Annual Reports: Discussion with FÁS and FETAC

The main item on the agenda is a discussion with representatives of FÁS and FETAC in which members have asked that a number of specific areas be addressed: the FÁS annual report for 2009; the FETAC annual reports and annual monitoring reports for 2008 and 2009; issues arising from course results and consequent certification issues; changes FÁS may have made to meet the changing needs of job seekers; the reform of FÁS and its ability to play a role in times of high unemployment.

I am pleased to welcome the representatives of FÁS and FETAC. From FÁS, we have Mr. Paul O'Toole, director general; Ms Patricia Curtin, assistant director general of corporate policy and standards; Mr. Bryan Fields, director of training policy development and support, and Mr. Denis Rowan, assistant director general of training policy development and support. The representatives of FETAC will be introduced during the next phase of the meeting. The meeting will begin with a brief presentation on findings by FÁS. In the second part there will be a presentation by FETAC. The presentations will be followed by a question and answer session with members.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice, or long-standing ruling of the Chair, to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l ) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they do not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I welcome Mr. O'Toole and invite him to make his presentation first.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I welcome the opportunity to meet members of the joint committee to outline the work of FÁS and address any questions and concerns they may have.

Of necessity, the work of FÁS has had to change direction rapidly in recent years. In 2009 the agency provided 93,000 unemployed persons with the opportunity to acquire a new skill, retrain, update existing skills or add specific components of learning to their portfolio of attainments. This represented more than a doubling of such provision in the space of one year and this performance was maintained in 2010. It has been necessary to do this, as it is essential unemployed persons are kept as close as possible to the labour market during their period of unemployment. While labour market conditions are much less favourable than before, international evidence continually affirms that those who acquire and develop new skills will have the best chance to secure employment in the future.

In delivering this increased provision FÁS has been innovative and progressive and sought to serve the needs of a wide range of learner needs. We have expanded the types of training available, increased access to this provision and varied the delivery mechanisms. Ultimately, the aim is to help individuals to be able to compete for available work immediately or progress to further training and education. We continue to enjoy some success in this regard. Even in the very difficult conditions that obtained in 2009, over 60% of trainees surveyed late that year had progressed to employment or further training. Although this level of positive outcome was substantially down on the levels for earlier years, learner feedback still indicated high levels of satisfaction with the training received. The majority of trainees - approximately 90% - express satisfaction with course content, the quality of instruction and the facilities and equipment used.

In making this rapid transition to training provision we have had to deal with a range of well publicised issues within the organisation. In addition, our staff numbers have reduced by 15% to date and we have made significant strides in reducing our cost base. We are also implementing the decision of the Government to transfer our employment services and community employment programmes to the Department of Social Protection. All of these factors have caused pressures within the organisation. In this regard, we characterise ourselves as an organisation in transition and one with a clear need to transform itself to be fit for future purpose.

As part of this work, we are in the process of reviewing every part of our training provision. This entails detailed and comprehensive reviews of the range of courses provided, delivery of those courses directly and through the public not for profit and private sectors, the quality of tuition provided, the outcomes for learners in terms of securing employment or progressing to further training or education, the methods of fairly assessing the standards of learners, the processing of certificates for those who attain the correct standard and the training standards and quality control system which we apply, including the migration to a common awards system from the current interim standards system. All of these areas require attention. In some cases, they have not been reviewed or improved for several years.

A number of matters of concern have been highlighted internally and raised externally, politically and through the media. We acknowledge these concerns and have carried out investigation and reviews of a variety of matters, including the performance of our contract training function, issues with specific courses and the systems that support our training standards and processing of certificates. This latter point is being addressed through our collaboration with FETAC which has carried out a series of site visits and will carry out a formal monitoring exercise of FÁS in the near future.

Where issues have been identified, we have been determined to address them, take immediate corrective action as necessary and more important, to make the essential strategic improvements required. This process is not complete but is well under way. The board of FÁS, together with my team of colleagues, has given these matters the highest priority and will deliver the necessary improvements. We deeply regret that these issues caused concern to learners and have resulted in delays and slowing down the delivery of certificates to some learners. We are doing everything in our power to expedite resolution of these matters without undermining the integrity of the certificate the learner receives.

FÁS is committed to providing learners, in the main unemployed people, with the opportunity to receive training that improves their chances of securing jobs. The organisation has a proud tradition of success and recognises that it needs to move forward in an ever changing environment. We are taking the necessary steps to transform the skills and training part of FÁS to ensure it is fit for future purpose. Our training provision will be relevant, professionally delivered, will offer choice in terms of access and learning methods and will support learners in line with their needs. We will assess standards fairly using state of the art contemporary practices. We will ensure the certificates that issue to those learners are underpinned by the highest standards of quality control and processing. This work will take some time to complete but it is under way and will be followed through.

As an organisation, FÁS is acutely aware of its responsibilities to deliver on its mandate. FÁS acknowledges its responsibility to resolve its shortcomings on behalf of its key customers, namely, learners. It is essential that such shortcomings do not distract or put aside the very real importance and value of much of our work. I thank members for their attention. We are happy to respond to any questions members may have.

I welcome Mr. O'Toole and his staff, a number of whom I met upstairs. I respect the integrity and professionalism of the FÁS organisation and acknowledge the tremendous work FÁS employees do at all times. I cast no aspersions on anybody by name or by intent. However, I would like to focus on what has been going on in FÁS for a significant period.

Perhaps if the delegation is unable to answer some of my questions today it will forward its responses to them to the joint committee. Mr. O'Toole referred on page 1 of his statement to the training being provided for 93,000 unemployed people. What was the certification and job placement outcome for those 93,000 people? Another significant issue is that of apprenticeships. One of the biggest problems now is that the 7,000 people who committed to an apprenticeship as a career and who, owing to the recession cannot complete that apprenticeship, are now stuck in limbo. Many of these people, who may be married, have partners and mortgages and had an expectation during the boom of being able to continue in their work, are now stuck in an appalling place because they cannot complete their training. They cannot go abroad for work because they do not have certification. What does FÁS plan to do to regularise training in this regard. I have already debated this issue with the Minister for Education and Skills. What is FÁS doing in terms of ensuring that these people are allowed to complete their courses and in respect of recognition of periods of employment among some of these apprentices in bona fide companies despite their not being registered, some of whom are only six weeks out of their time? Perhaps Mr. O'Toole will address that important issue for me.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Training provision for the 93,000 people concerned is divided across a wide range of disciplines. Change was rapid because of circumstances, in particular the fall-off in the construction industry and the subsequent impact on people. We have sought to provide the widest range of choice possible. For example, we have tried to provide opportunities for construction or skilled workers and crafts persons wishing to learn a new craft or skill. We have tried to give people coming on to the labour market for the first time a route to develop their skills through the provision of short courses and longer courses, which we have traditionally provided. In all cases, we try to assist people in developing their potential and putting them on a path for the future. Whether people receive a component award, which is a single element which allows them to build up their portfolio, or are on a long term training course which provides them with a particular qualification such as FETAC certificate, our aim is to put people on the path to employment.

We measure outcomes as thoroughly as we can. We carry out regular surveys every two years. We also track people at certain periods following completion of their course. The latest data available indicate that approximately 60% of people who attended FÁS courses were either progressing into employment or to further training. As the Deputy indicated, placement and progression would be the measurement outcomes.

On the apprenticeship issue, I share the Deputy's concerns in terms of recognition for those young people who are caught up in this through no fault of their own. The Deputy is correct that there are approximately 7,000 redundant apprentices involved. Of those 7,000 just under 3,000 will have to re-sit elements of their examinations. For members of the joint committee not familiar with the system, there are seven stages to an apprenticeship, a combination of three off-the-job training periods with four years on the job practical experience. We have attempted to assist people stuck at various stages to progress to off-the-job training or to assist employers to keep them in employment. We have had some success in this. For example in 2009 we worked with the ESB which put through more than 150 electricians. We established a redundant apprentice scheme which assisted employers to retain the services of the apprentice and have worked with the institutes of technology and others to allow them progress and do different things.

