Post-Leaving Certificate Courses: Discussion with the Department of Education and Skills

I welcome Mr. Seamus Hempenstall, principal officer, and Ms Marian Carr, assistant principal officer from the further education section of the Department of Education and Skills.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and the witness continues to so do, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Hempenstall to make his presentation on value for money and the geographical spread of course availability of post-leaving certificate courses.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I am aware of the time pressure so I will make my presentation as brief as possible. The PLC programme is delivered mainly by VECs across the country at FETAC levels five and six, the majority being at level five. The courses are generally of one-year's duration and they are designed to enhance participants' employability so that they can progress to either a job, further education or higher education. We administer through the allocation of approved places and we sanction courses. When places are allocated, the VECs and other providers are given an allocation of teachers and non-pay grants in the form of capitation. Since 2008 or 2009 the Department only approves courses that are FETAC-accredited. A number of other courses delivered by VECs and other providers as part of the PLC programme are not FETAC-accredited but have been in existence for historical reasons either before the NFQ or to meet a particular demand and we continue to approve those courses on a historical basis.

When the Department approves courses and places we try to have regard to geographical spread. In the case of new courses, providers submit a labour market justification explaining to us how they are meeting local skills needs. The teachers are allocated on the basis of approved places at a rate of 17 to one. Our current cost estimates lead us to believe that 1,000 additional PLC places would cost in the order of €8 million, made up of staff costs, the non-pay capitation costs and provision for maintenance grants for student support. This would not include the cost of paying unemployed participants the back to education allowance which is the income support element. This cost is borne by the Department of Social Protection.

I do not think I need to say more, as I understand the committee has specific concerns about geographical spread.

I thank Mr. Hempenstall and Ms Carr for their attendance at the committee today. I ask for clarification on one point. On 9 February 2010, the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, Deputy Seán Haughey, informed me in the House that there would be no additional PLC places from September-October 2010. Is this the current position?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

That is the case. PLC places are allocated annually. We generally allocate them in March or April. For the academic year 2010 to 2011, beginning in September, there will be the same number of PLC places.

The Department has taken a view that there will be no additional places next year. This is in the context of 452,000 people unemployed and where over the past two and a half years an additional 300,000 people have lost work, and there are people looking for post-leaving certificate courses. Am I also correct in assuming that the additional 7,000 places this year came as a result of economies of scale within the VEC sector?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The Deputy is correct in saying the enrolments for 2009-2010 are approximately 38,000 and we commend the VEC sector for providing these places and delivering on them. The Deputy is also correct about economies of scale and the ability to achieve value for money. A total of approximately 170,000 people participated in further education in 2009. Not everybody who was unemployed or everybody looking to upgrade skills would need a level five or six FETAC course. FÁS training programmes provide about 150,000 places and another 150,000 people who enrol in higher education. There is a wide range of provision in further education, higher education and training just as there is a wide range of skills needs across the country and this is what we are trying to deliver.

Does Mr. Hempenstall dispute the figures by the further education sector last year which showed that there were 36,000 applicants for 13,000 places available nationally?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The Department does not collect information on applications. In this context in the higher education sector it is very easy to know the number of applications because of the CAO. In the PLC sector, the VECs generally select by interview. There is no CAO-type structure so there is no way of knowing how many——

So Mr. Hempenstall would not dispute it?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

It was a total of 31,688 places, not 13,000. That survey was done in 13 centres of further education, not the whole range which comprises about 200 colleges of further education.

Does it not show an extraordinary rate of application to those colleges? I refer specifically to Rathmines college, Coláiste Dhúlaigh, Coolock, Ballyfermot college, Cavan institute, Limerick senior college, Sligo college of further education, Ballinrobe, college of commerce in Cork, Cóláiste Stíofáin Naofa, Cork, St. John's central college, Cork, Galway technical institute, Drogheda college of further education, Dún Laoghaire senior college. Those colleges had a total of 36,000 applicants for a total of 13,000 places. I presume Mr. Hempenstall does not dispute this.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I cannot comment as I do not know where that information came from. We do not collect information on applications to further education colleges.

