Improving the outcomes of students undertaking vocational education and training (VET) in schools is important to ensuring it is a viable post-school pathway for students. Investigating how to strengthen VET in Schools, this report suggests the following changes: defining its purpose as foundational preparation for mid-level qualifications or employment-based learning; better aligning the vocational curriculum with labour market opportunities; developing thematic packages of curriculum; and making explicit connections between VET undertaken at school and post-school VET. This report is the culmination of three years of investigation as part of the research program, Vocations: the link between post-compulsory education and the labour market.
About the research
The viability of VET in Schools as an effective pathway to work and further education for Australian students is critical to the lives of young people and deserving of detailed policy scrutiny. There is great variability in how it is delivered across schools and how it is incorporated into the senior secondary certificates across the various Australian jurisdictions as well as inconsistency in the level of workplace learning involved. Providing students with an alternative pathway to higher education is vital, but what can be done to strengthen the outcomes of VET in Schools programs for students?
The culmination of nearly three years of investigation into this issue, this report highlights important themes and structural changes for strengthening VET in Schools. The author tests these changes through consultations with stakeholders, who include representatives from departments of education and training, boards of study, industry, schools and vocational education and training (VET) providers.
This report is part of a wider three-year program of research, Vocations: the link between post-compulsory education and the labour market, which is investigating the educational and occupational paths that people take and examining how their study relates to their work.
The report identifies the following strategies as a way of strengthening VET in Schools:
- Define the purpose of vocational education and training in secondary education as foundational preparation for access to mid-level qualifications and entry to employment-based learning such as apprenticeships.
- Better align the school vocational curriculum with labour market opportunities so that vocational qualifications reflect the skills and knowledge needed to enter and move through an industry. One example might be to redevelop or reconceptualise all certificates I and II as industry/occupation exploration or ‘career start’ qualifications primarily for use by school students.
- Develop thematic packages of curriculum, whereby vocational and school subjects are connected, to create a stronger articulation pathway. The study of English and maths should also be compulsory.
- Make explicit connections between vocational education and training undertaken at school and post-school VET study to strengthen the pathways to post-school vocational courses.
- Use units of competency within certificates I and II for the exploration of occupations and industries in the junior and middle years of schooling.
Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER
VET in Schools is intended to provide young people with an opportunity to develop skills for a range of vocational occupations as they complete their senior secondary certificates. However, many VET in Schools students participate in programs that do not deliver effective pathways into higher education, higher-level vocational education and training (VET), apprenticeships, traineeships or skilled work. As part of the three-year NCVER-funded consortium project Vocations: the link between post-compulsory education and the labour market, researchers from the University of Melbourne explored students’ transitions from VET in Schools to post-school VET and occupations. Emerging from this Entry to vocations strand of the research is a clear set of challenges that need to be addressed.
This report draws together findings from all three years of the Entry to vocations research project and presents a set of implications for those stakeholders looking to strengthen VET in Schools delivery at system and practice levels. This research has focused on the 15 to 19-year old cohort and used a definition of VET in Schools that includes all vocational education and training undertaken as part of a senior secondary certificate of education. With more and more young Australians staying on at school, increasing the provision of VET in Schools programs is one of the key ways by which the Australian senior secondary education landscape has adapted to this situation, with these programs now accounting for a cohort of more than 242 000 VET in Schools students annually (NCVER 2013b).
The research in the first year of the Entry to vocations study explored the complex policy contexts for VET in Schools delivery and revealed the contrasting expectations of the purpose of vocational education and training for young people. A working paper and a research report prepared in the first year of this research project (see Clarke 2012; Clarke & Volkoff 2012) highlighted the different VET in Schools policy structures in the various states and territories (see Clarke & Volkoff 2012) and deepened understanding of the types of qualifications to which VET in Schools students have access. A key observation was that the predominantly low-level VET (certificates I and II) offered through VET in Schools is problematic in providing successful pathways into full-time, sustainable employment (Stanwick 2005; North, Ferrier & Long 2010). In the second year of the project, the focus of the research was on identifying the common challenges facing VET in Schools stakeholders and possible ways of strengthening systemic approaches (see Clarke 2013). Several key dilemmas for how VET in Schools supports entry to work were identified, including the nature of workplace learning, the relationship between the VET curriculum (applied learning) and the academic (disciplinary) curriculum, and the role of non-school stakeholders. Furthermore, current VET in Schools approaches to learning in and about work were also identified as being limited by an unclear and poorly defined role for employers and non-school registered training organisations (RTOs).
A new model of foundational vocational education in secondary education
The purpose of the final year of this research was to identify possible ways to strengthen the future role of VET in Schools. The proposed approach, which has been termed ‘foundational vocational education in secondary education’, is not a prescriptive model of delivery but rather a series of evidence-based principles for ongoing policy reform of VET in Schools. This approach is grounded in an assumption that Australian senior secondary schools make a contribution to both human capability for the labour market and the development of successful learners and informed citizens (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 2008).