We are introducing another set of approaches this year to try to address the problem referenced by the Deputy. Through specific initiatives we will be able to support up to 1,000 apprentices, largely through the public sector be it the HSE, OPW or local authorities which have qualified crafts people. These organisations will be able to take on an apprentice, whom we will fund. This initiative is also available to the private sector. We are also working on competency determinations. This will have to be agreed with FETAC and relevant partners. For example in situations where, as indicated by the Deputy, an apprentice has acquired the necessary qualifications through formal training and has attained the necessary standards through work we will assess that person's competency and where, he or she, qualifies, subject to all the necessary approvals, we will qualify him or her.

How many people would be in that cohort?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We estimate there will be 1,200 to 1,300 people in that cohort.

That is critical.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

It is important. These will be people who are already at phase 7 or who would be coming on to phase 7.

How long will it take for that to be completed?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Between this year and next year we will break the back of that with regard to redundant apprentices. Subject to correction, approximately 700 redundant apprentices got through the system last year. Some of the current apprentices are leaving and going off to do other things, but we will be able to break the back of the issue between this year and next year.

I very much welcome that. If they cannot get the training they require in Ireland in their particular skill, has FÁS considered sending them to the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland or Europe to facilitate completion of the apprenticeship process in a proper work environment? Would it consider sending them even further afield if there was no other alternative? We owe it to all those young people to provide them with the qualification they would normally get. I do not wish to reflect negatively on employers with regard to the process, but the fact that apprentices cannot complete their courses is the appalling consequence of the boom for them. Many of them would have been highly motivated, top of the class students.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We have had a number of initiatives in that regard through an EU funded programme, Léargas, and have been able to place apprentices in Germany and Finland and in a separate programme in Canada to get the necessary experience. The numbers are relatively small, but we will consider the Deputy's suggestion. We are also considering whether it is possible to recognise work experience from abroad from apprentices who have spent some time abroad and are examining the possibility of whether it is possible to recognise the quality and needs of that experience in terms of their assessment for their craft. However, that issue is not nailed down yet.

Is FÁS considering the possibility of admitting apprentices at entry level or into existing third level degree or technology courses? Is it worth considering that?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We have a very close working relationship with the institutes of technology that provide phase four and six of the training currently. They have introduced a programme that helps apprentices who wish to migrate to a different area to attain a third level qualification. Therefore, there is some initiative in that regard. However, we expect a review of apprenticeship generally will be taken under the auspices of the Department of Education and Skills in 2011. We will consider the model as carefully as possible.

Therefore, FÁS suggests there will be finality and closure on this issue by the end of 2011. Is that correct?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I expect we will break the back of the issue for most of the current group, who are probably stuck in the system since they joined in 2007, between this year and next year.

I received information in response to a parliamentary question this week that many of the staff of FÁS training centres have been redeployed. Are there now empty centres or are they being used for other purposes?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

FÁS geared up during the boom to reflect the demand for crafts people and other skilled people in the construction sector over the middle of the past decade. Our approach is demand led. Therefore, if enterprise and industry have a demand, we seek to satisfy that demand. We geared up our operations for that demand. As the Deputy is aware, construction then fell off the cliff and since then we have had to readjust our capacity to reflect that. We had taken on a number of satellite training centres for the boom and we are divesting ourselves of those to reflect the reality. The key or core of the Deputy's question is probably whether we are cutting too far back. We will discuss with our board and the Department of Education and Skills whether, notwithstanding the current difficulties, there will be a long-term need for skilled crafts people and others in construction and other areas. What we need to do over this period is to correctly size the organisation to reflect that need. There is a sharp correction happening currently, which is leading to a number of our workshops in particular not being used, because the intake is not there ------

How many workshops are there in total and how many are not being used?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Currently, we have 16 main training centres and a number of satellites. All of the 16 training centres are fully in use, but within the training centres there are workshop areas which are geared up for plastering, plumbing or electrical works and we are not getting the intake of apprentices to use those. That is the issue we are trying to address. We are trying to use the balance of our premises, classrooms, in the evenings and daytime and filling them to satisfy demand. The particular concern relates to where many of our facilities are geared up for specific areas of construction for which there is no demand currently. It is important that for the future we take the strategic decision to right size the network to the long-term need rather than be demand led.

To put the question a different way, what proportion of the existing training space is not being used currently?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I do not have a total number for the workshops, but will check it. Approximately 69 workshops throughout the network of training centres and satellite training centres were not in use on the day we prepared our response to the Deputy's parliamentary question. We did a survey on that day and 69 were not in use then.

What is the total number of workshops?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I will have to get back to the Deputy on that as I do not have that information now.

Can we clarify that? Were the 69 workshops not in use on that particular day or over a period?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

They were not in use over a period. It would be more correct to say they were out of use.

Are some of these leased premises and is FÁS tied to leases on them?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

When we geared up, we geared up based on leases. FÁS exited 25 leases on buildings between 2009 and 2010.

What was the value of those leases?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Our rent roll came down approximately €800,000 in 2009 and I will come back to the Deputy with the figure for 2010. We have reduced our rent roll overall.

The key objective therefore, given the disastrous economic circumstances, is to change and adjust. I welcome the stance FÁS has taken on apprenticeships.

The key issue for the organisation now is the question of training and the manipulation of course results, issues of deep concern to everybody. I will not name any companies, but I have questions about them. The issue as I see it is that the quality of certification and courses has been brought into disrepute by a small but significant number of people and companies which abused the process. Can Mr. O'Toole provide us with an update on the situation? I am aware that we have published a number of reports and that FETAC carried out an investigation, which was to be finalised in December. We have some findings from FETAC here. What is the state of play in that regard now?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

In October 2009 it came to our attention internally and through public comment in the media that there were queries in regard to whether course results were being manipulated fraudulently. We were concerned about that and determined to discover whether this was an isolated issue or something broader in the operation of a contracted training function which represented approximately 25% of the courses we offer. We took a sample from all the courses running at the time and reviewed 304 courses nationally. It was a three part process. The first part was to discover whether the basic requirements of providing the course, in terms of facilities, location and so on were being met. The second part was a detailed review of 32,000 individual assessments, covering 4,825 learners on the 304 courses. The third component was to have that reviewed externally to ensure that the methodology we applied was valid. What it demonstrated, exactly as the Deputy said, is that in a small number of cases based on that review and on other information we had, some course results were manipulated inappropriately. We had to address the individual issues, but as important and serious as they were, equally, we had to address what we needed to do to improve the situation and minimise the possibility of that happening in the future. That is the work on which we have been engaged. We reported on that with a public document in October. We can go through the results of that. In the heel of the hunt, through the initial process and the process we followed, 95% of assessments stood up and there were various queries on 5% of them. A smaller number of cases again transpired into a real issue.

Following that, we began to put in corrective action. That meant a widespread need to examine our systems in a root and branch way. We want to ensure the system is "fit for future purpose". It was clearly identified that we have much systems development work to do. We have embarked on that course of action. We have new forms of contracting, a new training standards system, and a different approach to how we recruit and measure the quality of contractors. That work began at the back end of last year and is continuing.

During that period a further issue arose which related to the processing of certificates. Once a person reaches a standard through having the correct assessments there is a process whereby we apply further certification primarily through FETAC. What is evident is that there are further weaknesses in the administrative systems. The initial observations from FETAC, with which we concur, is that there is a huge manual component to the system and a big paper trail and that the systems themselves in terms of checks and balances are not where they need to be in terms of being as good, streamlined and effective as they need to be. We clearly recognise and accept that. We will work through our internal processes, our board and through FETAC to correct those.

To get to the core of the Deputy's point, if we provide an unemployed person, or other person, with an opportunity to undertake a course of learning, the training and tuition may be fine - we get high ratings for the standard of tuition - but unless we follow it through and ensure that everyone is fairly assessed, and therefore that the certification issued has a meaning, we have a problem. We acknowledge that we have significant improvements to make. However, it would be wrong to indicate that across the broad swathe of FÁS courses and training provision generally huge numbers of people have worthless pieces of paper. That is simply not the case. We have specific issues to address. We are committed to doing whatever we need to do to improve our administrative processes, methods of assessment and the ultimate quality control that assures that the training intervention is worthwhile for the learner. We recognise that we have issues to deal with in that regard.

