On behalf of SOLAS, the ETBI and the ETBs, I thank the Chairman and the joint committee members for the opportunity to speak to them on further education and training, FET. SOLAS has responsibility for funding, planning and co-ordinating FET in Ireland. Through the 16 ETBs and other providers the FET system offers access to a wide range of learning opportunities and supports in every corner of the country, regardless of an individual's background or formal education level, and a learning pathway to take individuals as far as they want to go. It currently serves a base of around 200,000 learners every year.
The year 2020 has been unprecedented and challenging for FET. Our ways of working and ways of accessing and engaging in learning have fundamentally changed during the course of the year and it seems increasingly likely that they will results in a permanent legacy and impact even if the threat of Covid diminishes over time. The initial changes happened virtually overnight when the first lockdown was announced in March, closing all FET facilities with immediate effect.
The core aim across SOLAS and the ETBs was to ensure learners were protected and that they could continue to access learning and support. This meant making online opportunities available during the period when FET facilities were closed, with swift and effective modifications to learning delivery and alternative assessment approaches put in place in accordance with quality standards.
The core aim across SOLAS and the ETBs was to ensure the learner was protected and they could continue to access learning and support. This meant making online opportunities available during the period when FET facilities were closed, with swift and effective modifications to learning delivery and alternative assessment approaches put in place in accordance with quality standards; opening up eCollege, our FET online learning portal, and offering digital and other online courses free of charge to any learners who wished to avail of them; supporting the development of skills initiatives by ETBs to meet Covid-related challenges in areas like infection control and remote working; and strong continued engagement with vulnerable learners through regular telephone contact, issuing of learner packs and access to devices. Adult guidance services also remained open via online and telephone access.
On funding was front-loaded to ETBs and other FET providers to sustain operations through the initial period of lockdown. FET learners due to complete courses were guaranteed their allowances for the duration of the closure period. As FET facilities began to reopen, additional funding of €5 million was allocated to support compliance with public health requirements and €5 million to facilitate access to technology by learners.
We have liaised on an ongoing basis with ETBs regarding their funding position and indications are that allocations have been sufficient. Savings may even occur due to the lockdown period for FET facilities. An €8 million fund for ETBs and community education providers has also been launched in the final quarter of the year to mitigate educational disadvantage as a result of Covid. This has all helped to support a robust strategy for the reopening of and admission to FET facilities. Implementation guidelines were produced by Education and Training Boards Ireland in consultation with key stakeholders and they set out measures to reopen and safely deliver teaching and learning activities. This included managing and minimising the risk of Covid in FET settings and controlling outbreaks should they occur. In common with higher education, there was a focus on facilitating lab-based and practical learning, which cannot be delivered effectively on line, including apprenticeships. However, there was also acknowledged meant that small-group learning in areas such as adult and community education, literacy and numeracy and youth reach could proceed on-site, given the needs of those learners.
While the restrictions throughout the year have had an impact on ETB capacity to deliver FET, overall admissions across courses have remained strong and are approaching 2019 levels, while varying across different types of provision. The moves to online flexible learning opportunities facilitated a ramp-up of workforce upskilling under Skills to Advance. PLC admissions have held up strongly in many parts of the country, while eCollege has drawn many new learners into FET. However, participation on apprenticeship and practical skills courses has declined due to the closure of training facilities for a period and limited capacity on reopening.
The crisis also created a moment of opportunity for FET. At the beginning of 2020, we were on the cusp of launching our new five-year strategy for the system, Transforming Learning, which set out an ambitious reform agenda for the system. FET can offer opportunities to many people with many different needs but it is currently too complex and has too many programmes. We need to simplify pathways to ensure all learners understand they can progress within FET and into exciting jobs or higher education. We need to make FET easier to access with clear and multiple entry points for all types of learners and learning delivered in more flexible ways, making full use of technology. There must be a more consistent learner experience with the same levels of support and guidance on offer, regardless of course and location. We must build a more powerful identity, developing consolidated larger scale FET colleges of the future which can help change the hearts and minds of the communities they serve.
The strategy is built across three pillars: building skills, fostering inclusion and facilitating pathways. It also identifies some key enabling themes: modernisation of staffing and structures, digital transformation, a learner-centred approach and focused capital development. Of course, there is an immediate imperative for FET to lead the upskilling response as part of the recovery and we are rolling out a skills to compete initiative to ensure those left unemployed are able to find a pathway back to sustainable work. Under the July stimulus, we are also co-ordinating an apprenticeship incentive scheme for employers and rolling out an upskilling programme in support of the national retrofitting plan.
I hope this provides a brief overview of the response of the FET system to Covid-19 and the critical reform agenda it is now pursuing. I thank the committee members for their time and look forward to the discussion.