Speaking to delegates on the opening day of the 108th Congress of the Irish Vocational Education Association, taking place this week at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, General Secretary Michael Moriarty called the current on-going structural reform of further education and training in Ireland:
"…unprecedented in terms of scale and impact, [affecting]…the thousands of people working in the current VECs and up to 800 working in the FÁS Training Centres…[as these entities] become part of the new Education and Training Boards - ETBs. ...Perhaps the most critical challenge…is to integrate staffs from different VECs and/or training centres into one integrated staffing cohort. This will not be done on the cheap, and we can learn from the errors of the past when this aspect of integration was not handled as well as it should have been.
The fear is that the employment control framework for the new ETBs will be set at too low a level, without any real regard for the absolute need for effective delivery of services.… We can go far with efficiencies, but we must have sufficient human capital to maintain service delivery at an acceptable level."
Mr Moriarty told the delegates that as well as the challenges, there were significant opportunities ahead, if these could be realised and exploited. He noted that it would take time to bed down the ETBs, and time also to establish trust within the community of interests in the education sector.
"… There is great potential to enhance the range of benefits for all the players [on the education field]. For example, ETBs can support stand-alone boards of management in other schools in regard to the management of building projects. Likewise, ETBs can play a significant role in the provision of IT supports. Indeed some VECs currently provide psychological support services, and there is potential for extending such services to all schools within an ETB catchment area. For all this to happen, and for the benefits to roll, we need to have a firm level of trust established between the school patrons."
Mr Moriarty also spoke of the on-going cuts to school resources.
"The cuts will continue for the next two years - the government has made that clear. We can continue to complain about the pain we endure because of the cuts. Or we can look to each other to see how we can cooperate to ameliorate the worst effects of the cuts. Schools within a defined catchment area can demonstrate sufficient ingenuity and flexibility to work together to share the burden, and to see how they can operate in the most efficient manner possible. "No man is an island," and in times of stress and strain, supporting each other through times of crisis can be more beneficial than remaining fully aloof as solo operations. It is hoped that the ETB structure will provide the local framework to facilitate a more cooperative approach between school managers…. Surely this is an approach that would be welcomed by the DES, and should be welcomed by others, if their autonomy and independence is fully recognised and understood."
Mr Moriarty concluded:
"Time will tell, and we shall see, how the ETBs are established, how they are embedded into Irish society, and how they develop within the broader education sector. In the meantime we await the real start to the process of structural reform which begins this month when the ETB Bill is finally published."