Thursday, 30 November 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera): I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter of adult and further education because there have been significant initiatives in the Department of Education and Science in recent years. The Green Paper on Adult Education and the White Paper on Adult Education were published eight years and six years ago, respectively.
Since 2000, adult and further education has been promoted by the Government and the task of prioritising further education has been mine since 2002. When I assumed this responsibility, expenditure on adult and further education was €113 million. In 2007, it will be approximately €169 million, an increase of €56 million, or 50%.
Increases in the provision for adult education have been a significant feature of every budget. I was delighted to note the figure announced in the 2007 Estimates represents an increase of almost €19 million, or 12%, as compared to the position in 2006. It compares well to the increase in the overall departmental provision of 8%.
This summer, the ten-year framework social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, was ratified. The framework takes a life cycle perspective, as it addresses the economic challenges and, in particular, the key social challenges that lie ahead. It focuses on children, people of working age, older people and people with disabilities. Within each sector, there are initiatives that directly affect further education and its development during the next ten years.
This summer, I received the adult literacy in Ireland report, which contains 28 recommendations, from the Joint Committee on Education and Science. The recommendations will be considered by my Department in the context of the overall policy of making further improvements in literacy provision nationwide as resources permit.
Adult literacy and basic education have been my top priorities in adult education, as participation in any educational programme is impossible if one is unable to benefit due to poor literacy and numeracy skills. I am providing for an increase of €7.4 million, 21% of the budget for adult literacy and community education, allowing for 3,000 additional literacy places in 2007. It will increase expenditure to more than €30 million and the number of participants to 38,000 compared to 28,000 in 2002. Following the Towards 2016 agreement, 4,000 additional places will be available until 2009, bringing the total to 42,000.
To cater for the literacy and basic education needs of immigrant groups, vocational education committees have been provided with funds to afford free access to literacy, English language and mother culture supports. Almost 10,000 students availed of tuition in English under the English for speakers of other languages programme in 2005, comprising 27% of participants in adult literacy programmes.
In addition to providing extra money, we have taken many targeted initiatives in the past eight years to cater for the literacy needs of particular groups. This year alone saw the initiation of a number of measures. An intensive programme in basic education for adults experiencing literacy and numeracy skills deficiencies was piloted last spring. In this programme, students receive six hours’ adult basic education a week for a 14-week period. This is an additional option to the weekly two hours’ tuition in general literacy which is available from and provided by all 33 vocational education committees, VECs, throughout the country. This intensive approach facilitates accelerated learning.
I am pleased to say that the initiative responds to recommendation 13 in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science adult literacy report, which sought an intensive option of between four and six hours. It also responds to a recommendation in the national adult literacy and numeracy plan. The initiative has been evaluated and the findings have been very positive. Therefore, the increased literacy provision for 2007 includes €1 million to allow for a doubling of the funding for the intensive programme in basic education.
Following on from the “Read Write Now” series in 2006, the national adult literacy agency devised a new two-year multimedia literacy project, entitled The Really Useful Guide to Words and Numbers. One element of this project is a TV series of that name, which is shown every week on RTE 1, at 1 p.m. on Sundays, with a repeat just after midnight on Tuesday. The series commenced in September 2006 and will run until April 2007. It is accompanied by a learner workbook, a free telephone helpline and a website. The website includes printable sheets from the workbook, additional on-line activities and the entire video clip of each programme 24 hours after broadcast. I was very happy to participate in one of the programmes. It is important that a multifaceted approach is adopted to attract people and enable them to upskill in the comfort of their homes.
My Department has some experience of workplace literacy through a project we have been assisting for some years through which literacy tuition is given to men who are manual workers in local authorities. While the interest shown by the target group and the outcomes of the project were encouraging, they pointed up a need to develop workplace literacy on a large scale. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is responsible for workplace learning and training. I discussed with the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, and the current Minister, Deputy Martin, my concerns about the problems staff face in their workplace if they have low literacy and numeracy skills. In response, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment gave €2 million to FÁS in 2005 and 2006 to address the literacy and numeracy needs of staff in the workplace. I am especially pleased to have such evidence of co-operation and co-ordination between Departments and State agencies.
In May 2005, the Department launched DEIS, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools — An Action Plan in Educational Inclusion. This action plan, which is being implemented, focuses on addressing the needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities, from pre-school through second level. Recognising the vital role of parents and other family members in children’s literacy development, a new family literacy project is being initiated. The project will take a partnership approach in that it will involve the VEC adult literacy services, the home-school-community liaison scheme, the national adult literacy agency, schools, students and parents. A holistic approach will be adopted to enable family members to become involved in enhancing their children’s literacy development. I am glad to note that this initiative will address another of the recommendations in the Oireachtas committee’s adult literacy report.
I mentioned earlier that further education will benefit from the Towards 2016 agreement in all the life stages. Within the children stage, additional funding has been provided to enhance the Youthreach programme. An increase of €3.5 million has been allocated for Youthreach in 2007 to cater for the expansion of the number of places by 400, bringing the total to approximately 3,700. In the following two years, 600 further places will be made available.
Youthreach provides an integrated education, vocational training and work experience for early school leavers aged between 15 and 20 years. The students are often alienated from the formal education system and mainly come from economically disadvantaged communities. They frequently present as socially vulnerable and at risk of long-term social, economic and educational exclusion.
There are 90 Youthreach centres throughout the country with 3,250 students enrolled. I have been aware that a significant proportion of Youthreach students have social and learning needs characterised by low levels of esteem and low levels of literacy and numeracy. On 27 November, I announced that I had set up a new €2 million special educational needs initiative for Youthreach. Among other provisions, it will allow for the introduction of additional staffing resources, such as community workers, counsellors, mentors or resource personnel, to address the special educational needs of Youthreach students. The initiative will begin in 20 Youthreach programmes throughout the country. Following an evaluation, it will be extended to all Youthreach centres.
I have been very happy with the success of the back to education initiative since its introduction in 2002. We are providing an increase of €1.3 million for the expansion of part-time options under the programme in 2007. The number of BTEI part-time training places will be increased by 1,000 places to 9,000, catering for in excess of 24,000 participants. In addition, a further 1,000 places will be made available in 2008-09. The overall aim of the BTEI will be to increase the participation of young people and adults with less than upper second level education in a range of flexible learning opportunities. The priority will be to target adults who experience difficulties in accessing and returning to education full-time. It will address the needs of adults with low literacy levels, and, because of its part-time nature, will provide more flexible learning opportunities. It focuses particularly on addressing the learning needs of people who combine family, personal and work responsibilities with education. The initiative aims to engage those who are difficult to reach by providing them with an opportunity to return to education at a pace that does not intimidate but best suits their needs.
As a result of child care responsibilities, many adults find it difficult to enrol in adult education programmes. To facilitate them, annual grants are given to vocational education committees towards the cost of child care support for participants in the vocational opportunities scheme, VTOS, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centre programmes. These grants will assist such people and enable them to enrol in programmes of their choice. Demand and provision have increased incrementally over recent years.
I have obtained additional funding of €900,000 in the recent Estimate for child care. Until now, child care support has been restricted to the full-time further education programmes just mentioned. Some €500,000 of this additional funding will be used to extend child care support to participants under the back to education initiative from 2007.
