More options for school leavers under new five-year plan

New strategy: Students able to select further-education courses alongside CAO picks

A new strategy aims to break down barriers between further and higher education by boosting the profile of the sector. File photograph: The Irish Times

A new strategy aims to break down barriers between further and higher education by boosting the profile of the sector. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Students will be able to apply for university and further-education courses at the same time under a five-year plan to expand study options for school leavers.

There have been growing concerns that too many students are choosing higher-education over options such as apprenticeships and further-education courses.

A new strategy aims to break down barriers between further and higher education by boosting the profile of the sector and allowing more students to transfer seamlessly from post-Leaving Cert courses to university.

Moreover, it seeks to increase significantly the number of adults reskilling or upskilling in light of changes to the economy.

The Future FET strategy has been developed by Solas, the State body that oversees the further education and training sector.

It is part of a broader vision aimed at tackling what some see as a status problem with further education, which leads many school leavers to regard it as a “second-best” choice.

The plan is due be launched on Thursday by Minister for Education Simon Harris, who says further education has for too long been “the Cinderella of the Irish education system”.

“Sometimes overlooked. Often undervalued. Conversations about third level education have been confined to discussions about CAO applications, points and university degrees,” he said.

“Further education has been the uninvited guest to the debates around the dinner tables about what to do after Leaving Cert. We need to change all that. And we will.”

Options

The strategy notes that there is a need to increase the visibility of further-education options for school leavers during the traditional Central Applications Office (CAO) window in sixth year.

It states that this is a focal point for school leavers, but the absence of further-education choices at this point “undoubtedly devalues it as an equally valid option”.

It proposes the development of a parallel or connected application mechanism that would show the wider portfolio of education options across further education, apprenticeships and higher education.

It also envisages helping learners make “smart choices” by ensuring each further education course offers a clear pathway to a vocation or career or into a higher-education degree programme.

These plans have been boosted by new research which indicates that students who first complete further education courses are significantly more likely to graduate from third-level degree courses.

For example, up to 75 per cent of students with a foundation in a Post-Leaving Cert course who move on to higher education complete their degree. By contrast, only 50 per cent of students who enter higher education directly with 300 CAO points complete their degree.

The strategy also envisages a “digital transformation” to provide greater access to courses online or on a blended basis, combining remote and in-class learning.

It notes that there are great examples of education and training boards developing blended courses for learners well beyond their region, but these are isolated. The approach adopted in these cases needs to be rolled out across the sector, the strategy states.

‘Lifelong learning’

It also aims to explore potential for individual learner accounts where an individual’s credentials and credits achieved within further education can be tracked.

These, it says, will be critical to meeting the needs of enterprises and their employees, and in positioning FET as the “go to” place for lifelong learning.

It says there is also potential to further develop its “eCollege” as a national online learning service, looking at how it can best develop further education and training content.

Solas chief executive Andrew Brownlee said the new five-year strategy comes at an exciting time for the further education and training sector.

“As a country, we are in the process of transforming how people of all ages view their learning options after secondary school and throughout their lives,” he said.

Mr Brownlee said we are moving towards an integrated education system, combining further and higher education, and embedding the key role that lifelong learning has to play in social inclusion and economic success.

“The creation of the new Department for Further and Higher Education is a significant milestone in this regard,” he said.

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