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Entry to vocations: strengthening VET in Schools

By Kira Clarke Research report 28 October 2013 ISBN 978 1 922056 69 6


How VET in Schools can be strengthened to provide stronger links to post-school pathways is explored in this report. Integrating vocational learning into the general disciplinary curriculum or having a school-based vocational program separate from the Australian Qualifications Framework qualifications were identified as possible ways to strengthen VET in Schools. The author also proposes a 'programmatic' approach to VET in Schools, whereby study is focused on a specific industry rather than an occupation. This work is part of the three-year research program Vocations: the link between post-compulsory education and the labour market.

A recording of the webinar Is VET in Schools an effective pathway to further education? held on 30 October 2013 is available for viewing from our Webinar series page.


About the research

This report is part of a wider three-year program of research, Vocations: the link between postcompulsory 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. It is specifically interested in exploring how to strengthen the role of VET in Schools (VETiS) so that it leads to a viable post-school pathway. It builds upon previous research by the author, which argued the need for VET in Schools to be reconceptualised such that it provides a clear pathway to post-school vocational education and training (VET) rather than direct entry to the workforce.

The findings from the previous research were used as a basis for roundtable discussions with VET in Schools stakeholders, including representatives from education and training authorities, boards of studies, public and private registered training organisations, group training organisations, schools and industry and skills advisory bodies. Of particular interest was finding out why VET in Schools is currently not providing strong employment and further study outcomes for students and how it can be strengthened.

Key messages

  • The roundtable discussions indicate that VET in Schools is perceived as having a range of objectives, offering everything from a ‘taster’ of future workforce opportunities, to a linear pathway to mid-level skilled employment. The author argues that these diverse perceptions are limiting the effectiveness of VET in Schools as a pathway to post-secondary vocational qualifications.
  • Particular challenges for VET in Schools as a direct pathway to employment include the difficulty of properly integrating VET with school subjects, and limited access to workplace learning or industry experience.
  • If the main objective is a pathway to post-secondary education, then other factors raised in discussions that might strengthen VET in Schools include:
  • using VET in Schools as a foundational pathway to further VET study following school and creating synergy between vocational learning in schools and the vocational options available to students post school
  • having a purpose-built school-based vocational curriculum rather than one based on Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) qualifications to bring it in line with the broader preparatory role of the senior school certificate
  • integrating vocational and career learning with the general disciplinary school curriculum so that students undertake a complementary stream of study
  • providing a clearer role for employers and industry in the development of vocational programs in schools.

Rod Camm
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

As part of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s consortium research program, Vocations: the link between post-compulsory education and the labour market, the Education Policy and Leadership unit at the University of Melbourne is conducting research for the strand ‘Entry to vocations’ — how to improve occupational and further study outcomes from entry-level vocational education and training (VET). The key research question being addressed is: What are the main variables shaping the relationship between VET, employment and occupations at the entry-level? Entry-level VET encompasses certificate levels I and II and all vocational education and training completed through VET in Schools (VETiS) as part of a senior secondary certificate, which in limited instances includes certificate III and above. Nationally, students studying entry-level qualifications make up more than one in five of all VET students (NCVER 2011b). This study is particularly interested in VET in Schools.

This report draws together findings from the second year of this research, conducted during 2012. In the second year of the research the hypothesis is that VET in Schools in its current forms is not a strong model for preparing students for employment or further study. This hypothesis stems from the findings from the first year of the research program (see Clarke & Volkoff 2012; Clarke). During the first year of this study, the researchers conducted consultations with VET in Schools policy-makers and undertook case studies of four models of VET in Schools, one each from Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland (see Clarke & Volkoff 2012; Clarke 2012). For the second year, the research asks two key questions:

  • Why is VET in Schools not providing strong employment and further study outcomes for students?
  • How can VET in Schools be strengthened?

Within the context of the two key research questions, year two of this research was not intended as a system comparison but rather was aimed at teasing out the common conceptual and logistical dilemmas of VET in Schools. The research team conducted a series of half-day roundtables with VET in Schools stakeholders in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. These roundtables brought together stakeholders from education and training authorities, boards of studies, public and private registered training organisations (RTOs), group training organisations (GTOs), schools from all three sectors (public, Catholic and independent) and representatives of peak industry and skills advisory bodies (n = 138). Additional consultations were also conducted with VET in Schools stakeholders from industry, including representatives from industry training advisory bodies (ITABs) and industry skills councils (ISCs). To facilitate stakeholder discussion at these roundtables, a discussion paper was prepared and disseminated to all roundtable participants (see appendix B). This discussion paper drew on findings from the first year of the ‘Entry to vocations’ research and sought to highlight the challenges and weaknesses in current approaches to VET in Schools.