To clarify, Deputy O'Dowd is pursuing an important question in terms of the concerns. What Mr. O'Toole is saying is that more than 95% of people have certificates that stand up to scrutiny. It is very important that we reflect the quality of that certification in our deliberation. We are very concerned about what happened but-----

The fact is that if anyone here had a junior certificate or leaving certificate that was concocted, manipulated or falsified the issue of criminality would arise. The certification of FETAC and FÁS must have the same integrity. I do not accept that it is not a serious scandal. What happened is a national scandal. It is totally and absolutely unacceptable because people are getting equivalent courses as if they were doing the leaving certificate or other exam. In some cases the certification of courses that are entry levels into college or into jobs have been falsely manipulated. The results were changed. Sometimes the computer records show the results were changed before the students sat the examination. The situation was totally appalling. I will not detail it all.

As I understand it FETAC has found issues in all of the FÁS centres. The issues that arose in the north east arose in all of the centres. According to a response to a parliamentary question the report by FETAC into FÁS was to be finalised by the end of December. That has been kicked back to February. I do not know why that has happened but no doubt there is an obvious reason for it. Mr. O'Toole has had communications from FETAC. Will he publish the correspondence and tell us what the report says?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

In reply to Deputy O'Dowd, FETAC is due before the committee. My understanding is that the report will be published.

That is not what I asked. I am asking about the findings that have already been made. What finding has FETAC already communicated to FÁS?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

What FETAC has indicated to us is that the belief is that our systems are cumbersome.

The word "vulnerable" was used. It is a different word.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

That is correct. FETAC has ascribed that to the amount of human interaction. To explain, it is not like sitting the leaving certificate once a year, many of our courses have between five and seven assessments. The current system of marking used in many cases is a competency one. It is a case of either pass or fail. We are using a wide range of providers including in-house training, the not for profit sector, the public sector and the private sector. The interaction between those systems - the paper trail - is cumbersome and is therefore vulnerable. The checks and balances in terms of the IT systems to support that need improvement.

Will Mr. O'Toole explain what "vulnerable" means? How is the system vulnerable?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

It is open to human error that cannot necessarily be caught by a computerised check and balance at a later stage. That is where the vulnerability lies.

What is the impact of that?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

The potential impact of that is to open up the possibility that a particular certificate going through a system may be wrongly applied for. That is the particular impact. The actual incidence of that is quite small. In many of the categories FETAC has examined, no issues have emerged. To be clear, on many apprenticeship qualifications or what are known as component awards, no issues arose. Tens of thousands of certificates passed through those systems without any issues arising. The issue is around a set of courses that are a blend of modules approved under FETAC and other areas where the administrative process around those is complex and exposed to human error. If that is not caught through the administrative systems the potential danger is that it results in a wrong certificate.

The question arises of the 7,000 people whose certification which was due from FÁS in October 2010 which were held over. I acknowledge that FETAC is to issue the certificates again. How many of those are still outstanding?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Subject to clarification from FETAC, because I am doing the numbers in my head, my understanding is that approximately 13,300 certificates were held over. Approximately 11,700 of those have or are being released. FETAC has asked us for additional assurance processes in respect of 1,600 certificates.

Where are the recipients of those certificates based geographically?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Physically they have not been issued.

I mean the application that was made.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We have made those applications to FETAC.

Do they come from any particular region or location?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Across the country. Just to be clear, it is not that these 1,600 have individual problems, it is that they have asked us for additional assurance. I make that distinction.

I hear what Mr. O'Toole is saying.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

It is important to say there are not 1,600 false certificates. That is not the case.

How many false certificates are there?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We have identified not false certificates but concerns about in excess of 100 certificates.

Is it the case that one of the issues that arose was whether people had done manipulated tests or whether people who were deemed to have their test results manipulated were asked by FÁS to repeat those examinations?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

A certain amount-----

Of the people who were asked to repeat and did not turn up, did any of those get certification, or was a request made for same for those individuals?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Based on the information we have, no certificates issued to people who were required to repeat.

That is not the question. Was certification requested?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

A process was begun in certain cases. I will ask one of my colleagues to assist me in this. We did not apply for those certificates.

I am happy that a very significant number - the initial figure we were told by Mr. O'Toole was 7,000, not 13,000-----

Mr. Paul O’Toole

It was 7,000 at the time the question was answered in early December. That is a period of high processing.

That is fair enough. Did people not turn up for repeat examinations where results had been manipulated and was a request made for certification for those people?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

To my knowledge we did not give certification, but I will ask my colleague, Mr. Bryan Fields to come in on that question.

Mr. Bryan Fields

Numbers of people did not turn up for repeat assessments. My understanding is that no certificates were requested for those individuals if they did not merit those certificates.

Mr. Fields is absolutely clear. That is fair enough. What he is saying is that anybody who did not turn up did not get a certificate. Was a certificate requested for them?

Mr. Bryan Fields

Yes. Some individuals would have got a pass mark and they may have been asked to re-sit it there were doubts around that mark. They did not turn up for the repeat but the certificate was not requested for those individuals if they did not turn up. I have got assurances on that issue.

So there was no question of an order being made for certification to issue in the north east at any stage?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

For these people?

For any people. In other words, there is an issue around a date. FÁS had a press conference on a particular date and there was certification in the north east that was under query. There were a number of investigations and different consultants outside the law.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

There was.

Is it possible for us to see those reports?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We will give the Deputy the results of those reports.

May I see the report?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Yes.

That is fair enough. That is certainly transparent.

I am happy that we are clarifying these issues because they are of great concern. I am still very concerned that the systems are vulnerable right around the country. I acknowledge that the position must change. If we are to the get the position right, I have no doubt Mr. O'Toole and his team are the people to do that. It is still a very serious issue for all of us. The question that arises relates to FETAC and FÁS. I will speak to FETAC shortly. As I understand it - correct me if I am wrong - FETAC benchmark FÁS's certification. In other words, FÁS requests of FETAC X level 5 certificates but there has been no action up to now and no investigation by FETAC into the FÁS process until this issue arose. Is it fair to say that no course run by FÁS, as of this date, has ever been analysed or certified directly by FETAC?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I hope I get this right. My colleagues will help if I get this wrong. We have a formal agreement with FETAC on the development of quality control systems that was signed in 2007. There is a programme of actions for FÁS to put in place by 2013. I make that point because it is recognised we are on a path. We are transforming how issues were dealt with in the past, not just for FÁS, but across the board to the new model within the national framework of qualifications where FETAC has responsibility to ensure the quality control and the standards that are applied in tuition. We are on that path. During that period, within the context of that formal agreement, FETAC would meet at a senior level with colleagues in FÁS to monitor progress. In the cases where we have had problems we have reported them to FETAC under the terms of a quality assurance plan and programme of improvements. Within that, FETAC has the option to have a formal monitoring exercise with FÁS where it checks the status of what we have done. That is due and imminent.

It has not happened yet.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

That is due and imminent.

I understand that but it has never happened until now.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Not to my knowledge in the formal monitoring exercise. I am not sure that it was planned. I understand that the formal monitoring exercise comes within three years of an agreed-----

The point I am making is that in order to maintain the credibility of the process of the training for the person being trained, that is something that has not happened to date.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

It has, however, done site visits in our training centres as part of the recent exercise. It has been into FÁS in respect of that exercise. Based on the current exercise - it is highlighting the issues I have spoken about - FETAC is asking FÁS in terms of the schedule, to move up some elements of the development programme we have put in place. In other words, we need to complete our internal verification processes, which we will do. It has asked for an additional approach to external verification through having an external authentication, independent people who will review our certificates prior to their release. We will put that in place in a number of months. The core point I make is that we recognise we are on a path to get everything to where it needs to be. We have to accelerate part of that approach which we acknowledge. Does Ms Curtin wish to add to that?

