Education and Training Boards Bill 2012: Second Stage

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on Second Stage of the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012. Vocational education committees throughout the country have an enviable track record in the development of the education system.

From their initial involvement in technical and continuing education, the role of VECs has evolved to encapsulate mainstream post-primary schools, PLC provision, the back-to-education initiative, community education, the youthreach programme, VTOS, the adult education guidance initiative and child care measures. The sector has an established philosophy of providing high-quality education and of placing a particular emphasis on meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged in our society. It is a proven key player in the Government's response to meeting the needs of the labour market. This philosophy, combined with responsiveness and innovation in meeting emerging needs, has been a hallmark of the operation of VECs since 1930. Building on this solid foundation, I want to retain and support this demonstrated capacity for flexibility and adaptability while at the same time position the sector to meet future challenges which the education sector faces. This legislation is an emphatic endorsement of the work of VECs. Combined with the SOLAS reforms, it establishes the new education and training boards as a cornerstone to the State's delivery of education and training in the 21st century.

Vocational education committees, VECs, were established under the Vocational Education Act 1930 and operate principally in accordance with the provisions of this Act and the Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 2001. They are currently linked to the local authority structure in the area concerned. The range of important roles and functions carried out by VECs include being the legal patrons of second level schools which they maintain, and which currently educate approximately 32% of all post-primary pupils. VECs also have an important role in the community and comprehensive school sector, which together educate approximately 16% of the second level population. They play a central role in the provision of adult and further education programmes in addition to supporting measures specifically designed to promote social inclusion. In addition, VECs have recently become involved in primary education through the pilot community national schools.

At the core of the proposed restructuring is the need to address the current low scale and size of operations in particular VECs in order to position the sector for future development. There were originally 38 VECs. Following a process of rationalisation in the 1990s, under which town VECs and county VECs were merged, this number was reduced to 33. In July 2009, the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes recommended a reduction in the number of VECs from 33 to 22. Following a consultation process with interested parties, the previous Government decided in October 2010 to reduce the overall number of VECs from 33 to 16 and agreed on the merger of particular counties. In June of 2011, this Government confirmed a reduction to 16 but decided to revise the configuration agreed by the previous Government. It also approved, in principle, the preparation of a new Bill which would replace existing VEC legislation and consolidate the legal framework for the sector.

This legislation will enable the dissolution of the VECs in favour of education and training boards, ETBs, to create a new structure that is better positioned to support the evolution of service delivery not just in schools under the direct governance of a VEC but in the wider education and training sector. It also reflects the enhanced role of the sector which will follow the establishment of SOLAS, the new further education and training authority which will replace FÁS. The SOLAS proposals envisage a key role for the new education and training boards in the delivery of an integrated education and training service. I recently introduced the further education and training Bill, which will establish SOLAS, in the Dáil.

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

This new Bill will replace the nine existing Vocational Education Acts with one piece of primary legislation, which provides for the establishment and operation of the education and training boards. It contains 73 sections, divided into nine Parts and six Schedules.

Section 10 sets out the functions of education and training boards as follows: providing for the establishment and maintenance of education and training board schools, centres for education and education or training facilities in its area; establishing and maintaining such institutions at the direction of the Minister; planning, providing, co-ordinating and reviewing the provision of education and training, including education and training for the purpose of employment, in those bodies, as well as in children detention schools, prisons and facilities maintained by other public service bodies; adopting strategy statements and annual service plans; delivering training for bodies which provide funding for this, such as SOLAS; supporting the provision, co-ordination, administration and assessment of youth work services; and assessing the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of its functions.

Subsection (2) makes provision for boards to consult with relevant people and bodies, including business and employers' groups. The Bill also recognises education and training boards Ireland. This is the body which, up to now, has been known as the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, and which collectively represents the bodies in this sector. As a result of a Report Stage amendment I tabled, the Minister of the day will have power to request education and training boards Ireland, ETBI, to make representations on behalf of ETBs, to conduct surveys and to give assistance which the Minister considers may be necessary for the effective discharge of their functions. The legislation maintains the distinction between functions which are reserved to the elected members of a board and the executive functions which are performed by the chief executive and his or her staff.

Section 12 sets out which provisions of the Bill are reserved functions. These include: adoption of a strategy statement, annual service plan and annual report; authorisation of members' attendance at certain events; keeping of accounts; appointment or suspension of the CEO; and the acquisition, development or disposal of land. Sections 14 to 19, inclusive, contain provisions relating to the chief executive and staff of an education and training board. This includes appointment and disciplinary matters, terms and conditions of employment, functions and powers. The system of suspension, the holding of sworn inquiries and the requirement for ministerial consent in order to remove a VEC officer from office is ended. In future, disciplinary issues affecting staff will be an executive function vested in the chief executive. In the case of disciplinary proceedings against the chief executive, a new provision, modelled closely on that applicable to county managers, has been adopted in this legislation.

Section 20 allows the Minister of the day to direct an education and training board to establish or maintain a recognised school or centre for education, or to establish, maintain or resource an education and training facility in its area. This is a vital power which may be necessary where there is inadequate provision for education and training. Section 21 facilitates co-operation between education and training boards in the performance of their functions and allows the Minister to direct education and training boards to perform a function jointly. It also allows the Minister to request education and training boards Ireland to assist boards in the joint exercise of functions which are the subject of ministerial direction.

Section 22, which I introduced on Report Stage, permits education and training boards to jointly operate education facilities with bodies that are not education and training boards. The Minister for Education and Skills is given a discretion to direct an education and training board to perform functions jointly with an education or training provider where a provider makes such a request to the Minister. The section also introduces an enabling provision to permit education and training boards to provide support services in relation to other education or training providers if they request them. Those support services could include matters such as procurement, HR, financial, legal, ICT and corporate governance. The provision of support will be subject to ministerial consent and to terms and conditions to be agreed between the parties.