I have continually promoted community education and emphasised its role in encouraging women back into education. Next year, I am providing €110,000 to consolidate women’s participation in community education, through the extension and mainstreaming of the AONTAS women’s community education quality assurance framework project. This framework demonstrates the uniqueness of the work carried out by women’s groups and provides a quality benchmark for it.
In addition, I am providing €120,000 which will enable research into adult and community education, lifelong learning and civil society to be carried out. AONTAS, the national association of adult education, will be central to these measures.
My Department is one of the co-sponsors of an adult learners’ festival that will take place next January. This is organised by AONTAS. It will celebrate adult learning and the achievements of adults. This festival, along with the adult literacy awareness week, in which I participated last September, showcases the work being done in adult and further education. It raises awareness and highlights the profile of the sector.
There are many options available for those returning to education and we must ensure that those taking this step are not left without support and guidance when it is needed. For anyone to return to education as an adult requires immense courage, dedication, commitment and a willingness to make sacrifices in the short term to find fulfilment in their future. Returning to education as an adult requires immense courage, dedication, commitment and a willingness to make sacrifices in the short term to find fulfilment in the future. It is not enough to provide courses and certification. Without support, many of those committing to lifelong learning will flounder. Those who have embarked on this journey need to be guided along the way. A coherent integrated service which offers information, advice and guidance on an individual and group basis to assist people to make the best choices for learning is required.
The adult educational guidance initiative was launched in 1999 in response to the recognition of these needs. A total of 38 projects have now been established and the service is almost nationwide. In 2007, an additional €l million is being made available to further expand the adult education guidance initiative. The initiative covers a spectrum of needs ranging from initial outreach, particularly in the field of literacy and basic education, to vocational information, guidance and orientation.
The post-leaving certificate, PLC, sector caters for two distinct groups of students — young people who enter PLCs directly from second level or adults who wish to return to education to upskill and obtain certification. The increase in numbers in the PLC sector in recent years is due to the increased participation by those over 21 years, that is, by adults returning to education and partaking in lifelong learning. Certification is offered at FETAC levels five and six. We have increased the number of PLC places by 60% since 1996-97. The number of approved places in the sector now stands at just more than 30,000. There are more than 200 PLC providers located throughout the country.
Last summer, the ESRI published a report, which was commissioned by my Department, on the post-leaving certificate sector. This report provides a profile of the PLC students. It found that 72% of the students are female. This gender imbalance probably reflects greater male progression into alternative post-school education and training options, particularly the apprenticeship route. Only 35% of PLC students are in receipt of maintenance grants. Progression after completion of a PLC programme is either to higher education or directly into employment, with a 50:50 divide. Participants in PLC courses are less likely to be unemployed than most other categories of school leavers. The programme provides the students with the knowledge, skills and competence to successfully enter the workforce in their chosen specialist area or to progress to further studies in the higher education sector.
I am particularly pleased I have been able to ensure progress in the PLC sector. Provision has now been made in the Estimates which will enable my officials to table proposals and to enter into negotiations with the management and union sides in December. The aim of the negotiations will be to arrive at an agreement that will enhance the programmes and services provided. The actual scale of provision necessary in 2007 will depend on the pace and outcome of the negotiations, the implementation timescale and the scope for rationalisation and economies in the present arrangements. I look forward to a fruitful engagement by all sides on the issues involved.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome this debate. This is probably the Minister of State’s last official visit to this House in her ministerial capacity. I acknowledge her commitment to her areas of responsibility in the Department, particularly school transport. That sector went through a difficult time in the past couple of years as a result of the tragedies that occurred. However, there has been a fruitful outcome to those problems. I also acknowledge the Minister of State’s commitment to the adult and further education sector. I wish her a happy retirement from office and a fruitful time when she follows her stated intention to pursue an academic path. We look forward to seeing the fruits of her endeavours in that area.
One must welcome the additional resources mentioned by the Minister of State. They will help to improve the lifestyle and livelihood of many people who have lost out, in one way or another, in their careers to date. However, when one sees the resources being provided — they are necessary resources and some might consider them inadequate — it is difficult to understand how planners in the Department of Education and Science did not see fit to provide them at a much earlier stage in the education cycle given that the problems arose at that stage and were neglected. The necessary resources and input were not provided.
There is an unbelievable problem with adult literacy in this country. Adult education, back to education and other such schemes are worthwhile and laudable but when approximately 13,000 young people are dropping out of school prior to the leaving certificate, far greater resources should be focused on eliminating that problem at the source or at an early stage rather than tackling it piecemeal later. I cannot understand why the planners in the Department seem reluctant to do that.
The Minister will recall a matter that was raised on the Adjournment earlier this week. In that case tremendous work had been done by the home school liaison co-ordinators in schools but because the schemes were successful they are now being withdrawn. Why would somebody in the Department of Education and Science decide to punish these people because they have been successful in their endeavours? It cannot be seen in any other light.
Early identification of difficulties is acknowledged to be the important issue in solving problems that might arise. More than 1,600 schools do not have the National Educational Psychological Service or NEPS. Therein lies the cause of many of the problems that arise later with regard to literacy. Approximately 25% of our population are unable to read or perform simple English literacy tasks. That is a damning indictment of our failure in the initial stages of education. A great deal of good work is being done at adult level, which is important and welcome, but if only some effort or input had been made at an earlier stage. It amounts to a loss of resources.
This country has large class sizes. Some effort is being made to reduce their size, particularly in disadvantaged areas. However, the effort is not sufficient to provide the necessary tuition and the guidance and support mechanisms that are required to lift the people who have fallen behind. The tragedy is that when a person falls behind at an early stage, they fall out of the network probably for life. I urge the Minister of State to persuade the Minister to give her attention to schools which have been identified as needing home school liaison services. These services are crucial in terms of avoiding greater needs in the future.
Tremendous efforts have been made by various people and organisations to initiate and support adult and further education programmes and literacy schemes. Notable among these is the right to read scheme established by the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, which provides funding to local authorities in the greater Dublin area for extending the opening hours of libraries and making them more child friendly to encourage reading. This praiseworthy pilot project should be established on a national basis.
We must pay tribute to the adult education officers employed by VECs throughout the country for the work they have done in the area of adult education and literacy skills at a time when no one else was addressing the issue. They identified the problem and, with the help of volunteers and teachers who went far beyond their normal duties, devised straightforward and low cost solutions. It is a credit to the VECs that they have sown the seeds of the programmes outlined today by the Minister of State.
Employers could play a significant part in improving the literacy levels of their staff and in promoting further education. Some companies have the resources to do this but, unfortunately, employers do not always respond adequately to the needs of low skilled workers. Their attitude to employees is often that they should simply get on with the jobs they were given, with no regard for improving literacy skills. It would be advantageous if employers were flexible enough to allow time off for training, even if such training were provided internally. I am aware a worker’s self-esteem could be dented were he or she to be identified as having limited reading abilities but, if encouragement and support was shown, literacy levels could be significantly improved without great expense.
A review is needed of the guidance systems at all levels of the education structure. I commend NUI Maynooth on the efforts it has made to increase access by people with disadvantages. Maynooth’s efforts demonstrate that by endeavouring to reach those who would not otherwise gain access to education, we can give them a chance of success. Ten years ago, the drop-out rate from third-level institutions was increasing rapidly. However, rather than singling out institutions which have encountered difficulties in that regard, I want to highlight the record of the Athlone Institute of Technology in preventing students from dropping out. The institute’s success can be attributed to the community spirit it has developed by means of the guidance services on offer to students. Every student is regarded as an important part of the overall community. While we cannot pretend problems do not exist, we should acknowledge the work being done by individuals and managers of educational institutions to improve matters. However, unless we redirect resources to early education, we will continue to encounter problems at higher levels.
