If Solas is the new FÁS, can it make a difference?


Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn has published a new Bill which provides for the establishment of Solas (Seirbhísí Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna), the so-called “new FÁS” under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills.

Solas will be responsible for commissioning and funding the delivery of service from the 16 new education and training boards (ETBs), which have replaced the 33 existing VECs.

These boards will be responsible for the planning and delivery of all the vocational training and further education in their region. Solas will also have the freedom to commission private-sector providers where it deems appropriate.

The challenge facing both Solas and the new ETBs is enormous.

We are all familiar with the scandals of waste of the past. Unaccountability and incompetence led to the downfall of the current education and training body FÁS and its former head, Rody Molloy. It is sobering to consider how the organisation was spending almost €1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year during the boom at a time of full employment.

There is still enormous duplication of courses regionally, both within the PLC sector and between it and the parallel FÁS training system. There are currently 180,000 further education and 75,000 training places provided in FÁS training centres.

Are taxpayers getting good value from the investment we are making in these 255,000 people? If current teaching and training staff are identified to be no longer capable of delivering to the needs of current employers, can they be moved on, as they are almost all protected public-sector employees?

Last year, FÁS provided 81,500 market-led and client-focused training interventions for unemployed people. It is also rolling out a labour market and training fund worth €20 million which it says will provide 6,500 training places for the long-term unemployed. Much of this budget is being awarded to private-sector providers.

The key questions

Do the teaching staff within the further education and FÁS training services have the skills to educate and train people to the high standards required by multinational and domestic employers, particularly in ICT, foreign language skills, international business, engineering and technology?

Will those educated and trained within the new structures meet the employability needs of those who are thinking of creating jobs in the Irish economy?

If the new ETBs do not deliver to these standards, will Solas gradually award a growing share of their budget to private-sector colleges and trainers?

Course duplication

I am very critical of the duplication and labour-market suitability of many courses currently on offer from both PLCs and FÁS.

That said, it is also important to flag the successful programmes currently on offer in areas such as personal training, outdoor pursuits, accounting technicianship and access programmes to university.

There are also some very successful institutions: Dublin colleges such as Coláiste Dhúlaigh, in Coolock, and Ballyfermot College of Further Education, have international reputations for the quality of their graduates. How can these progressive and productive colleges be supported within the new framework?

There are also speed bumps ahead when it comes to the integration of FÁS and the further-education sector.

How are we going to integrate them when the terms and conditions of employment of the teachers within the further-education sector are so different from those currently employed within FÁS training?

Teachers have contracts which currently see them on holidays for two weeks at Christmas and Easter, mid-term breaks and three months in the summer.

FÁS trainers enjoy higher pay scales than teachers but do not enjoy anything like the same holidays. How are these two groups of public servants to be integrated into a single service under the management of the ETBs?

We cannot afford to develop a new further education and training service that is closed down for half the year.Directing unemployed persons into this new structure will be the newly formed NEES (National Employment Entitlements Service) made up of current Department of Social Protection staff, plus the former placement officers at FÁS who have now transferred into this new structure as case officers.

The first one-stop-shop established under this new process opened in Sligo last October. It is planned to open such offices throughout the country over the next two years.

How do we ensure that these three distinct staff groups are sufficiently up-skilled to ensure that when they sit down with the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people, they are capable of identifying a suitable education or training pathway that meets their long-term interests and capacities?

Will the guidance counsellors within adult-education guidance services, which currently operate within the existing VEC structure, be integrated into the new one-stop-shop services to provide a high level of guidance competency?

And if not, where will this service, which currently interacts with unemployed adults considering further education programmes, go?

Being honest at this stage about problems which the introduction of this proposed legislation will pose is enormously important if we are to avoid another unforgivable exercise in waste.

This issue is crucial because Ireland’s employment crisis stems not only from a lack of jobs but also from a lack of suitably qualified workers in key areas, both in high technology and in service industry skills. The new education and training structures have to be made to work.

