Vocational Education Committees

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 205 No. 17

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Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden I raise this as a matter of grave concern which is affecting many people employed in the VEC and reducing its efficiency. There are 25 staff members based in Mullingar who give an amazing service. I was a member of County Westmeath VEC from 1999 and I am aware of the fantastic work it does. The country-wide configuration with which the Minister has provided us is daft. County Westmeath has a strong natural affinity with County Longford and together they form the electoral constituency of Longford-Westmeath. The idea of putting County Westmeath together with County Offaly is wrong because it belongs with County Longford. I understand there are cost savings involved. The Minister hopes to save €3 million. I believe, however, that counties Longford and Westmeath would work much better together — the county councils already work closely together — and the headquarters of the VEC should be in Mullingar. The VECs concerned are willing and able to facilitate this.

The VEC owns a premises in Laois, but I question its capacity. Is there a room to cater for the expanding service? There are many schools of which I am aware, including Athlone community college, of which I am a former chairman. The 25 staff members of the VEC have provided a fantastic service for many years to the benefit of the community and I believe they would be willing to provide an expanded service for counties Longford and Westmeath. I know from experience that connecting County Westmeath with counties Laois and Offaly would not work. There is no question about it. There is no affinity between these areas, but there is a connection between counties Longford and Westmeath.

I ask the Minister to ensure counties Longford and Westmeath remain together and that the VEC headquarters are established in Mullingar which has the capability and the facilities to deal with the expanding service. We have the space required and the VEC’s position on a roundabout off the N4 gives access to the massive motorway network. There is a structure in place that will facilitate the expansion of the service. I ask the Minister to pass on my comments to the Minister for Education and Skills and thank him for listening to me.

Senator Donie Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy Zoom on Donie Cassidy Before the Minister replies, may I be allowed——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan It is a matter for Senator McFadden if she wishes to give the Senator some of her time. There is about half a minute left.

Senator Donie Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy Zoom on Donie Cassidy Just 30 seconds.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan Zoom on Pat Moylan Is the Senator agreeable?

[1027]Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden Agreed.

Senator Donie Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy Zoom on Donie Cassidy I was a member of the VEC for four decades and served successfully with both Senator McFadden and her father. We all know what has happened with the HSE. I fully support the Senator in her request. The VEC has 25 excellent staff and a terrific new building leased in Mullingar. It is a shining example of what should have been done in the case of the HSE. The counties in the Midlands Health Board area — Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath — worked extremely well together. I hope the people of counties Laois and Offaly can stay together as a unit, as they always have done with considerable success.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan. I thank the Senator for raising it and welcome the opportunity to outline the background to the Government decision to reduce the overall number of VECs.

Arising from the recommendation of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes in July 2009 that the number of VECs could be reduced from 33 to 22, the Government has decided to reduce the number to 16 to deal with issues of scale and in view of the current and prospective requirements of the education sector. Accordingly, the Government has decided to merge VECs in particular counties, including those in counties Westmeath, Offaly and Laois and those in Counties Longford, Roscommon and Leitrim.

Although a number of indicators could be used to identify the scale of operation of a VEC, such as the size of its budget and the number of second level schools for which it is responsible, it is fair to say a VEC’s overall budget is the broadest measure of activity because it includes adult education and other provisions not easily captured otherwise.

Each of the VECs in counties Westmeath, Offaly and Laois has an overall budget of less than €25 million. The VECs of counties Westmeath and Offaly have budgets of €21 million, while the budget for County Laois VEC is as low as €19 million. County Westmeath VEC operates four post-primary schools, County Offaly VEC operates five schools, and County Laois VEC operates four schools. The overall budgets for each of the VECs in counties Longford, Roscommon and Leitrim are less than €15 million. County Longford VEC has a budget of €14 million, County Roscommon VEC has a budget of €13 million and County Leitrim VEC has a budget of just €12 million. These three VECs operate a combined total of 12 post-primary schools, with four in County Longford, three in County Roscommon and five in County Leitrim. These data reflect a size and scale of operation that is representative of a significant number of existing VECs, which makes restructuring of the sector a key priority.

The merging of County Westmeath VEC with the VECs of counties Offaly and Laois and the merging of County Longford VEC with the VECs of counties Roscommon and Leitrim will create VECs which have the critical mass of activity inherent in the larger administrative budgets of €61 million and €39 million respectively, while retaining the flexibility and adaptability that has characterised the VECs in these areas to date. In arriving at these combinations, account was taken of geographic factors such as the total area covered by the new VECs, the distance between the extremities of the area, the road network within the area and the alignment of other regional structures. This new structure will provide the people of counties Westmeath, Offaly and Laois and the people of counties Longford, Roscommon and Leitrim with VECs which are designed to improve the ability of the sector to support service delivery, not just in schools under the direct governance of VECs but also in the wider education sector. These new, larger VECs will be able to establish shared services and provide support services [1028]not just for VEC-run schools but also for primary schools and other second level schools in these larger geographical areas.

While the decision involves a significant departure from the current position in which there is one VEC in each of the counties concerned, the continuation of strong links between the new VECs and the counties that are merged to form them will be a fundamental feature of the new structure. Each of the counties concerned will have representation on the new VECs. The titles to be given to the new VECs are one of the detailed items that will be covered in consultations with stakeholders. The location of the headquarters of the new VECs will be determined later. This will require engagement by the Department with the VECs concerned. I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on the matter.

Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden Zoom on Nicky McFadden Why was there no consultation with staff, the Irish Vocational Education Association or the chief executives? I accept what the Minister is saying about budgets — it is all about economic indicators and so on — but the ability to function well is also important. I do not believe the merger of County Westmeath VEC with the VECs in counties Laois and Offaly will function correctly.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 30 November 2010.


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