater than they have been at any time in the recent past.

Against that background, even holding current levels of resources would be tantamount to a cut in services. However, we have even had real cuts in addition to that. We cannot hope to deliver on what these education and training boards need to do and what the education system in general needs to do unless we stop the cutting agenda overall. Having said that, I still acknowledge the usefulness of legislation to rationalise the structures. We probably had an unnecessary number of VECs, and amalgamations can work.

A number of concerns have been raised with me on the issue of workers' rights. The Bill removes a number of the protections that existed in the previous legislation dealing with VECs in the areas of suspension, dismissal, removal from office, and payment for employees, teachers and other staff. The TUI has made it very clear that it is concerned about this and that the protection for workers' rights in the sector needs to be retained. That is a matter that needs to be reviewed as we proceed with this legislation.

On the more general issue of cuts and rationalisation, in a number of areas, according to the TUI, the authority that previously vested in the Minister for Education and Skills in the appointment of board members, chief executive officers, and so on is now migrating to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I share the TUI's concern, as it would indicate a cost-cutting approach to the rationalisation rather than one whose starting point is the educational needs of the pupils or service users of the new ETBs. Often the driver behind reform of the health service and in other sectors is not the best interests of the service users or the provision of services but simply the imperative to cut in line with troika targets.

Deputy Mattie McGrath referred to issues of procurement, an area on which I am not an expert. A VEC staff member in my area who would probably prefer to remain anonymous recently showed me some documents indicating there is a new regime for procurement requiring everything to go a central body. All items such as stationery for the VECs must be purchased at a central level or through an approved set of providers. He pointed out that this was likely to have a very damaging effect on the local economy in that previously many of these items would have been sourced from small local businesses in the area. In addition, in many cases the prices they now have to pay for these supplies and goods are actually higher than they were when bought from local businesses. This is not true in all cases but is in certain cases. He showed me the documents - I do not know why Deputy Timmins is shaking his head.

Let us see the documents.

I thought Fine Gael was the champion of small business, but obviously that is not the case. I have a real concern that those sorts of measures can benefit bigger suppliers of goods and services to the education system and to the education training boards at the expense of small and medium-sized businesses.

On the issue of membership of the boards and so on, a number of submissions have suggested that a balance should be provided in terms of staff and parental representation on the boards. In addition there may also be a requirement to have adult learners represented on the boards. I would like to see that done at the expense of politicians. I do not understand why we need so many councillors. I would favour more staff representation, parent representation, community representation and other people who can contribute to have these boards connected into labour issues in the area, the employment prospects in the area and the educational needs of people in the area rather than it being dominated by politicians. Concern has been expressed that the parents' representatives are now to be elected through national parents' organisations rather than directly at school level. I would like to hear the justification for that because it seems to threaten a level of local democracy. The TUI has expressed concerned that section 48 should specifically prevent fees from being charged for the provision of education by the education training boards, with which I agree.

I wish to raise a parochial matter which is somewhat tangential. I have been trying to raise this issue for about three weeks with the Ceann Comhairle. It relates to staff in the VEC, many of whom have worked there for ten, 12 or 15 years and who do not have degrees. Even though they are very skilled at what they do in the VECs, because of the recently passed legislation requiring them to have degrees, they are now faced with the prospect of losing their jobs. The Teaching Council of Ireland will not allow them to join the council because they do not have degrees. They are asking that there would be an amnesty for people who worked for many years in the VECs but are now caught because of the new regulations.

While it is reasonable for those regulations to apply going forward, there should be an amnesty for those who, having worked in the VECs for many years and with whom management has no problem as they are doing their job well, now face possible job loss because of the new regulations requiring that they have degrees in order to become members of the Teaching Council.

I wish to share time with Deputy Bannon.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I will let the Deputy know when he has two minutes remaining.

I welcome this Bill, which is primary legislation to replace the nine existing Vocational Educational Acts and is enabling, reforming and generally non-contentious. It is hoped it will provide for future developments.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's comment that our new procurement policies have resulted in extra cost to the Exchequer and have impacted on the local economy, it would be strange if that were the case. Perhaps the Deputy would consider taking up the matter with the Minister for Education and Skills or the Minister with responsibility for the OPW in the context of the proposal to introduce centralised procurement.