The Minister will also be empowered, on foot of a request from an education or training provider, to direct ETBs to provide this support to the provider. It should, however, be noted that the legislation places no obligation on education or training providers to avail of any support services. This is in recognition of their autonomy in managing their own school.
Section 23 allows the Minister to direct a board to carry out a function in another board's area. This provision may be of a particular value with the additional training functions which the new bodies will be tasked with through SOLAS when it is established.
Section 27 provides for the making of five-year statements of strategy in each education and training board. The section provides for consultation with relevant stakeholders. It also provides that considerations of policy and financial resources must be taken into account in preparing these statements.
Part 3 of the Bill deals with membership issues affecting education and training boards. Section 30 sets out the composition of the new education and training boards. This was discussed at length in the other House on Committee Stage. Having reflected on this conversation, I introduced a number of Report Stage amendments. As it is now configured, each new board will comprise 21 members, composed of 12 local authority representatives, two staff representatives, two parent representatives and five community representatives. I also wanted to ensure appropriate representation for counties with lower population while ensuring fairness to all by keeping the overall number of members across all education and training boards the same. To this end, I tabled an amendment to guarantee a minimum of three members from each local authority area where three authorities combine to elect members to an ETB. There will be a guaranteed minimum of four members from each local authority area where two authorities combine to elect members to an ETB. The balance of members will be determined having regard to population.
To ensure a voice for stakeholders on the new bodies, section 30 also requires the Minister for Education and Skills to specify certain bodies with a right to nominate people for consideration for appointment to ETBs. At least one of these bodies must represent business, industry and employers; at least one must be representative of learners; and at least one must be representative of school management or leadership. Each body that is specified must nominate one man and one woman who reside in the area of the ETB. The local authority, staff and parent members must then appoint five people to the board, at least one of whom must have been nominated by a specified body representing employers or business, at least one of whom must have been nominated by a specified body representing learners, and at least one of whom must have been nominated by a specified body representing school management or leadership. All five must reside in the area, and at least two must be men and two must be women. Existing members of VECs will automatically become members of the new education and training boards and will continue in office until the next local elections in June 2014. This will help to ease the transitional process in establishing the newly configured bodies.
Part 4 of the Bill provides for regulation of education and training boards. This includes a power to issue legally binding directions on a board, the appointment of a person to investigate the performance of a board's functions, the transfer of functions to another person in limited circumstances and, ultimately, removal of board members.
Part 5 provides for the establishment of committees of boards and requires each board to establish a finance committee and an audit committee. By way of ensuring that school governance structures are uninterrupted as a result of the establishment of the education and training boards, section 44 provides for existing VEC committees which serve as boards of management for schools and other educational institutions to continue to exist following the commencement of this legislation.
Part 6 provides for financial and planning matters including the setting of a board's annual budget, the preparation of annual service plans, the deposit and borrowing of money, fees, accounts, and internal audit matters, along with provisions relating to the acquisition, holding or disposal of land.
Part 7 provides for the dissolution of the existing VECs and consequent matters, including the transfer of VEC staff to the new bodies and pensions matters.
Part 8 provides for the repeal and transition of certain provisions, including lifting the bar on access to the Employment Appeals Tribunal for staff to bring unfair dismissal cases. Section 66 has the effect of retaining a provision in the Vocational Education Act 1930 that makes it an offence to obstruct or impede an inspector in the exercise of his or her functions and extends this prohibition to all schools and centres for education which are subject to inspection.
In Part 9, section 72 enables the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, to procure contractors and execute contracts for projects other than public private partnership, PPP, projects and allows the NDFA to process payments to parties such as consultants, design teams and contractors. The purpose of this provision is to ensure the NDFA has the legal powers to assist the Department in the delivery of the school building programme, which represents an investment of €2 billion by the Government across 275 projects in the next five years.
The development of the Bill from the publication of the general scheme and its referral to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education in October 2011, through the initiation of the formal Bill last October, to the recent completion of all Stages in the other House, is testament to the positive and constructive engagement from Members. I sincerely thank them for their constructive engagement. The Bill we discuss today reflects the outcome of this productive and positive engagement. I look forward to listening to the views of Members today and in their further consideration of this landmark legislation as it progresses through the House. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I will begin where he finished, by acknowledging the great deal of work that has gone into the legislation through consultation. This has been very positive and is reflected in the wording before us today. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill, and we started the process of rationalising and streamlining the sector when we were in government. We very much support the replacement of the 33 VECs with 16 education and training boards.

There is huge potential in the further education and training sector, which has always done fantastic work, and 270,000 places exist in the sector in a wide range of areas. The work done by the VECs and FÁS is what is most often thought of, but a wide variety of excellent work is also done in Youthreach programmes and community and adult education. There is no doubt that because it has not been a stand-alone sector, further education and training has been the Cinderella of the Irish education system. This is why it is important that so much reform is being done at present to give the sector greater status and allow more strategic planning. This is part of the broader package of bringing together the work of FÁS and the VECs, achieving more co-ordination in the sector and implementing a strategy for the future. There is much potential to reduce duplication of courses and ensure much better planning for the future. We very much support the Bill in principle.

There is need for reform in terms of streamlining provision, addressing duplication and ensuring the courses we provide are not only those which are needed now but also those which will enable us to meet foreseeable needs in ten or 20 years' time, in as much as this can be done. The world is changing very much, particularly from a technological point of view, and often it is difficult to foresee where the jobs will be in five or ten years' time. There is no doubt that in general, our education system has been quite slow at responding to emerging needs. We can see a skills gap exists at present, particularly with regard to IT and language jobs. It is crazy that although 430,000 people are on the live register, half of the jobs announced by companies are filled by people from overseas because they cannot get IT staff in this country with the required language skills to be able to serve the global market. It is great that firms locate their head offices here, but it is a shame more Irish people are not able to take up these opportunities. Major opportunities exist in this regard for the further education sector because quite practical short courses can be used by people with IT skills to obtain language add-ons. These can be delivered in a way that fits around their work through part-time courses.

I do not think the Minister mentioned online learning, although I know it being examined in the broader scheme of things. I hope, however, that in the strategic planning for the sector there will be more focus on online learning. Obviously, such learning is not for everyone, but this is such a diverse sector that one is talking about people who will need basic literacy programmes right up to sophisticated courses. In general, however, there is so much potential in that online space that we should be seeking to maximise it throughout education. That should therefore be part of the strategic planning for the sector.

I will have a couple of aspects to raise with the Minister on Committee Stage. Some interest groups have raised with me the question of learner representation. I know that there are community and parent representatives on the education and training boards but not learner representatives specifically. I would like to tease that matter through more with the Minister. We have had a good debate in the House on quality assurance legislation in general and the Minister accepted an amendment I tabled to have more student representation on the new body for third level colleges. Everything we do needs to be driven by quality assurance that is informed by learner involvement, right across the system from school to third level and adult education. I can see a case for having specific learner representatives on the education and training boards to ensure that those voices are heard and that courses will be responsive to learners' needs.

We support the Bill, including the general reform programme that is going on in the further education sector. I acknowledge the priority that the Minister has given to it. It would be remiss of me, however, not to voice concerns that while this is great legislation, it is important to have plans. We must ensure that we have the necessary resources in these sectors. Concerns have been expressed about cuts in the pupil teacher ratio as announced in the last budget. This particularly concerns some of the large colleges and other providers. Marino College has been in touch with me to say that the cut will jeopardise some courses. On the other hand, the Government is pleading with them to offer courses which are needed to upskill people to re-enter the employment market. Where is the coherence there? It is great to have the words and the legislation, but we also need to have the necessary resources.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on bringing in this Bill. I pay tribute to the old VECs for the enormous contribution they have made to education over the years. The Bill is well structured with discreet functions between the board and the executive. I am glad to see that the board will have some powers of representation. I am also pleased that the minimum political representation from each county will be three. We discussed that matter before and it gives the proper representation to each county in the circumstances of amalgamations.