What is the cost of removing the cap, given the extraordinary demand for places? He said that it is €8 million per 1,000. The cap was introduced some years ago.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

It is not a question of removing the cap as such but of increasing capacity. Every 1,000 extra places delivered will cost approximately €8 million. Removing the cap would then depend on how many people applied, how many people were granted a place on a PLC course. For example, that demand could be the result of one person making multiple applications for different colleges or of people applying for a PLC place before receiving a college offer. There is no information on the number of people who are suitable or appropriate for a PLC course. A PLC course would not be appropriate for someone requiring a level three or four intervention.

Is Mr. Hempenstall satisfied there will be sufficient places available next year to deal with demand?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I agree there has been a significant increase in demand across further education in general. We are trying to provide as many opportunities as possible. I am not sure we will be able to meet all the demand as it is acknowledged there has been a significant increase in unemployment which requires address through education and training. A total of 1,500 additional places were provided in April. The VECs have managed to deliver 38,000 enrolments for under 32,000 places so everybody is trying their best and delivering value for money in that regard.

With regard to the sanctioning of approved PLC places the Department has regard to enrolments and demand. Mr. Hempenstall's response here was that he does not really understand the demand. Is it not essential from a planning point of view to have that knowledge?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I was probably not sufficiently clear when I referred to demand; I meant demand from providers. The VECs when applying annually decide they need X number of places for varying factors. We try to take this into account in allocating places. With regard to the 1,500 places we looked at enrolments and at demands cited by the VECs and at any specific factors or grounds raised and we tried to allocate them accordingly.

The Department approves places based on FETAC-accredited courses.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

If a provider wants to provide a new course, we only sanction that course if it is FETAC-accredited. We do not sanction any non-FETAC-accredited courses. For example, many PLC providers deliver BTEC higher national diplomas, HNDs, which are accredited by Edexcel in the UK. They were there prior to the introduction of the national framework qualifications and were probably in response to a specific skills need at that time. Now if someone wants to deliver a course it has to be a FETAC course because we have the NFQ and we are trying to promote nationally-accredited courses rather than promoting or approving courses approved by foreign accreditation bodies.

I understand that with regard to the process of FETAC accreditation there is a further bottleneck and some delays. Has Mr. Hempenstall any knowledge of this?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I cannot offer any insight as I do not deal directly with FETAC. Just like every other public sector provider, FETAC is under increased demand but I was not aware of any specific bottlenecks.

A total of 31,688 places for this year will be available next year. This represents a drop from the number in 2008 and 2009. What were the figures for 2008 and 2009?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

In 2008-09 we had 30,188 and in April 2009 we allocated an additional 1,500, bringing it up to 31,688 for 2009 to 2010.

I am concerned about the geographical distribution of post-leaving certificate places throughout the country. One place per 1,000 people is provided in counties Offaly, Roscommon and Donegal and two places per 1,000 people are provided in counties Kildare and Meath. By contrast, 17 places per 1,000 people are provided in County Carlow, 19 places per 1,000 people are provided in County Cavan, 11 places per 1,000 people are provided in County Cork and ten places per 1,000 people are provided in counties Longford, Louth and Sligo. Can the Department examine the geographical spread of places throughout the country? Although it should not matter that one lives in Longford rather than Donegal, or in Meath rather than Louth, the reality is that one's chances of getting a place on a post-leaving certificate course can be ten times greater if one lives in one county rather than the other.

I refer to the figures mentioned, with specific reference to one college. Of the 290 places allocated to County Meath VEC, 250 are allocated to a post-leaving certificate college in Dunboyne. I am concerned that there is no college to cater for people from places like Mulhuddart, which are immediately to the west of the M50. Such a college is needed to cater for the overspill from County Dublin VEC. The college in Dunboyne has to cater for students from parts of the greater Dublin area that have spread into County Meath, as well as the area west of the M50. County Dublin VEC cannot envisage the establishment of a post-leaving certificate college west of the M50 because it does not have sufficient places per head of population. I am asking about the manner in which decisions on numbers of places are made.

