SOLAS, the Further Education & Training Authority, recently launched The National Further Education and Training (FET) five-year Strategy – Future FET: Transforming Learning.
This new strategy aims to break down barriers between further and higher education by boosting the profile of the sector. One of its goals is to allow more students to transfer seamlessly from PLC courses to university.
SOLAS Chief Executive Andrew Brownlee described the three pillars of the new strategy as building skills, fostering inclusion and facilitating pathways.
In his launching speech Minister Simon Harris described FET prior to this as an untold story. ‘FE stands FOR EVERYONE’ our new Minister declared, ‘let’s no longer be the Cinderella of the sector’.
At the launch former FET student Stephanie Thompson gave a riveting account of her journey from Youthreach to University. Her pathway and destination is a testament to the potential of FET.
Our Chief Executive Carol Hanney also spoke at the launch. She began, on behalf of ETBs, by congratulating Minister Simon Harris and Minister Niall Collins on their appointment to the new Department of Further and Higher Education and commending the incoming government for the prominence it gave to Further Education in the Programme for Government.
She described this strategy as a far reaching document which promises a strong future for Further Education in Ireland.
Following are the main points of Carol’s address:
Bold and ambitious plan
This is a bold and ambitious strategy not because its changing everything but because it’s building on what is there already and moving towards a coherent and, might I say, simplified structure. In the ETBs, further education has grown by responding to specific needs and therefore a huge number of different programmes and initiatives exist which will now be streamlined into a more cohesive structure.
Growth and development of sector
The Further Education sector has both expanded and refined itself over the years and the coming together of the education and training elements under the ETBs and under SOLAS has brought a much greater synergy. The evolution of thinking around FET has progressed enormously and since 2018 Strategic Performance Agreements are in place which have led to innovative plans for developing and further enhancing the sector.
This strategy is a holistic document which addresses the main issues. The answer to the question of What is FET? is here. The strategy accepts the wide spectrum of delivery which FET offers and recognises the many roles it plays. In the ETBs we are there to prepare people for the world of work and to answer the needs of industry but we are also there to ensure that individuals can learn throughout their lives so that their life stories can be enhanced and expanded; we are there to prepare people for work and we are there to lead them towards more fulfilling lives.
This plan sets a framework for development and change, for serving the needs of our students, our society and the economy.
The three strategic priorities of the new strategy synopsise what FET is all about: Building skills; creating pathways and fostering inclusion – and the four enabling themes are the parameters within which the ETBs operate.
The ETB sector has a huge competence in educational delivery. We run Primary and Second Level schools; and we run most of the FET services; and in CDETB we run SUSI. Therefore, we have a strong educational expertise which we bring to our FET delivery. There is much to be done and we will do it. In fact, we have already started on most of this plan, the seeds are already sown.
FET has many facets and it goes deep into our communities; its tentacles are everywhere from the small literacy group which we run in a community to the large FET college or Training Centre.
Adaptability of FET
One of our strongest aspects is how very adaptable the FET sector has proven to be. The Ability of ETBs to diversify and change quickly has been proven over the years. “Agile” is a word which is used on several occasions in the document and this is what FET is. We are Flexible.
A very welcome development in recent years has been the ongoing modernisation of our data collection. We now have solid evidence to prove the efficacy of our systems. This will be a very powerful tool in coming years and the importance of the work of the SLMRU in forecasting and providing us with up to date pictures of local and national needs will help refine what courses we offer, particularly in relation to preparation for work.
There is never certainty but now in these unclear times we need to constantly analyse and adapt and reanalyse and readapt to changing needs.
Alignment with business
We need to consistently align ourselves with business so that the courses we offer are relevant and answer the needs of business and thereby prepare students for jobs that exist. The strategy addresses the need to keep teachers updated on industry and this is something the ETBs have also been exploring in terms of visits to industry and short placements in industry. But working with business is not just about preparing people for work – it’s also about being a resource for business, aiding businesses and upskilling people who are already in work. We are doing this through programmes such as Return to Learning and Skills to Advance programmes and we will build and develop this relationship with industry. A major part of our interaction with industry is of course through the old and the new apprenticeship programmes all of which are expanding and growing.
FET College of the Future – bringing everything together
We very much welcome the section dealing with “The FET College of the future” which envisions a large FET college offering a wide range of courses.