The back to education scheme is commendable but people who want to participate in part-time education are not being supported in terms of fees and maintenance grants, with the result that financial pressures continue to force them to drop out of education. If the Minister for Finance does anything for education in his Budget Statement, he should recognise the need to support part-time students through grants, as well as investing in the back to education scheme.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I thank the Leader for affording us the opportunity to debate further and adult education with the Minister of State, who has been always accessible to and informative with this House. I understand the Minister of State announced last November her intention to step down at the next general election and to resign her office next month. On the basis of reliable speculation that this could be her last opportunity to address the Seanad, I wish to take the opportunity to make a few observations, with the indulgence of the Leas-Chathaoirleach. It is likely to be the Minister of State’s last appearance before the Seanad, and I see that the she is confirming that.
I will begin by commenting on further and adult education, youth work and the many other different areas in which the Minister of State has been involved. She has enjoyed substantial and impressive ministerial input in the course of her political career, most recently in the Department of Education and Science. I acknowledge the Minister of State’s proud record of achievement with those various portfolios. If it transpires that she steps down at the next general election and no de Valera is elected to replace her, it will be the first time since 1917 that the surname will not be represented in the Houses of the Oireachtas. That is very significant, given the long and proud tradition of the de Valera family.
Mr. Fitzgerald: They have served politics both nationally and internationally, and it would be regrettable if the name were absent after the next general election. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, on her great commitment to caring, to the disadvantaged and to those worst off in society. Her political career has been of substance, being embroidered with political input at national and European level and on committees regarding education, care, arts, sport and culture.
The National Youth Council of Ireland supports voluntary organisations. I had hoped the Minister of State might have been present last week, when I quoted its president, Mr. James O’Leary. I am sure Senators will know him. He said some very nice things about the Minister of State, some of which are already on the record of the House. I would like to repeat them in her presence. He stated:
The Minister of State has attended functions throughout the country involving her varied remits, including youth work, further and adult education and school transport. Where she has addressed public gatherings, I have never had to ask her for information, since it has been immediately forthcoming, being given readily and very professionally. That is a tremendous tribute to a Minister of State. It is perhaps horrible to say that politicians trade in information, but we rely very heavily on being briefed, staying up to speed and keeping abreast of the latest developments in education, finance, justice and so on. Without fail, on every occasion the Minister of State has set up or developed one of the many initiatives in her remit, politicians and Members of the Oireachtas have immediately known of its significance and her vision in that regard. It was always done in an extremely professional and efficient manner, on which I commend the Minister of State very highly.
During the Minister of State’s last appearance before the House, I used an old seanfhocal to sum up her style. It occurred to me that it would be as fitting today as it was then. Regarding her style and what she brings to bear in politics and education, a subject as close to my heart as that of every other politician, I think “Is fearr beagán cúnaimh ná mórán trua”. The word “beagán” is very much an understatement regarding the Minister of State’s performance and record. Since taking up her brief on adult and further education, she has increased the relevant budget by €56 million, or 50%.
She has made significant progress in furthering adult opportunities to access second-chance education and re-embark on a journey of lifelong learning. An adult and further education sector has been firmly established, continuing to meet adults’ varying needs as they seek to enhance their lives through education. Notwithstanding the difficulties referred to by Senator Ulick Burke, progress on her watch has been spectacular and very impressive.
My words are borne out by people who greatly admire the Minister of State’s work in adult education, the adult education organisers themselves. She may know of my regular contacts with several, and in the past five or six days they have asked me to bring to her attention how strongly they have supported her vision and how enthusiastically they have embraced her many ideas and initiatives in adult education. They commented effusively on her exciting, new and sometimes revolutionary initiatives to target the most disadvantaged, marginalised and sometimes forgotten, those who have slipped through the net and dropped out of school. She has developed and followed up all those in the past four and a half years.
I have authority from those individuals, to whom I often speak, to convey to the Minister of State their heartfelt appreciation of her great work and the encouragement she has given them, which has helped imbue them with great professional pride. I can assure her that she is held in very high esteem by them, and they fully acknowledge the Minister of State’s high regard for adult education. The relationship is not just one way. When they talk, they express the view that it derives from her own very rich and varied professional experience of education. They very much regret her leaving the scene and thank her for her many exciting initiatives and the ways in which she has helped motivate and encourage them to deepen their vision regarding professional challenges.
On this special occasion, I would like to comment briefly on Síle de Valera the person. The first occasion I met the Minister of State was in Donaghmede Shopping Centre in 1979. She had been in politics since 1977. She may not remember that I had been assigned to look after the other side — there is no other side in Fianna Fáil, since we are all on the same side — represented by Professor Michael Yeats.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Professor Yeats was given to postulating and philosophising, and as I saw Deputy de Valera move swiftly around, in my impatience to get him to do the same, my engagement with him was somewhat unhappy. As we all know, the Minister of State went on to capture the European seat. Around that time, she addressed us in the auditorium of Coláiste Mhuire in Parnell Square, a very impressive occasion that I remember well.
The Minister of State is an individual of independent thought, a characteristic I strongly admire. On many occasions, she has sought to represent the true meaning of Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, which her grandfather founded, even when it meant going against party leaders. On many other occasions, she has agreed with them. I did not always agree with her. I admire her because she expressed her diverging views on issues she regarded as core principles for our party. In some instances, this stance was taken at considerable cost to her political career. She always believed in access and excellence, and worked to this end despite opposition from well established quarters. The Irish Times, for example, was critical of her on more than one occasion. She never deflected, however, because she believed in what she was saying and doing. It is appropriate that I should commend her on these admirable qualities.
She has now decided to bring her long and distinguished career to a close. Politics, both national and international, will be the worse for it and Fianna Fáil will regret her departure. More important, the needy and most disadvantaged in our society — those who have dropped out of the system — will suffer the most by her departure. There is no higher tribute I could pay to the Minister of State than this. I salute her as she departs a proud, fulfilling and fulfilled career, and I wish her every success in the future. I am confident she will bring the same professionalism and commitment to excellence to all the new challenges that await her.
Mr. Norris: I am pleased to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to the House. I am saddened this may be her last official visit to the House, and it is appropriate that we should bid her farewell. I did not expect the discussion to involve a ministerial lap of honour but I am happy to join in the encomia so elaborately laid before the House by my colleague, Senator Fitzgerald. I was operating under a slight misapprehension in that I understood this debate would encompass a discussion of third level education. I believe other Members were under the same misapprehension given we on this side of the House have been calling for a debate on further education, including third level education, for some time.
Adult literacy is an important issue and I am obliged to put in a good word in this regard for the university I represent. Trinity College has done much work in this area and many decent and idealistic young people have given up their own time to become involved in the scheme it operates. I salute them and their counterparts in other third level institutions. We often hear about the problems young people face and the difficulties they cause, including those relating to addiction to drugs and alcohol. There are, however, many decent young people who are prepared to offer their assistance to adult literacy schemes and similar endeavours.