Vocational education committees have developed progressively during the past 100 years. Previously, in my constituency one could only get an education through the VEC in the area and could not up until the late 1960s sit the leaving certificate examination. Many people involved in VECs have made contributions over and above the call of duty. I recall that in the early 1950s the late Mr. Ben Hooper held raffles and events to raise funding for the provision of public transport to the local VEC school in Baltinglass. I recently came across such a raffle ticket. In the early 1950s children in that area travelled 20 to 25 miles on school transport provided privately by the school. I appreciate all the work that has been done in that regard.

While as I stated earlier the Bill is not contentious, I ask that the Minister of State take another look at a couple of sections therein, including section 28 which deals with composition of the board. I note that one of the categories of persons precluded from taking up a position on a board is a person who is bankrupt. This is an issue which also arises in the context of membership of this House. It is also one that has come to the public forefront in recent years owing to the economic downturn. Perhaps we need to examine the concept of the honest bankrupt, namely, a person who through no fault of their own becomes bankrupt. This could be a sub-contractor who is beholden to a main contractor who, owing to negligence and so on, becomes bankrupt resulting in the subcontractor, through no fault of his or her own, being declared bankrupt. We may need to consider defining this type of bankruptcy in our legislation. Perhaps this could, as a start, be done in this legislation. As things stand, a person who is on a VEC board or board of management who, through no fault of his or her own becomes bankrupt - people are being declared bankrupt every day of the week - but has a valuable contribution to make may inadvertently be precluded from holding such position.

The Minister might also consider introducing a time limit in respect of the duration for which a person may hold the position of chairman of the new education boards. Many of the people who currently hold these positions have done so for many years. I acknowledge that the chairman of the VEC in my home county has done an excellent job for many years. However, I firmly believe there should be a time limit introduced in respect of the duration for which a person can be chairman of a VEC. I ask that the Minister of State and his officials note this with a view to addressing the matter on Committee Stage. Perhaps a five year term or requirement for break in service, following which the person could again take up such position, could be introduced. The same applies in respect of chairpersons of boards of management, although I acknowledge it is difficult to get people to take up such positions. Often it is harder to remove a person from the position of chairman of, say, a local Fine Gael branch or Fianna Fáil cumann, than it is to make that appointment. I am concerned that the same may be happening in respect of boards of management of schools. This is also applicable in respect of persons who hold the position of chairman on more than one school board of management. I do not doubt the ability of those concerned but a person should only be permitted to be chairman of one board of management at a time and for a set period. While the argument could be made that there already exists a facility to make this change, it may not always be possible to do so without the message going out that the person concerned did not do his or her job properly. More often than not, those concerned will have carried out their duties in an excellent manner. It is important this provision is built into the legislation.

There are a few other matters with which I would like to deal, including a local matter. The facilities at Coláiste Ráithín in Bray are very poor. While new accommodation has been promised for a couple of decades now based on public private partnership and land made available some ten to 15 years ago, nothing has yet happened. I would welcome if the Minister of State, whom I know has an interest in this area, could progress the construction of a new gaelscoil in the north Wicklow area. Currently, Coláiste Ráithín is housed in an antiquated building with few facilities, if any. I compliment those in the building section of the Department of Education and Skills who are pragmatic in terms of my dealings with them.

On school transport, I note that it is proposed to carry out a review of the catchment areas in this regard and that children who are precluded from availing of public transport in particular areas may obtain a subsidised concession ticket. It is hoped this can be progressed in the near future.

Another issue of concern to me is that of the art curriculum. As I understand it, the art curriculum for secondary education has not changed in 40 years. The Minister recently provided, owing to recent concerns in regard to literacy and numeracy ability, that subjects at all levels include a literacy and numeracy input. As I understand it - I am open to correction - a teacher of leaving certificate art is now required to include literacy and numeracy as part of the curriculum. I do not understand how literacy and numeracy could be inculcated into the art curriculum.

As I stated earlier, the art curriculum has not changed in 40 years. The percentage of people receiving an A or A1 in art is in the region of 1%, which is far less than for any other subject. There must be something wrong if only 1% of students taking higher level art are achieving an A or A1. The curriculum needs to be upgraded. I understand also that teachers are required to prepare notes on 20th century art history as the industry has not produced a textbook in line with the established curriculum. Perhaps it is not monetarily advantageous for it to do so. While I acknowledge that the Department of Education and Skills is not responsible for textbooks perhaps the Minister of State would examine this issue.