For this to happen we may need a George Mitchell-type figure who will mediate between these new structures, knocking heads together if necessary, to create an environment of trust and joined-up thinking between these bodies.

If this does not happen, we will be back where we started, with billions wasted every year, or the private sector may end up replacing a large part of the existing further education and FÁS training public sector structure.

Quality of service

When this proposed legislation is enacted and put into operation, success will be measured by the extent to which an unemployed person turning up at one of the new one-stop-shops, experiences a quality of service.

That service should provide them with a pathway into education or training, commissioned by Solas, delivered through the ETBs or by private providers and by teachers and trainers who have the skills to bring that person to a level of qualifications which will secure them a quality job in the economy.

The ability to deliver on this objective and provide an appropriately skilled workforce is crucial. If we do not confront this now, we will be reflecting on yet another scandal of waste and inefficiency 20 years from now.

More catastrophic still will be the waste of potential, inherent in our people and in our economy, brought about by a dysfunctional training system. Our new structures need to be more than “FÁS - The Sequel”.

Reform in classroom from junior infants to cap and gown

Primary level

The absence of third and fourth languages from our primary school curriculum, when it is easiest for children to master them, is a major drawback for a country which depends on its capacity to sell goods and services into international markets. Opportunities are increasing for workers who can speak a foreign language. Without sufficient skills in this area, Ireland will be at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Second level

One in five second-level students, mostly boys, are currently disengaging from schooling at the age of 13 or 14. The problem for these students is the nature of the education they are offered. We need to provide the equivalent of the three-year European Baccalaureate.

This is a vocational training programme option for students who get turned off academic education in second year. The German second-level education system provides this dual model within its mainstream education structure, which means all students continue to be educated together, even though those in the vocational stream will be spending 50 per cent of their time on placement or training from 14 years upwards.

If Ireland offered this option it would mean that 14-year-olds who are beginning to disengage could continue in schools with their peers studying a core academic curriculum, while at the same time engaging in a three- to four-year apprenticeship in the skills required by modern manufacturing and service industries.

The problem with introducing such a European baccalaureate model in Ireland is that we have little or no culture of work experience placement to excite our children’s interest in the employment opportunities available, or in the training of school-age students in the manufacturing, technical, and service-industry skills their industries require.

Also our students are not sufficiently challenged in technology and computing at school, whether they are academic or vocationally-orientated students.

Third level

The third-level system is experiencing similar problems to FÁS and the further educatin sector at the moment, but to a lesser extent.

Large numbers of staff within the institute of technology sector have been involved in the education of apprentices who were working in the construction sector. Colleges are now struggling to redeploy these staff members.

If we adopted a European Baccalaureate vocational model in our schools for practically-minded students from 14 years upwards, which saw them qualified and ready for employment at age 18, what would all these staff do?

Apprenticeships: The need to revive the training system

During the boom we developed a system of apprenticeship training that was convoluted, expensive and served the needs of FÁS rather than of employers and trainees.

The collapse of the construction sector threw the weaknesses of the system into sharp relief. Now that the entire vocational education landscape is being rewritten, it is time to rebuild apprenticeship from the bottom up.

When the construction industry collapsed in 2008, FÁS provided funding for some students, caught in the middle of their four- year apprenticeship cycle here, to complete their training in the UK.

The move revealed an anomaly in our training model; these students were brought to full qualification in just four months in the UK. The lengthy Irish apprenticeship model was designed to provide years of employment for FÁS trainers. It’s wasteful, it makes no sense and, public-service contracts or not, we can’t justify continuing these practices.

Meanwhile, some successful training programmes were dismantled. Excellent courses previously delivered by CERT/Fáilte Ireland in areas such as catering migrated into degree programmes in the institutes of technology.

This left some young people who do not meet the entry requirements of the institutes of technology bereft of opportunity, and has left the restaurant and hotel industry critically short of quality staff.

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