24 September, 2015 - Address by Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, at the ETBI Annual Conference

Check Against Delivery


“Everything we draw from society comes out of the well of education”.

That is what I have had in mind while busying myself with the work of education and training over the last 15 months.

And it seems to me an appropriate motto for the work your own organisations have carried out over the last 85 years.

And the work that you continue to advance today.

I’m delighted to be here with you today.

It seems appropriate to speak to you about junior cycle reform, which I know you have just completed a discussion on, as well as the need for investment in education and training.

I also want to talk about the transformational change which you are leading, the scale of which is unparalleled in the education and training sector. 

The vocational education committees have been merged into ETBs.

Training has become your responsibility, and has been fused with further education.

And each of you has established a new relationship with SOLAS.

All of this has happened over a very short period of time.

And this, of course, creates an imperative for you – individually as ETBs and collectively through ETBI – to redirect your efforts towards a new vision for Ireland’s learners.

But first, I would like to pay tribute to the history of your organisations.

And I would like to talk about the bright future that lies ahead of you.

Bedrock of the education system

In 1930, the Oireachtas passed the Vocational Education Act, which for the first time established Vocational Education Committees.

Looking back at that legislation now, it is remarkable how forward looking it was.

It described the role of VECs across two areas – continuation education and technical education.

Continuation education was described as “education to continue and supplement education provided in … schools”, including preparation for employment as well as training for those in employment.

In effect, this was the precursor to what we now refer to as lifelong learning.

The description of technical education in that Act seems a little more dated nowadays, including “education pertaining to… the occupations of girls and women connected with the household”!

Other aspects of the description of technical education in the 1930 Act should give us pause for thought – art was included in the definition, along with science and physical activity.

This was, leaving to one side the historical view of the role of women, a hugely progressive piece of legislation, which clearly envisaged the role of VECs as providing for wide and varied opportunities for young people.

That Act also included a number of sections around the requirement for students to attend for education – preceding the National Education Welfare Act by some 70 years.

And of course it includes sections that set out the make-up of committees, the funding of those committees, and their obligations to abide by school inspections, public pay policy, and so on – most of these were replicated 83 years later in the ETB Act.

While progressive in description, the vision for your organisations back then was a narrow one focussed on meeting a critical national need – the need for vocational and continuing education.

You have come a long way over the last 85 years.

It seems to me that your history since then has been underpinned by two clear trends.

The first is that you are most often the organisations to which the state turns to meet pressing national needs.

The second is that each time this has happened, you have grown in scale, capacity and influence.

In your early history, you operated vocational schools.

In the 1960s, in response to an urgent need to expand the availability of more traditionally academic second-level education, you became involved in the creation of community schools.

Later, in the 1980s, community colleges began to become a feature of the educational landscape.

And later still, you began to operate Post Leaving Cert courses, and indeed many of the institutions offering these courses have now become stand-alone further education colleges.

As Ireland’s needs have changed, so have your offerings.

Youthreach, VTOS, Back to Education Initiatives and Adult Refugee Programmes all emerged from or developed in your organisations.

On the last of those, I want to pay a particular tribute today to those ETBs which are involved in helping with the resettlement of refugees fleeing from war and persecution.

All of us have been deeply impacted by the harrowing words and pictures we have witnessed from the refugee crisis over recent weeks.

Kildare and Wicklow ETB has been at the forefront of our national response.

Working with City of Dublin ETB, they are working to ensure that refugees who are resettled to Monasterevin later this year will have immediate access to English language and orientation training.

This is just another example of how your organisations step up when our nation needs you.

There have been many similar examples over the decades.

In recent years, City of Dublin ETB has been appointed to run SUSI, when a clear need emerged for a national student grant awarding body.

There will always be challenges in any such project, but SUSI stands proudly as an example of what ETBs can deliver.

Most importantly, it ensures that all students, no matter where in the country they are, have timely access to the grant support they depend on.

There’s one further example I want to mention today, which further underpins how you have responded to national needs, while also pointing to your potential in the future.

Eight years ago, the first community national school opened its doors.

Writing in the Irish Times back then, Patsy McGarry noted that “a revolution has begun in the patronage of primary education and few seem to have noticed.”

Over the last eight years, this has been a quiet and gentle revolution.