I will allow myself a certain lightness of touch in recalling an incident in this House some time ago. A colleague stood up one day on the Order of Business and stated his great concern at the high levels of adult literacy in the State. I believe he intended to refer to illiteracy. He spoke passionately, however, about how dreadful were the high rates of adult literacy. I interjected to say that I could not agree more and that as we spoke, people all over the country were reading. I observed that if this was not stamped out, they would soon be writing as well. This was where Catholic emancipation inevitably led. The entire paragraph was omitted from the Official Report because the reporters believed it was too cruel. It is heartening for the people of Ireland to know there are cruelty police on the prowl to ensure we do not savage each other to death in this hallowed institution.
I welcome the Minister of State’s indication, in a pleasing and appropriate final flourish, that she has managed to increase by 50% funding in the areas of adult and further education. We should not be carping in our response by pointing out that this should have been done five years ago. It is being done now and that is what counts. We should look forward and not always be cursed with the backward look that is habitual in Ireland. Let us be positive instead.
There are significant problems in terms of education in the area in which I live. The Central Model School in Marlborough Street operates a wonderful scheme for inner city children who may come from a background that is not saturated in culture and educational achievement. Anybody would be proud to have those children in their community. This school’s achievements are a result of the Breaking the Cycle programme, which is one of the most positive developments in this State. I used to bewail the fact that these children were given a glimpse of the promised land before it was snatched away from them. That is no longer the case and I am told a high proportion of them go on to attend Larkin Community College. Some have even gone on to third level education. That is the way of the future and it is the approach this humane Minister of State has attempted to foster.
There is a problem in regard to drop-out rates, particularly in disadvantaged areas. I have some concerns about the school inspection scheme. When I was in school, attendance monitors ensured that the parents of any child who left school early received a visit in their homes. This does not seem to happen very often now. It is an old-fashioned concept but it should be reviewed.
The Minister of State referred to the 28 recommendations in the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science on adult literacy. It would be helpful to know how many of these recommendations are being implemented. The Minister of State referred to one of them, the intensive programme of basic education for adults experiencing literacy and numeracy skills deficiencies, which was piloted last spring through all 33 VECs. She observed that this initiative is a response to recommendation No. 13. I hope that will not prove to be an unlucky number. It is helpful to hear in detail how this recommendation is being implemented and it would be useful to discover what is being done in regard to the other 27.
The Minister of State told us that 10,000 students avail of tuition in English under the English for speakers of other languages programme. This indicates the way in which the State is changing. It is vitally important that people are assisted in becoming proficient in the language of their host country. A deficiency in this regard causes incalculable difficulties and misunderstandings, and it is a basic right that people should have the skills to participate in society. I am confident this will be done in a positive and sensitive way.
One can only imagine the ingenuity in which people who are ashamed of their lack of literacy and numeracy skills must engage to conceal their difficulties. The Minister of State has tried to remove the stigma attached to the inability to read, write or calculate without difficulty. Persons with such difficulties may be at an even greater disadvantage than those who arrive here without language skills but may be able to acquire them easily enough.
The experience of a person with literacy and numeracy difficulties must be akin to being dumped in Japan and trying to get on the railway system. People who have been there speak about what a horrendous experience it is because all of the timetables and signs are in Japanese. It is a major culture shock. We must imaginatively take on board the reality that for people with these difficulties in reading and writing, living in their own country is similar to the experience of others of their fellows being dropped in a Japanese railway station and trying to make their way from Tokyo to one of its suburbs.
I agree with the Minister of State that the Youthreach programmes are excellent. They operate on a ground-floor level and in the areas of communities where they are most required. I have one concern, however, and I hope the Minister of State will bring it to the attention of the appropriate persons. A Youthreach centre is located at No. 20, North Great George’s Street, in my own neighbourhood. I cannot speak highly enough of the work done by the organisers of the programme, who are positive members of the community.
That was not always the case, however. Under a previous dispensation, they were responsible for an appalling series of acts of vandalism, including the destruction of one of the few remaining 18th century gardens in the north inner city and all this property’s beautiful gothic outbuildings. I support the work they do and will continue to do so in any context. I know the people concerned and see that the programme gives the children who participate a beacon of hope in the midst of the difficulties in which they live. I wonder, however, whether this is the most appropriate building in which to conduct this valuable work. It still has some of the most beautiful craft work ceilings in Dublin. It is a listed heritage building. While I accept its current tenants are much more sensitive to their cultural environment, it would be much better if they had a more appropriate place in the area. I am honoured to be a neighbour of the Youthreach programme but I think what a waste for people to engage in, say, wood-turning under ceilings such as the one in this Chamber. A more appropriate function could be found for the building, while the Youthreach programme continues its very valuable work elsewhere.
I will get into trouble for my comments on the cost of child care support. We hear so much about child care that I am beginning to get tired of the subject, although I understand it is important in further education. However, with the universal clamour for child care, why do people have children if they do not want to look after them? One of the many things I like about women is that they do not think in the tight little sequences or along narrow straight lines as men do.
Mr. Norris: That is exactly what I mean. Women are able to think in a lateral way. Would it not be for the benefit of everybody if some accommodation could be found where parents could bring their children with them when attending further education courses? The children could be even with their parents in the classroom. People would not mind that much if a child let out an occasional belch or squawk. The reliance on unpaid child care, rather than looking for more imaginative solutions, puts us in danger of creating another culturally and emotionally deprived generation. In the old days it was the granny and the extended family that provided child care. I regret that such arrangements are no longer made.
I am all in favour of adult learners. When I used to teach in the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, it was a joy to me to have adult learners in a class. They brought a richness of experience with them and an absolute commitment to their coursework. Some of the younger students were doing a course because their parents had pushed them into it, when what they really wanted to do was hairdressing. As this was not the right thing to do, they were stuck into Trinity College. Adult learners, on the other hand, had actually chosen to come to college, picked their subjects carefully and brought a great richness to courses.
As the Minister of State is aware, in the latest international university survey Trinity College is the only Irish university in the first 100 institutions worldwide. The college plans to get into the first 50 and I believe it can. However, it will need a massive investment programme. Yesterday I lunched at the Provost’s House where the plan was explained and costed. It is a good one. If we can get the college into the first 50 universities in the world, it would be great for the country, helping to bring up all our educational institutions. The ones in the first 50 usually have a staff-student ratio of 10:1; the ratio in Trinity College is 18:1. It has launched an investment programme to reduce it.
The college is also becoming more open. I adored the bursting of the railings some 30 years ago when a gate was opened on to Nassau Street. The college intends to do so again at Pearse Street. There will be a traverse path from Pearse Street to Nassau Street which will open up the college. Student numbers will be stabilised at 11,500. The figure was 3,000 when I was a college student. The college has imaginatively used the space available to it, as exemplified by the CRANN Building.
While it concentrates on developing fourth level education, the college has not neglected the people at the more delicate end of the educational spectrum. Up to 15% of places are allocated to non-traditional learners who include those who come within the parameters of this debate. In addition, there is the excellent programme for disabled people, pioneered in Trinity College, as well as the Trinity Access programmes which gives access to a college education to people from social groups and parts of Dublin city who did not dream of having a Trinity College degree. I was part of the team which presented certificates last year and it was such a thrill to meet such individuals because of their enormous sense of achievement and participation.
I salute the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, for the work she has done. I have not done it in quite as elaborate a way as Senator Fitzgerald but it is nonetheless heartfelt. The Minister of State only knows too well that although she may relinquish her ministerial post, some of the privileges survive such as car-parking, visiting the restaurant and the Visitors Gallery.