Ms Patricia Curtin

To give the Deputy a quick snapshot of how the process has been working to date, the quality assurance guidelines for FETAC would have been launched in 2004. Our objective at that stage entailed taking a number of steps. For example, prior to the instigation of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland we had joint certification with City & Guilds and that ceased in 2001. We then had to place the legacy awards. If I had a former FÁS or a City & Guilds award where did that fit in the new national qualifications framework so that I could progress along that ladder? That was the first issue to be addressed. The second was in regard to the green standards of FETAC for our interim awards. Our objective overall is to migrate our standards into the common awards system but an interim arrangement was agreed with FETAC. Given that an interim award system is in place it should be quite simple to move it on to a common award system but it is a very complex area. As our director general outlined there are several instances of assessments for each programme. There could be more than 1,000 learner outcomes for a particular programme. All that has to be put into the new template.

In addition new assessments have to be developed and curricula put into the new format and so on. It is a tedious and very long process. Unfortunately, we have been not as quick at doing it as we had hoped. However, we hope to have all our interim standards migrated with the help of FETAC by the end of this year. That will alleviate many of the issues.

As the director general outlined, the recent issues we had were to do with requesting certificates. They were nothing to do with the assessment or the running of the programme but human error of a wrong mark or whatever in a small number of cases in terms of requesting the certificates. That arose because of the complexity of the rule statements when there is a combination of perhaps City & Guilds, ECDL and FETAC to roll up, so to speak, into one major award.

That has been a major concentration of the organisation over those years, as well as the strengthening of our training services system. FETAC has been very helpful in that regard in terms of pointing out areas to us. As the director general outlined, as part of our quality assurance arrangement with FETAC, within that five year period we would expect to have a full monitoring of the organisation, which we have not had to date, but we have been preparing for that with FETAC. We ran a pilot programme in regard to our retail sales. That was part of the preparation for the monitoring visit which has been scheduled for a long time to start in March or April of this year.

On the strengthened training standards system which has been inputted, I assure the members that as a result of the issues regarding the smaller number of errors that occurred in requesting certificates, we have put in place more processes in terms of a second or third pair of eyes, so to speak, to ensure the correct inputs have gone through.

We had been working towards putting in external authentication on all our programmes. Initially, that was agreed to be done annually on a sample basis but, as the director general stated, as a result of further discussions with FETAC, it has asked us to accelerate that. That will be going in by August of this year at the latest. We have an interim arrangement now, which will be used in the 1,600 programmes the director general outlined earlier, where we will have interim arrangements for that external authentication.

All our assessments and requests for certificates now go through a results approval process, which is another safeguard in the system. We are also interfacing with the new FETAC business system. Again, all of these processes will improve the requesting of certificates and the other issues the Deputy has raised.

I have a few more questions. I take it from the director general that all the reports I seek will be made available to the members of the committee in regard to the analysis of what went wrong.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Yes. We published one already-----

I know that, yes.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

-----and there are two others.

There might be more than two. I am particularly interested in the reviews in the north east.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

There are two relating to that. I will check my facts.

I appreciate that. On the question of certification requests, FÁS informed FETAC on a particular date but did it examine any certifications issued before that date? In other words, a request might have been made to City & Guilds or whatever. Would that have happened? Do any issues arise in that regard?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I am not aware that we have any issues with City & Guilds or other bodies in that regard.

I am just asking was there-----

Mr. Paul O’Toole

The Deputy is asking if we have any other issues in regard to the others. We will check that point but I am not aware that we have any in respect of that.

I am more or less happy with that. I thank Mr. O'Toole for his transparency. Any time I have been in contact with him he has been upfront on these matters. I still have issues with individual cases where certification still has not issued, notwithstanding his efforts and, indeed, mine. I know he is dealing with that but in terms of the companies he reported to the Garda for manipulating results and without disclosing any names, are prosecutions pending? Does Mr. O'Toole know what is happening in that regard?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I am not aware that the Garda has progressed any prosecutions to date in terms of these specific issues. I am aware that two firms have gone into liquidation and there is one about whose status I am not sure. A number of other firms were referred to the then National Register of Trainers in terms of sanctions and suspending them from the list. Everyone was not at the potentially criminal end in regard to this issue but two firms have gone out of business.

In the case of at least one of those companies, which I will not name, where courses had been manipulated, it was stated to me in a letter I got about it from another part of the country that it is providing courses again. Are some of those companies providing courses, notwithstanding the fact that they would have manipulated them in the past?

Mr. Paul O’Toole

If the Deputy has specific information in that regard-----

Mr. O'Toole probably knows about whom I am talking.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

I am not sure, to be honest, but if he has some information, I will follow up on that.

Does Dr. Fields wish to comment on that? Would Dr. Fields know about it? FÁS suspended some companies.

Mr. Bryan Fields

Yes.

There are some companies that were found to have manipulated them. Are any of them providing courses again?

Mr. Bryan Fields

In the case of the companies in the report we published that were found to be guilty of manipulation, both of those companies' cases were forward to the National Register of Trainers for consideration. A sub-committee was set up by the National Register of Trainers, that did not include FÁS staff, to examine these individual cases. In one of the cases it found that the company had taken corrective action quickly on one of the courses. It had replaced the instructor and paid any costs associated with that. In the second case involving that particular company, the sub-committee found that there was no case to answer. Regarding the second company that had a third case, the company received a caution from the National Register of Trainers committee.

Notwithstanding the fact that FÁS, to which they were providing the service, found they had manipulated results, the National Register of Trainers has put them back in business. It is allowing them to provide training services. Does FÁS still use those companies?

Mr. Bryan Fields

The two companies in question are being used by FÁS, yes.

That raises a major question. FÁS has found them not fit to provide the services yet they are still providing them.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

On that, there has to be an objective measure about culpability or otherwise of, first, contractors and, second, tutors, because the contractors are responsible for the tutors but the tutors are generally self-employed in regard to it. There are two relationships at play in that regard. We had to examine those matters under the system then in place which, as Mr. Fields indicated, was on the basis of a mechanism called the National Register of Trainers where people outside of FÁS with an expertise in the area view that.

We have a different approach now, and I mentioned earlier that we have changed our method of contracting. For the future, we have a strengthened contract which places a greater onus of responsibility on the contractor in terms of the performance of their duties and we have a strengthened sanction mechanism which is based on a traffic light system, namely, green, amber and red. There are specific sanctions in regard to that and through a better form of contract, a better form of engagement with contractors and a strengthened sanction mechanism, we believe we will minimise the likelihood of occurrence in the future, although we will never get rid of every problem that might exist. I assure the Deputy that we have changed that system.

It would have been the FÁS view that these companies should not be used by the agency. FÁS carried out its analysis. It found that they committed a very serious breach of contract because they manipulated results and then this other organisation says that they can come back in again.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

We addressed the same questions in that regard. The reality is that we have many fine private sector training firms-----

Mr. Paul O’Toole

They might run 20 courses for FÁS, 19 of which would be exemplary but an issue would arise in one. The question is whether one brings down the firm based on that course or one tries to adopt a balanced approach, whereby we will not do business with people who continually transgress over time.

I would have thought it would be the other way around. I am not splitting hairs with Mr. O'Toole, but the only person who counts is the one who is being trained. If any company or employee of a company has manipulated a result, that should be it. He, she or it must be accountable.

Mr. Paul O’Toole

Okay.

However, I acknowledge the changes Mr. O'Toole is making in that respect.

I thank Mr. O'Toole, Ms Curtin, Mr. Fields and Mr. Rowan for attending and their presentations. They are welcome to remain in the Visitors' Gallery while we have a discussion with the representatives of FETAC. I welcome its representatives: Mr. Stan McHugh, chief executive officer; Ms Barbara Kelly, director of awards and standards; Ms Angela Lambkin, head of accreditation and provider services; Mr. Walter Balfe, head of certification, and Ms Andrina Wafer, head of access and communication. The committee expects to hear a brief presentation which will be followed by a question and answer session.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice and long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they do not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Mr. McHugh is due to make the presentation. Before I call on him to do so, Deputy O'Dowd will take the Chair for a few minutes as I must be involved in a media event on the plinth. An alternative Chairman might arrive to chair the meeting for five minutes, but in the meantime Deputy O'Dowd has agreed to take the Chair. I will return as soon as we complete the media event.

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd took the Chair.

I invite Mr. McHugh to make his submission.

Mr. Stan McHugh

As chief executive officer of FETAC, I welcome the opportunity to address the joint committee. I will discuss a couple of issues before members put their questions.

