When Jim McGlynn completed his Leaving Certificate Examinations in 1977 his goal, like many of his peers of that time, was to get a secure, permanent and pensionable job.
The attractions of a dependable salary, pension entitlements and the chance of promotion with one employer drew the young Glenfin man towards the Donegal Vocational Education Committee (VEC).
Together with Paddy Gallagher, Finola Furey, Frankie Quinn, Patrick Doherty and the fondly remembered Patsy Breslin RIP, he made up what was later referred to as “The Class of ‘78”.
Last week, Jim (61) attended his final meeting of the Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB), which replaced the former VEC in 2013, before his retirement at the end of the year.
It ends a career of public service spanning close on 43 years, one which saw him rise to become a senior leader of one of the largest public sector organisations in the county.
Head of Administration and Finance for many years, Jim has been Director of Organisation Support and Development (OSD) for the last four years. He has seen a lot of change in that time and this week he reflected on his contribution and that of the Donegal VEC / ETB to
improving and supporting the lives of the county’s citizens.
The VEC’s budget was less than €3 million when Jim first started back in 1978. Their work at that time was largely associated with their nine Vocational Schools, Letterkenny Regional Technical College (RTC) and the School of Tourism in Killybegs, together with a significant
Adult Education Night Classes programme.
This year, the budget will exceed €80 million and also includes the former FÁS Training Services in the Letterkenny and Gweedore Training Centres which transferred to the ETB in 2014.
While control of both Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the School of Tourism in Killybegs have since gone from the ETB, there are now 15 Vocational Schools and 17 Further Education and Training Centres spread around the county and its islands of Arranmore and Tory.
“When the six of us started in 1978, we almost doubled the administration staff numbers in the Administrative Offices,” he recalled this week.
A year earlier, Fianna Fáil had a landslide election win and one of their commitments was to increase the number of the civil and public servants.
“I had been a boarder in St. Eunan’s College and had an opportunity to go to third level however, with lesser numbers going on to third-level back then and the lure of employment and regular income, I went looking for work. The following February (1978) I got my first
permanent offer, to join the ESB in Sligo, but I was always drawn to my home county and Letterkenny.
“There were any number of jobs on offer in the weekend papers in the civil service and numerous public bodies like the North Western Health Board (NWHB), local authorities, including Donegal County Council and Donegal VEC. I wasn’t as aware of the VEC as the others so I was curious and went into the then National Manpower Office in Ballybofey
and received ample information to convince me to apply. In those days, applicants were placed on Clerical Officer panels having regard to their Leaving Certificate results and their performance at interview.
I was offered temporary employment with Donegal County Council where I spent four days before being offered a permanent post with the ESB in Sligo the same week. I was then offered a clerical officer post with the VEC in August 1978 and started on August 14. The following day was a church holiday when public services closed, so we had the day off. I thought it was a great job!” he laughed.
The VEC Administrative Offices at that time were located within the former Letterkenny Vocational School building on Ard O’Donnell.
“The same space we all had then is now taken up by a portion of our HR Department.” he said.
In 1979, the Offices moved to leased accommodation on the upper floor of the Gleneany House building on the Port Road and then on to Pearse Road, adjacent to the Community Centre, before returning to Ard O’Donnell in 1987, following the opening of Errigal College at
Windyhall. It’s been headquarters to the ETB ever since.
The seventies and early eighties saw many students being educated in prefabs before the VEC, under then CEO, Seán Ó Longáin embarked on a huge building programme with the support of the Department of Education.
“Some of the schools at that time were made up entirely of prefabs. Killybegs springs to mind. I was working in Building services at one stage during that period and I remember us reporting to the VEC and the Department that the growth in enrolments in our schools meant that there were 186 prefabs used to house students in Donegal VEC.”
NEW SCHOOL BUILDINGS
Starting with the Abbey Vocational School in Donegal Town in 1981, millions were invested in new school buildings on the mainland and our two islands. Once the new schools were built, the former Vocational School buildings were retained and adapted to facilitate Further and Adult Education programmes – like Gort a Choirce, Ballyshannon, Milford, Buncrana and more recently, the former Finn Valley College building on Main Street in Stranorlar.
“We had great School Principals running our schools in difficult conditions in those early years and that quality of leadership has continued to the present day. Hugh Dorrian and Michael Fox became our first Adult Education Organisers and did a lot of groundwork in
establishing some of the initial further and adult education programmes. They were succeeded by Cróna Gallagher and Martin Gormley who really set about growing and developing our full range of further education programmes, including the delivery of community education programmes in the communities and the towns and villages,” he said.
Gartan Outdoor Education and Training Centre has always been a big part of my working life and music education, youth work and drugs and alcohol education and prevention are now integral parts of our ETB operations.