There are now 11 community national schools in Ireland.

These schools offer multi-denominational education, through a model which can accommodate the beliefs of all children who are enrolled in each school.

I have been acting as patron of the schools in a temporary capacity while the new model has been developing.

But I know that you will agree that it is now appropriate that patronage should transfer to the relevant ETB, and that Boards of Management should be established in each of the eleven schools.

I look forward to progressing this with you in the coming months.

I’ll come back to the issue of the patronage of primary schools in a moment.

But I have pointed to the history of your organisations today for a reason.

Over 85 years, across almost all sectors of Irish education, you have delivered.

You have supported children, young people and adult learners in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Ireland.

You continue to offer primary and post-primary students the opportunity to benefit from high-quality, well-rounded education.

You provide second-chance and life-long learning opportunities that can transform the lives of people, of all ages and backgrounds, in each of our communities.

You provide skills training, activation schemes, and of course apprenticeships which offer people secure and sustainable careers.

You give adults a safe and respectful second chance in education when they have been failed by their initial experience of mainstream education.

You restore their confidence and put them safely back on a journey of lifelong learning.

And so today I wanted to pause to pay tribute to all that you have done, and all that you continue to do.

In many ways, you are the bedrock of the Irish education system.

And I expect a lot more from you over the next 85 years of your existence!

What’s next?

I know that each ETB is ambitious for what they can deliver in the future.

And I know that ETBI is ambitious for the sector as a whole.

Today, I want to speak about the role I think you can play in Irish education into the future.

Starting at primary level, I want to say clearly that I think the quiet and gentle revolution which has begun needs to find a louder voice.

The debate over the patronage of our primary schools continues across Ireland.

Significant progress has been made in this area over the lifetime of this Government.

We have seen a 39% increase in the number of multi-denominational schools since the election of this Government in 2011.

And this has delivered an increase of 54% in the number of children enrolled in multi-denominational primary schools.

These numbers show a very significant increase to the availability of school choice.

But we know they are not enough.

Across Ireland, we have growing school communities where diversity will need to be delivered through additional primary schools over the next few years.

And we have many other areas where overall demand is stable, but parents are making clear that they want alternative models of provision.

One provider of multi-denominational education has been at the forefront of this debate.

Educate Together has done enormous work over recent years to improve the choice available to parents in Ireland.

They deserve our thanks and our recognition.

However, as you are demonstrating, they are not the only ones engaged in delivering greater diversity amongst our schools.

The Education and Training Boards have a strong offer to bring to the table.

And I was glad to read Michael Moriarty writing publicly about that offer in the Irish Independent yesterday.

As Michael noted: “This month, two new community national schools opened in Carrigtohill… and Greystones… to be operated by Cork ETB and Kildare Wicklow ETB, respectively.”

In both of those communities, parents recognised the value of the model proposed by the ETBs, and chose your model.

So there is a bright future for ETBs in the primary sector, but it will require parents to be better informed of the existence of an alternative multi-denominational model.

While touching on primary patronage, you’ll forgive me if I make a couple of more general comments today.

Progress on enhancing diversity in primary education, as I have already said, has been significant over the last few years.

But more does need to be done.

In particular, in areas where parents expressed a preference back in 2012 and 2013, we have a duty to deliver alternative models of patronage.

I believe that we need to reinvigorate the divestment process.

To that end, I will be meeting with the Catholic Bishops over the coming weeks. 

And I will be meeting with the other patrons, including representatives of the ETB sector.

And my aim will be to ensure that we can announce a speeding up of divestments before the end of this year, along with a roadmap for advancing this agenda over the next year or two.

Your future, of course, is not limited to developments in primary education.

At post-primary level, you have also been successful in securing the patronage of new schools over recent years.

Some of these you will run yourselves.

Others you have opened in partnership with other patrons – both denominational and multi-denominational.

One interesting example is Louth and Meath ETB – the co-patron with Educate Together of Ballymakenny College.

When it opened its doors it introduced another model at second level providing for even greater diversity.

It is a Community School that is non-denominational, as there is no obligation on the school to provide for the teaching of religion.

Your flexibility and ability to offer different models of education must continue into the future, to ensure that you continue to meet the needs of changing communities.

Moving beyond school, PLC provision has also developed enormously over recent years.