I attended the Young Scientist exhibition in the RDS recently. I was so impressed by the range and quality of the projects on display that I decided, in conjunction with Dundalk Institute of Technology's teachers and students, to put the 27 projects on display at the institute this week. At the launch, the keynote speaker, Ms Louise Phelan, stated that the 67 young people involved would take us to places we never dreamed of. This is the attitude we need to adopt, rather than one of doom and gloom.

The training and education they receive during and after their student years will be crucial. At the same event, Mr. Pádraig Kieran, the president of Drogheda Chamber of Commerce, remarked that these young people are not just training for jobs, but also to be young entrepreneurs and innovators.

Will teaching staff within the further education system and SOLAS, when it is established, have the skills to educate and train people to the high standards required, particularly in ICT and foreign language skills? In the new system, courses must fit the trainees and not the opposite, as may have been the case sometimes in the past.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Brian Mooney wrote a fantastic article for The Irish Times on the new boards. It should be pinned up in every new boardroom and college of further education. Mr. Mooney posed a number of questions, including whether the new SOLAS can make a difference, linked in with these new education and training boards.

I want to be a bit parochial, not for political reasons but because in life, as in literature, the local can become the universal. Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, has the two largest provincial towns, Dundalk and Drogheda. I hope that at an early stage, we will see Louth used as an exemplar or pilot for an accelerated programme of education and training under the new education and training boards, particularly for engineering, ICT and language skills.

At the end of the day, foreign direct investment is fantastic. The 700 such companies we have here are very welcome, but it is the genius of our own people that will make the crucial difference. We must not let them down. Senator Power said the further education system was traditionally the Cinderella of the sector. It is time that we dressed up Cinderella for the ball. The leadership of the new education boards is one of the most crucial matters for the future. This is one of the most important Bills to go through the Oireachtas in this Government's term.

The students in the Visitors' Gallery are our future. They are our gold, silver and uranium together, and more valuable than those precious metals. The new education and training boards will educate and train them up to levels which have never been seen before in this country. This does not just concern students but also people in employment and those who are unemployed. We want to see people undertaking programmes such as Intreo and the Pathways to Work. Further education colleges and SOLAS will get them trained. People are not going into jobs anymore, they are embarking on careers and must keep training all the time. We must lead that initiative.

We must also sweat our assets. Further education colleges, institutes of technology and universities are closed for three months every year, as well as being closed at weekends. We must re-open them to realise the investment of €500 million in every institute of technology. They are lying idle in the summer, so they should be opened up for accelerated training and learning programmes.

At the jobs fair in Dundalk, two weeks ago, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton spoke very well. Senator Moran may have been part of organising that. One of the messages that emerged was that jobs requiring language skills were on offer, but there was no one there to fill them. PayPal is providing 1,200 jobs there, so we need the second generation to be local so that we can sustain those positions and keep the local economy buoyant.

I am being a little critical of FÁS but it is incredible to think that more than €1 billion per year was spent on education and, in particular, on training at a time of full employment with nothing to show for it in terms of the structural deficit. The structural deficit was loudly debated at the time of the stability treaty but we had nothing to show for it.

I very much welcome this Bill and am very excited by it. The Minister is the right man to bring it through the Houses and to ensure it bears fruit for education and training in the years to come.

I welcome the Minister. It is always a pleasure when he comes to the House to discuss education matters and today is no exception. I was delighted when he referred to discussions in the other House and it is good that my colleagues here have expressed their support for the Bill.

There will be 21 members on an education and training board -12 local authority representatives, two staff representatives, two parents' representatives and five community representatives. I presume the two staff representatives will most likely be teachers, although not necessarily.

Not necessarily. Staff is staff, so it is across the whole spectrum of the employment range.

I thank the Minister. As Easter approaches and the Minister must run the gauntlet at various teacher conferences, are two teachers out of 21 members enough? I put that forward as a proposition because there is a level of alienation. By the way, I have admired Ministers from all parties who have run that gauntlet each Easter. I do not know if I would volunteer to do it. Teachers might not even have a representative on a board. They still have a vital role, although I can see there is a view that they were too dominant in the past and they listened to nobody. However, does the Minister have any views on running them down so much that they may only have one representative or none on a board? To organise a sector without reference to the people on whom one relies for service delivery in the classroom might provoke more of the kind of alienation we have been describing.

This morning I met the enthusiastic Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, Deputy Tuffy, who has just come back from Finland where, as we know, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of teacher training and on the role of teachers. Are teachers being left out too much? We need to make all the improvements the Minister is striving for in regard to teacher training. The highest standards should apply to teacher training in university, as happens in Finland. For example, one learns mathematics in the best mathematics department. Perhaps teacher training has shut itself off too much from the main body of the university. As Senator Jim D'Arcy and others have said, it is vital we put this profession back on top.

I was glad the Minister listed the statutory instruments to be repealed in the Schedule. It has been a difficulty in other legislation and I commend the Minister and his officials for explicitly stating this. When one repeals an Act, is the statutory instrument arising from it also repealed? Listing the statutory instruments, as the Minister has done, removes doubt and his Department is to be commended.

The Minister mentioned school management and leadership. There is a certain amount of alienation in that some people manage but never go into the classroom. I tend to look somewhat askance at the development of too much managerialism, too much attention to the strategy and at those terms adopted from a capitalist system which collapsed causing us all the difficulties with which we have had to cope in some many areas of public life. We must put education, pupils and pupil-teacher relationships at the heart of this, which I know is the Minister's intention as we have spoken about it so many times. This is an administrative Bill but it does not detract from the main functions we are trying to exercise and to restore that important relationship.

I was surprised there was a bar on bringing cases to the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

A legacy from the past.

It was a strange sort of legacy and I am delighted to see the Minister is correcting it. It seems to be an industrial relations practice from Noah's Ark.

The National Development Finance Agency is coming in on the Minister's ambitious schools building programme and the former VECs will become involved in primary education where the Minister sees a gap. As he pointed out, we face such an increase in population that this expenditure must be incurred and he is removing the bureaucratic and administrative obstacles to that.

There is a section on gifts and trusts. The chief executive officer shall decide within month of the offer being made on how it will use gifts and trusts. I think that is in finance legislation to encourage philanthropy. Why wait a month? It may be a small point but if anyone wants to put money into education, let us welcome it.

There may be hidden liabilities attached to the gift.

It may be a donation from people from whom one would prefer not to get one. However, this could be good news, so let us act quickly, having checked it out appropriately.

I join with other Senators in commending the Minister on his reforms. What he is trying to do in education is so vital that he will have the support of this House which he also had in the other one.

