Solas shines a light on reform of neglected PLC sector

Worthy further education reforms may be unrealistic without extra funding, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

A return to the original mission of post-Leaving Certificate courses (PLC) is how Solas envisions its planned reform of the sector that could see many courses dropped or merged over the next three years. 

It could lead to quite a shake-up of provision at colleges and schools around the country, with some areas having fewer courses and other counties or regions enjoying a better share of programmes from which students could choose.

The recommendations made by Solas, the further education and training authority, are largely based on

findings in the evaluation it had carried out on the sector by the Economic and Social Research Institute.

It surveyed principals of some of the 110 colleges and schools offering PLC courses to more than 32,000 students annually, most of them emerging with level 5 or 6 qualifications. These two steps on the qualifications ladder are placed between the Leaving Certificate and the lowest third-level qualification awarded for two- or three-year programmes offered mostly at institutes of technology and some private colleges.

Long labelled the Cinderella of the education system, PLCs are part of a wider further education system that the ESRI found is still seen as an also-ran or fall-back for people who do not get the grades to go on to third-level college.

But far from being so, the PLC sector provides important links between people of all ages and the jobs market, as well as providing an increasingly-vital alternative route for progression to third level that suits many students.

Part of the trouble is the continuing perceptions and stigmas, confirmed in the ESRI research with students and graduates of the PLC sector, that it is somehow ‘second best’. If the Government has realistic ambitions to redress that, it and its predecessors have done little to do so by imposing a strict limit on the number of places it funds in these courses for over a decade. Yet at the same time, they continue to insist third-level colleges accept more school leavers, albeit without providing the matching additional funding.

This cap of around 32,000 PLC places is not suggested to be raised or removed by Solas in its 45 recommendations arising from the ESRI evaluation.

Solas acknowledges — but does little to suggest remedying — the resourcing issues pointed out strongly by further education and PLC college principals that have beset the sector, particularly so in the past decade.

Education Minister Richard Bruton’s mantra about turning Ireland’s education system into one of the best in Europe rings hollow when he cannot commit any extra funding to a further education and training sector he insists is a valued part of the wider system funded under his department’s €9bn budget.

The Solas recommendations, fashioned with careful control by its parent department and minister, say nothing about reforming the structure of PLC provision. Despite their often job-specific nature and the requirements coming down the track to be more responsive to industry and employers, these courses and colleges are publicly funded in the same way as the country’s second-level schools.

As the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals further education and training committee chairwoman Cecilia Munro points out, many factors undermining PLC provision have long been highlighted by those working in the sector.

“The PLC system has a number of structural flaws that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. These include the uneven geographical spread of course provision, especially in rural areas,” she said, pointing.

Ms Munro points to a lack of capital investment, appropriate administrative or IT support, and guidance counselling.

Management structures also mirror those of secondary schools, even in standalone PLC colleges catering for more than 1,000 students in a diverse range of specialist courses. Solas is recommending a dedicated capital budget for the PLC sector, but without necessarily pushing for a greater allocation.

There is no point just throwing extra money at any sector without ensuring it is fit for purpose. And that purpose is being clearly redefined, or reset to what it was back in the 1980s, as Solas chief executive Paul O’Toole told the Irish Examiner, by the recommendation that 55% of PLC places be targeted at courses specifically aimed at the jobs market. The remainder is to be allocated on those courses whose main purpose is preparing students for third-level or other further education and training.

This will only be after 500 of the places nationally — from within the already capped number — are allocated for an entirely new system of pre-apprenticeship courses, which Mr Bruton said will prepare prospective entrants to an expanding range of apprenticeships being developed in the coming years.

Many working in the sector will be glad to see reforms accepted by an education minister after the last such major review in 2003 went entirely unimplemented. But nobody will place much extra value on the PLC sector if the changes are forced through without any additional investment, particularly the students who Mr Bruton wants to see take up more further education and training opportunities.

He and his colleagues made much of their announcement in Budget 2018 three months ago of an increased levy on employers for the National Training Fund. It was intended to be targeted directly at further and higher education initiatives to respond better to those businesses’ staffing needs. Now that he is explicitly directing just such an initiative in the PLC sector, employers might justifiably question why their money is not being used to help fund it.

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