Thursday, 23 September 2021

Questions (83)

Richard O'Donoghue


83. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Education how apprenticeships can be merged into the education model much earlier in order that early school leavers can be encouraged to start apprenticeships in advance of completing their education. [45918/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

How can we merge apprenticeships into our education model much earlier in order that early school leavers can be encouraged to start apprenticeships in advance of completing their education? We are at crisis point when it comes to skills shortages in our country, particularly in respect of vocational subjects. Without getting into particulars around housing, I want to focus on the junior cycle and its students who have a basic interest in the academic subjects.

It is important to acknowledge that apprenticeships represent a meaningful, valuable and realistic pathway for all learners. That is hugely important. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science published the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 earlier this year. Under the plan, the development of apprenticeship taster courses will be explored as part of transition year and senior cycle reform with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA.

The leaving certificate vocational, LCV, programme operating in our schools is designed to enhance the vocational dimension of the leaving certificate established, with a focus on enterprise and preparing students for working life. The leaving certificate applied, LCA, programme in our schools also includes modules on vocational preparation, including work experience and enterprise.

The Deputy will be aware that the NCCA has undertaken an extensive review of senior cycle programmes and vocational pathways, including transition year, the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational programme and the leaving certificate established. A key theme of this review is the future form and reform of the existing senior cycle programmes. This includes the range of learning programmes and pathways available to students at senior cycle, with an express desire that senior cycle should provide adequate supports for whatever progression pathways students choose. The important consideration here is that the senior cycle must be in a position, as the Deputy has outlined, to provide a myriad of pathways forward for students, whatever those pathways might be and however they determine themselves. The Department of Education is considering the report and other aspects of the NCCA's advisory report, as I have outlined, and it will be published shortly. There is a very clear understanding that we are looking towards and focusing on providing as many pathways forward and diversity for students as possible.

From my experience, I have found that students are forced into an academic cycle to complete their leaving certificate where vocational subject time is reduced, particularly in respect of the leaving certificate programme. My suggestion to the Minister for Education is to commence the process much earlier and to merge the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, framework at junior certificate stage, possibly during transition year. Building a two-days-per-week work experience into the apprenticeship, the school would be encouraged to build a partnership with local industry. There are lots of possibilities in this suggestion. Employers could feed into an app or a site. The employer could then be encouraged to highlight its employee shortage for the coming year.

The reason I say this is that I myself left school at junior certificate level. If there were such a system in place when I was in school, I would have then gone on to do my leaving certificate. I went into construction and am in construction still. I see an awful lot of skilled people in school who do not want to be there but if there were this type of cycle, it would encourage people to do their leaving certificate and also have their apprenticeship.

I am very much open on this, and the Deputy is pushing an open door here. I absolutely want the new senior cycle, as we are talking about senior cycle review, to offer maximum potential and possibility to all students. As for even more pre-apprenticeship courses, as the Deputy referred to, pre-apprenticeship programmes are targeted at young people aged, we will say, from 16 to 24 and the aim is progression to an apprenticeship. They are designed to give young people the skills, confidence and connections they need to access and successfully complete an apprenticeship. A call for expressions of interest issued at the end of 2019 for the development of pre-apprenticeship programmes involving approximately 500 learner places to roll out from quarter 1 of 2020. Over 589 Pathways to Apprenticeship places were subsequently awarded to post-leaving certificate, PLC, providers. Students and learners can access information on this on the website. Separately, as I said, whether it is the LCV programme, the LCA, transition year or the leaving certificate established, there is an absolute openness to recognise in the senior cycle review many of the points the Deputy has raised.

My office is inundated with emails from constituents in County Limerick who want to raise awareness about the shortage of school funding. Funding is particularly low in Ireland at €1 per child per school day. I know the Minister's office has responded to this as in her written reply, and I am delighted to be able to get back to those constituents and show them that she is rectifying the numerous issues I have raised. Schools funding is very important, especially for rural schools that have working principals. They must have the backup they need for school administration, especially where numbers are under 100. It is so important that things are put in place such that the smallest schools, the rural schools, have the same moneys available to them as other schools and can get in clerical staff to help them and free up some of the time for the working principals.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments on my office reverting to him in response to any queries he might have. Specifically regarding teaching principals, I am very conscious of that and of rural schools and was very pleased to be in a position to introduce the additional administrative day leave for teachers in order that teaching principals were guaranteed at least one day per week. We successfully ensured in the vast majority of cases, where a network of five schools or whatever clustered, that a designated day was made available for the administrative work that needed to be done by principals, deputy principals or whoever else in the school, and that is important. Even in the wider sector of education in terms of Covid measures, whether it was exams at post-primary level or whatever else, I was always very conscious of the need to put in place, for example, assistance that could be provided to school leadership, whether exam aid or whatever else, and even for the return to school aid was provided. I am very conscious of that. I hope to build on that. It has worked very well in our school system. I have a unique understanding of and appreciation for the issues the Deputy has raised, whether in small schools or larger schools.