As with many things, I will go back before going forward. FETAC was established in 2001. At the time it was not even called further education and training in Ireland. It was a disparate sector. There were many courses taking place, but there was no quality assurance. There were six awarding systems. As a result, there was inconsistency, with poor opportunities for progression for learners. There was an unknown range of programmes, while assessment practices were inconsistent. There was little or no monitoring of what was happening. Today we can say the sector is firmly established. All providers of courses who wish to access national certification can do so as long as they meet the quality assurance requirements of FETAC. We are putting in place a single, coherent, national common awards system. All programmes are either registered with FETAC or formally validated under the quality assurance agreements. There is far greater clarity and consistency in assessment. Our monitoring of providers is periodical and according to the level of risk exposure, within the resources of the organisation. Awards are made responsively and consistently.

I have mentioned a number of our functions, but quality assurance is, obviously, the cornerstone of the system. In the first place we reach agreement based on procedures presented to us. We review these agreements over a period of time. A timeframe of five years would be our target for a fundamental review and renewal of an agreement. That has not yet happened because 2006 was the year in which we reached our first agreements with providers, but the review process will begin this year.

Second, we monitor providers. As I said, this is done on a risk exposure basis. We intend to monitor all of our providers in a three to four year period. We are looking at an approach which has had to be adapted because of resource constraints and expect to have a new approach to monitoring which will address the issues as they arise in the sector. The purpose of monitoring is to assess the effectiveness with which the providers are implementing what they said they would implement. It is a critical part of the process and the responsibility for carrying out improvements to the quality assurance arrangements agreed rests with the providers. Indications to date are that significant progress is being made.

In terms of standards and qualifications, I have mentioned that we have a common awards system which replaces the disparate systems in place in 2001. That system is nearing completion and we expect to have it completed this year and to have a full comprehensive suite of awards which will make a significant difference to the sector. We have levels 1, 2 and 3 complete. Level 4 is about to be formally launched in the next month or so and we expect to have it completed by the end of the year.

All programmes are registered with FETAC. In the case of new awards, all programmes must be formally validated. That will come on stream as the new awards come on stream. That has been happening.

With regard to the assessment of learners, the responsibility for assessment lies with the providers. Again, what we are seeking is incremental change in order that the assessment systems in place will be improved as we move forward. We published detailed guidelines relating to assessment in 2008 which are being implemented by all providers. Our responsibility in certification is to issue certificates which reflect the achievements of learners. Over the ten years we have issued upwards of 1 million FETAC awards to 1 million people in Ireland. We are proud of that and conscious of the responsibility that goes with that.

On FÁS certification, as indicated earlier, FETAC has a quality assurance agreement with FÁS which was signed towards the end of 2007. Its effective implementation began in 2008. We had scheduled to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of that towards the end of last year. Because of the circumstances in which we found ourselves, we have not formally got around to that but we will put that in place. As we speak, it is ready to go. It will start towards the end of March.

In terms of issues that have arisen in the north east, FÁS drew to our attention the fact that over a period there were issues in that area and assured us that they were being addressed by FÁS. We did not receive certification requests. If we had, it would have given rise to questions. In November last, further issues arose. When the requests were received in September regarding the north east, FÁS drew our attention to issues in that area and we held those requests because FÁS wished to look at matters again. We were happy to do that. We realised the importance of getting the requests right and we awaited FÁS's response.

When we got FÁS's response, we decided that we would have to look not only at the north east but at four other centres, which we did. On the basis of looking at the four other centres, we stated that we would need to look at all of the centres across the country and we indicated at that stage that we would withhold all certification until we were satisfied that everything was in order. Since then, we visited all centres. Issues arose. We drew those to the attention of FÁS and as we went through that process, we saw that anywhere where there were not issues arising we were able to proceed with certification.

Arising from all of this, we proposed to re-instigate the issue of certification in full with FÁS so long as it meets our requirements. With FÁS we looked at the processes in more detail and subject to the processes meeting our requirements, we will continue to issue certification. Processes taking place in the next week or so should allow us to move forward on that but it is subject to our agreeing that the processes are robust and that the requests are accurate.

As I mentioned, we will monitor FÁS, beginning in March, and we expect that we will have seen considerable enhancements of what has already been in place. We will formally report, like we do in the case of all of our monitoring, to the council of FETAC and that monitoring report will be published.

I missed out on an issue Deputy O'Dowd raised earlier. We will publish a report on the certification issues. We stated that it would be published in February. The Deputy may have misinterpreted what we stated. Examination of what was going on in the centres took place in December. We had not intended issuing a report on that until we had time to reflect on it and to bring it to the council. Perhaps there was a slight misinterpretation of what was intended there, but we had always intended that we would publish the report in February. We will do that and it will be public.

On monitoring generally, FETAC has a system which reviews the effectiveness of each provider's quality assurance system. It provides for an overall evaluation. The outcome of the evaluation can be deemed to be: effective, effective with minor areas for improvement, moderately effective with significant areas for improvement or not effective with essential remedial actions. There is a sort of grading. If we are at the last one, which is deemed not effective, we would withdraw certification, in other words, we would withhold all certificates until we are satisfied that the provider has carried out an action plan. The process is clear. The possible outcomes are clear to providers and providers get a report. The report on each provider is published and there is a series of reports on our website. We have published two annual reports on monitoring. I will not go into those in detail but if the Deputy wishes to refer to them at any time, I will be happy to answer any questions he may have.

The one point I would make is that monitoring is to ensure that providers are doing what they stated they would do in the agreement, that they are improving. We are talking about a system which is incrementally improving. FETAC started out in 2001 when there were no policies or set procedures, and there was hardly anything in place. We have moved on but there is a considerable distance to go. We are now seeing a range of policies in place. We also are now seeing that providers are implementing those procedures and if they do not implement them, then there are sanctions which we draw to their attention and implement with them.

Our first round of monitoring was in 2008. We looked to cover approximately 20% of our providers. Monitoring consists of a range of different activities. In the public mind, sometimes monitoring is simply a site visit. It is not just a site visit and Deputy O'Dowd will appreciate that from discussions he and I had at an earlier stage. Monitoring can consist of somebody ringing up with a query from which our staff would know that there is something amiss with the provider - some misunderstanding or something not being done that should be done. That is followed up, either by the staff internally or by staff who we have out in the field.

The other aspect of it is that there is an external requirement in all assessments. All assessments include external monitoring, either through external examiners or through external authenticators.

Our processes need to be considered as well and we intend to strengthen that area so that there is clearer and more accurate feedback to FETAC in the future to ensure that we are in a position to not only address issues as they arise, but also to anticipate them. In terms of anticipating quality issues arising, we run a series of briefing sessions for providers which they are obliged to attend. That is another platform for improving the quality of what is happening in our range of providers. Deputy O'Dowd also will be aware that there is in the region of 1,000 providers registered with FETAC. It is a considerable responsibility which we are happy to accept on the understanding that providers understand their responsibilities. The term "policeman" was used previously. FETAC's responsibility is to ensure that people are improving and enhancing what they do on a continuing basis. Providers are doing that. We also intend to do it ourselves as we spot areas that require attention.

In terms of benchmarking, FETAC looked at what was being done and it was firming it and adding to it. That was the reason for the reference to the word "policeman".

Mr. Stan McHugh

Exactly. That summarises where we are at. We are trying to look forward to see what we need to do to strengthen what we are doing as well as simply looking at providers and saying they need to do this or that.

I would be much happier asking questions from where I was sitting before I took the Chair. As Acting Chairman I must be seen to be fair, not just fair from my point of view.

I met Mr. McHugh and my office has been in communication with his staff on several occasions. I respect the professionalism and integrity of everyone concerned. Questions arise from FÁS and FETAC's annual monitoring report. It is fair to deal with the FÁS questions first as issues arise in that regard. The report deals with what FETAC found. FÁS indicated there were problems in the north east and subsequently FETAC examined four other locations. Following that, FETAC decided to investigate all 17 locations. I appreciate what Mr. McHugh has said. What did FETAC find? Approximately 13,000 certificates were held back. The decision must have been taken on foot of serious and significant issues arising.