Ms Ormonde: All is not lost for the Minister of State, to whom I am delighted to pay tribute. I looked back at her public life since 1977. She was an MEP involved in social affairs, youth, sport and education matters. She became Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. I believe, however, she really came into her own when she was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for further education. That was where she showed her real vision and where she shone. She has made the brief her own, as is clear from the effort she has put into the various projects for further education and enhancing the lives of those in need or who are marginalised. I will miss her attending the Seanad, as well as the de Valera name which I have known since I came into the world. I hope it will continue in politics, as I hope the Minister of State will find another challenge after she retires. The de Valera gene is too strong and she cannot just fade away. We will not let her.
Having come from the educational world, I empathise very much with those involved in the area of further education. Globalisation has led to increased competition, new technologies, the upskilling of the workforce and immigration. A large investment must be made in adult education. The Minister of State has increased resources, especially for the National Adult Literacy Agency and the back to education initiatives, Youthreach programmes, post-leaving certificate and VTOS courses. All these courses reach out to people who have slipped through the net and become marginalised and have no ambition or initiative. The Minister of State has made them her own and understood how to get them implemented.
I compliment the VECs throughout Ireland. Having been for many years a teacher in the City of Dublin VEC and a member of the County Dublin VEC, I have a natural feel for programmes such as post-leaving certificate courses and what they achieve for those who cannot find their niche and are in a transitional phase at the age of 14 or 15 years. They help those people to achieve their potential in whatever direction they choose, whether home economics, child care, pre-nursing, handwork, woodwork or mechanical engineering. The Minister of State acknowledged the wide range of these courses and ensured that the funding was available to implement these programmes.
Back to education courses have been provided for those aged between ten and 15 years who slipped through the net. This flexible part-time programme has allowed them to move gradually into the system. It has given many young people self-esteem and confidence. The Minister of State has also considered people who need child care facilities, particularly those who have to bring their children into school. I have seen people bring their children into school where a room has been made available for them by the grants that the Minister of State provided. That is a great programme and I would like to see it further enhanced.
Ms Ormonde: I compliment the Minister of State on providing facilitators and tutors to the literacy and numeracy agencies to reach out to those who cannot do this themselves. Her initiatives include language classes, a new television series, new programmes and “Read Write Now”, which has been a great success because it has made it easy for people who have difficulties with language and numeracy to reach out and work with tutors.
I would love to see the Minister of State put her stamp on the adult guidance initiative which takes a holistic approach involving home-school links with psychologists, day guidance counsellors and adults working together. It is amazing what these groups can achieve in a region such as north or south Dublin where there are pockets of people who need this support. The Minister of State has that holistic vision but the work needs to be developed and she should emphasise that before she retires. If that concept is realised, there will be a very successful further and adult education system.
This gives people an opportunity through FETAC to get certification or diplomas and take the scenic route into universities or shape up their lives as they wish. There are many second chance opportunities for those who wish to improve their skills. Education is booming in this country. That is our success story. I compliment the Minister of State on helping to make it work and enhancing the lives of those who might not otherwise have had a chance to go through such education.
I will not lose contact with the Minister of State. I wish her well in her other career. I know where she will shape her life in future. She has a fund of knowledge and the capacity to move on from here and I wish her every success.
Ms Tuffy: I too wish the Minister of State well in her future endeavours and commend her work in this and the youth work area. I recently received a statement from the National Youth Council of Ireland which was happy with the increases provided for youth work in the recent Estimates.
Our education system should be based on the concept of lifelong learning, which includes adult and further education. The Minister of State said that participants in post-leaving certificate courses are less likely to be unemployed than most other categories of school leavers. I agree with that point. These courses and the further education system serve 30,000, most of whom are in courses matching the skills needs of the economy.
Support staff, however, are urgently needed, including the technicians for science and engineering laboratories and computer rooms, which are available for further education in other EU countries. Further education programmes provide the most suitable means for adults who wish to avail of second chance education to achieve qualifications and possibly go on to degree and postgraduate level. However, such programmes do not have the necessary staff.
The increased funding for this area is not sufficient. This Government should have done more with the resources available and should now do more to ensure the economy remains competitive. The Minister of State has mentioned some of the many reports on this issue which have not been implemented. The Government repeats that we need a competitive economy and to provide for the upskilling of our workforce to create a knowledge-based economy and so on, but it does not match that talk with the necessary actions and investment.
Almost six years after publication of a report commissioned by the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, from the task force on lifelong learning, the Government has refused to implement many of its recommendations, including that on free part-time fees. The Labour Party supports that recommendation, for which AONTAS and other groups and reports have called. Unlike its more advanced competitors, Ireland has no system for paid educational leave.
Senator Norris said at the beginning of his contribution that he had the misapprehension that this was a debate about third level education. That is the subject because third level education is a central part of adult and further education. He referred to Trinity College, where I studied. While it has achieved some good with initiatives such as the Trinity access programme, TAP, it should not clap itself on the back for its performance in adult and further education. It is not open to everybody. It is very much an elitist institution, as are many of our other educational institutions, especially universities. That is a fact. It does not have a flexible model of education that would encourage more mature students and second chance learners.
I challenge what Senator Norris stated about the building on North Great George’s Street which he did not consider appropriate for a Youthreach programme. Perhaps the Youthreach programme in his area should be moved to Trinity College. Perhaps then the college would have the opportunity to progress into other levels of education.
Trinity College is not unique in this regard. This is a common factor in universities. They need to do much more to be innovative in their approach to adult education and lifelong learning. They still see adult education as being about hobby courses and other courses that do not merit educational qualifications. They perceive adult education to be about short courses that do not progress one very much in the subject in question. These colleges do not provide opportunities in any real sense for workers to advance their skills. I do not care where Trinity College comes in a list compiled by somebody somewhere in the world. I do not give a damn about that. I accept prestige is a matter of concern for universities and other people but what really matters is what universities and third level institutions do for Ireland and Irish people, how they provide for a better economy and how they serve students, second chance learners etc. That point must be made.
The Government should change the funding mechanisms for universities and institutes of technology to encourage the part-time attendance of adults in courses relevant to the job market, and funding should be geared towards allowing educational institutions to provide a flexible model of education.
One should be able to study part-time during the day at a university or institute of technology. One should not have to worry about exorbitant fees. One should also be able to move flexibly between part-time courses and full-time courses. If one has to drop out of a full-time third level course, one should be able to continue that course part-time so that one can complete one’s studies. Many people cannot study full-time during the day and the education system should provide for them. This would especially benefit second chance learners. Part-time education students are discriminated against. They should have the same fees regime as full-time students. If a more flexible model of education were introduced, it would absorb some of the costs involved. The cost is not that high and it would be well worth it in terms of investment in the education of the workforce etc.
The Minister of State referred to community education. This sector is very strong in my area. In Clondalkin, for example, there are between 13 and 15 women’s groups involved in women’s development education. The Minister of State referred to the provision of €110,000 to consolidate women’s participation in community education. I welcome this acknowledgment of the importance of this aspect of education but that sum is just a drop in the ocean in terms of what is required. These groups should not have to apply for €1,000 or whatever amount to keep them going for a year. They should be able to get enough funding to continue providing their service.
These groups are successful and have done great work in providing women, especially those in disadvantaged areas, with a chance to access second and third level education. The Minister of State acknowledged this. They have also combined education with community development. Such schemes must be provided with more resources as the model is successful. It is important to invest in success where it is apparent.