Many of our FET colleges are already offering PLC courses, Apprenticeships, BTEI courses, Skills to Advance Courses etc. and we will build on that so that the FET College of the future will offer the learner a range of easy to navigate options within a single integrated college structure. This will offer immediate access to a career and employment and also access to HE.
Student financial support is also important. In CDETB we already operate SUSI and PLC students receive a grant but there are many different types of student support in FET and the strategy recognises the need to once again move to a more simplified system.
Collaboration with HE
The FET sector and particularly the PLC sector has established progression links to Higher Education but the establishment of a Tertiary Sector with clearly defined pathways of progression will be very welcome. We are also anxious to explore opportunities for co-delivery with HEs eg the 2+2 model as exists in other countries.
The FET College of the future will have flexible learning delivery and will be an important resource in the community.
The ETBs welcome the decision to look at staffing and management structures, particularly how students are recognised for purposes of staffing allocations. We welcome the idea of a capital budget and the ability to forward plan for our premises. We would love to be able to generate revenue and to plan strategically how we will spend as we grow and develop.
Disabilities and Learning Support and Guidance
A holistic FET provision and a true FET college will have a range of learning supports and guidance inbuilt. Once again, this already exists but the streamlining of what is there will provide a stronger and more integrated service and a more consolidated student support.
We provide literacy and numeracy programmes across the community but this is also necessary on our fulltime and more advanced courses. It is important that we integrate literacy, numeracy and digital support across all our courses and this is from basic literacy to advanced language skills. This support needs to be available at every level.
Another welcome area in the report is the intention to increase accommodation for people with disabilities in mainstream education rather than separated dedicated provision.
There are now huge possibilities emerging where we can also tailor students support through technology. Technology has revolutionised the lives of many people living with disabilities and this is an area where FET can play its part.
With Universal Design for Learning everybody will benefit.
Importance of certifying learning QQI Qualifications/ certification
Quality Assurance strongly underpins the work we do and another very important aspect of our work involves QQI. We offer nationally recognised qualifications and furthermore we have developed expertise in programme development which is allowing us to create and adapt courses to meet the most recent needs of students, society and our economy.
Climate change and sustainable development
I’m very happy to see Climate Change included. FET can play a huge part here from educating people on how to live an environmentally friendly life in the community to providing a wide range of courses addressing the building industry. Our apprenticeship training already includes the most advanced methods of energy conservation and we run courses on retrofitting of buildings. This is an area where we will be very happy to play a large part.
One of the disturbing realisations over the past fours months/during the Covid 19 crisis is the sharp division and disadvantage that has presented due to lack of access to IT. This is felt most severely by the less well-off and by older people in our community. It is an area where the ETBs have worked very hard in trying to provide access to devices for learners and also in upskilling.
The need to address the digital divide is very real. ETBs have been involved through work-based learning projects in upskilling people at work who have low IT skills and a huge effort is being played in Community education to provide people, especially those outside the paid workforce, with basic IT skills. Our community and adult education services will help prevent the marginalised becoming even more marginalised and the reclusive becoming even more reclusive.
Past four months
The past four months have been transformative in our society and particularly in the area of online delivery of education. We have advanced many years in a short time.
We don’t want to lose the strong and powerful effects of social interaction in learning and the huge peer learning that exists in FE but a FET system that also gives people the opportunity to learn in their own homes is very powerful. We all know the benefits of learning in a group face to face but when somebody lives in a remote part of rural Ireland and is unable to travel the option to progress their education online is very attractive.
We are living in very uncertain and unprecedented times. We do not yet know the effect all of this will have on our society, on our economy and on individuals. The FET sector has always been highly adaptable and will continue to be so. Last March we moved quickly to online delivery, we moved examinations to assessments and most of our students received their awards. We quickly introduced new courses such as Infection Prevention and Control and have been running courses to upskill our teaching staff. We cannot foresee every educational demand that will arise in the coming years but having a strong and cohesive strategy will allow us to diversify and address the needs as they emerge.
The ETBs welcome this strategy and look forward enthusiastically to working towards its implementation and the building of a strong and cohesive Tertiary Sector in Irish education.
Watch a YouTube clip of this important event HERE
Visit the national FET Course Hub HERE
Find out more about Apprenticeships HERE
To go direct to a City of Dublin FET college or centre click HERE