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.