As usual, the Minister is very welcome. The debates we have when he is in the House are always very interesting. I congratulate him on the work on this Bill. The unanimous agreement on it is a testament to the amount of work he has done to ensure it is a fair and an appropriate Bill. As somebody who worked as a teacher in the VEC sector for 16 years, I warmly welcome this Bill and the changes, which are revolutionary. It is almost 70 years since the Vocational Education Act was passed, so this will be a remarkable change.

I refer to the economic situation and the high rates of unemployment, in particular the 82,000 youth unemployed. Traditionally, school leavers took up FÁS courses. Now with the economic downturn, many people are turning to education to improve their chances in the workforce. This Bill will further enhance the opportunity for students to be at the centre of learning, which is absolutely vital.

They have said some of the courses, particularly the Youthreach courses, may have suited the teacher more than the student. It is a case of keeping the pupil interested because we all know students learn a lot more when they are interested in what they are learning. This is vital.

Questions have been raised about the quality and relevance of courses. With so many different providers and programmes, it has been difficult to ensure the learner receives the best possible teaching and training. I am delighted SOLAS will have a role in auditing and ensuring the quality of the programmes delivered. It must ensure that teachers benefit from continuous professional development. This is essential if there is to be educational progress.

I welcome the fact there will be communication between the business sectors, as has been pointed out and as we have seen in Dundalk, particularly in respect of the jobs offered at PayPal. Given the recruitment difficulty associated with language and IT structures, it is important that there be communication. Education will now be modernised. Some 70 years ago, when the system was introduced, we did not have computers. Even 20 years ago, we did not have half the things we need now to provide for proper education.

The Minister referred to the role of the CEO in disciplining staff. Previously, this fell under the remit of the Minister. Is the Minister now saying the CEO will be able to decide who is hired and fired where there is a discipline problem?

The arrangement will be normalised, as with other organisations. The Minister will no longer have a role at that level.

Perhaps that will require further teasing out. We will talk about it later.

Reference was made to having somebody on the board who has a dedicated-learner perspective. I have spoken to the Minister and the Department about this. This is one area in which I feel there should be greater input. There should be a dedicated adult learner to give his or her perspective on the board and to give dedicated adult learners a voice at the top of the table. There are so many people included, but it is very important that scope be given to dedicated adult learners to have their say.

I do not want to rehash what everybody else said as we are all very much in agreement. It is a testament to the amount of work that has been done over recent years to ensure the quality of educational provision. When studying for my higher diploma, I remember learning the IVEA Act off by heart. Those were the days of rote learning when I was convinced the definition of IVEA was going to come up. I am delighted this will be a thing of the past.

I welcome the Minister to the House. As my colleague Senator Averil Power stated, we support this Bill. We initially started the work in this regard and, therefore, support the Minister in finishing it.

I agree with Senator D'Arcy. I pay tribute to the VECs throughout the Twenty-six Counties which have, since 1930, done such Trojan work in providing educational services to their communities. I was not in favour of amalgamation in the VEC sector but I understand and support what is being provided for in this Bill.

My main interest is the adult and further education sector. This sector has been regarded by some as an add-on to the post-primary sector rather than a strong sector in its own right. It is a strong sector and considerable developments and progress have been made in this area in recent years. I ask the Minister to ensure that, when establishing the ETBs, the adult literacy community and adult education will be protected and subject to the same focus. This is an area in which we have seen considerable improvements over the years. These improvements must not be lost. I pay tribute to the adult education officer in County Cavan VEC, Ms Fiona Moloney, and her colleagues in Cavan and throughout the country. They provide excellent facilities in the sector.

The Education (Amendment) Bill 2010, introduced by former Minister, Mary Coughlan, made detailed statutory provision for the role of VECs in developing community primary schools as part of publicly managed, multidenominational, inclusive and religiously neutral primary school provision. When the current Minister introduced the replacement Bill in the Seanad in January 2012, he drew explicit attention to the omission of this area of statutory provision from the Bill. He explained that he was awaiting the report from Professor Coolahan's forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector. This report has been available for some time, thus making it very strange that the Education and Training Boards Bill has no provision that parallels those in the Bill introduced by the former Minister, Mary Coughlan, in 2010. What is the reason for this? What plans exist for the further development of the community primary school model under the aegis of the ETBs?

The Bill must be read in conjunction with the Bill recently introduced by Minister of State Deputy Ciarán Cannon in the Dáil, the Further Education and Training Bill 2013. The Bill which is coming from the Dáil to the Seanad appears, on the basis of the opportunity available to me to examine this matter, to make no explicit reference to the new further education and training authority, SOLAS, except in respect of the provision of a function of the ETB in section 10 (1)(i) to provide education and training at the request of, and on behalf of, any body which funds training out of the money provided to that body by the Oireachtas. I welcome clarification on how the Minister intends that the ETB will relate to the planned further education and training authority, SOLAS, particularly in light of the very broad functions being assigned to the ETBs in section 10 (1)(c), namely, to "plan, provide, coordinate and review the provision of, education and training and services ancillary thereto in its functional area". It is worth noting that the Further Education and Training Bill 2013 suggests that on the dissolution of FÁS, as legislatively provided for, the transfer of its training centres will be to SOLAS rather than to the ETBs. That is my understanding but perhaps it could be clarified by the Minister.

In the Bill, the body to replace the IVEA as a representative body for local education authorities, ETB Ireland, is explicitly and frequently legislated for. In section 10(5), the Minister may request it to conduct surveys and to give assistance to ETBs as the Minister considers necessary. In sections 21 and 22, the Minister may request the new national body to give such assistance to the ETBs as he or she considers necessary for the implementation of a direction. Does this mean what was the IVEA will now become an agency of the Minister rather than a representative body for the education and training authorities? Surely the Minister realises the need for an independent voice for the new local or regional educational and training bodies. The quality-of-education debate and the quality of policy-making require that the view from the ground, from those providing the services closest to the people, must be independently heard and not just become one part of the machinery of central government. I acknowledge that the Minister is sympathetic to this line of thinking but I would like to hear him outline the nature of the relationship and how the independent voice of the IVEA can be maintained.

Some concerns have been raised by administrators within the current VECs that will be amalgamated. Concerns include the existing financial software. The majority of VECs will no longer be capable of processing the information of the amalgamated entity. Perhaps the Minister could clarify this. Difficulties could arise when reporting to the Revenue Commissioners and other statutory agencies.

I appreciate that changing over to the new system is a major undertaking and it will take time to ensure that it runs smooth and successful, unlikely SUSI, which the Minister will forgive me for mentioning.

I seek clarification on the membership of boards. The appointment of parents' representatives will now be nominated from the national bodies. I do not agree with that. If it is a local education board, it should be democratically elected within that region. I accept the Minister states those appointed must come from within the administrative district or whatever, but the local people would feel greater ownership of the representatives on the board if they were democratically elected at local level.

I will go into the detail of that on Committee Stage.