Four key concepts that emerged during the three years of the research were used to frame the proposed approach. Firstly, a critical approach to vocational education in secondary schools cannot be focused on curriculum alone: pedagogy is a crucial piece of the solution. In the final year of this research, the importance of context and pedagogy to our understanding of how to strengthen VET in Schools has come to the fore. The relationship between the VET in Schools curriculum and pedagogical innovation is particularly pertinent to a consideration of how to promote integration across traditional disciplinary and occupational silos. The second concept is what can be described as a ‘problematic certificate paradigm’; that is, there appears to be a simultaneous acknowledgment of, on the one hand, the limited value of both entry-level VET certificates and senior secondary certificates in the labour market and, on the other, an increasing focus on the attainment of these certificates as the key policy measure of effective youth transition. This tension can generate unrealistic expectations for students, while also complicating the work of schools in supporting strong post-compulsory pathways (Clarke & Polesel 2013). Thirdly, despite a strong emphasis on the role of VET in Schools in promoting retention, there are still large numbers of young Australians opting out of senior secondary education, suggesting that current models of provision are not working for all students. The fourth and final core concept is that it is important to acknowledge the role that VET in Schools plays in reproducing existing socioeconomic inequalities.
These issues of pedagogy, the tensions regarding the value of entry-level certificates, the role of VET in Schools in promoting retention, and the socially stratifying role of vocational programs in schools have all informed the development of a proposed new approach to the purpose, structure and context of vocational education in secondary education. In relation to its purpose, the researchers proposed this as being foundational preparation for entry/access to mid-level qualifications and for entry/access to employment-based learning such as apprenticeships. Next, the researchers proposed a structure that called for the consideration of a non-training package-based, purpose-built school vocational education curriculum. Finally, the researchers highlighted the need for an enabling context for foundational vocational education in secondary education. This context should include career education but also have the capacity to enable students to explore potential careers coherently, the aim being to inform their vocational and technical education pathway choices.
While the suggested context aspect of the proposed model of foundational vocational education in secondary education generally received stakeholder support, stakeholders on the whole were very reluctant to consider abandoning national training packages as the basis for vocational education in schools. In teasing out the concerns of stakeholders, four distinct themes that could inform a revised model of foundational vocational education in secondary education were identified. These themes were:
- The qualifications completed during school must reflect the employment and training opportunities in the labour market.
- A safety net is needed for students who enter the labour market directly.
- Systems and schools must avoid the emergence of a system which tracks students on the basis of their social background.
- Workplace learning needs to support learning for and about, not only in, work.
Implications and challenges
VET in Schools aims to enhance educational and employment outcomes for young Australians (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 2000). Feedback from stakeholders across the three years of the Entry to vocations project indicates that, in its current systemic forms, VET in Schools is not fulfilling this purpose. The findings across this research indicate that holistic change to all aspects of the delivery of VET in Schools is needed if its role is to be strengthened. Policy reform needs to consider not only the purpose of VET in Schools, but also the purpose of the qualifications used by VET in Schools programs. What are the most meaningful and valuable qualifications for young people in our schools?
The findings of this study reinforce the need for greater alignment of the school vocational curriculum with labour market opportunities. The vocational curriculum should reflect the broader range of skills and knowledge needed to enter and move up and through an industry. The current narrowly defined occupational focus of VET in Schools qualifications does not achieve this. A new approach to address this must recognise both the limited currency of the entry-level VET in Schools certificates and the need for the models of vocational education in schools to be ‘certified’ or distinguished from the ‘mainstream’ pathway to university.
One possible approach for consideration is the redevelopment of certificates I and II as industry/ occupation exploration or ‘career start’ qualifications, for predominant use by young people in schools. Stakeholder feedback highlighted that any revisions to the VET in Schools curriculum need to ensure access for all students to the foundational disciplinary skills and knowledge necessary to support their careers. Feedback from stakeholders identified four structural changes with the potential to strengthen VET in Schools:
- Development of thematic packages of curriculum: this is in contrast to the inclusion of one or two vocational subjects in an unconnected collection of senior secondary subjects, subjects that do not necessarily provide a well-signposted pathway to further education and training. This work has already begun in at least one jurisdiction and if pursued has the capacity to generate greater synthesis.
- Expanding the mandated curriculum to include English and maths: this is connected to the first point and reflects the need for coherent programs of study that provide clear pathways. As there is evidence that more guidance is needed for schools in understanding the disciplinary knowledge necessary to support particular vocational pathways, a clearer articulation of the importance and relevance of the English and maths curriculum to post-school vocational pathways could strengthen thematic approaches to vocational education in schools.
- Explicit connections made between school VET and post-school VET courses: in much the same way that particular subjects in the academic curriculum in the senior years are recognised as being prerequisites for entry to university courses, more explicit links between clearly defined but flexible packages of school-based vocational education and post-school vocational courses could strengthen the pathways from VET in Schools to intermediate-level training.
- Use of ‘exploration’ units of competency in junior and middle years: if Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) VET qualifications at certificate I and II levels are to remain the dominant basis of the VET in Schools curriculum, consideration should be given to how some competencies within those qualifications could be used to support and inform exploration and decision-making prior to the senior secondary years.
A key challenge for all stakeholders involved in senior secondary education is how to provide high-quality workplace and career exploration as a fundamental part of the secondary school curriculum. This can be problematic when the primary mission of secondary schooling is still defined in terms of preparation for university. Throughout the Entry to vocations research, there has been evidence that more coherent leadership is needed at the system level to support this work, particularly in relation to consistent support for career exploration and workplace learning activities.