Women involved in a local development group in my area received funding that allowed them to gain qualifications up to a certain level in community development and women’s studies but once they reached degree and postgraduate level, which some of them chose to do, they had to pay for the courses themselves. The fees in question were up to €5,000 per year and these people are not very well off. This area must be examined. If funding were provided to pay fees for part-time students at third level, it would be one way of helping those groups.
I wish the Minister of State well but the Government has to do more if we are to meet our targets. The Department of Education and Science has produced many reports over the years yet the Government has not implemented their recommendations. If the Government really cares about adult and further education, it should do so.
Ms White: Along with my colleagues, I would like to present bouquets to the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. I thank her for her personal courtesy to me since I came to the Seanad and the empathy she showed me as a rookie in the House. I will miss her on a personal level.
I congratulate the Minister of State on achieving an extra €900,000 in the recent Estimates for child care. Reference was made to that in her speech. As Senator Tuffy outlined, until now, child care support has been restricted to full-time further education programmes. The sum of €500,000 of this additional funding will be used to extend child care support to participants under the back to education initiative which is part-time from 2007. In recommendation No. 5 of my document, A New Approach to Childcare, which I launched two weeks ago——
Ms White: I refer to their parents. I referred in this document to the fact that people want to educate themselves further to return to work In her speech, the Minister of State announced she has secured €900,000 to help fund child care for parents involved in part-time education. This is a most innovative measure. As Senator Norris stated, women have vision and it took vision to achieve what the Minister of State achieved. I am delighted I pushed that recommendation in my document.
My adopted mandate focuses on both ends of the spectrum, child care and ageing and ageism. In the document on ageing which I produced in the summer, recommendation No. 11 referred to further education for those in employment and for older people. Further education for those in employment is the key to career advancement. People aged from 50 years upwards must be given the opportunity to develop new skills and keep up to date with new practices and technology to improve their employability. This is most important, rather than saying that a person is finished when he or she reaches the age of 50. We should look at re-educating 50 year olds so they can hold on to their jobs or change them if they wish.
The other matter that is dear to my heart is for further education to be made easily accessible to older retired people to help them lead active lives and foster a more positive sense of self. This would prolong a happy and healthy life. The back to education allowance is not available to persons in receipt of pensions, despite being available to a range of other social welfare recipient categories. The underlying assumption appears to be that older people would not be interested in further education. They are perceived to be a monolithic group that wishes to retire quietly. In reality, older people are as diverse a group as the Members in this Chamber. In recommendation No. 11, I suggested that the back to education allowance would be extended to those in receipt of the State contributory and non-contributory pensions to access second and third level education.
People were most interested in my document on ageing and ageism. I was in County Donegal recently and I intend to visit another part of that county soon. I spoke to an active retirement group at Serenity House in Moville, County Donegal. Serenity House was established in 2001 with a philosophy of self help and of recognising the contribution of rural older people to society and to the community in which they live. The aim of the Serenity House Active Retirement Association is to create a sense of independence and self help, to raise consciousness and to encourage the continued development of talents and abilities in older people. To date, Serenity House has 75 registered active retired members attending its education centre.
Serenity House proposes to provide lifelong learning for the older population of Inishowen, enabling older people to become confident users of technology so they can participate more fully in modern life. The director of the organisation is Ms Maura Cannon and it is supported by Councillor Marian McDonald. They are aware that computer skills are essential to modern living and that every facility should be made available to older people to acquire these skills, if necessary through new technology courses specially tailored for older people. These would enable older people to recognise the growing contribution of technology in promoting independence and in the improvement of social stimulation, communication, information, personal development, health care and so on. The growing use of the world wide web as a communication medium for older people will be encouraged in Serenity House. We have all realised how we can keep alive and nurture relationships via e-mail. It gives a new opportunity to older people to keep in touch with family members throughout the world.
Serenity House is arranging for the construction of 30 apartments to support independent living for the elderly in Moville. It is also intended to help the residents of these apartments to be educated in technology so they can keep in touch with their families and have a good life.
It is very difficult to access funding for education for older people because it is not seen as economically viable. I am sure the Minister of State will agree this is a short-sighted view. Education for our older citizens should be seen as a positive investment in the community.
I thank the Minister of State for achieving extra funding of €1 million for child care and for encouraging people to return to education. We will miss the Minister of State when she retires from her position.
Mr. Coonan: Ba mhaith liom céad míle fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. I was not prepared for the Minister of State’s lap of honour but I wish to be associated with the tributes paid to her and to wish her well in whatever future career she decides to take. The Minister of State has been paid lavish tributes and I have no doubt they were well deserved and I endorse them. Senator White referred to bouquets. I hope I will not add guns to the roses she is offering.
My experience of the Government’s programme for further education is that the Department of Education and Science is bogged down in bureaucracy in the delivery of the programme. The Department appears to have no problem in dealing with the primary, secondary and higher levels of education but faces an insurmountable barrier in dealing with further education, or céim eile, which overlaps more than one level. I will give the House an illustration of this from my town of Templemore.
In 2000 the VEC and the religious orders which were delivering education in Templemore came together and decided to form a community college and transform St. Sheelan’s, the existing VEC college, into a college of further education. The principal of the school wrote as follows to the Minister for Education and Science:
After the amalgamation, refurbishment plans to accommodate 75 further education places were submitted to the Department in 2001. In 2002 enrolment numbers outstripped expectations and a request was made to the Department for a revised schedule of accommodation and for a meeting with the planning and further education units in the Department to agree on the size of the college. That meeting has not yet taken place and the building programme is not even under consideration. In 2006, the college’s application for a once-off refurbishment grant was refused on the basis that the college needs an extension.
This is an account of six years’ progress in further education under the Government’s stewardship and of what is being offered to further education in my area. Will the Minister of State raise this matter with the Department to get it to respond? The case of St. Sheelan’s college is an indication of the failure in the delivery of the further education service.
The same can be said of the Youthreach programme. The buildings and facilities provided to this programme leave much to be desired. Youthreach groups play a valuable role in education and should be encouraged. Listening to the Minister of State and to some of the speakers today one would think everything in adult education was satisfactory. That is far from being the case.
A Senator referred to programmes which cater for those who slip through the net. I recently heard of a student who was expelled from college a few months before his leaving certificate examination. The family of that student received very little understanding from officials of the Department or from those who deliver education. The student was expelled in October and no service has been offered to the family since then. The VEC in north Tipperary declined to deal with me unless I put everything in writing. Is this the kind of service the Government is offering to the people?
The success of further education depends on the enthusiasm and initiative of the person who is the driving force behind the delivery of the service at college level. The attitude of such a person often makes the difference between success and failure or between success and indifference. St. Sheelan’s college is fortunate in having an excellent principal, Mr. Dan Condron.
This brings me to another aspect of further education, which is more in my line, agricultural education. Tipperary Institute together with St. Sheelan’s College established a pilot project, New Futures Group, which deals with training, re-skilling and up-skilling for the agricultural community and particularly farmers. As the Minister of State knows, only 20% of the farming community are full-time farmers, which means many of the rest of them need to seek off-farm employment, for which training is very important. The New Futures Group came to an end owing to lack of funding. However, it produced an excellent report and its representatives appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food to outline the difficulties, one of which was lack of funding to continue courses. The main problem with the farming group is the changeover from farming to study. The problem was that unless it is a report delivered by Teagasc no funding is provided. For example, a person who went on to the institute in Athlone needed to pay €2,500 while the fees for those who came through FÁS or industry were paid. This does not represent equal play.
