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.