Agency's leadership key to modern and flexible system


ANALYSIS:THERE WAS no mention of any junkets to the Florida sun when Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn unveiled Solas. But you had the sense that former Fás chief executive Rody Molloy cast a long shadow over events.

It was Molloy’s extravagance – coupled with the lack of oversight by the Fás board – that finally killed off the State training agency. But the truth is that a revamp of the State training and education was needed, irrespective of Fás shenanigans

Ruairí Quinn admitted as much. The Fás scandal, he said, acted as a catalyst for change, but greater integration between training and education was urgently needed in any case. His junior Ciarán Cannon spoke about the duplication, lack of flexibility and rigidity within the system.

The key problem in the current approach is the lack of joined-up thinking. Essentially, the Department of Social Protection doles out welfare payments but has only a minor role and no great expertise in identifying education and training needs of the jobless.

Fás offered a range of apprenticeships and programmes, some good, some not so good, but critics complain it is wedded to an older, more traditional economy and has been slow to respond to new skills needs.

In some cases, Fás personnel – in line with some counterparts in social protection – did not have the skills to identify the best programme for the person. This led to some people doing courses based not on their needs, but on the list of courses with places available.

To compound the problem, there is a huge further education sector offering post-Leaving Cert courses and the like. The system has grown haphazardly over 20 years. It has provided some excellent courses but critics argue it is designed primarily to provide much-needed employment for VEC teachers, as some of their schools struggled to attract pupils. While this may be unfair, it’s certainly the case that further education – like much else in training and education – operates in a less-than-splendid isolation.

And then there is competition between the PLCs and Fás in each town as both seek out students and sometimes offer exactly the same programmes.

Solas is set up to change all this by providing one body to run the show. Its task is to weed out the duplication and provide a modern, co-ordinated training structure in tune with the economy’s needs.

Under the new structure, the Department of Social Protection and the VECs will work in unison. Instead of just handing out the welfare payments, the department’s new National Employment and Entitlements Service will essentially take over Fás’s old employment services and community development programmes and provide a one-stop shop for people seeking to establish their benefit entitlements, looking for a job and seeking advice on training options. Critically, the new service will also assess the skills and training needs of each recipient.

The VECs will then pick up the baton, tailoring an education or training programme that meets the needs of the person.

The Department of Social Protection will take responsibility for programmes such as community employment schemes, while further education and training areas will go to the Department of Education and Skills.

Meanwhile Solas – under the Department of Education – will co-ordinate and fund the training and further education courses on offer. It will help identify skills gaps, point to weaknesses and duplication and link courses more closely to the needs of the individual and the labour market.

That at least is the plan.

Will it work? Much will depend on the leadership provided by the Solas board. Critically, Solas will control funding to the VECs and that alone should give it great power as it builds a more modern and flexible system.