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Andrew Brownlee

Chief Executive Officer, SOLAS

Overview of Further Education & Training in 2019

This is an auspicious time for FET. The progress made during the current strategy has put a strong foundation in place for SOLAS to lead the system into an exciting new era, working closely with ETBs and other providers to deliver real integration, reform, and performance improvement. This article looks at areas of current focus, challenges, and aspirations in the sector.

This is a pivotal time for further education and training (FET). Since SOLAS and the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) were established in 2013 and the concept of an integrated FET system was born, we have been in a phase of establishment and development. The immediate priority was to set up the organisations, get their structures right, match capabilities to roles and responsibilities, and embed the systems and processes to support planning, funding, and gathering of learner data.

While there was a sense of what an integrated FET system might cover in terms of learning, services, and activities, there was no real focus on the most critical areas of priority and development. This led to a first, all-encompassing Further Education and Training Strategy 2014–2019, with many complex and multiple stakeholder arrangements, five goals, and fifty-two detailed actions.

Working towards a clearer policy and strategy

Over the lifetime of the current strategy, a clearer policy and strategic agenda have emerged. The launch of the action plan for apprenticeships and traineeships, agreement of national FET system targets with the Minister for Education and Skills, and establishment of strategic performance agreements between SOLAS and the ETBs have contributed to a more coherent sense of the future direction in which the FET system needs to evolve.

The significant progress which has been made over the lifetime of the strategy has put a very strong foundation in place for SOLAS to lead the system into an exciting new era, working closely in partnership with ETBs and other FET providers to deliver real integration, reform, and performance improvement. It is part of our legislative responsibility to propose a FET strategy to the Minister every five years, and our work to prepare the second strategy, for 2020–2024, has produced an exciting and transformational vision for the next critical phase of FET development.

The new strategy is based on a structure that gets to the absolute core of FET. Fundamentally, FET revolves around skills development, learning pathways, and inclusion. We have framed the system’s future strategic priorities around these pillars, with a parallel focus on key enabling factors like staffing and structures, digital transformation, a performance- and learner-centric approach, and capital infrastructure. This will mean that, over the next five years, FET will be focused on:

  • The development of an integrated FET college of the future, which will break down the existing divide between FE colleges and training centres and ensure that communities can more clearly identify with their local FET facility and its diverse array of learning opportunities.
  • The establishment of much clearer learning pathways, including developing potential links with second level and a more consistent transition approach to higher education, alongside a more modular and technology-driven approach to learning delivery which will facilitate continual engagement with FET throughout lifetimes and careers.
  • A simplified programme structure, addressing the current confusing portfolio of twenty-six different FET programmes, with consistent branding linked to level, discipline or skill, and outcomes, and a new level 5/level 6 proposition that will lead directly to a specific vocation or facilitate transition to a higher-education degree programme.
  • Building the influence of employers on the types of skills developed by FET, through cutting-edge and accessible labour market and skills research, co-construction and co-development models, and by working with our partners to ensure that the growing interest in and demand for apprenticeship as a route to exciting careers is built upon with significant employer buy-in to ensuring its future sustainability and success.
  • A comprehensive approach to learner support, meaning you can access the same level and quality of support (including financial support) regardless of where and what you learn, linked to a more strategic and consistent approach to community education, which ensures that FET continues to offer exciting opportunities in every corner of the country.

To deliver this vision, key challenges must be tackled, including:

  • On capital infrastructure, dealing with legacy issues of old buildings not fit for purpose for modern learning and deficits in capital stock. Now that FET has been allocated some sustained capital funding in the National Development Plan, we can start investing more strategically, with consolidation of provision, inroads made to dealing with the infrastructure deficits, and also some space for selected new ‘flagship’ capital developments which can help to change hearts and minds about FET’s role and potential.
  • On staffing and structures, breaking down the programme-based rigidity around HR, learner support, and operational regulations to facilitate integrated cross-FET service delivery.
  • On systems and technology, acknowledging that the way we work, learn, do business, and interact with each other is fundamentally changing, with an overall digital transformation framework to set out how technology will enhance learning access, change the way learning is delivered and how data will drive service delivery, and develop shared financial and other systems to support more robust and efficient management approaches.

Despite these challenges, the tools are there to fundamentally change the way FET is viewed and valued, so that more and more people recognise that FET can:

  • change people’s lives, allowing them to develop themselves personally, engage with their communities, and go as far they want to go
  • help people re-engage with education and take the first steps in returning to work
  • give people a vibrant college experience without a four-year commitment
  • offer direct routes into many varied careers
  • let you upskill at minimal cost if you’re already in work and seeking to ensure that your skills remain relevant
  • prepare you to succeed, whether you want to go on to higher education or straight into the workplace.

Because that’s what is truly unique about further education and training: the opportunity to engage in learning in every community in Ireland, regardless of previous levels of education, and to offer a pathway to progress as far as any person wants to go. The impact of FET is already transformative, but I believe that, with the strong direction set out in the new strategy, it can grow its profile and contribution to the next critical phase of Ireland’s social and economic development.