Colleges may put on courses for the unemployed


IN A NEW Government action plan, third-level colleges will be asked to provide places and a broad range of courses for the growing number of unemployed, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said yesterday.

A Cabinet subcommittee will report shortly to Taoiseach Brian Cowen on how the universities and particularly the 14 institutes of technology could play a role in retraining and upskilling.

The committee will also examine how Fás training centres could be used as part of a national reskilling programme. Many have spare capacity due to a fall-off in apprenticeships. Forfás and the IDA are also involved in the process of identifying the skills that are needed in the economy.

The Government is also expecting colleges providing post-Leaving Cert courses to play a critical role in the new drive to upskill the unemployed. But the Minister gave no indication if the cap on places in these courses, at just over 30,000, would be lifted.

He said the new drive would have clear resource implications and hinted that money might be reallocated from existing programmes to fund it. The subcommittee includes Mr O’Keeffe, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Coughlan and Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin. Mr O’Keeffe focused in particular on the surplus capacity in the institutes of technology sector.

In recent years many institutes have struggled to fill thousands of places, particularly on computer and engineering courses. In an effort to fill places, institutes will accept students on very low CAO points levels provided they meet minimum entry requirements.

The Minister was speaking at the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network. In his address, the group’s president, Larry Fleming, proposed that the final year of the €1,000 childcare supplement should be used to lower junior infant class sizes.

While the Minister praised the group for “thinking outside the box’’, he was slow to endorse the measure. Parents, he said, might be slow to agree to such a plan. There was also the issue of junior infants moving from very small classes to much larger classes.

In his first major address since the education cutbacks, the Minister was received politely by over 800 delegates.

In his address, the director of the principals’ group, Seán Cottrell, criticised the micro-management of primary schools by the department. He advocated a new regime in which principals were given autonomy to allocate and manage staff and resources. The group has tabled a 10-point plan which he says would deliver a more effective education service at no extra cost. Some of the proposals include: a reduction in uncertified sick leave from 31 to five days per year, the abolition of ineffective education quangos, putting professional fees for school contracts out to tender, and the designation of all primary schools with charitable status.

Mr Cottrell’s address, which received a standing ovation, criticised some aspects of the debate on public service reform.

“Everyone in the public sector it seems has been lumped in together as though we are all behaving like the top brass in Fás.

“The reality is that primary schools are not only more cost-effective than any other organisation in the public or private sector; they could also show many businesses a thing or two about managing on a tight budget. Can you imagine the savings Brian Lenihan would make if he put a principal in charge of Fás, the HSE or our new Anglo Irish Bank?”

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy told the conference the budget decision to cut access to schoolbooks was an appalling response to economic problems and an indication that Government thinking was skewed.

“Children from the most vulnerable families, including children from poor families, Traveller children and the children of immigrants, need access to books, special support and small classes,” she said.