This article by Dr Bryan Fields is taken from the Further Education & Training chapter in Education Matters Yearbook 2015 – 2016. To download PDF of complete Yearbook go to  https://educationmatters.ie/downloads/education-matters-yearbook-2015-2016/

Dr Bryan Fields, Director, Further Education and Training Strategy and Skills and Labour Market Research.

Dr Bryan Fields, Director, Further Education and Training Strategy and Skills and Labour Market Research.

‘Mind the Gap’
There is a strong association between a person’s education/training history and their employment outcomes, participation in lifelong learning, levels of civic engagement and quality of life and individual well-being. All of the good work that has taken place in 2015 to fully integrate the ‘FE’ and the ‘T’ – and it is substantial – is aimed at improving learner access and outcomes for all who will engage in FET so that they too can fulfil their potential and meet their career, employment, personal or developmental aspirations. The FET Strategy points the way forward. Although the timeframe is undoubtedly very ambitious, all FET partners are working assiduously to progress the Strategy. This strikes an optimistic note for the future of FET.

FET under scrutiny
According to George Bernard Shaw, “both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane; the pessimist, the parachute”. Recent analyses by the European Commission, and the OECD, regarding improvements in the Irish labour market emphasise both ‘aeroplane’ and ‘parachute’ perspectives. On the one hand, there has been a reduction in unemployment and increased job creation in the private sector. On the other, long term unemployment remains a serious issue, skill mismatches are evident, and youth unemployment levels are higher than before the downturn. The quality and relevance of FET is under scrutiny.

Ready to pull the ripcord, some commentators speculated in 2015 that the Strategy is bound to fail, not because the analysis underpinning it is inherently weak or that it is pointing the sector in the wrong direction, but that key inhibitors such as existing work practices are so institutionalised that they are bound to block any meaningful execution of Strategy.  On the contrary, the assessment of Dr John Sweeney (in Education Matters Yearbook 2015 – 2016) is nearer the mark in that more is underway in the sector than is being blocked. Citing an example of the first ever integrated ‘FE’ and ‘T’ services planning exercise jointly undertaken in 2014-2015 by SOLAS and the Education and Training Board (ETB) sector, Dr Sweeney notes that the allocation of funding to ETBs is now based to a large extent on identified local learner, community and employer needs rather than based on past funding allocations.

Regional Skills Fora
The establishment of an integrated ‘whole of education’ network of regional skills fora in 2015 under the direction of the Department of Education and Skills is another prominent development. Anne Ford of the Department of Education and Skills acknowledges that there are many excellent examples of current collaboration with enterprise by education bodies, many in FET, but a more systematic and integrated approach is now required (page xxx). This is the overriding aim of the fora with particular focus on strengthening links between education and training providers in coordinating, planning and delivering programmes.

ETBI-QQI Collaborative Forum
With regard to quality, Marie Gould of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) notes the national and European context for QA in FET and the five core pillars of an integrated ETB Quality Assurance Framework for the ETB sector. During 2014/2015 an ETBI-QQI Collaborative Forum was established, as a first step in the development and implementation of a new integrated ETB QA Framework.

Programme and Learner Support System (PLSS)
Improving data and referral systems were also noted during 2015. Fiona Maloney of ETBI captures the keynote emphasis of much of the work of ETBI and SOLAS, namely, to develop and put in place an integrated ‘fit for purpose’ FET data infrastructure (page xxx). When fully operational, the Programme and Learner Support System (PLSS)  is expected to enable better sharing of data within FET and across the education sector and other Government Departments.

Addressing problem of mismatch
Jasmina Behan of the Skills and Labour Market Research Unit (SLMRU) in SOLAS makes a strong case for aligning initial further education and training more closely to particular occupations and tasks demanded in the labour market to address the problem of mismatch, often seen as a contributing factor to unemployment. Understanding how successful learners have been in finding employment, or progressing to further or higher education, are likely to be good indicators of the relevance and quality of many full time FET programmes. There is already a lot of very useful information published regularly by the Expert Group on Future Skill Needs (EGFSN)  which is assisting FET providers in this regard.

Review of the National PLC programme
On the theme of evidence-based decision making, the ESRI has been commissioned by SOLAS to undertake a review of the National PLC programme. This is currently underway and is expected to be completed in the first half of 2016. Staffing and other issues that may arise from this review and from the on-going programme of FET integration will be addressed in consultation with staff and other stakeholders.

Significant progress made in implementing FET Strategy
During 2015 a Department of Education and Skills-led FET Strategy Implementation Advisory Committee (SIAC)  reported significant progress with regard to the fifty-two actions as set out in a comprehensive strategy implementation plan to ensure that the Strategy does ‘what it says on the tin’. Caitriona Murphy of SOLAS discusses progress made during 2015 with implementing the FET Strategy (page xxx). Some notable examples include the development of the National Skills Strategy (NSS) which is expected to be finalised later in the year. Protocols are now in place between the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) while new career traineeships in hospitality and engineering are being developed by SOLAS in conjunction with ETBs.

Apprenticeships
There were significant developments also with regard to Apprenticeship. Dr Mary Liz-Trant of SOLAS notes that a major review of the twenty-five existing apprenticeships is progressing well. Work to further develop twenty five of the eighty-six proposals received by the National Apprenticeship Council is also progressing. However, challenges remain, not least how to prevent the development of a two tier apprenticeship system, one tier perceived for higher education and training and another for further education and training.

SOLAS eCollege
In his article in Education Matters Yearbook 2015 -2016, Michael Mooney of SOLAS eCollege focusses on the increased attractiveness and use of online learning. Citing eCollege as an example, a key advantage of on-line learning is that it can offer access to training when, where, and at a pace that suits the individual learner. With almost instant access to eCollege for learners, it offers flexible course start dates, features that are particularly important for jobseeker clients of the Department of Social Protection.

National Learner Forum
Building on the learner-centred theme above, Karen Williams of AONTAS emphasises that learners are at the heart of FET and ‘working with’ learners is more productive than ‘working for’ learners (page xxx). Preparatory work on the establishment of a National Learner Forum took place in 2015. The new SOLAS quantitative data infrastructure (PLSS) will be strongly enriched and balanced by qualitative data harvested thorough the Learner Forum.

Conclusion
In summary, there has been notable progress in 2015 in enabling the transformation of the FET sector. There is no doubt that significant gaps remain. The need for further institutional reform, the lack of a coherent data infrastructure particularly on FET learner outcomes, the need to ensure that FET provision remains relevant to the evolving needs of learners and the local economy, and the need for a more integrated FET guidance service come to mind. The key focus of the FET Strategy implementation plan at this stage is to ensure that the strengths of the sector in terms of flexibility, diversity, reach and social inclusion are further enhanced while at the same time the sector is enabled to respond with relevant and ‘in-demand’ education and training programmes to meet the diverse aspirations of FET learners.