New strategy aims to expand role of Further Education and Training

The Further Education and Training (FET) sector will play a key role in Ireland’s economic growth and in combatting social exclusion over the next five years. That’s according to Andrew Brownlee, CEO of SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority, who was speaking at the launch of a new five-year strategy for FET.

The strategy, ‘Future FET: Transforming Learning’, was launched today (16.07.20) in the historic Richmond Barracks in Inchicore, Dublin, by Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and Niall Collins TD, Minister of State for Further Education.

The strategy aims to reposition FET as an attractive, in-demand and quality choice for those engaging in upskilling and lifelong learning, as well as for school-leavers. It envisages “FET Colleges of the future” as “beacons of community-based learning excellence, which can start to change the hearts and minds of Irish society” with regard to school-leaving and education for career development options.

Speaking at today’s launch, Andrew Brownlee said: “FET really is the fulcrum for unlocking Ireland’s full potential. It is available in every community and offers every individual – regardless of any previous level of education – a pathway to take them as far as they want to go.

“FET can offer personal development and fulfilment, a link to community and social networks, and a range of supports that reflect the diverse base of its learners. It also offers great opportunities to move into exciting and interesting vocations and careers, or a platform to develop the skills that will allow someone to flourish if they go on to further study in higher education.

“Our new strategy sets out an ambitious vision for the expansion of the FET sector. By 2025, there will be a greater overall penetration of FET across the population. A greater share of school-leavers will be choosing FET or apprenticeships as their first destination.

“People will move seamlessly – in large numbers – between FET and higher education, with clear transition criteria. A significant and growing cohort of people in employment will be using FET to upskill, with employers viewing FET as a critical enterprise resource.

“Progression levels through FET will increase strongly, with pathways from core skills courses and community education available to all who wish to pursue them. A digitally transformed FET system will offer a large portfolio of flexible, online and blended opportunities.”

Integrated Tertiary Education System

Mr. Brownlee said the new FET strategy comes at an exciting time for the education sector.

“The ambitious Programme for Government set out by the 33rd Dáil makes commitments to education; to expansion of apprenticeship and vocational training; to job creation through innovation, digital enhancement and research; to climate action; and to community, inclusivity and equality. FET can enable delivery of all these commitments,” he said.

“We are moving towards an integrated tertiary education system, combining FET and higher education, and we are embedding the key role that lifelong learning has to play in social inclusion and economic success. The creation of the new Government Department for Further and Higher Education is a significant milestone in this regard.

“FET has a long, proud and successful history in this country, stretching right back to before the birth of the Republic. The FET sector we know today is built upon decades of hard work and cooperation, and is characterised by an ability to embrace change and accept the challenges that come with this.

“FET was a lifeline for many during the last economic recession, and FET will be critical to our post-Covid recovery. Now more than ever, FET will support the economy through targeted initiatives, particularly around re-skilling and up-skilling opportunities.

“We need to ensure we can meet the needs of the future world and be responsive and adaptable in times of necessity. Our ways of working are constantly evolving, and the idea of a static ‘job for life’ is becoming less and less of a feature of our working lives. We are working differently, we are working for longer over the course of our lives and, as the world changes around us at a rapid pace, we need to be equipped to adapt to these changes. The new FET Strategy, in cooperation with the Programme for Government, provides a roadmap for the future.”

From Early School-Leaver to PhD Candidate: A Learner’s experience of FET

Today’s launch also featured inputs from Carol Hanney, Chief Executive of City of Dublin Education and Training Board, and Stephanie Thompson, a FET learner. Ms. Thompson spoke about her personal experiences of FET.

“Thanks to FET, I have gone from being an early school-leaver to a PhD candidate,” she said. “I left school before my Junior Cert, and my initial engagement with FET was through the Youthreach programme. Youthreach was very different to school: it was less formal and, although it was structured, it didn’t feel pressurised. The staff were amazing – they were there for one-to-one academic support, but they were also there for everything else, no matter what was going on for me.

“I later took part in the ‘Moving On’ programme, a back to education initiative for young mothers. That helped grow my confidence – I was encouraged to learn, and I was shown options I didn’t know I had. At the time, I felt that, because I had left school with no qualifications, my options were very limited and I had lost my chance for success. The coordinators of the ‘Moving On’ programme helped me choose a PLC course I was interested in and supported me with making the application.

“The PLC provided me with an insight into college life and helped me prepare for my future studies. I finished the course will full distinctions, and was offered my first CAO choice, an honours degree in law at Carlow Institute of Technology. After that, I did a Master’s in comparative criminology and criminal justice at Maynooth University. Since then, I’ve been working as a researcher at the Department of Law in Maynooth. I am extremely privileged to say that, last week, I became a recipient of the John and Pat Hume Doctoral Award from Maynooth University and will receive a fully funded scholarship to undertake a PhD this October.”

‘Future FET: Transforming Learning’, the new five-year strategy for FET, is available to download from https://www.solas.ie/f/70398/x/64d0718c9e/solas_fet_strategy_web.pdf