Tuesday, 20 February 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Finneran: I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for accepting my motion on the Adjournment, which calls on the Minister for Education and Science to provide the necessary funding to increase the grant towards the VTOS run by vocational education committees. I have put down this matter as a result of a large number of representations received from individuals, tutors and the vocational education committee itself. This is an excellent scheme. I am pleased to endorse the concept and the whole operation of the scheme as it applies on a practical basis.
I wish to address the funding of the scheme. I request that the scheme include new opportunities in information technology. I refer to the VTOS run by the Roscommon Vocational Education Committee, and this can also be seen as an example of the national operation. The scheme gives a second chance for education and training to unemployed and socially excluded adults. That is an excellent concept and many people have availed of it and have done very well.
This scheme, which is a labour market intervention, was put in place in 1989 with the allocation of £15,000 per annum for each group of 20 participants. Twelve years later, it is still operating with the same allocation. That is not acceptable. The system of support that was so welcomed and has been so beneficial over the years is not being properly funded. It is a matter deserving of public debate.
The lack of proper funding is causing a financial crisis in the provision of courses. Running costs for the VTOS, which include rent, heat and material costs, have spiralled during the period. IT training is crucial and cannot be adequately catered for within the budget. The people who run the scheme in Roscommon state that they require as a minimum a doubling of funds. That request is probably inadequate – a doubling of the funds would not be adequate.
This scheme is so important that an overall review of the financial structure and support systems is now necessary. People who for whatever reason have fallen through the net are now prepared to re-enter the education system as adults. The vocational education committees are prepared to give them support but due to financial constraints it has been impossible to do.
There have been many individual representations to me on the matter and it is a concern throughout Roscommon and the constituency of Longford-Roscommon. I understand from colleagues that the same situation applies in other areas also. You, a Chathaoirligh, are aware of the situation from your educational background and  I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to debate this matter.
If any group needs support now, it is the group dealt with under this scheme. I am conscious of the major contribution by the Government towards education. I recently complimented both the Government and the Minister on their unprecedented commitment to national schools, as well as to remedial teaching and career guidance. That committment is very welcome and we are pleased with many other aspects of educational policy including the school building programme.
This is an exclusive group of adults who for one reason or another, due to no fault of their own in most cases, failed to get through the educational system satisfactorily. This excellent scheme is a backup system for people who fell through that net. I believe that some areas of the Minister of State's city, Limerick, have seen social exclusion in the past and he has supported schemes such as those I speak of. Other areas, other counties, other vocational education committees have all made representations to the Department of Education and Science on this matter and I ask that it gets the attention it deserves.
I hope that this scheme, administered and overseen by vocational educational committees, will get the necessary funds to ensure assistance for that section of our community that needs this support. Other areas are being funded through FÁS, EU initiatives and schemes for retraining and alternative employment. This system of vocational education committees is unique to Ireland and it is important that the adult education backup that the vocational education committees have been so widely associated with over the years, is supported by the necessary finance now and in the future.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): The vocational training opportunities scheme was established in 1989 as a special initiative designed to cater for the education and training needs of long-term unemployed people. VTOS is a second chance education and training programme of up to two years duration for adults aged 21 and older who have been unemployed for at least six months. VTOS programmes involve approximately 30 hours course attendance per week, and last for up to two years. The scheme is operated through the 33 vocational education committees and there are 99 centres throughout the country catering for some 5,000 participants.
Students on VTOS are offered a wide range of vocational options, from NCVA foundation level for those with no qualifications to level two post-leaving certificate level. Participants may also pursue subjects in the junior or leaving certificate or acquire a portfolio of qualifications in line with their needs and interests. Courses are provided free of charge, as are books and materials. VTOS students are also paid travelling expenses and a  small meal allowance in line with those payable by FÁS. They cease to retain unemployment payments and are paid training allowances of at least an equivalent amount. They retain secondary benefit entitlements such as rent allowances.
While the scheme is primarily for people on unemployment assistance or benefit, there had for some years been a provision whereby a maximum of 10% of VTOS places could be taken by lone parents, people in receipt of disability allowances, and dependant spouses of those eligible to join VTOS. In November 1998, the 10% was removed in response to sustained demand. Participants in these categories may now join VTOS on an equal footing with other eligible groups.
The vocational training opportunities scheme has proved successful in opening up learning and progression opportunities for people who have been marginalised by unemployment. It has been highly responsive to the requirements of employers in that it equips participants with a range of general education and vocational qualifications, and a wide range of core transferable skills. For each of the years 1994 to 2000, 70% or more of participants who completed the programme progressed to work or further education.
The current running cost of the programme is approximately £32 million, part funded until 1999 by the European Social Fund. This includes tuition costs, allowances to students and non-pay funding for general overheads.
The motion refers to the VTOS non-pay funding of £15,000 paid by my Department to vocational education committees in respect of each group of 20 students. That funding covers expenditure on such items as light, heat, rent, equipment and other general expenses. This element of funding has remained unchanged since 1989. I am aware that costs generally have increased since then. Because of limitations on resources, it has not so far been found possible to correspondingly increase this grant. It is fair to point out, however, that improvements have been made in the resources available for VTOS students.
In order to ensure equality of treatment in terms of training allowances, the rates of allowances on VTOS and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs' back to work scheme were equalised in 1998. VTOS students who were in receipt of unemployment payments prior to going on VTOS are now paid a training allowance equivalent to the maximum standard rate of unemployment benefit.
In September 1999, a training bonus of £25 per week was introduced for participants who were registered as long-term unemployed prior to starting their programme. This extra allowance is seen as an important incentive in encouraging the most marginalised in the labour market to take  the important step of returning to education and training.
A new management structure has recently been put in place for VTOS centres. Additionally, vocational education committees can now appoint permanent teachers to the VTOS. This costs about £I.5 million per annum. Grants for child care have been provided in order to facilitate the attendance of people who would otherwise be prevented from doing so by child care responsibilities.
The National Development Plan 2000-2006 clearly defines objectives in relation to education and training so that every individual can attain an adequate level of literacy and numeracy. Lifelong learning is a central theme of this plan to address unemployment and social exclusion, and emerging skills and labour shortages. Additionally, the recently published White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life, sets out a rationale for investment in adult education and the principles which underpin it.
One of the principal objectives of VTOS is to reach those most in need, particularly older unemployed people and those with the lowest educational skills. It is the intention to review the terms of VTOS in the context of a consultancy study currently being undertaken with a view to making the scheme even more effective for hard to reach people.
The back to education initiative, as set out in the White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life, proposes to expand VTOS, Youthreach, PLC and senior traveller training programmes on a part-time basis. This new initiative will address the increase in demand for places, and provide flexibility in provision of programmes to meet the demands of adults wishing to return to education and training. This initiative will also be an important step in providing flexible progression pathways, particularly at foundation level, to enable adults to move from the literacy service into modular part-time programmes. As part of this strategy, improvements in class size to a 10:1 ratio are proposed for all participants on the back to education initiative with less than upper secondary education.
The numbers of persons projected to avail of the back to education initiative is approximately 320,000 and expenditure will amount to £1.027 billion over the period of the National Development Plan 2000-2006. The resources for the VTOS programme will be examined in that context.
Mr. Finneran: This is a very positive response and an overall view from the Minister on this scheme that I welcome very much. I have no doubt that the motion before the House will be reflected in the final outcome.
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