‘Cinderella’ of the Irish education system comes into its own

“Sometimes overlooked, often undervalued” is how the “Cinderella” of the Irish education system was recently described by the new Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

Ireland’s Further Education and Training (FET) sector has been around for a long time but the perception of it as a route that is less valid than higher education, “second best”, or limited to a small offering of apprenticeships is still held by some. However, today’s FET sector with annual funding of about €800 million, 200,000 learners each year and 25,000 courses on offer throughout the country, represents a very different reality.

“Further education and training really is for everyone,” says Maria Walshe, acting director – communications and secretariat with Solas. “It’s open from early school-leavers to those who are looking to upskill, to people who are looking to change jobs. And because we cover NFQ (National Framework of Qualifications) levels one to six, the entry point is there for all.”

Founded in 2013, Solas works primarily with the country’s 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) along with industry and State agencies and bodies to offer a wide range of options to school-leavers, the unemployed and those looking to upskill through post-Leaving Cert courses (PLCs), apprenticeships and traineeships. It also offers courses in literacy, numeracy and technology. While most of the PLCs start in September, many other courses have start dates at various points throughout the year in the 64 FET centres or 293 community-based facilities all over the country.

A recent study conducted by the HEA suggested that just 50 per cent of those with 300 Leaving Certificate points completed their degree

Solas is responsible for funding, planning and co-ordinating the FET programmes while other bodies, such as the ETBs, deliver the courses and training.

The organisation has just released its five-year FET strategy for 2020-24, part of which notes there is a need to increase the visibility of FET options to school-leavers who are often unaware of the courses and apprenticeships available and the stepping stone they can provide.

This is a job Solas has been working on in the past few years and it is no easy task given the emphasis put on school-leavers progressing to third-level in Ireland, often regardless of suitability.

The most recent figures released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) showed the number of students at universities and institutes of technologies in 2018 reached a record high, with almost 250,000 people studying a third-level course.

However, the number of students who drop out of courses at third level is a growing area of concern. A recent longitudinal study of completion conducted by the HEA suggested that just 50 per cent of those with 300 Leaving Certificate points completed their degree.

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