There is one further clarification I seek from the Minister. Section 23(1) states that the Minister may direct an education and training board "to carry out a function of another education and training board". Does that mean that the Minister would sanction services that one education and training board may be competent of providing to another or does it include services from that education and training board being given to educational organisations other than those under its remit, as is the case within Cavan VEC where an excellent-----

It is a general provision whereby where one board was incapable, was not able or was in difficulty, we could direct a neighbouring board to step in and assist. It is not displacing one with another. It is a facility which will be seldom used but which we believe should be in the Bill.

Does it cover the provision of expertise from that ETB to agencies outside of the education and training boards?

Not necessarily, no.

There is an excellent system in Cavan where IT facilities have been provided by Cavan VEC for a sum of money to outside agencies and this has been successful under the stewardship of Mr. Colm McEvoy, the CEO. I thank the Acting Chairman, Senator Noone, for allowing me the latitude.

I welcome the Minister. I concur with others that this is a big departure, devolving 33 VECs into 16. On being at this point and having reached such an amount of agreement, bar requests for a few amendments, I say, "Well done."

I was formerly the chair of County Galway VEC and it was an eye-opener. The reason it was an eye-opener is that VECs aim to provide education for all. Having been in the primary sector and in the teacher education sector and having gone to voluntary education schools, I had never encountered the VEC sector until I ended up as a member, and as the Chair, of a VEC. That is why this must not be the Cinderella. If it meets the education-for-all remit, we must honour it with the appropriate funding.

My experience of the VEC is that it had the potential to pick up all of those who were lost along the way, such as through the adult literacy and numeracy sector. Of course, we must never let that go. Let us face it, yesterday we sat in here with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and we spoke about the need for early intervention. In the case of every ill in society, be it crime, dropouts or early school leaving, if we had invested early we would have caught them, but we do not live in an ideal society or a utopia, and we must have the provision at the other end as well. I want to acknowledge that up-front.

I have been asked by County Galway VEC to bring this to the attention of the Minister. I accept that the Minister may have conceded this but perhaps he would clarify it for me. Where three VECs are to be amalgamated to form a new ETB, the local authority representation on the newly-formed board should be increased from ten to 12 members.

I thought so. I thank the Minister for that. They felt that this was necessary from the point of view of democratic local representation.

I would add that those members should have a competence in education. Those with an education background are not rare. Given that we are ten a penny, and by and large many go into local politics, we should maximise the expertise on the boards by, where possible, ensuring that they have some background in education. Parents qualify in that respect as well. It gives the board a greater confidence. Having chaired a board, I can see from where the voices come. The voices come from those who have confidence and on many occasions, confidence comes out of competence.

I support the point made by Senator Power that, where possible, there should be student and learner representation on a board. I would say there should be at least two because it is quite daunting for a young person to end up on an extremely adult, and perhaps at some points aged, board. That is a culture in and of itself. It is so that they are not wiped out by being over daunted there, while their input is critical to the service provided.

On section 42, the Minister might clarify whether he has addressed the following on the living locally clause. County Galway VEC felt strongly that all school boards of management should include a representative from the ETB in the context of reporting back to the board. The exclusion of ETB members or, more importantly, the non-inclusion of at least one ETB member would, the VEC and I believe, limit the capacity of the board to manage the school. We are merging Galway city VEC, Galway county VEC and Roscommon VEC, involving a considerable piece of territory. In that area, there will be six Gaeltacht schools and two gaelcoláistí. The person on the school board of management really should speak Irish. Does the Minister know what I mean? It is not a given.

I have every trust in the wisdom of Galway to make the right decisions in these matters.

Let us face it. Not everybody who is elected speaks Irish. I myself was on these boards. I speak reasonable Irish but I would not call it brilliant by any means. I would have been quite challenged in the crossfire of the debate, in terms of comprehending and contributing.

An excellent point was raised about SOLAS. Would the Minister clarify and specify the role of the ETB in SOLAS? This is significant. What was FÁS will now be SOLAS. There are 250,000 who lost their jobs since the recession took hold and they have training needs to prepare for the future, whatever that may bring. We need vision in SOLAS to predict the needs and create the future. We also need the right provision and quality.

I will finish with a little story. Last week I provided, with a local group, a jobs event for those who are out of work. People said to me, "Fidelma, why bother? Is the Department of Social Protection not doing it? Is what was FÁS not doing it?", but 90 people showed up to it. The key event they want is to analysis their skill set and work out which skills are transferable to fit the needs of now and the future. Correct provision is critical because providing the same, when there is no longer a market for it, is rubbish.

I support what Senators Barrett and Jim D'Arcy stated about quality. If the person delivering it is not good, the student will walk away. One may have an ETB or SOLAS proclaiming we are offering it, but the customer will walk and talk.

I would flag these areas as the areas in which provision is needed. I myself am looking at developing a creative centre in Galway for this to run alongside the second level system, involving language learning, digital learning, mathematics and logic, learning how to learn, creative writing, and creative thinking.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He is genuinely a reforming Minister.

We already, perhaps in a previous Seanad, had some preliminary work done on rationalising the VECs, which is a good idea.

I pay tribute to the VECs. Despite the bad organisation and the fragmentation, they filled a significant gap in Irish education and did well. Some of them stand out. I think the school of catering in Cathal Brugha Street comes under this.

It is part of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

It is also excellent. In that respect, I wish to ask the Minister about rationalisation. The College of Catering was threatened with certain proposals on amalgamation and so on. It is an interesting building, one of three significant art deco buildings in Dublin. Another used to house the then Department of Tourism and Trade and houses a magnificent sculpture by an Irish woman. The old Gas Company building on D'Olier Street, now the Trinity school of nursing, is the third.

I commend the Minister for something stated in the explanatory memorandum, namely, that the purpose of the Bill is "reforming and modernising the governance provisions, removing outdated terminology and articulating the functions of the boards". Such a statement should be found throughout all legislation. It is a pity the Minister is not in charge to do a Code Napoléon, as much legislation needs to be refined and made accessible. Arcane terminology needs to be removed, as will be done under this Bill. For that reason, the legislation is welcome.

I welcome the mention of SOLAS. The name change was intended to disinfect it, but even in its pre-fumagated state, I have a fondness for it, as it did valuable work. Some of the people at the top certainly behaved irresponsibly; there was wastage and moneys were unaccounted for, etc. It was a scandal. However, I cannot speak highly enough of the troops on the ground, given my experience of them. Perhaps the Minister might comment on the effectiveness of reform in SOLAS. Its staff need to be encouraged. In the regenerated SOLAS, some words of encouragement would be good.

The Bill will provide for good and necessary education, which should be respected. There should be no snobbery because one is a university and another is a vocational education committee, VEC. That would not be appropriate. They are different and separate, yet equally necessary.

I support my colleagues who suggested that having student representatives on the boards would be a good idea. I am unsure as to whether the Minister has made provision in this regard. If not, perhaps he might. There were no student representatives during my time as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, but that was one hell of a long time ago. The measure was introduced during my time as a lecturer. It gives young people an added degree of responsibility and perspective on governance and administration. Often, they go on to do valuable work in the community based on that experience. It would be a valuable addition.