I would like to pick up on the question asked by Deputy Brian Hayes about applicants. Although we are not yet in August when the leaving certificate results are published, approximately 850 students have already applied for the 250 places in the post-leaving certificate college in Dunboyne. It is expected, on the basis of previous years, that a further 400 applications will be received. It is likely that 1,250 students will apply for 250 places in this part of the greater Dublin area, which comprises part of County Dublin and almost all of County Meath. If one is unfortunate enough to live in the west Dublin-south Meath catchment area, which has experienced the highest population explosion in the country, one suffers from an historical system of allocating places across the country. How can that be justified? It does not make sense to me that if one is living in counties Longford, Louth or Sligo, one's possibility of getting a place on a post-leaving certificate course is ten times greater than it would be if one were living in certain other counties. I accept that the officials cannot reallocate the places in question today, but I ask them to consider this committee's proposal that the geographical spread be examined by the Department.

I welcome Mr. Hempenstall and Ms Carr. As others have said, there is a strong case for more post-leaving certificate places to be made available. It is clear from the extent of unemployment in Ireland that new skills need to be developed. There will also be a higher demand for post-leaving certificate places as a result of the CAO issue whereby higher education colleges that face budgetary pressures are likely to offer fewer places. The number of points needed will increase as a result.

The question I would like to ask is linked to what Deputy Wallace has just said. Why does Galway get such a raw deal with regard to post-leaving certificate places? Galway is the third largest city in the country. Some 36,000 people there are currently on the live register. Galway Technical Institute has received 3,500 applications for its 950 places. It has less than one quarter of the number of places it needs. The Dublin area, by comparison, is being granted more than one third of the places it needs. What rationale does the Department use when distributing places? On what basis does it decide that some areas of the country are more worthy of post-leaving certificate places than others? Why is Galway faring so badly? Is it a question of historical or capacity issues? Why does the Department not allocate places on the basis of need?

Does the Department have figures to support the extent to which Galway and the west benefit from FÁS places? We know the region is doing badly with post-leaving certificate places. It has been suggested that the Government gave additional resources to FÁS when it put a cap on post-leaving certificate places. Can the departmental officials give us some clear information in that regard? What is the unit cost per post-leaving certificate place? I would appreciate it if the officials could respond to the three issues I have raised.

We have been given information that suggests that 19 post-leaving certificate places per 1,000 people are provided in County Cavan. Having seen County Donegal lose many jobs, including 4,500 jobs at Fruit of the Loom, I can understand why action is needed in County Cavan following the difficulties with Quinn Insurance, and so on. I am not in a position to say it is unrealistic for County Cavan to have 19 post-leaving certificate places per 1,000 people. I would like to mention some examples from the chart, however. County Louth is approximately the same size as Inishowen, where I come from. County Louth has ten post-leaving certificate places per 1,000 people. I could not even begin to give the equivalent statistic for Inishowen. The statistic for County Donegal, which is a much larger area, is one post-leaving certificate place per 1,000 people. I am not necessarily against trying to pull Cavan down to pull us up. I would agree with trying to move places on to facilitate my area.

Is there some duplication in the delivery of post-leaving certificate education? It has been suggested that many people are delivering post-leaving certificate courses. I wonder if the available places are focused on the areas of most identified need. Like Senator Healy Eames, I would like to know how much co-ordination there is between the Department, FÁS and the VECs to ensure certain groups are given a great deal of help while other groups are given no help. There may be an element of duplication. I am also interested in how absorption is going on. Is the ratio of 17:1 reflected in the classrooms? I have been asked a few times over recent years to give certificates to people who have done FETAC-accredited courses. On such occasions, I have noted a recognition that there will be more pressure for places. It was suggested that a number of students could be added into any given class without causing too much hassle. That suggestion was made by teachers — if it got as far as the unions, they might say something completely different. How much of that, if any is actually going on? Would it be possible to examine an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio as a means of getting more people into existing courses?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I will address the matters raised by members in turn, starting with the geographical issue. Historically, the provision of post-leaving certificate courses developed organically. VECs and other providers promoted such courses. Some of them decided to focus on post-leaving certificate education and others did not. Over the years, County Cavan VEC developed the provision of post-leaving certificate education and increased the number of post-leaving certificate places. Other VECs decided to focus on other aspects of educational provision. That is one reason for the difference per head of population in various areas. Many other factors are considered when post-leaving certificate places are being allocated. It is not simply a question of the per capita allocation. When we provided 1,500 additional places, we tried to take account of the live register, for example. I accept that every area has high unemployment now.