I want to particularly acknowledge the moves that have been made towards the inclusion of work placement elements that help people to progress in life after graduation.

You all know that SOLAS has embarked on a review of PLC provision.

That work, to be completed by next March, is hugely exciting.

It will give us a national picture of PLC provision.

And it will help each of you to learn from the best practice that exists across PLC provision in Ireland, and to further improve the opportunities you provide to young people.

You are probably also aware that I have made clear that the roll-out of new apprenticeships is one of my personal priorities as Minister.

Many ETBs got involved in making submissions to the Apprenticeship Council.

For example, Cavan Monaghan ETB, in conjunction with the Irish Road Haulage Association, proposed a new HGV Driving apprenticeship. 

This proposal was judged by the Council to be ready to commence development into an apprenticeship programme.

In total, 25 new types of apprenticeships that could come on-stream over the next year or so have been identified.

These are very flexible apprenticeships, ranging in duration from two to four years, and will be offered at Levels 5 to 9 on the National Framework of Qualifications.

This is a huge development for apprenticeships in Ireland.

And it’s a huge opportunity for both further and higher education providers.

An apprenticeship is much more than just a route into work.

The skills and experience apprenticeships provide, allow people to flourish in stable and sustainable careers, and to rise to the very top of their chosen fields.

The ETBs will play an enormous role in delivering these opportunities to young people and adults across Ireland.

And you will also have a significant role to play in supporting enterprise development and job creation in your communities.

There are many excellent examples of strong links between employers and the education and training system in meeting skills needs.

But the reality is that outside of targeted programmes like apprenticeships, many employers find the system impenetrable. 

Earlier this year, we began a project to create a network of regional skills fora.

The intention is to provide employers and the education and training system with a more systematic way of working together.

This will allow us to build skills supply, and support the growth and development of each region.

I want to thank the ETBs for their contribution to this initiative.

ETBs have played a key role in the establishment of the new Skills fora, and we expect to have Steering Groups operating in 8 regions by the end of this year.  

Most of what I have mentioned so far is focused on the increasing role that ETBs will play in the delivery of education into the future.

You can also play an ever-increasing role in supporting the delivery of education by all providers.

As you know, the ETB Act was deliberately designed to be enabling legislation.

It allows for your development in this area over the medium to long term.

As I mentioned at the outset, your sector has undergone a seismic change in the last couple of years, including:

•   The replacing of 33 VECs with 16 newly merged ETBs,

•   The transfer of responsibility for training provision to ETBs to ensure integrated delivery of further education and training, and

•   The creation of SOLAS to set strategic direction for Further Education and Training, provide funding and ensure accountability.

This unprecedented level of structural reform presents many challenges.

In order to meet those challenges, we are supporting your efforts to improve your administrative systems and improve connectivity.

Major shared services projects are underway in the areas of payroll and finance.

These will improve processes, and replace outdated and unsuitable systems.

Staff in training centres have transferred across to ETBs seamlessly and work on consolidating policies and procedures is well advanced.

Communications, which are so vital in a major change programme such as this, are strongly supported – both within ETBs with the support of your staff, and across the sector through ETBI.

Inevitably change on this scale creates uncertainty and concern. 

So none of the progress achieved to date would have been possible without the knowledge, experience and dedication of people in the ETB sector. 

I want to pay tribute to each and every one of your staff who have risen to meet each of these challenges.

I am acutely conscious of the workload demands on your staff and we have recently sought to begin to address the most pressing needs in the sector. 

Further work in this area is needed, and my Department will be in further contact with ETBs on this over the next few days.

We will continue to work closely with those driving the change in the sector, as well as those affected by the change.

I believe that the reform agenda will also enable ETBI, as your representative body, to enhance its existing role of support for the sector. 

We have, through ETBI, the potential to create centres of excellence in key areas of the ETB sector such as quality assurance, and training and development.

Over time, the delivery of these projects will help inform how the sector could fulfil a wider mandate, as the ETB Act envisages.


Junior Cycle Reform

Today, we have heard the results from the ballots of members carried out by TUI and ASTI in relation to Junior Cycle reform.

For decades now, it has been widely known that reform of junior cycle is necessary.

We know that the current system doesn’t serve our young people the way it should.

And we know that we can, and must, do better for them.