“There’s been so many good FET programmes like VTOS, Youthreach, Back to Education Initiatives (BTEI), Adult Literacy and Community Education which the ETB has delivered down the years,” he added.
Starting off as a Grade 3 Clerical Officer, Jim worked his way up to becoming the Head of Administration by 1987 and the youngest Administrative Officer (Grade 7) in the public service at that time. In the early years, many of the admin functions were undertaken manually with only basic payroll and accounting software available.
Recognising the need to develop and implement enhanced systems and, long before the concept of shared services had been spoken about, Jim and colleagues in Donegal VEC reached out and collaborated with colleagues in other VECs to develop and implement new systems and software and maximise the benefits of new and emerging technologies in
our administrative functions.
“There was trojan work done to establish fully integrated HR and Payroll systems and financial management systems that we have now. It was a real leap of faith back then but they have all stood the test of time,” he said.
“The whole operation has been totally transformed and we found ourselves well positioned to continue to deliver the organisation support services encompassing HR, Finance and Payroll, IT, Corporate, Procurement, Health and Safety and Building Services to our schools,
centres, staff and suppliers following the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were able to respond really quickly and efficiently to continue to support our 1,600 strong staff and 29,000 learners in our schools and centres and great credit must go to my colleagues, Sharon McColgan, Head of Finance, Ciaran Cunningham, Head of IT, Eileen Doherty, Head of HR and Brenda Boyle, Head of Corporate Services and their respective teams. I was lucky to lead and work with many like-minded colleagues over my career who shared a “can do” attitude to our work.”
Today, the membership of the ETB Board is made up of County Councillors nominated by Donegal County Council, along with elected representatives of staff and parents, and nominees of interest groups including business, learners, school management bodies, tourism and special education.
“However, forty years ago it was normal to have TDs, MEPs, Senators and religious nominees on the Committee of the former VEC. It was a bit overwhelming at the start. You had people like Neil T Blaney, Patrick McGowan, Paddy Harte, Pat the Cope Gallagher and more recently, Mary Coughlan. I worked with a lot of distinguished public representatives on those boards right up to the present and I really appreciated the tributes bestowed by our outgoing Chairperson, Geoffrey Browne and the current Board Members at my final meeting on the 7th December. To each and every one who has served over my time, I say thank you,” he said.
Seán Ó Longáin was CEO between 1976 and 2009 and led by example. He was succeeded by Mary Anne Kane who was previously Education Officer and sadly passed away in 2012. Sean Purcell, a former CEO in Sligo VEC, then held the reins before transferring back to Mayo Sligo Leitrim ETB in 2015 at which point Anne McHugh was appointed Chief Executive. Following the re-designation of VECs as Education and Training Boards, Donegal VEC was deemed to be of sufficient scale and standing to operate as a stand alone ETB, which was welcome news for us all! The Department of Education decided that there should be three Director posts assigned to each ETB reporting to the CE and I was joined in September 2016 by Martin Gormley as Director of Schools and Cróna Gallagher as Director of Further Education and Training (FET). All three Directors have worked closely with our CE, Anne McHugh to continue to deliver on our Strategy Statement and annual Service Plans and I want to sincerely thank Anne, Martin and Cróna for their collegiality and support to me over that time. GDPR, Governance, compliance and internal controls systems have also become the modern day language in our work.
“We were never shy is making strong business cases for Donegal when it came to securing capital or recurring funding and staffing. We always looked to maximise all levels of investment for staffing, buildings, facilities and equipment. In fairness, the Department of Education usually recognised the need for such investment and the only frustration in some cases was the time taken to deliver and benefit from such investment.” he said.
“We lived and worked through a number of tough recessions, I remember particularly the eighties when PAYE workers had to campaign against high levels of taxation and high mortgage interest rates. We had emerged from the most recent recession and we’re now in the middle of the COVID pandemic however, I’ve found over the years that Donegal people are very resilient and I’m confident we’ll all come out of this better and stronger,” he added.
Married to Frances, the couple have three grown up children Shane, James and Louise.
Captain of the ETB Golf Society this year, Jim hopes to spend a little more time on the fairways while he is also a valued member of Letterkenny Gaels GAA Club.
As members of the Swilly Hiking Club, Jim and Frances also hope to spend more time hill walking.
“While the GAA and Golf have been my first interests outside of work, the Swilly Hikers have opened our eyes to so many beautiful parts of our wonderful county and beyond that you can only see properly on foot.” he said.
“I would also like to help establish a retired staff association. For an organisation as big as Donegal ETB with 1,600 to 1,700 staff spread across all our schools and centres, I think it would be nice to create an opportunity for retired colleagues to meet up socially during their
retirement.” he concluded.
And then there’s Arsenal but, the least said there at the moment, the better!