Unemployment has historically been high in County Donegal.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I know. Regardless of the number of places, for many years the level of enrolment on post-leaving certificate courses was very low in certain places. It is only in recent years that the number of enrolments has started to exceed the number of places on offer. In previous years, we had some scope to reallocate places to areas of higher demand. We no longer have the scope to change the allocation of places, however, because enrolments have started to exceed the number of approved places.

Is Mr. Hempenstall saying that historically, the unemployment level was high but the uptake or enrolment was not necessarily very high?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I do not have the exact figures in front of me, but I understand that in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the number of enrolments in post-leaving certificate courses was lower than the number of places. People were not availing of those opportunities. As a result of the significant increase in unemployment and other factors, people are now starting to seek upskilling and retraining opportunities. They are doing so through PLC courses. That is why there is an increase in enrolments.

What about the disparity around Galway? Is it being made up for through FÁS places?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I do not have to hand information on what FÁS does in Galway city or county.

A point was made on duplication and co-ordination. Last year, my Department and the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment promoted an IVEA-FÁS co-operation agreement. It brought together the VECs and FÁS to provide structured co-operation opportunities and collaboration. Under the agreement, there are regional consultative committees, four of which have met a number of times. The idea is that the decision-makers and providers in FÁS and the VECs can agree on different visions and on who should do what. In Mayo, for example, the VEC is providing a level-three course in aquaculture. FÁS is providing a step-on course at level 4 and this allows students to move on to a level 5 PLC course, thereby enhancing their up-skilling opportunities.

Who is co-ordinating that?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The IVEA and FÁS. My Department is on the national steering group.

Yet the Department does not have the figures. That is incredible. The Department should bring the facts to this table.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I am sorry if I have failed in that regard. I do not have the exact number of FÁS training days or places in Galway city or county to hand. I understood the questions would be on value for money.

What we are doing is travelling along parallel lines without taking account of other providers in the PLC market.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

Respectfully, I contend that bringing the FÁS elements into the Department of Education and Skills will help address any issues that arise over duplication or a lack of co-ordination. The FÁS-IVEA agreement will assist in that regard. There are specific examples of very good co-operation. Even before this co-operation, there was co-operation and collaboration between FÁS and VECs at all levels.

I propose that the Department of Education and Skills get its act together and liaise with the other providers. We are talking about taxpayers' money. The money is ultimately coming from the same pocket. We are talking about the same students who need a PLC place, be it delivered by a VEC or through FETAC or FÁS. Places must be provided for, irrespective of whether they are in Louth, Cavan, Galway or Dublin. As Deputy Hayes stated, the demand for places is causing pressure. There is pressure at CAO level, perhaps in regard to the lack of places. We do not know what is coming down the tracks given the funding issues in that regard. Caught in the middle of these pressures is the PLC student. This is highlighted for me when I consider the circumstances in Galway.

The Senator's points have been noted. The issue of places provided through FÁS within the Department will be considered as part of the work programme in any event. If there are any additions to the questions put, a written response may be submitted at a later stage.

Senator Keaveney needs a response. I will wait a few moments for mine.

I second the proposal made by Deputy Wallace earlier.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

We try to have regard for geographical spread. For example, we do not duplicate courses in the same area and do not allocate places where there is no demand. We use the information from the VECs, whose officials know what is happening, to determine the allocation of places. As the members will appreciate, since there is the same number of places as last year we do not have the scope to reallocate places.

The Dunboyne college is a VEC college. When we make allocations, we make them to the VEC, and it is the responsibility of the VEC to allocate places to the individual colleagues under its remit.