Another bugbear of mine, which I have not previously raised on the floor of the House, is that of results and the bell curve. I have sought clarification on this issue but have been unable to get it. What I am trying to establish is if the chief examiner of a subject sets a particular percentage of As or A1s that must be achieved in a subject. I have been approached by a couple of teachers who have marked papers for a number of years and who have on occasion had their papers returned to them with a request that they reduce the number of As in their batch. I raised this issue with the State Examinations Commission. The kernel of the response I received was that there are no quotas applied to the number of As or any other grade coming from examinations centres or from overall allocation of scripts to examiners. I would like to know if there is a quota in respect of the total number of scripts. Students taking, say, the agricultural science examination have a right to know if the total number of A1s allocated in that subject is set at 15% and in respect of mathematics is set at 20%.

If it is the case, it is an incorrect approach to education because if somebody gets a grade A he or she is entitled to it. If one's answers are 100% correct it is unfair to be given a grade A rather than a grade A1 based on the number of people getting each result.

I am gravely concerned there may be a bell curve policy for certain subjects. I suspect it may be based on batches and that the papers which received an A grade because of the batch they were in would have received a B grade if they had been in another batch in a different part of the country. I have sought documentary evidence for this but the response I have received is unsatisfactory. Will the Minister, through the State Examination Commission, establish whether there is a bell curve policy and if so what is it? If there is not, why do 1% of students get an A1 grade in art while 15% or 16% get an A1 grade in home economics or geography?

As always I have a healthy distrust of centralisation and the closure of established bodies in the so-called interest of progress. I am concerned the consolidation of the VECs - which has seen my county of Longford lose out - and the expansion of the role of the education and training boards will be a case of dividing but not conquering. Not only are there huge implications, some negative, for existing VEC staff, there is a perception and worry that the rationalisation of the number of VECs is being driven by financial consideration rather than long-term gain for primary, secondary and post-second level students. Such a drive can also lead to wanton waste of public money, as in the case of Longford VEC which had €2 million poured into it prior to the announcement it had lost out as the headquarters of the amalgamated Longford-Westmeath body. The cost-effectiveness and central location of Longford VEC were ignored for what was regarded as political expediency. Following the closure of Connolly Barracks, this was another major blow for Longford. The facts as admitted by the Minister defy logic. The annual rent paid for the headquarters in County Westmeath is €118,300 per annum as opposed to the nominal sum of €13.33 for the Longford headquarters. Mathematically it looks like someone needs to do more homework because there are no cost savings in this type of carry-on, particularly given the €2 million spent on refurbishing the headquarters in the centre of Longford.

Any reorganisation of training provision needs to embrace the long-overlooked divide between third level university education on the one hand and technical training on the other, and the stigma associated with it. This has been partly dealt with by Deputy Timmins. This needs to be examined at the post junior certificate stage and provision made for technical education for those whose talents lie in this direction. We cannot afford to continue to insist that those who are not suited to academic subjects are forced to be the victims of a narrow system that has only one focus. This is against the principles of many types of IQ, which are now recognised to be way beyond the scope of academic ability. In other words there are many kinds of intelligence.

Neither can we dumb down an academic system which, while not perfect, provides as fair an assessment of ability and potential as possible. Academic ability must, in the interest of the recovery of the country, be encouraged. There is nothing logical about penalising excellence. We need to get over the populist idea of one for everyone in the audience and we must accept that not everyone is suited to academic study and that technical ability is also a talent, which needs to be fostered even more. Creating an equal playing field where each child can achieve his or her potential will never be accomplished by dumbing down education to make a standard template accessible to all. Instead we must embrace difference and allow for specialisation. Most importantly, we must provide a system which allows for such specialisation at a very early age.

We must encourage excellence in all areas. This must not be achieved by change for the sake of change. To follow foolishly the mistakes of the UK system, which is rapidly back-peddling, on assessment and project work in favour of what we already have, namely a strong terminal examination, would be madness and I am afraid that changes to the current junior certificate will lead to such retrograde steps. In line with most of Europe, we need to embrace technical education and university degrees under the one third level umbrella without differentiation. Any distinctions need to be removed giving equal rating and status to all talents, and equal reward regardless of course focus.