I wish to raise a matter that is not at all relevant to the Bill. I expect that I will get away with it, as I am in my last minute and the Cathaoirleach told me previously that this would be the day on which to raise it because the Minister would be present. I pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Barrett, who first alerted the House to Trinity College Dublin's astonishing and deplorable decision not to host the Church of Ireland school of education. The school will be hosted in Dublin City University. If there is a secular university, it is DCU. What nonsense is TCD playing at with the name, "the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth"? I do not share the suspicions of some peculiar minority groups that believe the Labour Party and all of its Ministers are a bunch of wife swapping, sodomitical, compulsive, militant secularists. If they were, I am not sure I would disagree with it.

As a member of the Church of Ireland, I am glad to see education being removed from the sectarian field, but I wonder whether there is an historical place for the school within TCD. The university has Christian Brothers and various groups, but why kick out the Church of Ireland? It seems daft. The school has changed well, at least in the beginning. I do not know what it is like now. What used to be the Church of Ireland school of divinity had some distinguished theologians. It became a theological faculty with wonderful, free thinking individuals such as Professor Sean Freyne. I applaud this, but must the university kick out the Church of Ireland?

May my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, take over for me? I will hand my notes on Senators' comments to him.

The big gun is coming.

I was going to say something about accreditation of prior learning, APL, but the educated architect is leaving the Chamber. I will say it anyway.

I congratulate the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, in his place. This legislation will provide for the better co-ordination and delivery of education services by establishing education and training boards. The landscape of the vocational education training sector which dates back to the 1930s has undergone a radical transformation. The Minister is reforming in his ethos, although I might not agree with everything he is doing. The debate on private schools is ongoing, but it is not related to this Bill.

When the history of modern Ireland is written, the most important success story will be that of the vocational education sector which has provided the skill set for industrialisation, manufacturing and construction and moved this country from being a pastoral society to a modern economy. It caters for 32% of second level students.

Education and training are one and the same. We should assist students in developing critical and creative thinking abilities and competencies. The education boards could facilitate and develop APL. There will be an ideal opportunity for this to happen in the form of SOLAS. Section 11 of the Bill provides for the conferral of additional functions on education and training boards, although many professions take the route of academia exclusively. Recently, a professor told me that academics had their own values that might differ from professional values. Values in education are competencies and must be enhanced and protected at all costs. This is what we strive for in education. As has been mentioned, everyone involved in delivering education must be well qualified and provide a quality education. Otherwise, people will walk. However, professional competencies can be gained in ways other than through academia and looking through books. Learning through the multiple intelligence sphere - using every part of one's intelligence - is vital.

I am making a plea for Ballyfermot College of Further Education, a VEC college that will be under SOLAS. To cite the Save Ballyfermot College group, SOLAS is in the business of further education, whereas the college is in the business of further and higher education. The action plan for SOLAS does not even recognise that courses are delivered above level 6 in further education colleges. Ballyfermot College of Further Education runs a number of courses at ordinary and higher degree level. What is the future of these courses? The people of Ballyfermot are concerned. They need information and want to know what is occurring. Everyone in the country knows the role the college has played, the degrees it awards, etc. All it wants to do is to evolve, thrive and become one of the best colleges. Successful companies have grown out of the college, for example, Sullivan Bluth Studios, an animation company. These companies have won Oscars, IFTAs, BAFTAs and many music awards. The college wants an assurance that it will be able to provide degree courses that supersede level 6 under SOLAS. If the Minister of State cannot address this point now, perhaps he might revert to me in writing or ask the Minister to do so.

On the composition of the boards, while it is important students are represented I agree with Senator Hayden that there should also be adult learning representatives on them. How are the community representatives be selected? Have regulations in that regard been drawn up yet?

There is scope for SOLAS and the education and training boards to bring education into the new era, to value education for what it is and to look at how people learn differently. Section 9 provides that the education and training boards can be used as a prescribed register of educational competencies, working with universities, institutes of technology and third level colleges to bring new systems on stream, be they for architects and so on. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to this.

The Minister of State is welcome back to the House. It must be borne in mind that the VEC system has been around almost untouched since the 1930s. This Bill is a positive move to improve their functioning. It will also reduce the paperwork associated with the various vocational Acts.

I wish to make a couple of broad points related to the objectives of the Bill. I am a little concerned about the lack of solid links between the new education and training boards, ETBs, and the business community. I understand the Minister intends that the ETBs will engage regularly with the business community. However, I firmly believe that this listening process needs to be formalised, namely, the ETBs must listen to the skills need of the business communities. This may require real business representation on the boards. Perhaps that is the case. The Bill provides that the Minister may draw up a list of bodies that can make nominations for membership, for example, business interests etc.. Can we go further than that? The issue of adult learning representatives on the boards has also been raised. It would be sensible to also formalise their participation.

In terms of training and education, this must be linked to outcomes. The Department of Education and Skills does not systematically collect, analyse and distribute information on its employment outcomes. This information is critical for policy makers and higher institutions as it helps them to detect which courses and fields of study that are in high demand among employers. Moreover, this data can help students make better choices on what fields of study to pursue. Some countries, including the Netherlands and Italy already do this. We should be looking to emulate that model. I would like to see this done as it would provide Government with the ability to better target skills shortages and measure success. In my view, this would be a worthwhile initiative. I would welcome the Minister of State's views on it.

Adult literacy and basic cognitive skills should be a key focus in this new structure in terms of job creation. One of the most interesting messages in terms of educational focus is advocated by the World Bank. It argues that education systems, up to 18 years, should focus more on basic cognitive skills such as reading, writing and communication and that vocational training should wait. We are well aware in this country of the huge numbers of children who left school to go into trades and did not then have the skills to adapt when the economy changed. If we focus on basic skills this will allow a flexible workforce. A demonstrable example of this is Poland, which used this asset in the aftermath of its economic and financial crisis. That economy is growing, which many experts put down to its flexible workforce. I believe this is a lesson for Ireland to take on board. What does the Minister think of this concept in terms of the general education system? Can we learn from Poland? Can we ensure that the new ETBs deliver much needed training, such entrepreneurship training?

Could entrepreneurship training be commenced in primary schools? This is done in Norway and is supported by its ministry of trade, local businesses and others. The Norwegian strategy aims to develop knowledge and competencies in students related to entrepreneurial activities, strengthen young people's belief in their creative forces and fosters a culture for entrepreneurship. During the recent Drogheda Local Heroes project, entrepreneurship classes were run in schools. A transition year student, aged 16, involved with the young entrepreneur programme has set up a shoe customisation business and now has customers in 22 countries, selling her product at €17.99 through the Internet. Her only employee is her father. I believe that if we encouraged more of this, in particular at primary level, people would be equipped with skills to stand on their own feet rather than rely on Government. Are there any concrete plans in this directions?