The area of school transport, for which the Minister of State has direct responsibility, needs to be reviewed. I contacted Department of Education and Science officials a week ago with some examples of school transport issues. Four weeks before Christmas these issues are still not resolved, which is not acceptable. I gave full details and have yet to receive a reply. I ask the Minister of State to investigate the matter.
Mr. Daly: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I compliment the Minister of State on the work she has done in the Department in the past four years. Earlier she outlined the enormous amount of work she has done and the number of initiatives she has taken since coming to this office. By any standards the additional finances directed to this area and the additional energy the Minister of State has put into developing the initiatives in the area have established clear guidelines for the future of adult education and further learning for some time to come. The figures for the funding devoted to this area speak for themselves.
Not only has the Minister of State taken a number of initiatives in this area, she has also encouraged other Departments to get involved. I pay tribute to the work being done by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on adult education in the workplace. This year FÁS was allocated an additional €2 million to help to improve education within the workplace. A number of people now need language training following the arrival of people from other countries including many from the new member states that joined the European Community in 2004. Many of these people are working in local businesses and communities and are making a big contribution to the economy of the regions. Further investment is needed for language education. In recent weeks a tragedy occurred in my county where some people lost their lives, as they were not aware of the dangers of the places where they were enjoying their leisure activities, fishing at Kilkee or looking over the Cliffs of Moher. These are very dangerous locations and I was glad to see that The Clare People got a Polish woman, living in Kilrush, to insert a Polish translation warning people who are not familiar with the area of the risks and dangers involved in entering these scenic areas for their leisure activities. Local people would not be involved in such activities at this time of year. These are the kinds of issues that will be important in the future and the Minister of State has done valuable work in that area.
I compliment the Youthreach programme. The Minister of State indicated that it has more than 90 centres with in excess of 3,000 participants. Youthreach is very important and has been very successful in picking up on people leaving schools and colleges who wish to further their education and skills in various ways. I also compliment the vocational educational committees for the adult education initiatives the various committees have taken over many years. In developing new technology I am glad that various Departments are working with the Minister of State.
I support what Senator Coonan said about the farming community. Many young farmers no longer have sufficient income from small farms and we need to provide them with skills that are in short supply. Many young farmers, especially those from west Clare, are now combining work in the Moneypoint generating station with work on their small farms. A number of courses could be provided to train people in fitting, pipe welding and various technological areas. Many young farmers with qualifications from second level schools are interested in machinery and would find it easy to undertake courses to train them for jobs that are freely available in large construction sites and other areas where we have labour shortages.
We need to keep abreast of new technology, which changes on an almost daily basis. Once people used to pick blackberries from hedges on the side of the road. BlackBerrys are used now for other purposes. I use that as an example of the technological advances that have taken place. Many adults in particular learn about such technology from their children, even children in national schools. Industry in the future will rely on technological advances that take place at a very fast pace. The two challenges facing industry are keeping abreast of changes in technology and keeping the workforce trained to deal with those challenges in the future. The technological changes, the Youthreach programme, the work of the VECs and FÁS, and post-leaving certificate courses are important. We have all had occasion to visit colleges in our areas where an enormous amount of work has been done by the second level schools in the development of post-leaving certificate courses.
This may be one of the last opportunities I will have to put on record my appreciation of the work the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, has done in my constituency since she was elected to the Parliament to represent Clare. I have known her since she was first elected to the Houses and I know the work she did in Europe. I appreciate the loyalty and support I have received from her in the constituency over the years. She has made a very valuable contribution not only to adult education, but also to the economic and social development of County Clare since she first came to the constituency.
As this is probably the final occasion on which the Minister of State will be in the House, I want to place on record the fact that I wish her well in her new challenges and I thank her for the work she has done since first being elected to represent County Clare.
Mr. Quinn: Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire Stáit — go n-éirí an bóthar léi. I do not know what road the Minister of State intends to take but she is far too young, enthusiastic and full of energy to take it easy. Perhaps she will indicate later what she intends to do. We appreciate the work she has done in respect of adult education and on the other work she has carried out in recent years.
Approximately two to four years ago, I approached a 50 year old employee with the intention of promoting him. The job to which he was to be promoted was not particularly difficult but he turned down the move, the additional money and the enhanced reputation. I could not figure out why he did so until I was informed that he could not read or write. The individual in question had been with my company for 20 years but I never became aware of that fact because he kept it hidden. At that stage, I took an interest in adult education and adult literacy and in the work that is carried out, usually behind the scenes. I was surprised to discover that some of the women who attend adult education courses did so in order that they could help their children with their homework. These individuals had never admitted to their children that they could not read or write. That was a horrifying discovery to make.
There is a danger that members, particularly those who are elected by university graduates, might view adult education as equivalent to third level education in universities or colleges. It is, of course, much more than that. Due to the fact that the education sector is so complex and expensive, the unfortunate reality is that the elements within it are constantly at war with each other to obtain the largest possible slice of the cake for themselves. Inevitably, it is the elements which shout the loudest that receive the most. That is no different from the position which obtains in other sectors. However, a further side effect is that the various elements in education tend to become self-regarding “silos” which think only of themselves and not others.
Anyone who is familiar with further education will immediately recognise that it is this element which falls behind. It becomes the Cinderella or the lost cousin who is not considered. Part of the reason for this is a mindset that disregards adult education altogether and perceives it merely as a hobby. As a result of the fact that some of the courses people undertake are regarded as hobbies, the overall message is sometimes lost.
We must arrive at a situation where people do not believe they are being unjustly or wrongly treated because they did not attend university. This is a false picture and one which does the nation no good at all. As the Minister of State indicated, further education makes a highly valuable contribution in two ways. First, it provides people with skills they could not acquire at school or university — these are valuable skills that the country needs — and, second, it provides a small number of individuals with a bridge between secondary school and fully-fledged third level education. In that context, adult education can represent an alternative route into third level for people who, for whatever reason, were not ready or able to move directly to that level after school.
I became familiar with the value of further education as a bridge to third level when, approximately ten years ago, the then Minister for Education asked me to become chairman of the leaving certificate applied committee of the NCCA. My eyes were opened because I did not previously know a great deal about education. For example, I was not aware of the number of people who fell behind in their education between the ages of seven and 12 and who ended up at the back of the class. Such individuals may have been very talented, highly skilled and possessed great intelligence. However, their intelligence was not adequately measured by the traditional leaving certificate. I was stunned by the success that people could achieve as a result of the leaving certificate applied. The original intention behind it was to have people sit some sort of leaving certificate examination. However, as we began to deal with the issues, we discovered a great reluctance on the part of parents to close off the third level route permanently in respect of their children. We also discovered that there was a great thirst for an additional qualification beyond the level of the leaving certificate. There was a desire among many students who embarked upon the leaving certificate applied that it would not represent the end of their education. Hence the attraction of further education, which some of them saw as a stepping stone towards third level.
My experience taught me two things. First, that we should allow, in our educational planning, for different ways of reaching the same destination. Such ways should suit the particular aptitudes and talents of individuals. The second thing I learned was that rather than considering the various elements of education as self-contained boxes, we should regard them as bridges and pathways on a road to lifelong learning. That is where adult education comes into the picture.