When I read the Bill I see a huge focus on finance, potential savings and cost analysis. While essential in the current economic climate, this focus should not be allowed to be the prime driving motivator of change. We are at a crossroads in Irish education and change needs to be made to reflect future requirements. For example, the number of companies in the midlands which cannot get specialist staff to meet their needs and fill vacancies is increasing. In the past year alone, six or seven companies contacted me about their special needs. The outcome has usually been that personnel have been brought in from elsewhere, particularly Canada and the US. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was very helpful in arranging work visas for people in specialist areas. This country should be able to provide people for these jobs.

It is important to separate the two main provisions in the Bill. These are legislative consolidation and legislative provision for 16 newly configured bodies under the umbrella of the education and training boards. The first can be regarded as a tidying up provision or, if one prefers, another centralisation. It can be regarded as the necessary updating of legislation. The second is a matter of replacement and as I already said, I distrust replacement for the sake of it. For the legislation to be successful, the long-term gain must be for students who will contribute to the expansion of our economic profile.

There is nothing more important for our future than education. It is worthy of investment, and while cost cutting may lead to short-term gain it must not be allowed to impact adversely on our future. We have seen far too much so-called innovation in education which has been detrimental, such as throwing spelling and grammar out the window in favour of creativity. I hope the dissolution of FÁS and the establishment of SOLAS will produce a rational approach to the provision of education and training that will be job centred and student and trainee oriented. However, again there is a risk that too many strands are being centralised and replaced with unknown entities.

I have made numerous representations to the Minister with regard to Lanesboro Community College, a school in my area.

When the convent closed, the VEC and convent were amalgamated and the resulting school is bursting at the seams. There is a huge shortage of space at this vocational school in County Longford. In fact, teachers have to meet parents in the corridors, which is not acceptable in the present climate. I would plead with the Minister to try and focus on providing additional accommodation because the number of students has increased by 80 since September. There is an urgency to the provision of additional accommodation at Lanesboro Community College in County Longford.

I understand that Deputy Moynihan wishes to share time with Deputy Browne.

Is that agreed? Agreed. The Deputies have ten minutes each. I will let Deputy Moynihan know when he has two minutes remaining.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Given that we are concerned here predominantly with the rationalisation of VECs and the work commenced a number of years ago, if we look back at the VEC system in place for the last number of years we can see that, by and large, it has served the State very well. The vocational schools set up in the 1940s and 1950s hugely benefited the communities in which they were established. The VECs took on an enormous amount of additional responsibility in respect of adult learning and second-chance education and the system grew enormously. At the very start, the concept was an excellent one and it grew to where we are today.

A number of issues relate to all aspects of what VECs do, ranging from post-primary schools to third level education. In my area, the VEC was asked by the Department to get involved in sourcing a site for a primary school in Kanturk. That was very successful because there were difficulties in getting a site that would be suitable for everybody. The officials in the VEC put in a huge amount of work together with the Office of Public Works to find a resolution. I wish to put on the record that VECs have been involved in primary education in some instances and have been very successful in this regard.

As we come to a decision to amalgamate and rationalise the VECs we should make sure we protect the system and the brilliance of the people working in VECs. Every Deputy engaged in constituency work knows that there are sometimes discrepancies between VECs and different interpretations by particular VECs and bodies in respect of legislation and regulations introduced at central Government level. Over the past five or six years, I have been debating with the Department, a number of VECs and the county council about the awarding of third level grants, particularly for people going on to postgraduate courses, such as PhDs. Some VECs have interpreted the legislation and regulations in a different way to others. We have been going back and forth between the grant awarding body with which I have been in discussions and the Department to find clarification. I will not go into the intricacies of the case on the floor of the Dáil but some of them have different interpretations of when the year began or when the funding was in place.

We need uniformity across the sector. We sought information from VECs and grant awarding bodies across the country about their interpretation of a particular rule. The interpretations were completely different. Everybody would say that there is one piece of legislation governing a particular body or there is one piece of legislation that is interpreted in a specific way for the entire country. As we go forward with this new initiative and the amalgamation of the VECs across the country, it is important to have a look at how VECs interpret legislation and regulations.