What about the 17:1 ratio?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

That has disimproved. It was 16:1. We took that step already.

Mr. Hempenstall stated that the live register was taken into account when the 15 places were allocated. As part of my proposal that the Department review the geographical allocation, seconded by Senator Keaveney, the live register figures do not coincide with the VEC boundaries. Therefore, the Department is not comparing like with like. This may explain the distortion. I refer to County Meath VEC, with whose figures I am familiar. The bulk of the people in south County Meath, in places such as Ashbourne, sign on in Finglas or Maynooth rather than Navan. The Meath live register figures, therefore, may be deceptive in that the vast bulk of people in the greater Dublin area, about whom we are concerned, sign on in Dublin or Maynooth.

I return to the proposal on the allocation of places, which has concerned me for some time. Mr. Hempenstall is correct in stating that places are allocated to Meath VEC. Of the 290 places allocated to Meath VEC, 250 are allocated to the college to which I refer in the greater Dublin area. I refer to the bulk of the places. There are five applicants for every one place.

I am very concerned by Mr. Hempenstall's statement that there was a point when the enrolment number was greater than the number of places allocated. That never occurred in the greater Dublin area. If it occurred elsewhere in the country, why were the places not reallocated to the greater Dublin area, where there were never more places than applicants? This further highlights the need to accept my proposal, which was seconded by Senator Keaveney. We need to consider the places available, the number of applicants, the population covered and why one's postal address makes all the difference in determining one's opportunity.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

There is an annual allocation of PLC places. As I stated in the executive summary and presentation, we have regard to existing supply and demand levels and other factors such as the number on the live register. We also try to take account of the geographical spread.

I take the Deputy's point on the live register and the addresses. We will take it into account. In the city and county of Dublin, there are almost 9,000 PLC places. Nobody would disagree that people often travel to other counties to take up educational opportunities.

What is the split between city and county?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The figure for the city of Dublin is 7,718 and that for the county of Dublin is 916.

Nine hundred and sixteen. In the county of Dublin, where the M50——

A significant proportion of those would be from other parts of the country.

Bearing in mind all the new housing estates in west Dublin, we are saying there are only 916 places for the entire county of Dublin. That is why there is a problem. There is a specific geographical problem in the greater Dublin area that should be addressed.

If the committee agreed with my proposal, I would be very happy because it is obvious, even as we try to answer these questions, that there is a great disparity. This is coupled with the skewing on foot of using live register figures.

If the Deputy words her proposal, we can forward it to the Minister.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

There are only 2,000 places available in Dún Laoghaire VEC and 357 in Kildare. In talking about greater Dublin, one might include Kildare. There are almost 9,000 places in the city and county of Dublin and almost 300 in Meath.

I am sure Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, who has just arrived, would tell Mr. Hempenstall that there are only two places per thousand of population in Kildare. This is also the case in Meath. That amplifies the problem in the greater Dublin area. If one is fortunate enough to live in Longford, the possibility of obtaining a place on a PLC course is ten times greater. That is not fair at all.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

A PLC course is at FETAC levels 5 and 6. Half the participants on PLC courses are school leavers, while the other half comprise adults returning to education. Further education spans FETAC levels 1 to 6 and there is a wide variety of different needs at different levels among everybody who wants to upskill. For many, a PLC course may not be appropriate.

With all due respect, 1,250 people applied for 250 places. These are people who know this is the right course for them. They get their leaving certificate results in August but do not have the points for the course they want. They then go to the post-leaving certificate, PLC, college at which they make up the points for their desired third level course the following year. Leaving out 1,000 people from the PLC course is wrong.

Some on the live register may want to return to third level education via a post-leaving certificate college. Again, only one fifth of the numbers seeking such placements can be catered for in the greater Dublin area. However, in the past there were more places than applicants in other parts of the country but these were never transferred back to the greater Dublin area. Will the Department examine the geographical spread of places for post-leaving certificate courses?