When I left school, education was regarded as something one did when one was young and that one finished when one left school. Those of us who were lucky enough to attend university 40 years ago were also of the opinion that our education had finished when we completed our courses. The world has come a long way in the interim and it continues to change. I was chairman of An Post in 1984, at which point plans for the following three years were being made. We had never heard of a new item of equipment called the fax machine and Members can imagine the threat it represented. Neither it nor e-mail had previously existed. Those of us who believe that when we complete our education we will not continue to learn should think again.
Previous speakers referred to lifelong learning, which is, of course, important. However, I am concerned at how little we have adapted to the concept of lifelong learning. Everybody claims to prescribe to the cliché of lifelong learning but nothing much has been done to bring into effect the necessary changes. The Minister of State is taking action at present and I hope her commitment in this regard continues.
The structure of the education system is not all that different from the structure which obtained 40 years ago when I left university. Our universities are still largely geared towards the outdated idea that knowledge is something young people acquire in an up-front manner in a once-and-for-all encounter. If we persist with this approach, there is no way we can become leaders in a knowledge society. The Lisbon Agenda refers to the future of Europe depending on a knowledge society and we must find a way to move forward in this regard. It follows that a knowledge society will organise education as a lifetime process and attach at least as high a priority to the learning people do as adults as that attached to the learning they undergo in their early years.
Is this where our priorities lie? Sadly, I do not believe so. Until now, it appears we thought we could succeed in a knowledge society by pouring resources into the same areas into which we have always invested. I do not oppose any of that investment, and I have long been prominent in advocating it. However, I wish to counsel against that as the entirety of the job that needs to be done. Until we have an education system that is genuinely geared towards lifelong learning, we will not have the structure necessary to succeed in the world that is opening up before us.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera): I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind words. I also thank Senators on all sides for their kind remarks and good wishes. I value these all the more because they came from Members on all sides and not just from those on one side who might have felt obliged to utter them.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the need for additional resources. I could not agree with him more. Just because we have managed to increase the budget by 50% in the past five years does not mean the resources provided are anything like enough. That there has been an increase in funding shows there is a recognition of the importance of adult and further education. Many Senators indicated that they do not want to see adult and further education being treated as an add-on to the education system and that it must form a core part of that system. We discuss social inclusion and citizenship but the only way to ensure people feel and are included is through the education system. In my opinion, this can be done through adult and further education.
The literacy programmes have, for many reasons, proved important. Senator Ulick Burke made the important point that literacy must examined from the earliest possible stage within the education system. This is being achieved through the introduction of the DEIS programme, which homes in on disadvantage and makes particular reference to literacy.
I also agree with the points made about retention levels. If programmes such as Youthreach were not in place at the other end of the spectrum, many young people would be lost completely to the education system. However, there is a greater understanding now about the importance of ensuring all members of our community have a right to an education. If they have been unable to complete their education by a certain age, they must feel that they can have immediate access to second level education, and that has been further emphasised in recent years.
The literacy programmes are most important because if one does not have literacy and numeracy skills, one cannot progress within the education system. Television programmes were found to be the most appropriate way to reach people on the basis of feedback and “Read Write Now” and “The Really Useful Guide to Words and Numbers” have been to the fore in promoting literacy.
I could not agree more with Senators who said the vocational education committees have played an important role in the roll-out of further and adult education and I commend all those within the VECs who are doing a tremendous job.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the issue of workplace learning. It is not a question of what we can do within the Department in that regard, as we must also liaise with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Movement of workers within county councils and hospitals has been facilitated. Unfortunately, fewer men than women are likely to say they have literacy and numeracy problems and different ways must be found to break down barriers so that men feel they can re-enter the education system. The ratio of women to men in senior Traveller centres is 80:20, while the adult literacy ratio is 59:41. The ratio in the back to education initiative, BTEI, is 75:25, it is 68:32 in the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, while it is 70:30 in post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses. A great deal of work must done but if we concentrate on workplace learning, we may break down that barrier.
A number of Senators, including Senator Ormonde, mentioned guidance, which is very important because it is one thing to be able to access a programme and receive accreditation but it is another to know what to do with it. The only way to do this is to follow progression and those involved in adult guidance are best placed to demonstrate how adults can progress within the education system and employment. An additional €1 million is provided for adult education projects this year covering 38 projects nationwide to promote adult literacy.
Like Senator Norris, I acknowledge the tremendous access programmes provided by Trinity College, NUI Maynooth, DCU and other third level institutions. I have attended a number of meetings at the three universities where administrators were seeking new ways to improve access to adult and further education programmes for older people and I laud their work.
Senator White referred to child care. The Department provides €6 million annually in child care assistance and that has been rolled out through the BTEI. I agree with her that lifelong learning is about all age groups and it should not matter how elderly one is if one has the motivation to participate in education.
Senator Norris raised the Breaking the Cycle programme, which has been incorporated into the work of DEIS. This is in recognition of the need to examine the problems in adult and further education and how they can be addressed when children first enter school as well as dealing with those at the other end of the spectrum. The Senator also referred to retention rates and the National Educational Welfare Board. The board works with home-school-community liaison teachers who maintain an important link between school and the home, which ensures continuity.
I thank Senator Fitzgerald for his kind remarks. I also acknowledge the important role played by adult education organisers and I thank them for their tremendous work and co-operation since I took responsibility for adult education.
PLC courses were mentioned by Senator Tuffy. Discussions are ongoing between the IVEA, the TUI and the Department and provision has been made in the 2007 Estimates in this regard. Negotiations will take place between these groups to further the delivery of support staff and other resources for PLC students in December. The issue is being progressed because there has been significant expansion in this area. All those involved are looking forward to the negotiations and I am sure they will be fruitful.
Community education was also raised by Senator Tuffy. The sum of €120,000 which I mentioned will be allocated to research in this area, specifically for the work of AONTAS, to further our knowledge on how to promote community education and link it with civic responsibility and civic society. The Department has appointed 35 community education facilitators through the VECs and there will be expansion in this area in the coming years.
Senator Coonan referred to school transport. We had €50 million at our disposal in 1997 to roll out the scheme whereas €165 million is available this year. This highlights our commitment to the scheme. I will examine the individual case raised by the Senator but I would be surprised that an eligible student was not being taken to school on a bus. Perhaps the case involves a concessionary student but I will examine it.
I agree with Senator Daly about the importance of Youthreach and the need for co-ordination with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I thank him for his kind remarks as a colleague for many years in the Clare constituency.
Senator Quinn highlighted the literacy issue and how surprising it is when we find out friends and colleagues are unable to read and write. Those who do not have literacy and numeracy skills are embarrassed by this and they hide it very well. However, in 1997, €1 million was made available to deal with literacy problems whereas next year €30 million will be available, which demonstrates the emphasis being placed on this issue by the Government.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the House for providing an opportunity to discuss the area of adult and further education which some years ago was seen as the Cinderella of the Department but its real worth is showing through. While there have been increases amounting to 50% in the past five years, I look forward to further increases of at least 50% in coming years. The Leader of the House has a particular interest in education, having been, like me and the Minister, a teacher for many years.
I thank Senators not only for particiapting in the debate but also for treating me with the utmost courtesy whenever I have attended the Seanad. As this is my last opportunity to do so, I thank the officials in the House for their courtesy, guidance and advice, which has been valued. I also thank my officials in the Department of Education and Science who have been unfailing in helping me in the past four and a half years. I thank Senators for their comments and wish each of them the best in their continuing careers.
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