Since the introduction of free education in the 1960s we have seen the development of community schools. The previous speaker spoke about the amalgamation of schools, which is ongoing in towns where two or three schools are coming together to form one. This is a significant process involving a huge amount of work but, by and large, it is very successful. We have seen comprehensive schools and community schools which sprang up across the country and the good work they have done over the years is second to none. Comprehensive schools, of which there are a limited number, were devised for a specific reason. Apart from the governing structure, they mirror what happens in community colleges. Much work has been done in both mainstream education and evening classes.

The care and attention shown by the teachers and management of schools must be regarded with great respect not just in this country but throughout the world. People have benefited enormously from it. Reports written in the 1940s and 1950s argued that one of the best ways of getting out of poverty was through the education system. It took some sectors a significant amount of effort but if one looks at any census going back to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and indeed back to the late 1800s, one sees the number of people born in this country who emigrated because there was no future for them here.

I know we face challenging and difficult times but one of our greatest strengths is our education system. Some people left school with a dim view of education and elitism about people who were able to access education was prevalent. People have excelled in the private or public sectors who were only able to access education through the community and comprehensive schools that sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They came up through the free education system. Any analysis of the socio-economic benefit of this trend would stand the test of time. It has been of enormous benefit because in previous generations many families with significant academic ability would not have had the money to pay for education. There is an argument relating to fee-paying schools at the moment but the most important thing is that we support community and comprehensive schools and those schools that have provided an outstanding education to those who, in previous generations, would not have been able to access it.

The Deputy has two minutes remaining.

The reports that encouraged education as a means to get out of poverty were great inventions. One matter for regret over the past 40 years is that when new towns were being built to get rid of slums in Dublin and Limerick, houses were built without proper facilities and they forgot about putting a proper education system in place to ensure the new towns were not just housing units. This created a time bomb in west Dublin and parts of Limerick for which society is paying dearly. I hope we do not make the same mistake again.

I welcome the Bill. It is important we ensure the new system has all the strengths of the old one and enjoys the goodwill created throughout the vocational education sector, not just in adult services but also in those for people with intellectual disabilities. It is important the VECs ensure there will be uniformity among the grant awarding bodies and that there will not be a system whereby one body can interpret the legislation differently from another. I commend this important legislation to the House and am thankful for having had the opportunity to speak on it.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Bill. When my party was bringing forward legislation before going out of government, I was probably one of the few members of that party who objected to the amalgamation of the VECs and the decision to reduce the number of them. I felt a county such as Wexford, with a population of 150,000, needed its own VEC structure rather than having one merged with that in Waterford. The vast county of Waterford extends right to the border of the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock. There will be a lot of long-distance learning if the offices are to be based in Waterford. The Minister, Deputy Howlin, assured us they would stay in Wexford.

There is new technology now.

I am concerned about having one VEC structure for two large counties. It will not be in the best interests of the students and other people in either county. The Bill is before us and what is proposed will happen. Therefore, we may put up with it.

The VEC structure served the country well since its inception approximately 70 years ago. I was a member of Wexford VEC for some years. There are eight VEC schools in Wexford, some of which are based in the large towns. There are some very good VEC schools in rural Wexford, as in every other county. They have certainly served their purpose. Perhaps in recent years, the VECs may have moved away from serving the purpose for which they were originally set up, that is, to provide skills to and upskill people who may not have wanted to go to a normal secondary school. Recently, VEC schools have been competing with other secondary schools for students and have more or less moved into the junior and leaving certificate systems. Generally, the VECs have provided a very good service, particularly to the young.

The new education and training boards are important because many young people who left school at an early age to work on the buildings during the economic boom, when the pay was high and there were significant incentives, found themselves in difficulty when the bubble burst owing to their having a low standard of education. This is very worrying in my county and, I am sure, many others. There is a high population of young people, now aged 22 or 23, who left school in the mid-2000s with very little education. We are now trying to get them back into the education system. It is very important the education and training boards examine how we can facilitate this.

