Fáiltím roimh an mBille seo. Rinneadh an chéad Acht Ghairm Oideachais sa bhliain 1930, tar éis tuarascáil a d'ullmhaigh coiste a bhunaigh an tAire sé bhliain roimhe sin agus a foilsíodh sa bhliain 1927. Ag an am sin bhí sé éigeantach ag páiste fanacht ar scoil go dtí aois 14 agus ní raibh deis ach ag fíor mhionlach déagóirí freastal ar mheán scoileanna go dtí aois 18. Ceapadh go soláthródh na ceard scoileanna oiliúint i gceardanna agus na scileanna trádála a raibh fostaíocht ar fáil dóibh ag an am sin.
Tá athraithe bunúsacha sa chóras ón am sin. Tá i bhfad níos mó daoine fásta, mar shampla, páirteach mar fhoghlaimeoirí sa chóras oideachais. Freastalaítear ar ghrúpaí le fadhbanna éagsúla. Bhí mé féin i mo bhall den choiste i gCondae an Chláir ar feadh 15 bliana. Roimhe sin, caithfidh mé a admháil nach raibh mórán eolais agam ar an gcóras, cé go raibh mé i mo mhúinteoir bunscoile ag an am. Chonaic mé gnáth daoine, comhairleoirí condae agus eile, ag freastal ar an gcoiste sin agus iad go hiontach mar bhaill den choiste, cé nach raibh stádas árd oideachais acu. Thug siad faoin obair agus rinne siad job iontach maith.
Faoi láthair tá timpeall 30% den daonra meánscoile ag freastal ar scoileanna gairm oideachais agus tá siad thar a bheith tábhachtach i gcóras oideachais na tíre.
The Minister outlined the age of uncertainty and change which underlines the context of the Bill and indicated that he is creating a legal structure to facilitate vocational education committees in planning for change. He intends to allow them the flexibility to provide an effective and appropriate service for the people living in their catchment areas. The Bill addresses this matter in a positive manner. While I am delighted that it has been introduced, it is long overdue.
The Minister seeks to address four primary areas. First, he wants a revision of the function of vocational education committees which will seek to address the changes that have occurred in their operation. He is also providing for a wider membership of the committees on a statutory basis, although many comprise a relatively diverse membership. He is further providing for a better reporting arrangement within the committees and between individual committees and the Department of Education and Science, which is of fundamental importance.
There is a need for such accountability nowadays. In the past we tended to take matters for granted and did not always plan ahead in the organised manner which the Minister desires for the future. Despite this, excellent work was done by vocational education committees. Some com mittee members, chairpersons and chief executive officers had great foresight and undertook projects about which others had doubts, but which stood the test of time and provided extremely well for the people whom they were serving.
The Minster is also providing for a modern financial structure, a desirable development. We have come to realise in many areas of public life that better reporting and financial structures are needed, not least to ensure those operating them understand them. Most Members have served on local authorities at some stage and pored over annual estimates. One could, certainly, be forgiven for concluding that their format was set out in such a way as to make it impossible to understand them. We learned over time to understand where the flexibility was and where the money was going, but the system did not lend itself to scrutiny by those charged with that role. The new system proposed by the Minister in the legislation will improve the financial and reporting structures within the VEC system.
VECs are involved more widely in the community and this is addressed in the legislation. A number of speakers referred to the VTOS, which has been in operation for a number of years. It stands as a beacon of achievement by vocational education committees in addressing difficulties which early school leavers, in particular, have and has operated successfully. All of us in our daily lives, as political figures, come across people who did not make it successfully through their first opportunity in the education system, but who were rescued by the VTOS and managed to secure well paid and appropriate employment. They are better contributors to society as a result of the scheme.
A number of Members also addressed the importance of physical education in respect of which the vocational education committees have also been to the forefront. It must be acknowledged, however, that primary and secondary teachers have traditionally given much of their time to the promotion of competitive sports such as Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby and other mainstream sports. The weakness of the system was that only those who were good enough to make the grade on school teams were catered for in the manner which perhaps everybody should have been catered for. A substantial number of second level pupils did not have access to a desirable level of physical education. This will be addressed by vocational education committees more quickly than by other education groups. Eight or nine of them already provide outdoor pursuit centres, as does County Clare VEC in the Burren, where second level pupils in particular and others from various parts of the country can spend a few days getting an introduction to sports activities that they would be unlikely to ever encounter were it not for that opportunity. I am talking about activities like abseiling, rock climbing and canoeing, minority pursuits which should be availed of much more widely than they are currently. That is an aspect of which the vocational education committees will be conscious when preparing their education plan.
The area of adult and continuing education has expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It ranges from basic literacy to technology education and all the traditional and other pastimes which were provided almost exclusively, up to three or four years ago, by the vocational system, although other second and third level institutions are now providing a certain level of education in this area. Adult and continuing education is hugely important for many people in terms of widening their job opportunities and providing for the day when their current employment is terminated and they have to up-skill. In some cases people are grappling with difficulty but in many others they are enthusiastically entering into the arena of adult and continuing education and are having their lives enriched by the provision being made for them. That provision often arises from the initiatives of the local vocational education committee. There are areas such as Traveller education, which has been dealt with by vocational education committees for a number of years and has been hugely successful in some areas and a little less so in others. That was particularly successful in dealing with young Traveller women but, sadly, considerably less so in the case of the men folk. However, it is an area in which there is an openness to change and a willingness to embrace opportunities that the vocational education committees will find challenging. They will find themselves better equipped to address the challenge in the context that is provided for in the Bill.