Upon taking office, I made clear that the core principles of Junior Cycle reform had to be protected;

But that I was willing to negotiate with the unions and others on how reform should be implemented.

Over the last 15 months, I have met with the leadership of the ASTI and TUI on many occasions.

I have also met with all of the other partners in the education system, and have listened with interest as a variety of possible solutions to end the dispute and introduce a reformed junior cycle were raised.

I have been prepared to compromise and have sought the same from other parties.

This is how agreement is reached.

But I have also made clear that I would not countenance any compromise that would prevent us from delivering the changes that our students need and deserve.

In May, I reached an agreement with the unions on the shape of the reforms – an agreement that was endorsed by management bodies including ETBI, school leaders, parents, and of course students.

In July, we reached full agreement on the resources necessary to implement Junior Cycle reform, with my clear commitment to make a substantial investment in teacher time and professional development for teachers to implement these reforms.

I also made clear that work would commence immediately with management bodies.

That work will ensure that school management have the supports necessary to coordinate the Junior Cycle at whole-school level, to promote the development of new approaches to learning and teaching, and to embed classroom-based assessment successfully.

Today, I welcome the strong endorsement for the agreed programme for reform by the Teachers’Union of Ireland. 

However, the decision by 55% of ASTI members who voted to reject the agreed proposals is deeply disappointing. 

That said, I note that the ASTI intends to engage with its members in relation to outstanding concerns.

Over the coming period I will consult with other education stakeholders, including the ETBI and other management bodies, as well as students and their parents.

In recent weeks the cohort of students who will sit the reformed Junior Cycle have begun 2nd year. 

It is unfortunate that in the long negotiation on junior cycle reform that their voice has often been lost in the debate. 

Their interests will be to the forefront of my thinking on the way forward in implementing junior cycle reform in the coming weeks.


Investment in Education

With less than three weeks to go until the Budget, it would be remiss of me not to speak today about the need for investment in education.

As you will appreciate, there is a lot of negotiation left to be done over the next couple of weeks.

And as a member of Cabinet, I’m precluded from revealing any details in advance of the Budget.

But, that said, I am happy to talk about my own priorities, for delivery not just in this Budget, but over the next few years.

There are huge demands for investment in education.

And I believe that such investment is not only necessary – it is a moral, social and economic imperative.

In the last Budget, I was able to secure the first increase to the education budget in recent years.

That didn’t allow me to deliver all that I would like, but it has allowed for some welcome developments.

To meet the continuing demographic growth in our schools, the last Budget provided for an additional 1,700 teachers and SNAs, who are now in place in schools all across Ireland.

Since then, I have secured further resources – to provide additional support to children with special needs, and to make some improvements to the staffing of small primary schools.

On top of this, I secured the funding needed to continue with some very important reforms.

These include the introduction of pre-school quality inspections, the roll-out of the successful literacy and numeracy strategy, and investment in reform of the junior cycle.

And of relevance to the theme of your Conference, I have found the funding to establish a Centre for School Leadership.

Because we know that we need to better prepare people to become school leaders, and that we need to improve supports for them when they are in leadership roles.

As our economy recovers, we must build on what was achieved last year.

During my first few months in office, I was very clear that it would never be possible to satisfy all of the demands that exist for additional investment.

But I am satisfied that some consensus is starting to emerge around the priority areas for investment.

Clearly, as a nation, we need to invest more in our youngest children, and in supporting parents to make the choices that are right for them.

Our schools need more staffing, better funding, and functioning middle-management structures.

Indeed, I am meeting with the leadership of ETBI, ACCS and JMB later this evening to discuss your shared proposals in relation to middle management supports.

New apprenticeships won’t get off the ground without investment.

And we must support our higher education system to ensure that we continue to provide top quality opportunities at that level.

These are the broad parameters of where we need additional investment.

We won’t deliver on all of them this year.

But I am determined that we will build on what we achieved last year.

And invest in education to build better, brighter futures for all of our people.


It has been a pleasure for me to join you here today.

It has been a day of mixed news on one front.

But that shouldn’t take away from the value of your conference.

As I have detailed today, your organisations have a very proud history.

And a very bright future.

I look forward to working with each of the ETBs, and with ETBI, to ensure that, working together, we build a stronger, and better resourced education system.