There have been many strands of education and training in recent years. FÁS offered courses and the VECs offered post-leaving certificate courses. Private trainers were trying to re-skill and re-educate young people such that they could avail of job opportunities. I sometimes wonder whether training bodies were very successful because candidates may have been trained for jobs that did not exist. We must now look at matters differently and examine opportunities that may arise in the agriculture, food, marine and wind and wave energy sectors.

Some time ago, I wrote to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, about wind turbines, which are being erected throughout the country. Those who want health and safety certificates or to meet the requirements pertaining to the installation of wind turbines have to be sent to England to be trained. I made representations to the chairman of FÁS and the Minister to have such courses offered here. There are certainly job opportunities in this area, as I know from having spoken to those working in the wind energy sector. The latter have stated there are some opportunities for job creation in the sector but that employees need to be skilled and trained. They need to meet the necessary health and safety requirements. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to consider this.

Agriculture is expanding and developing, as envisaged in Food Harvest 2020, under which we will see a considerable increase in employment in the food sector. There is a need for upskilling and training and to direct people into this area. There are certainly no jobs in the building industry or associated industries at present, but there are considerable numbers of young people waiting to be upskilled and who want to be retrained.

The post-leaving certificate authorities in the vocational schools, in particular, have been doing a very good job in recent years. In Enniscorthy vocational college, there are approximately 300 students doing post-leaving certificate courses. This trend obtains across the county.

St. Senan's psychiatric hospital is to close by early 2013. It is a huge building with 100 acres of land attached. I wrote to the Minister for Education and Skills to determine how we could utilise the building. There will not be great demand for it. I suggest that it become the PLC centre of County Wexford. Instead of offering PLC courses in different schools and areas, there should be a PLC centre with 500 or 600 students. At present, the students are spread across the county. The building is ideal and there is a huge tract of land. We should avail of the opportunity rather than locking the building and paying a fortune on security for years to come. The building could be utilised by the Department of Education and Skills.

The membership of the education and training boards is of concern to some. There is no opportunity for learners on the education and training boards, nor is there an opportunity for local parents to be on the VECs unless they are already members and are selected. The National Parents Council will have representatives on the boards. Could the system be re-examined to ensure there is a role for local parents? There are parents' councils in all the VEC schools across the county and it is important that parents have an opportunity to be represented on the boards.

It is important that business people be represented on the boards. The boards should work very closely with chambers of commerce and business associations in their areas to ensure there is a two-way process. Ultimately, the business people will provide the jobs and opportunities to young people.

Sports organisations are very much to the fore in providing young people with opportunities, such as to play hurling, Gaelic football, soccer and rugby. Many of them have first class facilities at their disposal.

That they provide facilities for training courses, particularly at night, is important. These facilities should be utilised. My GAA club in Enniscorthy has hosted a vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, centre for the past decade. The partnership between that sporting organisation and the vocational education committee, VEC, is strong. Some rent is paid, of course, but renting from the private sector would cost more. Sporting organisations have a role to play and I hope that they will be considered for representation on the education and training boards, ETBs. Working in partnership, facilities can be provided so that the large number of unemployed and unskilled young people can be trained for current and future vacancies.

I understand that Deputy Joe O'Reilly is sharing time with Deputies Paul J. Connaughton and Patrick O'Donovan. Deputy O'Reilly will have ten minutes and the others will have five minutes each. We might have reached the sos by the time Deputy O'Reilly concludes.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on introducing this legislation. He is passionate about the power of education and reforming in his approach to it. Whenever the history of modern Ireland is written, the greatest and most important success story is that of the vocational sector. It has provided the skill set for industrialisation, manufacturing and construction and moved us from being a pastoral society into a modern economy. The VECs were the vehicle for achieving this. They comprised a critical intervention and provided equality of opportunity, particularly in respect of poorer people. They also empowered emigrants. Those who were fortunate enough to have received vocational education prior to emigrating did well abroad. I can cite examples in this regard. They had the wherewithal and capacity to achieve.

VECs embraced academic education and took on a new role. The Minister mentioned that 24% of all mainstream secondary school pupils, some 360,000 in total, can be found in vocational schools. The sector makes a significant input into the management of community schools, accounting for 17% of the pupil population. I am proud of the fact that two of my sons are happily and productively attending an excellent community school in Bailieborough, County Cavan, which has a significant VEC input into its administration. The sector has also been successful in terms of post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses, back to education, community education, Youthreach, VTOS, adult education, adult literacy, Traveller education and prisoner education.

