Pace of change speeds up for further education and training

When Solas, the further education and training (FET) agency, was established in 2013, the sector began to grow in importance.

The new agency quickly began a long-overdue reform and overhaul of apprenticeships. Further education colleges strengthened their links with the higher education sector and, over time, post-Leaving Cert courses started to become a serious first-choice for more and more students.

The training sector opened up a whole new set of job opportunities for people who wanted to retrain or learn a new skill without necessarily having to go to college. And apprenticeships have grown from as low as 1,200 about 10 years ago, in a limited range of mostly craft courses such as motor mechanics and plumbing, to 16,000 last year and coming on 18,000 this year, with newer options including auctioneering, cybersecurity, supply chain manager, sales and laboratory analyst.

Under the recently-departed director of communications, Nikki Gallagher, Solas began to market its offering to students as a serious choice in a way that FÁS, its predecessor, had never quite managed.

This year, the pace of change has sped up. The Covid-19 pandemic is making us reimagine classrooms and college spaces – and it’s also making young people and adult learners reconsider their options. Meanwhile, a newly established Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, led by Simon Harris, means that the eyes of Government are placing a firm emphasis on a sector that was once the Cinderella of education.

Like the entire education sector, however, there will be challenges in delivering teaching during a pandemic.

We caught up with Andrew Brownlee, chief executive of Solas, about what’s planned for the sector this year.

How have you been able to deliver further education and training during the Covid-19 crisis?

“There will be inevitable restrictions on campus gatherings but 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. There will be a split provision between learning online and face-to-face.

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