Since the Coronavirus crisis unfolded the further education and training (FET) sector ([1]) (where most VET in Ireland occurs) has been identifying good practice, issues and solutions to ensure the continuation of teaching and learning and to support the public health service.

The Irish Government’s decision to close schools, colleges, universities and childcare facilities was made on public health advice from the Department of Health.  The partial lockdown commenced on 12 March and was followed by a full lockdown of the country on the 27 March. All non-essential trips were prohibited, excluding travel to essential work, to shop for food, for healthcare appointments and for vital family reasons.  Exercise within 2km of home only was permitted. The country has commenced a five-phase reduction of restrictions as of 18 May.

The Irish Government introduced a temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme allowing all employers to continue to pay their employees during the Covid-19 public health emergency. A second scheme introduced by the Government allows an employee, whose employer cannot pay them and must lay them off, to claim the Covid–19 pandemic unemployment payment.  This is also applicable to self-employed workers.

An apprenticeship working group for Covid–19 has been established by the Irish Government and is addressing continuity of provision and learning, potential support for redundant apprentices, and scenario planning for how to respond when FET facilities can reopen. Where apprentices are unable to work due to Covid-19 restrictions, employers may seek a wage subsidy payment on their behalf. Alternatively, where a temporary layoff has been required, apprentices are generally eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment.

Approaches to support the continuation of teaching and learning in FET included the fast-tracking of professional development in technology-enhanced learning and promotion of digital champions to build capacity for online learning. There has also been significant increase in the use of digital platforms including Microsoft Teams, Moodle, and web portals. Devices have been loaned to learners to facilitate continued access to course content which has been moved online. A new digital library serves as an online resource for FET providers and their learners. 

eCollege (an online learning service) has been made available free of charge as a support to learners who have been affected by the current containment measures. The aim is to support registered FET learners to augment their learning, as well as individuals who have recently become unemployed or had their hours reduced to upskill or reskill. There has been significant take up of the offering and from 24 March (since the online learning service became free of charge); up to 14 May, 12 851 'public referrals' had been made to eCollege.

The 16 education and training boards’ teachers, tutors and instructors are maintaining contact with the most vulnerable groups (such as young people on Youthreach ([2]) programmes, students with literacy difficulties and learners in community education) to militate against drop-out. 

Contingency plans for course assessment have been developed, providing for alternative assessment methods such as assignments or remote assessments. The sector has worked tirelessly to support as many learners as possible to complete their course.

FET providers have devised innovative solutions to support the public health service in their localities. Examples include:

  • the development of an ‘infection prevention and control’ module;
  • the production of face masks for hospital and nursing sectors using FET provider 3D printers;
  • the participation of hospitality trainees in the preparation and delivery of meals for doctors and nurses who have been allocated accommodation outside of their own homes for the duration of the Covid–19 crisis;
  • the donation of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals and the provision of training in PPE;
  • the repair of 10 000 masks.

The skills and labour market research unit at the Further Education and Training Authority (SOLAS) has compiled a profile of the occupations considered at risk due to the Covid-19 crisis. By understanding the profile of those employed in these occupations it is expected that intervention measures that need to be put in place (such as income support and future reskilling requirements) may be effectively planned.

There appears to be consensus amongst the FET sector in Ireland that immediate concerns and emergencies have been addressed. The sector must now plan ahead, anticipate the medium- and long-term issues and challenges, and develop agile and flexible responses to meet the needs of current learners and the cohort of newly unemployed. 

([1]) Public further education and training is provided by education and training boards (supported by Education and Training Boards Ireland), JMB/ACCS (the Joint Further Education Representative Body, a representative body for further education providers in the community, and comprehensive and secondary voluntary schools sectors) and the Further Education and Training Authority (SOLAS).

([2]) The Youthreach programme provides two years integrated education, training and work experience for unemployed early school leavers without any qualifications or vocational training who are between 15 and 20 years of age.

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Supporting those impacted by COVID-19