This study explores the views of 6492 NSW primary and secondary school students’ post-school aspirations. It explores when VET begins to feature in students’ thinking about their futures, the kinds of students who think about VET, and under what conditions. The study informs how teachers, schools and VET providers might enrich the information available to students and their parents/carers and address current gaps and misunderstandings in students’ knowledge about VET.
About the research
This study explores students’ post-school aspirations for vocational education and training (VET), focussing on the interest in vocational training among both primary and secondary school students, from the perspective of the students.
The views of more than 6000 students from Year 3 to Year 12 in New South Wales government schools were canvassed over a four-year period for possible interest in VET. This data was collected as part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project (2012—15). Survey, focus group and interview data involving students, as well as some of their parents/carers, teachers and careers advisers, enabled a unique account of interest in VET. It includes a detailed exploration of when VET begins to feature in students’ thinking about their futures, the kinds of students who think about VET, and under what conditions.
This research will inform how teachers, schools and VET providers might enrich the information available to students and their parents/carers and address current gaps and misunderstandings in students’ knowledge about VET.
- There is more interest in VET-related occupations than in VET as an educational pathway and clear misalignment between educational and occupational aspirations, along with confusion about what TAFE offers and the pathway required to a VET-related occupation.
- Gender stereotypes pervade student ideas about their futures, particularly with regard to career choice.
- Primary and junior secondary students seem to have formed negative perceptions of TAFE (technical and further education), and their views of TAFE do not reflect contemporary realities.
- School students, even from a young age, and with limited understanding, form and firmer retain an impression that university is preferable to VET as a future study aspiration.
- VET and VET-related occupations appeal to certain kinds of students; these students are demographically opposite to those more likely to choose a university option. Students who indicate choosing a VET-related occupation are most likely to be characterised by one or more of the following: male, English-speaking background, from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and see themselves as average or below in academic ability compared with their peers.
- Primary and secondary schools have a significant role to play in the timing and substance of careers education, particularly in relation to VET study and careers requiring VET qualifications.
Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER
This study explores students’ post-school aspirations for vocational education and training (VET). It is evident from searching the literature that there has been no substantive study investigating interest in VET among both primary and secondary school students. In recognition of the evidence demonstrating that aspirations are often well formed before careers activities typically occur — in the middle to late high school years — the study contributes a unique perspective, the aim being to inform policy and practice in the school and VET sectors.
Drawing on data from a four-year Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project (2012–15), we consider student aspirations for VET and VET-related occupations. We investigate the reasons given by students for their interest in this sector and the ways in which school students, parents and carers and teachers talk about VET. Surveys with more than 6000 students in Year 3 to Year 12 from New South Wales public schools and focus group data from students, parents/carers, and teachers enable a unique account of how VET choices take shape and how vocational pathways are perceived.
Throughout the report, a distinction is made between student interest in vocational education and their interest in VET-related occupations. The main findings from these two sets of analyses are highlighted below. The term TAFE is used interchangeably with VET as this is the primary term used by students.
Using logistic regression analysis we found that students who chose VET as their highest level of intended education were likely to be characterised by one or more of the following:
- From lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds
- Attending schools in metropolitan locations
- In the early years of secondary school
- With lower cultural capital
- From English-speaking backgrounds
- From schools in the lower ICSEA1 quartiles
- Perceiving themselves as average or below for academic performance relative to their peers.
In talking about TAFE (technical and further education) and other VET options, students, parents/carers and teachers overwhelming portrayed this educational sector as a place of practical learning, a space designed to cater to less academically oriented students and set them up for success.
Despite careers activities in schools, including VET-focused activities, many students were unclear about TAFE or conveyed outdated rather than contemporary portrayals of the sector. There was evidence of a clear misalignment between educational and occupational aspirations. Many students were unclear about VET-related occupations and the pathway to those occupations.
Choosing VET-related occupations
Using logistic regression analysis we found that students who chose a VET-related occupation were likely to be characterised by one or more of the following:
- Lower cultural capital
- English-speaking background
- Lower SES; male
- In Years 3—4
- From schools in the lowest ICSEA quartiles
- In lower National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) quartiles
- Perceiving themselves as average or below for academic performance relative to their peers
- Not participating in out-of-school academic tutoring.
Males were not only more likely to express an interest in VET-related occupations than females, but their specific occupational interests were also very different from those of the female students. The gendered nature of occupational choice was clear, with traditional male and female occupations dominating the lists of most popular occupations for both boys and girls.
The most frequently cited reasons for students’ interest in VET pertained to: a view that a particular job would be enjoyable or interesting; perceived benefits of the job; prior experiences related to the job; a desire to help others/make a difference; and a sense of their personal suitability. There was little difference in the reasons provided relating to gender, prior achievement, LBOTE (language background other than English) or year level.
In talking about TAFE and other VET options, students, parents/carers and teachers overwhelming portrayed this educational sector as a place of practical learning, designed to cater to less academically oriented students and set them up for success. Students often described VET institutions, and/or those attending them, as lacking in some way and expressed concern that a VET qualification would not provide them with a competitive edge. Despite careers activities in schools, including VET-focused activities, many students were unclear about TAFE, conveyed outdated rather than contemporary portrayals of the sector and were unclear about the pathway to VET-related occupations. A strong theme emerging from the data was confusion about VET.
These data, collected between 2012 and 2015, suggest that policy decisions such as prior broadening of the apprenticeship system, opening up the provider market and implementing the VET FEE-HELP program, all of which aim to improve the sector’s responsiveness to the
labour market and skills shortages (Atkinson & Stanwick 2016), appear to be falling short of their desired objectives. Only a small number of students expressed interest in vocational education. Many students were uncertain of the pathway to a VET-related occupation and/or held views of VET as only for those unable to make it to university. A substantial number of students who showed some interest in VET became disengaged from the idea of a vocational education as they moved through school.
The Australian Government’s focus on widening participation in higher education in response to the Bradley Review (2008) has seen a steady increase in university participation (Universities Australia 2017), potentially drawing students away from VET pathways. If current and projected skill shortages in the VET sector are to be addressed, there is a pressing need for the sector to consider how it might attract a more diverse sample of school students. The evidence generated by this study provides a foundation for TAFE and other VET providers to explore ways of ensuring that students have both a greater awareness and a deeper understanding of the sector.
Misalignment between educational and occupational aspirations and confusion about TAFE indicate that many students lack clear, accurate and contemporary information about the VET sector. It suggests that schools and/or VET providers have more to do, in not only recruiting a more diverse range of students, but also in simply ensuring that students and their parents/carers have a greater awareness of what pathways are available and where they might lead.
Our data also signal the potential importance of information about VET being available in the junior secondary and primary years of schooling. While students reported a clear intensification of work experience and other careers activities during the later high school years, our data suggest that, by this point in their schooling, many students will have already formed strong (sometimes negative) views of TAFE and circumscribed their aspirations in ways that limit them to university pathways.
1 ICSEA = Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage. See <http://www.myschool.edu.au> for details.
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