If it ain’t broke…

15 October 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It would be difficult to identify a more efficiently functioning and effective mechanism of public sector administration in our locality than that operated by Co Monaghan Vocational Education Committee.  Evidence of its excellence in the delivery of services is readily available in communities where its schools and centres are located, and is reflected in the proceedings of its monthly public meetings which are reported regularly in our news columns.

Tuesday’s announcement that the Monaghan Committee is to be amalgamated with that of Cavan as part of a stringent rationalisation programme unveiled by the Minister for Education Mary Coughlan will therefore shock and disturb many of our readers.  Despite the Minister’s rather glib assurance that the reduction in the number of VECs operating nationally from 33 to 16 is a very good thing that will “support the evolution of local education service delivery”, the people of Co Monaghan know a cut when they see one, and have been through the experience of the loss of county autonomy in an important area of their lives too frequently and too painfully in the past to see it as anything other than another deprivation.

It is important, however, to keep the natural concern which this news evokes under cautionary restraint – for the moment, at least.  There is insufficient detail in the Minister’s initial announcement to answer the tide of questions that will rise up in the minds of students, parents, teachers, administrative staff members and others with direct engagement in the vocational education sector in Co Monaghan either as service users or providers.  What we have to go on is merely a statement of intent.  The enabling legislation to realise it is not yet visible, and the Minister has promised consultation with the relevant stakeholders on how the proposal is to be implemented.

It would be naïve to regard any consultation that might take place as having the potential to reverse a decision that in the manner of its announcement had all the traits of a fait accompli.  But it should lead to clarity on the practical implications of the plan – and, it is to be hoped, assurances that some very significant developments upon which Co Monaghan VEC are engaged at present, in particular the development of a €20 million multi-user education complex at Knockaconny on the outskirts of Monaghan Town, will in no way be delayed, diluted or jeopardised.

A multiplicity of other concerns – mundane and practical ones in some cases and in others profound and potentially life-changing – will arise in the minds of the many people who have occasion to use VEC educational provision in the county, and the many who are employed in the sector.  There is scant acknowledgement of such concern’s in the Minister’s announcement, and that in itself is a deep failing of governance on her part regardless of whatever merits may reside in what she is trying to accomplish.

And the Minister’s ultimate goal is by no means clear.  If the objective is some mould-breaking reform of the public service, the method of its accomplishment is obscure.  The outcome of the recent Croke Park negotiations has protected the public service against compulsory redundancy.

And one has to ask, in comparison with other bureaucratic structures in this country, how much fundamental reform is actually required in the administration of vocational education, particularly at a time when the Government is speaking of broadening its remit to include the delivery of services at primary level.

We should also remember that administrative reforms in this country carried out under the guise of streamlining particular spheres of operation have had the entirely opposite effect – spectacularly so in the case of the Health Service Executive and its unlamented Health Boards predecessor.  Despite the damning evidence emerging on an almost daily basis of administrative waste and excess on the one hand and patient suffering on the other, the Government has shown no serious sign to date that it is willing to lift a hand and embark on what is urgently required and fundamental reform in the delivery of health services.  So why pick on the VECs?

One can’t help but suspect that the motivation behind the proposals resides no higher in the scheme of things than the desire by the Government to save a few bob here and there.  The thinking seems to be that by beating two or more VECs into one throughout the country, there will be a bounty of superfluous buildings and property left over which can be liquidated into cash to replenish the Exchequer’s depleted coffers.  Given the current state of the property market, it’s surely a case of ‘Good luck with that!’

It is particularly insulting for a Minister whose portfolio is Education to attempt to convince people, as Ms Coughlan is doing, that the “recast” VECs will be “stronger and better-placed to provide support services”, and that “schools would also benefit from the rationalisation of supplies and services”.  Making such statements without substantial supporting evidence is placing a demand on the credence of the public that is most unbecoming a Minister of government.

Governments should have sound and compelling reasons for embarking on such reforms.  And the bar of justification must stand particularly high when the reforms run contrary to the democratic principle.  For an undoubted effect of the amalgamations will be to distance the people from the mechanisms that decide.  The input of not just local political representatives but those who represent parent, teacher and community interests on VECs will be diminished by this move – and not just numerically.  Experience in this country has shown that when public bodies evolve beyond county demarcations in their structure, the voice of the people is severely diminished and bureaucracy grows increasingly unaccountable and self-led.

This would be a particularly injurious development in the field of education.  The county structure has served the delivery of vocational education in this country extremely well for 80 years, and any decision to jettison it must be vindicated by much more cogent and convincing arguments that the Minister and the Government have yet put forward.

We would encourage our readers to read our report of the discussion on college grants which took place at Monday’s Co Monaghan VEC meeting (see page one). We believe it reflects a picture of an industrious and humane system of corporate governance in operation – staff working well above and beyond the call of duty to deliver an important service to the public, and committee members taking pains to determine how best they could enhance that service delivery.

The evidence suggests that Co Monaghan VEC, and, we are sure, many other VECs like it in the country, are delivering a high quality service against considerable odds.  What they need is additional resources and support from the Government, rather than being subjected to a cost-motivated exercise in dubious evolution.

If it ain’t broke….

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