In terms of training, we could do a lot worse if SOLAS were to invest in training people in languages. President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, recently highlighted that there are 4 million vacant jobs in the European Union. Irish people cannot access a lot of them owing to their deficiencies when it comes to learning languages. I urge that we try new methods of learning. I recently spoke about the Michel Thomas method of teaching languages, which seems to work well. The Guardian newspaper said of his teaching methods, "He astounded staff at a school in north London by teaching a group of teenagers deemed incapable of learning languages. In one week they had learned the amount of French it normally takes five years to learn". I believe the Minister should strongly consider this method as part of the core of SOLAS. Using this method, there is real potential for people to get a grasp of a language which will open up so many opportunities for them. When Hewlett Packard was recruiting additional employees last year one of the requirements of potential employees was that they be fluent in one European language. This meant most Irish could not apply. Irish people are poor at learning languages. This issue needs to be addressed.

I believe we can do much more than we are doing. However, we are going in the right direction. I encourage the Minister to maintain this standard.

I welcome the Minister of State. The unanimous support for this Bill is an indication of the success of the engagement by the Minister and Minister of State with the various stakeholders over the past year or so. As stated by the Minister earlier, the objective of this Bill is to ensure better delivery and co-ordination of education and training at local level. We all want an education system that is designed to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. I support Senator Quinn's comments in regard to entrepreneurship and preparing young people for the world of business and equipping them with the skills required in today's world.

I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, say recently that we have no idea, given improvements in technology, what shape employment in the future will take. Having served as member of County Galway VEC for a number of years, I cannot let this opportunity pass without referring to the wonderful work done by the VECs in Ireland since the 1930s. The VECs brought education into communities in the 1930s and 1940s, including my own home town, which is a small community of a couple of hundred houses. There is currently a thriving vocational school in that area catering for more than 200 pupils. I was impressed during my time as a member of the VEC by the breadth and range of educational courses provided throughout the country.

There was particular emphasis on the marginalised and people who really wanted a second chance at education. There is a significant emphasis in County Galway on adult education.

This did not happen by accident but as a result of very strong leadership, particularly by a great chief executive, Mr. Joe McDonagh, who many remember as a member of that great Galway hurling team of 1980. There was also a very strong management team and progressive chairman in Mr. Pat Gilmore, as well as a wonder adult education officer in Ms Eithne Nic Dhonnchadha. It is only right, when we are moving to a new structure, to acknowledge the wonderful work that those people do and will continue to do as they become part of a progressive and better-designed structure.

I very much welcome the fact that the Minister took on board issues relating to representation on the boards that had been raised by my county VEC and the Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA. We should place on record the wonderful work and engagement of the IVEA in putting together these new structures and helping them develop. We should also acknowledge the work of Mr. Michael Moriarty as the chief executive.

I could not let the opportunity go without acknowledging the great work being done by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, who is chair of the SOLAS implementation group. I know work is progressing at pace and I have no doubt that when the new structure is up and running, we will have a very vibrant and progressive educational system that will serve the country well in future. Today we can welcome change and we can also acknowledge that the VEC structure is going from 33 VECs to 16 VECs. In my county, Galway city and county will be grouped with Roscommon in a VEC. There was initial resistance but there has been much common sense, straight talking and engagement. As a result, the structure evident when the Bill is passed and all other elements are in place will serve the country well.

I hope it will equip us to tackle the significant problems of unemployment in the country, which is significant. We must consider how to get young people engaged sufficiently with the education system and ensure we point them in the right direction. I know we all have concerns about career guidance in schools and the resources available but we must gear our education system towards work and getting people thinking about entrepreneurship and being equipped to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing society.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House, and I also welcome the Bill, which is being welcomed by all parties. That is good to see. I also welcome the overall reforms that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister of State present have been involved in introducing in the education sector. We have had debates in the House on the transformation of the patronage model, which the Minister has rolled out and which is welcome to see, in line with increased demand from parents for more diversity in the provision of schools. We have also seen reforms to the junior certificate, which has also been debated in the House, and some of us are old enough to still call the exam the intermediate certificate. The junior certificate reforms are welcome, as are reforms to teacher training and in the university sector. There have been other initiatives, such as the campaign against homophobic bullying and accompanying strategy, which the Minister has recently introduced. A new broadband provision was rolled out this week in Warrenmount school, which is very near to where I live in the south inner city. All of this is very welcome and the sort of reforms in which the Minister has engaged are very positive and progressive.

Most of this Bill is entirely welcome but there is one aspect I would like to address. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to take this back to the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and I have already raised the matter directly with him. Section 30(1)(a) is concerned with the composition of education and training boards and provides for 21 members on each education and training board, of whom 12 will be elected by local authorities. I know one of the Minister's predecessors, Ms Niamh Bhreathnach, promoted the need to ensure gender balance on what were the VEC and other boards in the education sector, specifically for members elected by local authorities. I have indicated to the Minister that we should consider ensuring specifically that gender balance is provided for in respect of the members of the education and training boards under section 30 who are elected by local authorities, as per current VEC regulations, the Dublin Institute of Technology (Amendment) Act 1994 and the Regional Technical Colleges (Amendment) Act 1994. There are a number of models.

In section 30 there is a good deal of reference to the need to ensure gender balance in respect of the other panels from which members of the boards are to be chosen. For example, section 30(1)(c) refers to the parents' representation, and the Minister is to specify national associations of parents which will nominate two representatives, one of whom shall be a man and one of whom shall be a woman. That is specified in legislation.

I know this was considered when the Bill was going through the Dáil, although I am not sure what happened at that stage. There was very detailed material in the Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 2001, section 7 of which provided for regulations to provide that both sexes shall be represented on a VEC in such proportions as are specified in regulations etc. There was perhaps greater recognition of the need to ensure gender balance specifically in respect of the members to be elected from local authorities.

That is my one concern and otherwise it is an extremely welcome Bill. It very much fits within the package of reform measures being introduced by the Minister and which we all welcome. People generally recognise that this is a genuinely reforming Minister. It is important that we ensure the need for gender balance from local authorities is preserved in the Bill. I am mindful that tomorrow is International Women's Day and that currently we have appallingly low figures of female representation in politics generally. This Government is the first to introduce very welcome positive action measures so that political parties which do not put forward enough women candidates in the next general election will be penalised in their State funding. However, that provision does not apply to local elections, and it is not enough to simply argue that we will see more women elected to local authorities, which will filter to the representation on boards like the education and training boards. That is not enough, as only 16% of councillors are women. It is really important to ensure a gender balance in making these boards.

