In my opinion...
Ireland's schools and colleges of further education and training play an essential role. In my day-to-day position, I see first-hand the positive impact they have, not only on young students, but on older students investing in new skills or returning to their careers.
Nearly 80pc of the 33,000 students who enrol in a post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course every year progress to employment, further or higher education.
Recent reports by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the Further Education and Training Authority, SOLAS, confirm the positive role played by PLC provision. They also identify key challenges for policy development, including responding to changing labour market conditions, developing closer links with employers, enhancing guidance, extra training for staff and providing access to the PLC programme on a more even geographical spread.
For these recommendations to translate into meaningful change, they will require capital investment and operational change. Two areas of reform must be prioritised. The first is the imbalance in geographic access to PLC courses for students. The second is greater flexibility within the PLC funding and operational model.
The uneven geographical spread has to be tackled head-on. It manifests itself through a lack of access to further education (FE) in some areas and, arguably, oversupply in others. It means that prospective FE students in some of Ireland's fastest growing towns and urban areas are not serviced by any FE college. In addition, the report also highlights that Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Leitrim, Monaghan and Wexford need additional PLC places.
Much of the reason for this lies in the way these colleges developed, often as add-ons to secondary schools, but without any strategic vision for the wider needs of an area and its future population growth. Bringing FE facilities to under-serviced and growing areas must now be a focus.
Equally, the sector needs to move quickly to embrace online and distance learning education and training. The current post-primary level funding, operational and teacher allocation models do not allow for students to undertake either a blended learning or online PLC course (colleges receive funding based on physical attendance rather than course registrations), so our existing funding model cannot support these types of learning. In addition, this model requires all teachers on the PLC programme to be Teaching Council-registered, which poses a problem in employing industry current or specialist staff.
The global economy has changed dramatically and STEM skills in particular have become even more important. Ireland is an international hub for technology and internet companies, and is growing in prominence as a leader in financial technology or 'fintech'. In order to educate and train students to be fintech job-ready, current teaching staff need to have access to training courses. There also needs to be a system put in place whereby industry practitioners, who contribute added value, can teach in our schools or colleges. Currently they have to be Teaching Council-registered to be paid from the public purse.
We must acknowledge that the post-primary and PLC sectors are not the same, and that regulations need to be amended to allow industry experts to pass on their knowledge and be paid for their time. The NAPD has urged the Department of Education and SOLAS to fast track the establishment of a joint 'Improvement Advisory Committee' to create a development plan for the sector. A key objective must be agreement on the investment needed to implement change. Without it, reforms will be undermined from the outset.
The world beyond our classrooms is changing quickly. The further education sector must not be left behind.
Cecilia Munro is principal of Dun Laoghaire FE Institute and chairperson of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals' (NAPD) Further Education and Training Committee and writes here in this capacity.