Thursday, 27 February 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. D. Ahern: This is an important issue to the town of Drogheda. It has been on the agenda for some time with officials in the Department of Education and the Minister has capitulated to them in their attempts to abolish a number of vocational education committees and amalgamate others.
Drogheda is one of the largest vocational education committees in the country, yet the Minister proposes to merge it with County Louth vocational education committee. While it may be the smallest county, Louth has the difficult problem of long-term unemployment. Recent figures show that unemployment in the north-east and especially in County Louth are higher than elsewhere, including Dublin.
However, this move is not only seen as the removal of the vocational education committee but a downgrading of a town the size of Drogheda. The town and its catchment form an area far greater than other areas with vocational education committees.
 This is an anti-democratic move. It illustrates the tendency of the Minister to centralise everything into bigger units. Fianna Fáil is vehemently opposed to the regional structures which the Minister is putting in place as a quid pro quo for abolishing some of the vocational education committees. My party favours the vocational education committee structure.
Some Government Deputies, including Deputy Bell, have been saying that Fianna Fáil proposed the abolition of Drogheda vocational education committee when it was in Government. That is a political lie. A proposal was put forward by officials when Fianna Fáil was in Government but it was rejected by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey.
The Minister has effectively given in to her officials. By contrast, Fianna Fáil in Government was able to withstand any such proposal because it was anti-democratic. It is similar to what the Labour Party seeks to do by way of centralisation.
Mr. Kirk: The town of Drogheda vocational education committee was established pursuant to the enactment of the 1931 vocational education committee legislation. It is a significant vocational education committee and one of the seven town vocational education committees, as they are classified. It has a population catchment of approximately 70,000 people and caters for students in the south County Louth, east County Meath and north Dublin catchment. Approximately 1,690 second level students attend Saint Oliver's and Saint Laurence's Colleges and approximately 1,900 participate under the adult education vocational education committee structure.
Given its proximity to Dublin, Drogheda has effectively become a dormitory town for the greater Dublin area. As a measure of the success of the colleges under its aegis, a student achieved seven grade As in his leaving certificate. The vocational education committee provides Youthreach, VTOS and Plc courses and back-up services for 22 voluntary organisations in the catchment area. It is community driven, has close links with industry and responsibility for the administration of school transport in the area. Recently it has forged links with universities in the North and the UK.
The town of Drogheda vocational education committee does not compare with the other vocational education committees in the country. Drogheda is the second largest provincial town in the country but does not have a regional technical college. To maintain the status of the vocational  education committee system the town of Drogheda vocational education committee needs to be retained. I ask the Minister to reconsider the decision to effectively abolish it.
The White Paper on Education Charting our Education Future sets out Government policy in relation to the rationalisation of vocational education committees. It states that legislation will be introduced to amend the Vocational Education Acts which will, inter alia, provide for the retention and rationalisation of the vocational education committees within the new education board structure.
In accordance with the White Paper proposals, a Commission on School Accommodation Needs was established, the first task of which was to examine the existing vocational education committee structure and to report and make recommendations on the rationalisation of vocational education committees. The commission consisted of a large — 34 member — steering group representative of the partners in education and a technical working group which prepared reports for the steering group.
The report of the steering group was published on 11 October 1996. While the report of the technical working group recommended that following the process of rationalisation the number of vocational education committees should stand at 18, the steering group's report came down in favour of a final figure of 21.
The principal recommendations of the steering group are that the number of vocational education committees be rationalised to 21, the first phase of which would be the amalgamation, by ministerial order, of the five urban district vocational education areas — Bray, Drogheda, Sligo, Tralee and Wexford — with their respective country vocational education committees as provided for in the Vocational Education Act, 1930. The second phase would include the making of ministerial orders for the amalgamation of further vocational education committees, following amendment of the 1930 Act; the rationalised committees restructured in terms of their composition, term of office, powers and responsibilities; and a mechanism established for reviewing the numbers of vocational education committees in the light of demographic needs and developments in educational provision.
Following consideration of the report of the steering group of the commission on accommodation, the Government decided the process of rationalisation of vocational education committees would commence with the making of ministerial orders to amalgamate the five town vocational education committees — Bray, Drogheda, Sligo, Tralee and Wexford — with their respective county vocational education committees,  as provided for under section 100 of the Vocational Education Act, 1930. This decision was announced on 15 October 1996. The Minister signed the orders on 21 February 1997 and they will come into effect on 1 January 1998.
To ensure these amalgamations proceed smoothly a facilitation process has been put in place. Mr. Micheál Breathnach, a former chief executive officer with County Wicklow vocational education committee, has been appointed facilitator.
Local committees representing the five towns will be retained until the next local elections. Final decisions on further amalgamations will be taken in the context of amending the vocational education legislation.
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