Next month our Director of Further Education and Training (FET) Cróna Gallagher will retire after twenty-three years of service. In our second April blog, she reflects on how the Service has developed in that time.
I started working as an Adult Education Officer in Donegal VEC in May 1999. It was a very exciting time as the first-ever Green Paper in Adult Education had just been published which meant that there was a national policy decision to invest – up until then, most adult education was being provided by voluntary groups and organisations. Martin Gormley was recruited as an AEO at the same time and together with the existing teams in VTOS, Youthreach and Literacy, we started to develop and expand the service. We were making it up as we went along to some extent but that was part of what made it so interesting – it was uncharted territory and whatever we did was a bonus.
Over the next few years, the existing services expanded and new ones emerged – Adult Guidance, the Back to Education Initiative, ESOL, Family Learning and Community Education, Restorative Practices. We chased funding everywhere we could (there wasn’t much money in the early years), tried lots of projects and built good relationships with community groups and agencies, all the time trying to provide quality adult education services for the people of Donegal. Our aim was to provide the services to the people who needed them, where they needed them and we had a slogan: Low-cost, Locally-based; even now, I think it wasn’t bad!
In 2013, we became an ETB and merged with the former FÁS training services and I took on the role of Director of Further Education and Training in 2016. Around this time, SOLAS, the FET Authority, was established. My primary aim was to work towards the successful integration of both adult education/FE and training services. I found that the values that were driving both services were in many cases the same – a drive to provide welcoming, accessible and responsive quality services for our local community and that is the foundation on which we have built our new FET service. We have expanded and adapted our existing services significantly over the past few years and also provide new ones, including services for businesses and ESOL; developed a whole suite of new courses such as the recently-launched Donegal Weaving traineeship; offer RPL (certification of people’s experience) and a range of student supports; and an excellent and modern communications’ strategy.
Last year we were reviewed by an external team on behalf of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and, among other things, we were commended on the passion and commitment of our staff and on the value placed on our service by students and external stakeholders. The review team said that we were the civic anchor in our county and that phrase has stayed with me – as part of the wider ETB (with schools, music, youth and outdoor education as well as FET) our services touch many lives and we are keenly aware of that privileged position and the responsibility it brings. It may surprise people to hear that we have grown from supporting 521 FET students in 1998 to 11,986 in 2019 in 17 ETB FET centres and in numerous community locations.
COVID-19 required us to change how we did things and we proved our adaptability by moving our provision online and supporting students through difficult times. There are many more changes on the way – an emphasis on green skills, a renewed emphasis on blended and online learning, a focus on tertiary education and Universal Design for Learning (UDL); even now, staff are working hard to welcome and support the Ukrainian people who are here under such challenging circumstances.
It is impossible to sum up the development of a service in a few paragraphs; but in the end I believe the values which guide Donegal ETB – excellence, equality, community, respect and care within a public service ethos; and the staff who choose to dedicate their working lives to education and training provision and supports for the people of Donegal – this is why we are a positive and successful service and wider organization which places the learner at the centre of all our activities.
Guím buíochas le agus gach rath ar na bhfoghlaimeoirí, ar an fhoireann agus ar an Bhord san blianta amach romhainn agus go raibh maith agaibh uilig.
We would like to sincerely thank Cróna for her years of service – you’ll be missed!