The Minister has just empowered Cavan VEC to grasp the opportunities provided by the new training boards by purchasing Dún Uí Neill barracks and placing it into the VEC's ownership and control. This will be of great assistance to the Cavan Institute, which provides PLCs and sophisticated academic courses across a range of disciplines. It has links with Dundalk IT and Sligo IT and is avant garde, with one of the largest student populations in the country.

I am proud to have been a member of Cavan VEC for several years. The barracks will provide an opportunity for the Cavan Institute to embrace a training role. In this context, I congratulate my colleague, Councillor Madeleine Argue, chairperson of Cavan VEC, its members and the CEO, Mr. Colm McEvoy, on their tenacity in advancing the project and putting us in a position to be able to embrace the legislation and operate it properly.

The Bill's significant output will be the new training dimension. The VECs will take over the role of FÁS, its training centres, etc., albeit under SOLAS, the umbrella national agency. The forthcoming legislation on that is imminent. This is the critical new role that the VECs will assume. I am excited on behalf of the VECs, given the potential.

We need quality training. Issues arose in this regard under the previous regime. Training must respond to the aptitudes and needs of its recipients. This might seem obvious, but it has not always been achieved. We need proper aptitude testing, one-to-one interviewing, analysis, etc.

I agree with Deputy Browne that we must respond to environmental conditions. The challenge of green energy should be embraced. Cavan has significant primary producers of bacon and pork, intensive dairy farming, successful co-operatives and beef farming. The potential for training in the agrifood sector to provide skilled personnel for processing, etc., is considerable and needs to be embraced, particularly in terms of value added products and so forth. Training must respond to the needs of the modern economy and of those being trained. I am confident that this will be the case. It is a good opportunity for the VECs and we look forward to embracing it. Cavan VEC is in a strategic position to do so, thanks to the recent initiative by the Ministers, Deputies Quinn and Shatter.

The recent initiatives by the Department of Social Protection and specifically the Minister, Deputy Burton, in interfacing immediately with people who lose their jobs, assessing their needs, etc., are excellent and need to be linked with the VECs' training role. Rigidities should not prevent such dovetailing. People should move into good training immediately. Even if that training incurs a cost, the output will be considerable.

I am satisfied with the proposed composition of the VECs, in that there will be ten local authority members, two staff representatives, two parent representatives and four community representatives. The business and agrifood sectors should be reflected in the composition. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, comment on how the four community representatives will be selected? I welcome the legislation's requirement that business be consulted on the drafting of strategic plans.

It is important that VECs share services. I was a doubting Thomas as regards moving away from the county structure. I have never had a problem with shared services, rationalisations, economies of scale, etc., but the county structure has worked well. A way to preserve it within the system should be considered. It should not be lost, as the dynamic works.

My VEC has used IT effectively in terms of conferencing between schools and the central office and providing payroll facilities to other VECs. The imaginative use of IT and shared services is necessary.

There will be a great challenge for vocational education committees, VECs, in the primary education area. There must be a consensual process that can be negotiated and worked through with the church, as the role of the church in education to date cannot be minimised or taken for granted. As a result of demographics within the churches, there will inevitably be a big role for the VECs in school administration at primary level. In my constituency there is an interesting model, with a campus in Monaghan incorporating a primary, secondary and post-leaving certificate school. The VECs will have an exciting role in the primary sector.

There was a reference by the Minister to having the summer works scheme administered by the youth education and training boards, which is good. The planning of new schools is important, as we built some shockingly big estates. That is a great indictment of the work of the last Administration and what happened in the past. We did not build schools because there was no requirement on developers to put in infrastructure for schools in new estates.

I appreciate the Acting Chairman's indulgence as I was slightly late in starting to speak. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with it, it has become fashionable for every speaker to mention a need in their own area. I would like the Minister's commitment to a new second level school for Kingscourt in County Cavan to be actualised as soon as possible. There are facilities and if the school could get a roll number fairly quickly, it could progress. This is an exciting day for education in this country and I am particularly excited about the new training dimension, where the action will be. That is where we must come up to the plate.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.