A greater number of people are availing of third level education immediately on leaving second level, which has been the traditional route, but substantial numbers of considerably older people are availing of the opportunity of getting third level qualifications at diploma or degree level. That would have been unheard of ten years ago. The vocational education committees have played a considerable role in providing some of those courses.
Many areas throughout the country believe they should have a particular third level facility, and County Clare is no different in that regard. The VEC in Ennis has been pursuing the various options with the two colleges in Galway and the two colleges in Limerick and, heretofore, whatever degree courses have been provided have generally been validated by outside bodies. I welcome the fact that the traditional third level colleges, which previously did not embrace this movement with any great enthusiasm, are beginning to at least take it seriously and see the role they can play in much the same way that the Galway Regional Technical College became the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, with a campus in Castlebar. There are many more possibilities in this area than have been explored and it is one of the areas the vocational education committees will closely examine in their education plan. Considerations of demographics, distances, populations, etc., will come into play but perhaps we have been a little too conservative in that area. If we were more adventurous, the quality and accessibility of education would be greatly enhanced.
When I became a member of the VEC many years ago I was greatly impressed by the ordinary members, many of whom were county councillors and farmers. They would frequently say at meetings that they regretted not having the opportunity of getting the formal second level education that their children and those served by the VEC had, but I was always impressed by their commitment to the good of the community, the schools and the pupils who attended them. The service was well served by chief executive officers also. That was certainly the case in County Clare where Jim Lyons was the chief executive officer during the time of my involvement. He was a great man to keep abreast of changes and developments in education and he wanted to be the chief executive officer of a VEC that was at the forefront of whatever developments were taking place. That brought enormous benefits to people in the area of responsibility of the VEC.
An area on which we worked hard was improving co-operation with other second level institutions in the voluntary secondary sector, community and comprehensive schools and the primary schools. There was a time when the remit was delineated clearly and there was relatively little crossover but one of the strengths of the VEC system was that it provided a structure and a membership which was open to a crossover and dialogue with others in second level and primary education.
The regional technical colleges enabled the vocational education committees to have an input into management at third level, which brought a new vision to the VEC sector. It opened to the members, principals and teachers in the schools the vista of continuing education for people who had been through the vocational system but who wanted to go on to third level. The original regional technical colleges, a narrow definition which appeared to direct people in a particular way, are now called institutes of technology which sounds a little grander but which more accurately reflects the role we see for those colleges in a modern society. I particularly welcome the Minister's provision for a five year education plan. Anybody in this House, or in life generally, who takes the trouble to plan carefully sees the benefits four-fold or 40-fold. The harder we work and the better we plan, the luckier we get. That provision in the Bill will enhance the professionalism of their approach and greatly benefit the students at whatever level, from first year to the most elderly participant in adult and continuing education.
I welcome the service plan which provides for accountability and I particularly welcome the end of year review, the formal review, which will be a little more interesting for the first year or two but which will become less adventurous in subsequent years. Nevertheless, that will set down a marker of what has been achieved and how the plan needs to be changed for the future. That will greatly help vocational education committees in examining the kind of work they do in reviewing, planning and co-ordinating for the future.
The original Bill provided for community involvement and a responsiveness to local needs that other structures and elements in education simply did not provide. It is now formally provided for in this Bill that teachers, parents, voluntary bodies and others will be formally represented. I believe that is the case on all vocational education committees but it is only right that it be provided for in the legislation. There is also provision for pupils to have their representative. Politicians and media people tend to believe that young people have no interest in community politics and development, and political parties for that matter. We are wrong to think that. Young people are rather open to the possibility of involving themselves in the development of their communities. I welcome that provision, which also relates to voluntary bodies, business associations, etc.
VECs have always had to be responsive to demographic changes, patterns of employment, economic circumstances and so on and have been very successful in this regard in the past. However, in the formal context being set down under the Bill, it will be possible for them to respond more quickly to the changes which may occur. Everyone hopes that whatever changes occur in economic circumstances will be positive in nature. History teachers us that these matters are somewhat cyclical and that those in education, in business or any other facet of life who are innovative are always out in front – they are the leaders and they benefit more quickly and to a greater degree.
We have consistently under estimated the role education has played in developing our economy. Vocational education has played a particularly strong role in that regard. The manner in which we have moved towards embracing advances in technology and emerging opportunities is to our credit, has been beneficial to the country and has given us an edge over others. That edge must be maintained and it will be somewhat more difficult to maintain in the future. There are other economies in which labour is a great deal cheaper. In that context, the advantage we have is that we have a better educated and more flexible work force. The vocational education committees have traditionally played a positive role in this area and will continue to do so in the coming years.
The Minister referred to the reserved executive model for vocational education committees which is somewhat similar to the local government model, which many Members have faulted more than they have praised in the past. It is important, however, that the roles of the chief executive officer and the committee be set out and that a separation of powers be delineated. The Minister has done well to address that matter in the Bill, but it may need to be kept under review. I would not like a situation to develop where the role of the committee might be inhibited or restricted in a way that ultimately would have a negative effect. The way the Minister has set matters out, it seems the committee will be charged with the responsibility for setting policy – that is as it should be.
There are areas that need to be addressed which require a local input – I refer here to school catchment areas, etc. – and I would like vocational education committees to become involved in addressing them. That will also be possible under the Bill.