Mr. Stan McHugh

Without prejudicing the detail that will be in the final report, it is fair to outline a number of points. I might ask my colleague, Mr. Balfe, to contribute as he visited the centres. There was a significant dependence on paper and manual systems to process results. We also saw a complex system based on the interim awards to which FÁS referred earlier, which was a stage towards the common awards system. If there are misunderstandings about the requirements for a particular award it is natural that one will be exposed and vulnerable to errors being made. I invite Mr. Balfe to elaborate.

Deputy Mary Wallace resumed the Chair.

Mr. Walter Balfe

In answering the question I will row back and put in context the purpose of the site visits and what we found. The overall context is that in 2010 FETAC made just short of 200,000 awards in total of which approximately 50,000 went to FÁS trainees. In terms of assessment, as Mr. McHugh has already said, the responsibility for quality assuring that level of assessment must reside with the provider. There is no facility or possibility of FETAC being able to observe and administer all those assessments in all those different providers on an ongoing basis.

If it were a private company there would be a monitoring system involving among other things, site visits, but no site visits were carried out in FÁS.

Mr. Walter Balfe

There is a distinction between monitoring and observing assessments. Monitoring is about evaluating the effectiveness of a provider's quality assurance agreement. The observation of assessments and the checking of assessments are carried out by an external person. In the case of private providers they have to take from a panel of authenticators someone with appropriate expertise to validate that the assessments and the standard achieved by the learners is as required. That would be the same across the vast bulk of our provision. In the case of FÁS's contracted provision, FÁS has staff whose job it is to carry out that role with contracted providers. That is the quality assurance system FÁS has and we will monitor its effectiveness.

It is also the case that we were aware FÁS had identified issues with assessment in the north east. As Mr. O'Toole explained, on the basis of that a review was conducted of all such assessments throughout the country. There were 304 different courses. FÁS kept us informed that there were issues with assessment it wanted to check. FÁS checked on it and it reported as appropriate on those issues. On that basis FÁS had notified to us that it had held off requesting certification for some of the courses in the north east. When it was assured by an independent report that those issues had been addressed, that it had identified where the problems were and what results could be processed, it submitted what could be processed to us. We were happy, on the basis of the assurances and information provided by FÁS, that we could process the certification.

Following that, FÁS then identified the administrative and procedural errors around the inputting and processing of those results. That was not an assessment issue; it was a certification processing or results processing issue within FÁS itself. There is a separation of the original assessment issue as it applied in the contracted provider. That had been dealt with and the issue that then arose was with the processing of the results for those courses and what had been sent to FETAC. As soon as FÁS was aware that problems existed, it notified us. We immediately stopped all certification at that point because if it happened in one area there was nothing to say it could not have happened in others. We initiated site visits to four centres to identify what had happened and how it was possible that incorrect results were sent to FETAC when the correct results were presented to be sent.

We wanted to see what had happened between the finalisation of the results and the input of those results. We conducted visits in four centres. On the basis of what we found we realised there were systemic issues within FÁS's own procedures, some of which have already been explained. They relate to the complexity of the award structures and a lack of knowledge in some cases among the people who were translating the assessment results into a certification request. There were also issues related to the IT systems and how errors in input were allowed slip through.

On the basis of that we decided then to extend those checks to all the centres. We did those over a period in November and December. In some of the centres we found no issues. In most of the centres we found that there were administrative and procedural issues which allowed certification requests to be incorrectly made. I emphasise that those are not issues of manipulation or fraud; they are administrative, procedural systemic errors which we have raised with FÁS. On the basis of that we have agreed with FÁS a series of measures which have to be taken to improve its quality assurance of those processes. They have already been put in place. The next opportunity for all of those results to be processed for certification is early February. All certification was stopped initially in early November on the basis of the notification from FÁS. As the site visits were being conducted, we identified the issues and which certificates could be processed. We released some certification in late December and early January. There were 1,600 certification requests which had been put through these vulnerable procedures and processes. We identified these requests and sent them back to FÁS which has agreed to recheck all of them, put them through the results approval processes again to, as Ms Curtin explained, ensure the results submitted are correct. That process, if completed, will allow the certificates to be submitted to FETAC by 5 February, in which case certification will be issued by 20 February.

Is it correct FETAC would not have monitored any of the private companies providing services for FÁS?

Mr. Stan McHugh

It is FÁS's responsibility to monitor the private providers linked with it.

The issue is that these companies, while issuing FETAC certificates, were not monitored by the council. Is it correct that FETAC did not monitor these companies because they were involved in providing FÁS courses?

Mr. Stan McHugh

That is correct, unless they were registered with FETAC separately.

When the issue of the manipulation of results for FÁS courses arose, what did FETAC do to address it? What did it do when certification was requested for the courses in question? I have seen no evidence of how FETAC acted. Did it raise its concerns with the agency?

Mr. Stan McHugh

Concerns were raised, but it was FÁS's responsibility to sort out the matter. Any time it came up in discussions with FÁS, we were assured it was being addressed. No certificates were requested as a consequence.

Did FETAC seek the names of the companies in question?

Mr. Stan McHugh

No.

Should it have requested their names?

Mr. Stan McHugh

This will arise in the formal monitoring of FÁS. We did see a copy of the report on the providers mentioned and expressed concerns about it.

The point I am trying to get at is that several companies provided courses, on which significant amounts of taxpayers' money was spent and for which the examination results were manipulated. These were FETAC level courses, but the council did not seek to examine the companies involved.

Mr. Stan McHugh

These are second providers for FÁS. The responsibility-----

Last year when I checked the name of one of these companies on FETAC's website, I noted it had not been monitored for some time. It seems FETAC did not check the companies providing courses and certification for FÁS.

Mr. Stan McHugh

If they were dealing with us directly, they would be on our list.

Did FETAC monitor them?

Mr. Stan McHugh

We do not monitor second providers, only first providers.

I am referring to a company on the council's website which has been named as one of those which manipulated results, yet FETAC has not checked it out.

Mr. Stan McHugh

I would not have had access to the names of second provider companies, in respect of which it was alleged there was manipulation of results.

Is it correct the credibility of the system was called into question because of this?

Ms Barbara Kelly

Since 2005 FÁS has been alerting us to any issues, as they arise, with second providers with which there is a specific arrangement. FETAC was interested in the October report to follow up on these matters because issues have tended to arise with second providers over time. Once we are made aware of issues by FÁS at an operational level, we check whether a provider is registered with the council directly. In all cases I have observed, the provider is directly registered with FETAC, but it is certified through FÁS. In other words, the provider is not directly certified through FETAC.

Yet the FETAC name could be on the provider's certificate.

Ms Barbara Kelly

Exactly. As a consequence, because these providers would not technically have had a certification arrangement with FETAC, our arrangement with them at the point at which they were causing issues was through FÁS. It is a complicated matter. Second providers have a complex relationship with the first providers, namely, FÁS and FETAC which must be managed by both agencies. A provider would be of concern to us if there was a direct certification arrangement. If that were to happen, we would monitor them immediately.

One can read the monitoring reports of some of the second provider companies on the FETAC website. However, some of them have not even been monitored. I appreciate, however, that FETAC is trying its best to address the issue. At the time, when issues arose about the manipulation of results, should the companies in question have been monitored quickly? It seems, however, FETAC did nothing.

Ms Barbara Kelly

Obviously, I beg to differ with the Deputy on his claim that we did nothing. The arrangement with second providers is complex because of their contractual arrangements. We had scheduled to monitor FÁS and agreed terms of reference for such an exercise in October. The terms of reference elaborate on what we will be monitoring, including its direct activity with FETAC and contracted training. It is not about monitoring one isolated contracted provider but providing for systematic monitoring of the totality of contracted arrangements, incorporating the output and conclusions made in the contractors' training report of October 2010. This causes concern and we must monitor it effectively. It would be ineffective to monitor it on a one-to-one basis.

I do not wish to labour this point, but it seems to me that FETAC should have the capacity to call on a service provider, whether it is FÁS or a second provider, to see what it is doing. That did not happen. It is the special contractual relationship between FÁS and FETAC that has brought this about. Obviously this is a matter of serious concern to FETAC.