Given that the McCarthy report recommended a reduction in the number of VECs, is it time for an overall review of whether it is appropriate the PLC is delivered through the VEC system? Has there been any discussion as to how the course would be co-ordinated in a larger VEC system?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I have no update on the status of the proposal around the restructuring the VECs.

Has there been any mention of how the further education sector would deal with the restructuring of the VECs?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

Further education is an important part of what VECs do. It has been taken into account in any proposals around restructuring VECs.

Would it be good practice for the VECs to provide a list of applicants to the Department?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I understand the Chairman's point. Successive school-leaver surveys have shown that PLC participants in general did less well in the leaving certificate than others and came from lower socio-economic classes. The course does do its job, as Deputy Wallace said, in catering for the needs of those who would not have had the necessary skills to get into college the first time around.

The application process for PLCs in VECs is more holistic than that for university. University is based on getting the points. In the VECs, they try and interview all applicants because many of them will be adults returning to education with many skills from the workplace. The interview gives an opportunity to identify prior learning.

I agree it would be useful for the Department to have information on the profile of participants but I am not sure it has the resources to deal with such a large number of applications. The Department does have data on the October enrolments which gives some information on applicants. There is also an annual survey of PLC students after every academic year to ascertain information on completion rates and further education.

Does that include applications?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

It does not include applications as such. VECs would report to us on the level of demand.

Yet Mr. Hempenstall was not able to tell the committee how many applications the VECs said they had.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

No, because the Department does not collect that information formally.

Can the Department collect it now on behalf of the committee since it is central to this discussion?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I can look at that.

We are not trying to catch Mr. Hempenstall out with any follow-up. We just want to know how many people applied and how many places were available? I accept if there were interviews it does not mean that everyone who applied warranted a place. However, it would be useful if the Department passed on to the committee the information on the number of applications for the course.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

Yes, there is no problem with that.

Half of the PLC participants are adults returning to education. There are also other similar courses available at community and comprehensive schools. Does the Department have any information on attendance figures for these courses?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The PLC course is delivered in community and comprehensive schools. Approximately 29,000 places are delivered by VECs and the rest are delivered by a combination of community, comprehensive and voluntary schools. We do have information on this area.

The committee has received correspondence from further education groups about their concerns over the moratorium on promotions for teaching staff and the retirements of four directors of adult education at the end of May. With the cap on promotions, some further education courses will not be available in certain schools anymore because no one will be in a position to organise them.

This may affect the delivery of such courses at community and comprehensive schools. If there is more demand for further or back-to-education places, it will tend more towards the PLCs and the VEC providers rather than the community and comprehensive schools. Would it not make sense to lift this moratorium to allow inspectors to be appointed as it would assist in providing other courses in the comprehensive and community sector while achieving good value for money in the long run?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

To clarify, the directors of adult education are responsible for self-funded evening classes. Adults pay fees for the courses and the Department is responsible for paying allowances to those directors. As I understand it, these are posts of responsibility and there is a moratorium issue around this. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills is examining how the moratorium is impacting on some schools more than others.

People may apply for PLC courses if these other courses are not available.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

That is true. This goes with the idea of further education trying to cater for a variety of needs among a heterogeneous cohort. This is one of the factors being considered with the moratorium issue.

Has the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills indicated any timeframe for this?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I do not have a timeframe for the Chairman, I am sorry.

At least the Department is aware of that particular issue.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

We are, yes.

There is another related policy issue and I am conscious of the constraints the Department officials are under. Has there been any movement regarding the suggestion that the Department move its funding channel away, in terms of the way, say, some further education is covered under second level funding? Is there any suggestion that a distinct further education sector might be created? That would be one of the least costly recommendations of the McIver report to implement.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I am aware of that issue, too. We have regular discussions with the IVEA and other stakeholders in regard to how best to provide further education, and that would be one of the things raised with us. While I cannot say we have taken any direct steps yet in relation to that, it is an issue that we would keep under consideration.

Everyone accepts there is a logic in bringing together under one Department the whole question of further education and training opportunities for people. It is also accepted that the further education sector has, effectively, been the Cinderella within Irish education for many years in terms of funding and profile. There is now an opportunity, given the inclusion of the training aspect of FÁS within the Department, to do something radically different.

