Further education spending is ‘disjointed’, claims review

Government survey criticises method of disbursing €800m in funding for courses

There is a ‘disjointed’ approach to the way more than €800m is being spent on further education courses, a Government review has found. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

There is a ‘disjointed’ approach to the way more than €800m is being spent on further education courses, a Government review has found. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

There is a “fragmented” and “disjointed” approach to the way more than €800 million is being spent on further education courses, a Government review has found.

More than 200,000 people participate in further education courses each year, including school-leavers and adults seeking “second chance” education.

The Department of Public Expenditure report finds the rationale for funding different types of programmes is unclear and says this should be driven by a robust national strategy.

It finds there are major differences in emphasis, with some regions such as Dublin, the east and south more likely to have a strong emphasis on courses linked to the labour market.

By contrast, areas such as the midlands, west and mid-west are likely to place a greater emphasis on programmes aimed at promoting greater social inclusion, such as literacy and numeracy.

These findings echo those of an Economic and Social Research Institute report in 2014, which concluded that the reasons for these differences did not appear to be policy-driven, but instead were due to the fact these programmes had grown in an “ad-hoc and unplanned manner”.

The review also notes that “legacy” issues mean it is difficult to track the numbers of individuals progressing into employment or higher education after taking these courses.

This is a reference to sweeping reforms which resulted in the dissolution of the State training agency Fás, along with the amalgamation of 33 vocational education committees into 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs).

Solas, a State agency created in 2013, now oversees the wider further education and training sector.

Regional funding

In response to the findings, Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) – the umbrella body for local education and training boards – defended regional variation in funding.

General secretary Michael Moriarty said: “Donegal is not the same as Dublin. In Donegal, for example, you will have rural isolation and a different social profile. That is why funding in the local education and training boards is targeted and based on local needs.”

He said some of the findings and analysis appeared to be historic and did not take account of strategic planning involving ETBs and Solas.

While the sector has been criticised for a lack of robust data at a national level, some ETBs say they have been compiling detailed regional figures for a number of years.

Kerry Education and Training Board, for example, says it has been tracking the outcomes for learners and found that nearly half of participants in post-leaving cert (PLC) courses went on to some form of further or higher education and training, while nearly a third secured paid employment of some type.

Of those who completed Vocational Training Opportunity Scheme courses - which have a stronger social inclusion focus than PLCs – close to a third had gone on to further education and training, while a fifth progressed directly into employment.

Kerry ETB says its figures also show the striking variation in need, even within a single county, depending on the population profile.

Over-41s

While Tralee has more young people taking part in courses, Listowel and Killarney have more people in the age band of 26-41 years. Further south in Cahirciveen, the concentration of males over 41 years taking part in courses is much higher.

“Given that there are fewer employment opportunities in the area than in the main towns, it is not surprising that more Cahirciveen learners progressed to further study or a Government-sponsored scheme, than to paid employment in the open labour market,” a spokeswoman for Kerry ETB said.

While the Department of Public Expenditure report recognises there is a need for a regional focus to further education funding, it says there should be an evidence-based approach to maximise the effectiveness.

The spending review notes that Solas, the State body responsible for funding the sector, is working towards closing data gaps which have prevented authorities from tracking the progress of individuals to date.

The development of a national database or “programme and learner support system ” will enable policymakers to access detailed outcomes across all courses.

The report also calls on Solas to evaluate the level of expenditure in the wider socially focused provision and to consider whether more funding should go towards meeting the needs of the wider labour market.