FETAC's relationship to FÁS should be no different from its relationship to other bodies. Trust is broken. FETAC took everything at face value and did not act when it should have.

Mr. Stan McHugh

May I respond to the question on second providers?

Mr. Stan McHugh

The methodology for monitoring first providers includes what the Deputy suggests. We have authority to look at and investigate anything. The fact that we have not done so yet with FÁS, is the issue the Deputy is raising. I have to confirm that we have not as yet gone into FÁS, but it will be part of the monitoring programme.

FETAC should have done that.

Mr. Stan McHugh

In retrospect, I accept that it would have been -----

I accept Mr. McHugh's bona fides. I check out companies on the website but can Mr. McHugh tell me the word that signals their credibility?

Mr. Stan McHugh

FETAC.

Mr. Stan McHugh

I appreciate the point the Deputy is making.

When one sees that a company is certified by FETAC, one thinks that is a good company. Some of these companies that had come into the public domain and were the subject of parliamentary questions still put the FETAC accreditation on the website. That makes me so angry for the students that do courses with these companies. A small number of corrupt companies puts the whole FETAC process at nought. I know that Mr. McHugh understands that point. How does he ensure that it will not happen again?

Mr. Stan McHugh

We are entitled to look at second providers as an issue. I take those points on board and we will address them. We will undertake formal monitoring of FÁS shortly. Our primary responsibility is to the first providers and we have just under 1,000 first providers. Deputy O'Dowd will appreciate that we must prioritise and we rely on the first provider to ensure -----

If a provider is a second provider to FÁS or another body, it is not entitled to put on the website that it is registered with FETAC. If that was drawn to our attention or if we saw it, we would take immediate action and inform the company that it cannot do that.

They may use the word FETAC in an ambiguous way, in other words it may appear as if, but they are not actually doing so. It is not protecting the FETAC trademark, FETAC must be extremely vigilant in protecting itself.

Mr. Stan McHugh

Yes. Ms Angela Lambkin and her team have responsibility for monitoring. They are regularly in touch with providers that have expressed their relationship with FETAC inappropriately. Those companies are obliged to take that off their webpages immediately.

By way of example - I will not name the organisation - an organisation gave certification to an individual that stated he or she had completed a course at FETAC level five. The person thought that was a certificate from FETAC and went to the third level institution to join. It was then realised that a certificate had not been issued although the person thought he had it. I am not saying that the person was manipulated intentionally, but the individual thought he had a FETAC level five course. He had attended a FETAC level five course, but had not passed it. He had a certificate of attendance, but with that he could not go to college. I think there was a financial settlement in this case, because the person had incurred extra cost to go to college.

Mr. Stan McHugh

The point the Deputy makes, relates to certificates of attendance.

The word was "completed".

Mr. Stan McHugh

I know exactly what Deputy O'Dowd is stating. Providers often give people certificates of completion when they are finishing the course, because they know they will not get their official certificate, the FETAC certificate until later or unless they have met all the requirements. There is a significant tradition in Ireland among public and private providers of doing this and FETAC has been very strong on asking providers not to issue a form that looks like a certificate. I agree that it is not in the interests of learners or providers to issue such ‘certificates'. This tradition is of long standing and I am sure the Deputy may have participated in some ceremonies where these -------

I have not been in government yet. I hope the pleasure awaits my party shortly.

I presume FETAC has clarified the question of issuing certificates. Instead of stating that the company should not issue certificates of attendance, it should be stated that attendance records should be issued in the format of a letter. We can all tell the difference between a letter and a certificate.

In the case I raised, it was a certificate.

The fact that it is a certificate is what causes confusion.

Mr. Stan McHugh

I cannot state the number of times this has arisen over the years. It was rampant in 2001, but is much less common now. People expect to get a certificate with the FETAC logo. There is a much greater awareness among learners, which we often call the community of practice as people get to understand what is required.

Deputy O'Dowd's point is very important. If everybody was awarded and presented with a certificate at a certification ceremony, the detail that it was an attendance certificate as distinct from an award might be missed. If a letter of attendance was issued at the ceremony, it is definitely a different award.

I have already asked FÁS about the issue in the north east. I am trying to understand what happened. When listening to Mr. McHugh, I took note of the language he used. Mr. McHugh used a phrase ‘that requests for certification were accurate' when he referred to the FÁS certificate process. What does Mr. McHugh mean? Mr. Balfe may help me, some of the inputs resulted in inaccurate requests being made.

Mr. Walter Balfe

Certification is based on long lists of codes and titles and levels and so on. Every award has its own code and its own identity. It is an Information Technology intensive process. As Mr. Paul O'Toole from FÁS explained, there is a great deal of paper instruments to assessments in FÁS. They get translated from paper on to an input sheet and that input sheet then gets transferred to the computer. What goes in is the code of the award, the details of the learner, the results and so on. That comes into us and goes through our IT systems and is processed and this results in a certificate. If any of the codes that are input are wrong, the certificate that comes out of the other end is also wrong. If there are errors or mistakes in the trail from the original recording of the assessment outcome right through to what is input, then it will impact on the certificate at the end. If I say that a certificate request was wrong, I am referring to some of either the transcription from original scripts to the input sheet, or data entry hours from the input sheet into the system. Any hours in there are certificate request hours. It results in an incorrect certificate for the learner involved.

When it was decided to extend the analysis, what overall picture emerged?

Mr. Walter Balfe

Much of this related to human issues, as well as IT. The level of experience, knowledge and awareness of all the issues and the people involved along that trail impacted heavily on the final outcome. As the Deputy pointed out, there has been much change in FÁS. Where there were people doing this task who were relatively inexperienced or relatively unfamiliar with the steps, then hours resulted. In other cases where people doing it were highly trained and very experienced, there were no hours. In some cases I saw a great effort being made to ensure that this process was done correctly. It is accepted that there are systemic checks needed to ensure that the people doing this had the initial training required and that there is a second eye on all these steps. There are issues with the computer systems that will try to weed out some of the errors that can be made.

I presume this goes on all over the world. There is a theoretical margin of error in all these things, but this must have been more significant than expected.

Mr. Walter Balfe

We operate with many different providers. The bulk of the providers enter results directly from source onto our own on-line system. That system has the codes built in and has the validation of what is entered, so it removes much of the potential for error. One of the advantages of moving to the common awards system, which FÁS is in the process of doing, is that it will enable that organisation to apply the same direct entry into our system, as the validations will happen on the system.

In other words, they just literally tick the box as opposed to write the headings for each box.

Mr. Walter Balfe

Yes.

Did the analysis find any evidence of manipulation?

Mr. Walter Balfe

No. The errors we found were systemic errors.

The errors in the north east might have arisen because there may have been manipulation of some of the results.

Mr. Walter Balfe

In fairness, we did not look at those issues. We did not go back to source.

So the witnesses did not look at any examination paper as such. They would look at data input, but they did not look at the paper it might come from, especially in the north east.

Mr. Walter Balfe

No. We have been kept well informed by FÁS of the issues in the north east. There was a long ongoing saga, as the Deputy is well aware, and there are considerable delays for the people involved. However, the issues of assessment were being checked by FÁS. We received copies of the investigations and the reports they were doing. It was only when we got assurance from FÁS that those assessment issues had been identified, that the courses which were valid, correct and had been checked were ready for input.

I appreciate what Mr. Balfe is saying. He looked at the mechanical process and the hours that might have arisen, but he did not look at-----

Mr. Walter Balfe

We were aware that-----

The issue was that exams were manipulated and people got results that they should not have got. Very honest and professional people in FÁS brought this to the attention of Mr. O'Toole and others, who also dealt with it in a very professional way. I am just trying to figure what analysis was done of the throughput in the north east. There was effectively none, because FETAC was not required to do it.

Mr. Walter Balfe

We were required to ensure that FÁS did it.

How do we know that FÁS did it?

Mr. Stan McHugh

It is critically important that we resolve the issues in the north east and move on. FÁS has agreed to put in place a process to rebuild all of the elements of assessment and processing of requests. That means going back to square one. FÁS has agreed that process with us. One of the critical elements missing from this is externality, or somebody from the outside who can observe things and suggest how improvements can be made. We sat down with officials from FÁS in November and we decided the process by which the issue in the north east will be resolved for once and for all.