What specific differences have come about since the inclusion of the FÁS component within the Department of Education and Skills? What specific differences have occurred since that decision was made?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The change was made relatively recently and even prior to that, while we had regular discussions and consultations with colleagues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation about the delivery of FÁS programmes, as I identified earlier, last year we tried to introduce the structure and co-ordination of the providers. In terms of specific differences, that must await further discussion within the Department regarding the exact allocation of departmental functions in relation to FÁS and further education. However, definitely on the ground between VECs and FÁS there is already substantial co-operation. Through the co-operation agreement we are trying to bring a structure to bear so that best practice in one area can be shared with other areas, too, in order to deliver effective and efficient responses.

Is it not the case that Mr. Hempenstall's section will have greater autonomy and control over the €450 million that is coming from FÁS to the Department as a training budget? Is that not the intention of policy?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

Nobody has told me that I am going to have responsibility for €450 million, and in the event that would be great. There are officials and colleagues in Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation who are responsible for those FÁS programmes, and while the exact composition of the——

I have one other question. Mr. Hempenstall has already accepted in his submission the fact that there are 31,000 recognised places, and we effectively have got 38,000 from the further education sectors. It is a remarkable achievement that 7,000 additional places have been found even though the money is not there for them. How has that happened? Clearly, classes have doubled and the numbers have increased, putting pressure on tutors and teachers.

Should we not be able to incentivise those colleges that show a greater application for taking in more for the same budget? Should they not be incentivised and financially supported with additional resources? It seems that the model of funding is very dated and does not take into consideration the difficulties the country finds itself in. Not every college has managed to reach the mark in terms of additional places, and those that have should be encouraged more with additional funding.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I would like to think that what we are doing in the Department of Education and Skills is trying to encourage and empower providers to do just that, and to be able to come up with an efficient provision that is of high quality. I agree that it is a great achievement by the VECs in being able to do that. That is one of the questions pertaining to further education. When I joined in 2008, a person did not equal a participant did not equal a place. A place is an allocation mechanism, a person is a person. Two participants can be one person if they have done two courses in the one year. That was a leap of logic I had to make. I believe, therefore, it is a great achievement by the VECs and we try to empower them to do those things.

There is some constriction around class sizes. Once the VECs or the providers stay within that, they are doing their job. They may have taken other steps, too, in terms of consolidating timetables, restructuring the delivery of classes and so on in order to be able to deliver on that and in terms of responding to local needs.

Is the Department concerned that the Croke Park deal allows the extension of retirements until 2011?

I do not believe "concerns" can be commented on, unless Mr. Hempenstall would care to make some response to that.

There is a real issue in that there might be teachers within these courses retiring, say, in the middle of an academic year, and that could cause difficulty within the college. Is that an issue that has arisen so far this year?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

That is probably an issue which has been addressed over many years, with teachers retiring at different times. I cannot offer any insight into the solution employed by VECs in this regard.

The important point is that they will not be lost. If a course continues to the end of 2011 and someone wants to get out by December that year even though he or she has from January to June the following year to serve, effectively a new person has to be found to take that course. What Mr. Hempenstall is saying to this committee is that this position remains in place, within the VEC, I presume.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

The allocation of places is to give the VEC the number of teachers it can recruit, and there is an exemption from the moratorium for that. Also, if teachers retire, that can indeed be a threat, but also an opportunity in terms of new skills or new injections of talent into a teaching pool.

