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.
“PLC courses take a continuous assessment approach rather than focus on a big exam, so they were able to respond well to the initial lockdown. There were some practical assessments that had to be completed, including animal grooming for instance, which we are hoping to fast-track now.
“We’ve been building our digital capacity and there has been a major focus on continuous professional development to improve digital skills and tech-enhanced learning for FET practitioners. We’re also well placed because class sizes are generally small and with courses often involving practical work, we were practising an element of social distancing long before the crisis.
Covid-19 aside, what is different in FET this year?
“There is a growing focus on green skills and environmentalism through FET, including courses in sustainable energy, sustainable development, wind turbine engineering and retrofitting. We’re also seeing new apprenticeships in sales and recruitment come on stream, while the financial services apprenticeships are up and running.
“We’re also helping learners to see what courses can lead to, as well how a level five or six course can be a part of an education journey. In this vein, you’ll see a lot more courses making it clear that they may lead, for instance, to a course in an area like hospitality, retail, construction and so on.
“Then there are areas that are directly related to higher education, such as nursing studies; here, with the right discipline, learners have a chance to go into a related higher education course, perhaps even starting in second year.
What’s popular this year?
“The tech space is growing in popularity. We offer courses and pathways to train as software professionals, network engineers, digital marketers and cybersecurity experts. We’ve three new tech apprenticeships coming up including all-female apprenticeships which have been proven to help women.
College life is uncertain this year, and students will inevitably miss out on aspects of the student experience because of Covid-19. Is FET a good alternative, perhaps even just for a year until the pandemic hopefully retreats?
“This is a time of uncertainty and people may not be as sure about what they want to do, so there’s a real opportunity now to think about giving PLCs, apprenticeships or traineeships a try. If it works out, it could lead to a job or further study, and if it isn’t the right course, you won’t have lost four years of study. Our courses vary from six months to two years.
Does the Covid crisis make some courses, such as hospitality, less attractive?
“Hospitality still offers great options and I would not discourage anyone from taking a course. There are, however, areas of the economy where the business model will change. Retail stands out here: while people may shop online more and less people may be needed in shops, there will be a need for more tech and digital-related skills in the sector.
“We will need a combination of different skills in the world to come and FET is all about responding to industry needs, so learners should leave well prepared.
Is FET for everyone?
“The days of completing a block of education sometime between the ages of 17 and 22, which will serve you for your whole life and career, are gone. You’ll have to upskill and retrain throughout your career, so there are opportunities to dip in and out throughout your career.
“FET will never hold you back and there is strong research showing that people with a FET qualification such as a PLC go on to get better results in college if they progress from FET to third level.
“The new Department of Further and Higher Education is badly needed and it is great that our sector has a Minister at the Cabinet table. It cannot be right that two-thirds of school-leavers go on to higher education, or indeed that in some schools 100 per cent of the class go to higher education. In those schools, there must be some students who would do much better in a vocational route.”