Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

If we really want to rebuild economy, abolishing DEL is not the foundation

Scrapping Stephen Farry's DEL department could cost jobs

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry was absolutely correct about the responsibilities of his department. They are critical to the rebuilding of the economy.

Reorganising or relocating the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) could become an excuse to further delay the already overdue plans to give Northern Ireland a labour force that is able to lift the productivity of the economy to attract modern advanced types of employment.

Stephen Farry has emphasised what needs to happen. However, much remains to be done to implement this big agenda.

The draft implementation plan for the Programme for Government (PfG), highlights 31 action areas to give a better supply of skills for Northern Ireland.

The plan needs to set objectives for an enhanced education and training structure at all attainment levels, from vocational skills to advanced post-graduate openings, that are at the frontiers of modern knowledge and skills.

As presently written, the draft PfG implementation plan is wide ranging and ambitious, but is more aspirational than operational. There is a lack of an appreciation of the inherited inadequacy of too many less qualified potential young employees, the perpetuation of a low productivity expectation and the resultant low-pay regime.

For potential new investors, we claim to offer a well-qualified labour force. The evidence from the actions of new investors tells a different story. Northern Ireland frequently attracts businesses that seek low cost employees and middle grade, back-office, jobs.

The PfG is unconvincing that the inadequate skills output of schools, colleges and universities is satisfactorily understood. While there is considerable merit in ad hoc schemes to tackle immediate skills training needs, such as the Assured Skills scheme, which brings together Invest NI and DEL, emphasis on Assured Skills obscures the logic of a major shift of emphasis on the larger numbers gaining vocational skills, the number gaining opportunities in new ambitious curricular plans of further education (FE) colleges and reorientation of primary and post-graduate structures to subjects where advancing knowledge must be absorbed.

Where is the implementation plan for a wide-ranging expansion of vocational training, or a curricula development plan, for the FE colleges? Where is the agreed refocused strategy to which the universities should contribute?

Stephen Farry's department does have a critical role to play. It has been slow to make things happen.

That defect, ironically, points to the danger of now breaking up the coherence that is assembled in DEL.

Abolishing DEL would be a mistake. Abolishing DEL and splitting the functions between the Department of Education (DE) and Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) would be an even bigger mistake. The biggest conceivable mistake would be to place the further education colleges in DE.

The draft PfG implementation plan, published by DETI, but with coverage of DEL, starts with action "to deliver 210,000 qualifications at levels 2, 3, 4 and above... to encourage people to move up the skills ladder".

This is given a time scale of March 2015. Does this really constitute an action plan?

The second proposal is to implement the actions "within the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) strategy". Is this more than a pious aspiration? Where and how will it happen and who will be accountable?

Both of these proposed (so-called) actions fall heavily, but not only, on the FE colleges. In answer to a question on the curricular development plans of FE colleges, the DEL reply almost shows a disregard for the targeted selectivity needed from the colleges.

"DEL curriculum policy is based on quality and clear progression for all learners. The policy has been developed to ensure that FE colleges achieve an appropriate balance between provision... for workforce development, enhances social cohesion and advances individual's skills and learning," it said.

In short, DEL has no immediate plans for focused curriculum developments to prioritise its commitments in the PfG.

If ministers really want to develop the economy, now is not the time to take ministerial focus away from core DEL responsibilities.

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