I am conscious that Mr. Hempenstall is in the Department for just over two years and is pulling it all together. In his view what can be done differently if, as Deputy Hayes mentioned, he had that extra funding? Where would he prioritise it, given what he has learned in the Department over the last two and half years? He has said that a person was not equal to a place was not equal to a participant and I can understand what he is saying. However, if he had extra funding, what would be his priorities in terms of delivering a better service?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

What we are trying to achieve in further education is to first, proceed on the basis of consultation and consensus and second, try to make evidence-based policy decisions. For example, the expert group on future skills needs would have information about skills areas that need development. That would be one way to judge an allocation of resources. There has been substantially increased investment in further education. Since 2002 the amount of money invested has gone up by about 60%, and that is a great achievement. The challenge now is to consolidate that investment to ensure long-term sustainability. We need a robust and flexible further education system that can respond to needs. At any one time we will have the activation agenda where obviously people need upskilling or reskilling, and want it to be able to work, as well, but there is also that social inclusion agenda for people who have basic skills or lower skills needs, and we need to respond to those. Those two things need to be taken into account.

There is real concern among VEC further education providers I am speaking to that while the money is going towards the activation and job market needs, this is to the detriment of literacy. It is being taken away from literacy, to be put into the job market skills area. Given the fall-out in the construction industry, many of those young people would have left school early, with poor literacy, numeracy and IT skills, for example. Has Mr. Hempenstall any comment to make in that regard, and how is the Department seeking to address it?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

Investment in literacy has been maintained and has not been cut at all. Investment in community education has been maintained at similar levels and the same is true of BTEI. We had to cut 500 places, equivalent to a 5% cut, but participation has gone from 27,000 in 2008 to 28,000 in 2009.

Is that €28,000 in money?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

No, participants. There were 130,000 participants last year in part-time further education across community education, adult literacy and the back to education initiative. Those participants are overwhelmingly dedicated to people with needs at levels 1 to 4, and there is a small BTEI element at levels 5 and 6. It is important to note that.

The information that I am getting from VECs in Galway is that there is real concern with regard to what I am talking about now, with the announcement within the last two months by the Minister on the BTEI, for example, that resources are going towards skills based around the workforce, not towards literacy, even though the money is being maintained. Will Mr. Hempenstall comment on that fear that is being expressed?

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I would want to respond to VEC fears and to address those concerns. I am not quite sure what announcement the Senator is referring to. There was the announcement on the activation fund of €20 million, and there were two tranches, one for basic skills and lowers skills needs, and the other for those over 35 who required reskilling. There was the announcement of an activation fund of €20 million of which there were two tracks, one for basic and lower skills needs and another for people over-35 that required reskilling.

The national skills strategy implementation update, published by the Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning on 20 March, identified people at levels 1 to 3 as a priority. At national and provider levels there is a focus on those and on what we would term now as core skills and key competency needs. As members will know, literacy is much more than just reading and involves a range of skills. Again, I think that the upskilling agenda and the basic skills of literacy are inextricably linked. Obviously people are better able to work if they have better literacy skills. Sometimes literacy is as much about boosting someone's confidence and self-esteem. People will agree that getting a job is a boost to self-esteem and confidence.

They are linked to each other and I thank Mr. Hempenstall for his comments.

I thank the officials for being so patient.

I have a final comment to make on my earlier proposal that the committee agreed to. Will Mr. Hempenstall write to the committee, or through the appropriate communication channel, when he has assessed the situation in the VECs? We need to know the number of applicants, across the country, and compared that figure with the number of places available in time for the leaving certificate results in August 2010, just six weeks away, so that we have an idea of where we are with the committee's proposal. This issue needs to be examined on a geographical basis, particularly with regard to what is happening in the greater Dublin area.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

I want to comply with the Deputy's request but it is a question of marshalling resources through the 33 VECs to get us the information. We then must make sure the information is valid, worthwhile and usable. I will comply with the request.

Can Mr. Hempenstall realise that there is no point looking at the live register figures because they do not relate to the geographical situation of VECs? Perhaps the way we examined those figures is the reason we have reached a geographical imbalance.

Mr. Seamus Hempenstall

We will take that on board.

I thank the delegation for their contributions and patience for the delay earlier. I also thank the clerk to the committee, Ms Tara Wharton, for her contribution to the committee for the past number of years. She is going on extended leave from this committee but I hope she will return. On behalf of the committee I thank her for her courtesy, efficiency and professionalism.

Thank you very much.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.25 p.m. until noon on Thursday, 9 September 2010.