BUSINESS + POLITICS
Further Education and Training- What’s happening?
22nd March 2021
Since the pandemic hit, education settings had to make the quick transition to the digital space where classrooms were replaced with class-zooms. This is easier said than done. In this article, I interviewed two Deputy Principals in Colleges of Further Education settings, Tina Reddin and Siobhan O’Carroll on their experiences from the past year. I also discuss the recent developments in the Further Education and Training sector.
Simon Harris, the Minister of Further and Higher Education, described FET as “overlooked and often undervalued” and commonly viewed as “second best”. People can often get caught up in the perceptions of Further Education rather than what it is. Further Education and Training, in a broad sense, are lifelong education options for anyone over the age of 16. FET includes apprenticeships, traineeships, Post Leaving Cert courses (PLC), adult education as well as core literacy and numeracy skills. FET courses are offered at levels ones to six on the National Framework of Qualifications. These programmes and courses are delivered through the Education and Training Board network (ETBI) which is an association established to collectively represent education and training boards and promote their interests. SOLAS is the funding body for Further Education and Training and work together with Irelands 16 ETBs along with industry and State agencies and bodies offering a wide range of options to school leavers, those unemployed and people looking to upskill through PLCs. SOLAS has recently released their strategy for the next four years which identifies the need to increase the visibility of FET options for school leavers. School leavers are repeatedly consumed by the “points race” which puts great pressure on the final two years of school which can result in a strain on mental health and students can end up in a university course that is not right for them. In 2017, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) released figures showing that 1 in 6 third level students drop out in their first year. Correspondingly, data that was collected by SOLAS shows that students who completed a PLC before entering third level had a higher retention rate. Minister Harris just recently announced a revamp of the current CAO entry system in hopes to increase choice, relieve pressure and ease demand on third level colleges. It also aims to change the credit systems for courses so it will be easier for students with a FET certificate to continue their education and earn a degree. Maria Walshe, Director of SOLAS Branding, Communications and FET Strategy Implementation imparts “while not everyone is suited to university, neither will everyone be suited to taking on a FET course. Regardless, being aware of all options on offer is key to those considering life after the Leaving Cert”.
Minister Harris states in The National Further Education and Training Strategy that “FET was a lifeline for many during the economic recession, and once again FET will be critical to our post-Covid recovery.” He says, “Now more than ever, FET will support the economy through targeted initiatives, particularly around re-skilling and up-skilling opportunities.” In January, the Minister launched a new online portal that is aimed for people looking to upskill or retrain called The Right Course. This online portal is a clear and simple way to see how people can develop new skills, the supports that are available and what is on offer such as apprenticeships. One of the resources in the portal that has been made free as an additional support to those whose jobs have been impacted by COVID 19 is eCollege. It is a SOLAS funded online training facility that provides a mix of high quality interactive online learning courses. Simon Harris says in relation to The Right Course, “We cannot afford to have untapped talent and we cannot leave any person locked out of society because of a lack of skills. We must ensure our people have access to the skills they need to succeed in life; and Irish business has the people with the skills they need to grow.”
“School leavers are repeatedly consumed by the “points race” which puts great pressure on the final two years of school which can result in a strain on mental health and students can end up in a university course that is not right for them.”
Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS, states that despite “the inevitable restrictions on campus gatherings, we’re at a fairly advanced stage of planning to ensure our learners and staff are in a safe environment and this will include ensuring corridor flows, physical distance and a blend of physical and online provision.”
I interviewed two Deputy Principals of Further Education colleges on their experiences of online teaching and learning. Tina Reddin, Deputy Principal of Dundrum College of Further Education (DCFE), believed that for them it was very important to take a college wide approach when dealing with online learning to avoid confusion for both students and staff. Fortunately, DCFE is an already tech enabled college that previous to COVID 19 had started blended learning while also offering a range of level 5 and 6 courses involving computer science and technology meaning that staff were familiar with the digital space. Like many other teachers, they felt that summer was lost because of the preparation that was needed before returning in September. Additional training on online teaching was given to staff and online and in person drop-in sessions for students. When asked about the benefits of this experience, Tina expressed that more people were able access the course and that when in person learning was happening that it was in smaller groups. She also stated their want to become a more environmentally friendly campus and that moving online helped this. A big challenge that DCFE is experiencing like other FET settings is the removal of work experience. The work experience module increases confidence and motivation for students, trying to replace this has proven difficult especially with courses where it is a key part such as nursing, childcare, and healthcare. DCFE organises drop-in sessions focused on helping students with finding work experience and has substituted it with an assimilated experience where needed. Tina Reddin also expresses that adult learners are social learners and despite the proactive approach put in by the college to facilitate online learning, it is the social aspect that is very much missed by students.
We also heard from Siobhan O’Carroll from Whitehall College of Further Education which is known for creating a lively, friendly, and warm atmosphere, on how they are adjusting and adapting to online life.
Siobhan expressed that the return in September was a unique one as the classrooms in the college were not built for social distancing and class groups had to be reduced by half or more. City of Dublin Education and Training Board provided training opportunities for staff and a laptop loan scheme for students which helped. Yet there are various challenges to college online such as finding a quiet space to attend classes; sharing devices within the home; adapting to online classes can be difficult to manage. Siobhan mentioned that teachers have been trying to simulate practical experiences online, one example being the art teachers preparing art packs with materials for students to use at home. She suggests that the key will be finding the right balance of online and in person learning. Siobhan expressed there was difficulty when enforcing rules around mask wearing and social distancing for students but for the most part people have worked together and there has been mutual patience shared between students and staff during this time of dramatic change.
It is without a doubt that this year has had its challenges within the FET sector but the teamwork and support between staff and students are also undeniable. The next few years will see positive change in FET despite the difficult year. Minister Simon Harris states “FET now has a vital role in enabling this equality and cohesion to flourish in communities throughout the country, working with the Government to create a fair, inclusive, and equitable Ireland for all.”