14 June 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A significant moment in the history of public education in Co Monaghan was reached on Monday when the final meeting of the county’s Vocational Education Committee took place.

The moment marked both an end and a beginning – as the final chapter in the history of a structure that has served an important purpose in the education of Irish young people since 1930 was finished, so the first lines of its sequel were written as the transition to the new dispensation of Education and Training Boards began to be eased into place.

There is much evidence to validate the claim made by Chief Executive Officer Martin G O’Brien on Monday that VECs since their inception have been “the major agent of change in the Irish education system”.

They have certainly advanced and broadened the range of educational choice available to generations of students – and their success in this regard has gradually elaborated and broadened for the better the popular conception of what constitutes “a proper education”.

The fascinating insight into the founding days of vocational education in this county provided at Monday’s meeting in the reflections of one of the Committee’s doyens, the Ballybay educationalist Paul Flynn, hints at the incremental nature of the journeys VECs have made into the mainstream.

The progress from the rented, hand-me-down accommodation of old to the state of the art facilities at schools and learning centres throughout the county today could be seen to parallel the pathway from peripherality to centrality that the vocational approach to education has negotiated over the past 80-odd years.

In actuality, the reputation of VECs and the services they offered probably quite quickly outstripped their initial narrow perception in some quarters as the purveyors of a somehow lesser form of learning that foregounded practical skills geared to factory employment at the expense of academic development and progress to further or higher education.

It must be acknowledged, as Mr Flynn pointed out, that vocational schools were important contributors to the skills base reservoir that proved vital to this county’s furniture and engineering sector when both were significant employers.

But in addition, their rapid evolution into centres of holistic co-educational development greatly enriched the landscape of choice available to parents of second-level schoolchildren in this and other counties.

A learning environment where young people can maximise their talents and attain personal goals across a spectrum of activity, where the academic is integral but not insistent to the prevailing ethos, is now what we expect an Irish second-level school to be – and VEC schools have certainly played an important part in this evolution from the greyer, harsher classroom era that still flits across the horizon of our collective memories.

Given their history of progress and achievement, it is tempting to view in a negative light the dissolution of VECs as an administrative entity and their replacement with a fewer number of somewhat more prosaically titled Education and Training Boards.

We are conditioned to be suspicious of any departure from the traditional single-county approach to providing public services – Co Monaghan’s experience of regionalised delivery of health has been a negative one, and this undoubtedly informed the lingering disapproval of the ‘aggregation’ VECs are being subjected to which surfaced in the comments of some of the contributors to the valedictory discussion at Monday’s meeting of the Monaghan Committee.

The ‘ain’t broke…’ argument seems robust. ETBs are unproven – but so were VECs back in 1930. An objective judgment on how the new bodies operate cannot yet be pronounced and suspicion should not translate into hostility before their efficacy has been tested.

This assessment should perhaps be reasonably deferred until following the 2014 local elections, when the Cavan Monaghan Board membership will be streamlined – though in that process there is an immediate cause of regret articulated by Colr Jackie Crowe on Monday when he referred to the inevitable loss of valuable input to the new structure when the number of members are reduced.

While this form of rationalisation, particularly when it involves local elected representatives, tends to play well with the public, especially a recession-harassed one, the responsibilities involved in local education management ensure that it is no sinecure. Many people, be they elected or otherwise, have grown very good at it during their tenure on VECs and the loss of their input seems more a disadvantage than a boon to the nascent replacement structure.

One of the worries of the reform of public bodies currently being expedited in this country is that a substantial pool of talent and experience is being drained away – perhaps through school boards of management and other mechanisms of oversight, accommodation can be made for those local political, professional and community representatives with a meaningful contribution to make to local education and who will no longer be able to serve on the main Board itself?

Even if their effectiveness is as yet untested, the importance of the new ETBs is undoubted.

The novation to them of the training functions previously residing in the entity of FAS broadens the remit of their responsibility greatly. For Cavan and Monaghan, both possessed of further education institutes of high calibre, there are obvious opportunities to dovetail the range of local training opportunities to the specific needs of both local employment providers and the career dispositions of successive school-leaving generations – a supply/demand formula that the old method of delivering training schemes in this country was never equipped to get a handle on.

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn has intimated that this is only the beginning of a broadening of the range of responsibilities that the new Boards will be expected to discharge – they are structures that will play an increasingly influential role in education and their progress will be followed with close interest by parents and professionals alike.

It is right that the distinguished history and considerable achievements – some very visible ones in recent years in all areas of our county – of Monaghan VEC should be celebrated and, as Chief Executive Martin O’Brien intimated on Monday, an appropriate future vehicle determined for their commemoration.

But, in the context of changing, challenging but potentially very exciting times in Irish education, their passing is perhaps not an occasion for unalloyed regret.

A chapter has closed, a new one is being inscribed – and if the record of delivery of Mr O’Brien in particular is an accurate compass, it is likely that the Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board will be a chief chronicler of progress in the years to come.

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