Mr. McHugh is talking about a fundamental root and branch reform.

Mr. Stan McHugh

Absolutely. I think "rebuild" was the word used. It will be knocked down and rebuilt to make sure it is all in order. We have not seen the outcome of that, but our input has been to ask whether the process is firm, intense and the way it should be. We can say that it is. We will then process results from that in terms of certification as soon as possible, once we are satisfied that it is resolved. We have looked at the process and we have agreed that the process in place is sufficient.

Lessons are being learned from these situations so that these things can never happen again.

I would like to ask some more questions, but I would like to leave the FÁS issue following the exchange of views here and the commitment by the director general of FÁS to release those reports. The publication of the FETAC report will provide transparency to all of that.

I would like to ask questions about FETAC's monitoring of courses that are not provided by FÁS, and I would like to concentrate solely on site visits. How many site visits did FETAC carry out for its 2008 report? What was the result of those people who were found to have serious or significant issues?

Mr. Stan McHugh

I will have to look in detail at the 2008 report.

Ms Angela Lambkin

2008 was our first year of monitoring and we were in a developmental phase when beginning that process. We had to roll it out for ourselves and learn it ourselves. We had a certain amount of testing of the process with the providers that participated. We did not have an IT system at the time to support the monitoring process which would have allowed us to determine the outcome of the monitoring activity, so we did not actually quantify it. We did that in 2009 for our providers, so we moved it on.

FETAC stated its objectives in 2008. It looked for three extra staff.

Ms Angela Lambkin

That was one of our learning points from the 2008 experience.

What was the outcome for 2009?

Ms Angela Lambkin

The outcome for monitoring in 2008 was that 68% of providers were complying with category 1, where there were effective quality systems, and category 2, where they were effective with minor areas. Some 28% would have what we call moderately effective quality systems with some more significant areas for improvement. A very small percentage, just short of 5%, had what we would call serious issues in regard to the quality systems. That was in 2009 and was based on approximately 145 cases.

What of the second-last category?

Ms Angela Lambkin

The second-last category would be what I would call moderately effective, with areas I would-----

Ms Lambkin used the phrase "significant issues".

Ms Angela Lambkin

"Significant issues" would refer to particular areas they would need to address immediately, for example, corrective actions they had to address as a matter of priority.

The point I am trying to make is that Ms Lambkin uses the phrase "significant issues". It was obviously very important.

Ms Angela Lambkin

It would be significant in that there were nine core areas of quality, including communications, equality, staffing and assessment. If we felt their procedures in regard to assessment, for example, were a particular area of improvement, that would be what I would call a significant area.

Looking at that issue for 2010, Ms Lambkin implied there were three extra people to carry out the specific on site visits. Therefore, this was a very important part of FETAC's job but, as Mr. McHugh and I acknowledge, it was only a part of the overall process. What happened in 2010?

Ms Angela Lambkin

In 2010, we introduced a new type of monitoring, which was a procedural monitoring-----

I am looking for specifics on these three people.

Ms Angela Lambkin

The contracts of those contractors were terminated under the moratorium. The result was that we had to reassign the monitoring activity to FETAC core staff who would undertake the monitoring visits for us. This would include senior staff who were trained to do this.

Did FETAC make 120 site visits in 2009?

Ms Angela Lambkin

There were 100 site visits in 2009.

Does FETAC expect 25% of all of these companies-----

Ms Angela Lambkin

Our target would be 20%.

That was not reached but FETAC came close in the first year.

Ms Angela Lambkin

Yes, we were there or thereabouts.

What happened in 2010?

Ms Angela Lambkin

Last year, some 16% was monitored. This would be the combination of procedural monitoring and site visits.

What about the site visits?

Ms Angela Lambkin

Some 20 site visits were undertaken in 2010.

While respecting and acknowledging FETAC's professionalism and integrity in every respect, and the same goes for FÁS, my key point is that the system is not working because, given the embargo on public employment, FETAC was not given the required resources to carry out the on site monitoring as part of the complex monitoring it does. I am very unhappy with that. In 2009, 16% of cases had significant issues and, when added to the 5% with serious issues, this makes 21% of cases. One in every five of the companies it visited using the site visit had significant issues, yet, effectively, due to lack of resources, that is no longer happening.

Mr. Stan McHugh

In response to the general point, as a public body we have to use our resources to the best of our ability.

Mr. Stan McHugh

That is the essence of managing what we have. We have to re-prioritise if we lose staff or resources. What we have attempted to do is to consider different approaches to monitoring, which is what we will implement this year. It is important to note that monitoring the issues that arose with FÁS took up a considerable amount of effort, time and resources. That, in effect, is also monitoring.

That was only since October last year. I am talking about the previous nine months. I want to move this on but I want Mr. McHugh to understand and accept my point. Inadequate monitoring in FÁS resulted in the corruption of exam results in some cases. Given that FETAC does not have the resources to carry out the on site monitoring, there are significant issues which clearly it would have detected if it had those people.

Mr. Stan McHugh

Yes.

My whole point is that at the end of the day the logos of FÁS and of FETAC are affected by these issues. As a nation, we want to make sure the quality of training and FETAC courses are, like the leaving certificate, without question. That is the issue we must get to. If this means FETAC needs more staff for that very important job, so be it.

With regard to the issue of resources, Mr. McHugh said different approaches to monitoring were being considered for 2011. We need reassurance in some way, other than by going to the taxpayer and asking for an immediate flow of extra resources, which is not a possibility. Will Mr. McHugh give us some idea of the new approaches he suggests?

Mr. Stan McHugh

Deputy O'Dowd raised issues regarding site visits and I will concentrate on that for the present. Site visits are carried out by monitors. On a point which I accept was not transparent in our monitoring reports for 2008 and 2009, a range of other site visits take place through external authentication, specifically the monitoring of assessments. We have a panel of 450 to 500 authenticators and examiners. We are now examining methodologies whereby we can strengthen the links between them and us, and examining the issues that arise with regard to them. We have a process whereby external examiner reports, which refer to one part of the sector, are reviewed, particularly around May when there is a significant assessment process. They have been reviewed on an ongoing basis over the years so that, if issues arise, we can address those through monitoring. It is a process of getting feedback directly to us.

There is a proposal in preparation for the council that we will use external authenticators or examiners more prominently in the process. That is the one of the issues. A second is that we are amalgamating with HETAC and NQAI, and we are looking to use some of the staff they have in terms of the monitoring. Third, we are examining our internal systems. This gets away from the site visits, and we maintain that if one relies totally on site visits for monitoring, one will miss a great deal. We have other methodologies such as red flags and the like.

To have the eyes in the room beats anything else in terms of picking up the issues. When the monitors go through the checklist and give a rating, as they do, that is a serious way of operating.

Mr. Stan McHugh

I appreciate that it is much more intense. However, we have to balance the resources our State organisation is given, which we must utilise to the best of our ability. We have to adjust and amend to make sure the whole process stays together. We have given considerable thought to how we can have a significant monitoring contribution. I agree that without monitoring the system is very vulnerable.

Although the Chairman might not have been present, we mentioned that we have ongoing briefings which providers are obliged to attend. At those briefings, we explain that they "must" do this or that. Some of this issue is around building a community of practice, and this is at present strong in some sectors and not as strong in others. We are trying to get rid of the variations and raise the bar, if one likes. I would say that each year the bar has been raised. Some of the issues that have been raised today will force us to examine what we do and how we can work better and more clinically. There is a range of actions that can and will be taken to ensure the standards have the credibility they deserve. Learners deserve nothing less.

That is it in a nutshell.

I made the point earlier that in the case of the leaving certificate and junior certificate we all know what the standard is. Until this time last year we would have regarded FETAC certification with the same confidence. We all want to ensure that confidence is restored. That is the thrust of the points made by Deputy O'Dowd.

I thank the delegates from FETAC and FÁS for their presentations and for clarifying the issues that were raised. We were keen to have this meeting and it has been a very useful discussion. It provides important clarification for those who will be dealing with this issue in the future.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.20 p.m. sine die.