I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate on the Bill. They all have a wide knowledge of the excellent work being done by the VECs, with a passion and ambition to ensure that good work continues under new structures. In his opening remarks the Minister, Deputy Quinn, referred to that strong track record of the VECs in the development of our system and praised the philosophy in providing high-quality education. He also praised the sector's role in meeting the needs of the labour market, as mentioned by Senator Quinn and others, as well as the tradition of responsiveness and innovation in addressing emerging demands.

Together with the forthcoming SOLAS legislation, this Bill will position new education and training boards to harness the wonderful legacy, both from within the FÁS training entity and from the national VEC structure. It is a wonderful blend of energy, dynamism and social concern, as the sector and country adapts to the challenges of the 21st century. That significant potential was emphasised by Senator Power in her contribution, and I agree with the point. There is incredible potential in the sector and a large repository of knowledge, experience and wisdom built up over decades.

If we can somehow bolt those together, we can create something unique and powerful.

I have listened with interest to the comments from all sides of the House. I appreciate the broad support expressed by Members of the House for this important reforming legislation.

A number of Senators raised the issue of the relevance of courses, particularly regarding the emerging labour market. That was mentioned by Senator Quinn since I arrived in the House. The education and training boards are to have an enhanced and expanded role in training with the upcoming SOLAS reforms that will be introduced through the Further Education and Training Bill. In that regard, the functions of the boards have been set out in the Bill and explicitly refer to the role of education and training boards in planning, providing, co-ordinating and reviewing the position of education and training for the purpose of employment. That pragmatic approach to the current economic reality, and the economic realities that will emerge in the future, which affect so many unemployed people around the country, is supported by the requirement for the boards to have at least one member who must be from a specified body that represents employers or business. That aim is reinforced by the provision for boards to consult on an ongoing basis with a wide range of relevant people and bodies, including employers and business groups. As Senators will be aware, FÁS as it is currently constituted has an active and effective research unit that will be retained in the new structure for SOLAS. FÁS liaises closely, as does the vocational education sector, with Forfás and the expert study group on future skills needs to determine present skills needs and what skills may be required in the medium and long term. That research is taking place at national and regional level because the skills needs of Galway city may be substantially different from those of Cork city or Dublin city. We must carry on that research, and the ETBs will be encouraged to conduct their research at regional level to ensure they are responding effectively and in a meaningful manner to the needs of the emerging labour markets in all regions.

The issue of the membership of the boards was discussed at length today. On foot of the constructive issues raised by Members of the Dáil, the Minister has increased the overall number of ETB members from 18 to 21, the number of local authority members from 10 to 12 and the number of community representatives from four to five. That approach was informed by a number of principles: the need to ensure that smaller counties are adequately represented; the importance of ensuring a reasonable balance across all education and training boards; the need to ensure an appropriate balance between local authority members and community representatives; the overriding concern that the membership of the boards is small enough to ensure that they are effective and that they can be flexible and innovative in the way they develop further education and training opportunities in their respective areas.

Senators also raised the issue of representation for adult learners. This matter was discussed and considered in the other House. I have also had a number of discussions with adult learner representatives. We have included provisions in section 30 to give learner representative bodies a right to make nominations to the new boards and to require that each ETB has at least one learner representative on its board. Therefore, we have responded in a positive manner to the engagement we have had with learner representatives.

Senator Barrett raised his concern about representation for teachers on the new boards. The provision for two staff representatives is the same as that applicable to VECs at present. In most cases teachers are elected as the two staff representatives. I hope that representation by the teaching profession and teaching body will remain as effective in the new ETB structure as it has been in the past.

Senator Wilson also raised some important points regarding community national schools. A re-examination of the Bill took place having regard to the provision, management and patronage of community national schools. We believe that the Bill as drafted, supplemented where necessary with departmental circulars, can adequately provide for the establishment and maintenance of community national schools.

With regard to SOLAS, existing FÁS training centres, staff and premises will be transferred to the ETBs. That will mean that potential learners will access a form of one-stop shop for further education and training services which will respond in an integrated way to their needs.

Interaction with learners has been one of the most important opportunities that I have had as Minister of State in the Department responsible for training and skills and the transformation of the further education and training sector. I spent two exceptional mornings with learners, facilitated by AONTAS. I met people who had commenced learning and those who had recently exited the system. I did that because it was important to learn from their experience and to hear the human stories behind their engagement with the system. Without exception, one of the recurring themes that emerged was the fear that people had of first engaging with the system because many of them may have had literacy or numeracy issues, or may have left school to enter the burgeoning construction sector. At that time many of them would have left the education system at 15 or 16 years of age with little or no educational backup to serve them later in life. Re-entering the system was quite a traumatic event for many of those people. The structure of the ETBs, when they are established, must ensure that once learners begin to engage with the system and find themselves comfortable within it, they will continue to engage with it. We must create progression opportunities for them all the way up in as seamless and painless a way as possible. Once we have them in our system we must encourage them to remain within it and to build up and reach the pinnacle of their ambitions and talents.

Senator Bacik raised the issue of gender balance. As far as possible the Bill reflects a desire for gender balance on the new boards. As she mentioned, parent representatives should comprise one man and one women, and of the five community representatives there must be a minimum of two women and two men. The Minister of the day is conferred with the regulation-making power to establish women-only and men-only panels from which staff representatives would be elected. This maintains the position under the existing regulations.

The Senator raised the issue of local authority representatives on VECs. The current position is that the proportion of male and female local authority representatives on a VEC must mirror the proportion of the total number of male and female members of those county, city and town councils when added together. That has given rise to practical difficulties which, when they arise, can cast a legal doubt on the validity of boards that do not reflect the correct gender proportions. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is introducing serious reforms in the electoral process which obliges political parties to have a far fairer and more representative gender distribution. That measure will filter down to local authority representation. One would expect that most of the political parties will begin looking at recruiting female candidates for the next local elections with a view to having them stand in the general election, whenever that might occur. That measure will filter down, but it might not happen as quickly as the Senator would like it to happen. There is also the issue that if one seeks democratic representation on ETBs from local authority elected members then one must examine the reality of democratic representation in local authority entities across the country at present. That information would then feed through to their presence on the ETBs when they are created.

I will conclude by thanking speakers on all sides for their contributions and their generous support of the Bill. Without doubt, this is one of the most exciting developments in further education and training in the past 40 years. It gives us all a chance to put in place a system we can be proud of. We are a small island on the periphery of Europe, so we often tend to look to others to set an example. When it comes to education we always tend to cite best practice in other countries such as Finland - or Scandinavia in general - or, in the area of vocational training, Germany and Austria. Yes, we can draw from their experience and yes, there are some elements of their provision that would work exceptionally well here. With this reforming legislation there is no reason we cannot be the very best, and I genuinely think we can. If we can draw from that incredible experience over the past decades and from my interaction with the IVEA and FÁS, there will be a genuine passion and a commitment to make this work.

When SOLAS is established and people see the type of provision that will be available and the passion with which the people in the sector want to make this happen, we will be very proud of what we set out to do.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 12 March 2013.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.