Key findings from the roundtables

Purpose of VET in Schools
VET in Schools was described by stakeholders as currently performing many and varied roles. While there was a lack of consensus regarding the effectiveness with which current models could achieve success in these various roles, there was agreement that current models of provision were not creating strong pathways to employment, particularly full-time employment and/or employment requiring intermediate or mid-level skills. Some of the roles for VET in Schools commonly identified by participants included: an alternative way to complete school; career exploration; training for parttime work; a pathway to mid-level VET and tertiary study following school; a less demanding subject for those students taking predominantly academic senior secondary programs; a qualification for gaining employment following school; and a smoother transition to employment-based training.

Architecture of VET in Schools
In all five roundtables, there was critical discussion of the current structures of senior secondary certificates, particularly in relation to how VET in Schools was accommodated within those certificates. While the level of criticism of senior secondary certificates differed across the different states, there were several points of consensus. In light of career exploration being one of the perceived purposes of VET in Schools, there was concern that current models of VET in Schools, which are tied to school completion in the latter years of secondary schooling, provide limited opportunity for students to ‘taste’ and then change their mind, or taste a range of options and then select one for their primary focus.

One of the great structural challenges in developing effective approaches to vocational learning earlier in secondary schooling is that the current provision ties vocational learning to Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) qualifications and senior secondary units of study. This in turn ties participation in those qualifications to school completion. In contemplating earlier commencement of vocational learning, school-based stakeholders understandably expressed concern about the possibility of Year 8 students commencing their senior secondary studies at such a young age. If serious consideration is to be given to more coherent and explicit models of vocational learning in the junior years of secondary school, an approach will be needed which does not rely on current VET in Schools models, which use senior secondary units of study as the sole framework for vocational learning.

Applied disciplinary learning
Stakeholders described an ongoing tension between the opening-up of senior secondary certificates for maximising access and completion for a broader range of young people and the simultaneous provision of a core body of knowledge that all senior secondary students were expected to access and attain. There was also concern that the opening-up of senior secondary education to greater levels of vocational learning meant a decrease in the focus on the disciplinary learning needed to support postschool education and training. This was a view more commonly held in South Australia, Queensland and Victoria, where it is possible for students to complete their senior secondary certificates through a predominantly vocational curriculum. A concern expressed amongst a significant minority of stakeholders from these states was that the focus of VET in Schools policy on retention has undermined the purpose and effectiveness of increased school completion in providing a basis for a positive post-school outcome (for example, pathways to employment-based training or higher-level vocational study, pathways to full-time employment in intermediate and above occupations). While there was general consensus and acknowledgment that increased school completion was a good thing, the benefit of school completion was described as uneven and linked to the type of program or curriculum undertaken.

Relationships and communication between stakeholders
Despite the reliance of the VET in Schools model on inherently cross-sectoral cooperation and collaboration, it became clear through the stakeholder discussions that there continues to be a lack of awareness of the role, contribution and needs of other stakeholders on all sides. There was evident confusion among some stakeholders, not only about the role played by different stakeholders, but also about the structural and logistic requirements of the provision of VET in Schools. There was a strong consensus at all roundtables that better lines of communication and stronger relationships are needed to enhance the effectiveness of the inherently cross-sectoral models of VET in Schools.

A ‘programmatic’ approach to VET in Schools
A key objective of this second year of research was to test ideas for potentially strengthening VET in Schools. Findings from the first year indicated that a possible shift to a reconceptualised model of VET in Schools as a foundational stage of occupational preparation could produce effective post-school outcomes. Drawing on findings from the first year of the research program, the researchers developed some initial ideas around a ‘programmatic’ approach to VET in Schools. A programmatic approach was envisaged as one where there are closer links between the academic (disciplinary) and vocational (applied) curriculums in senior secondary education and a focus on the pathways from vocational learning in senior secondary school to vocational learning in apprenticeships for post-school VET providers. This means emphasising the foundational nature of VET in Schools as a pathway to higherlevel vocational studies to support participation in and completion of post-school vocational qualifications. While system-level stakeholders indicated that VET in Schools was conceptualised in this foundational way in policy, school-level stakeholders suggested that this message was still missing in schools’ approaches to and promotion of vocational programs.

This model or approach is centred on a conceptual shift away from what appear to be utilitarian or instrumentalist approaches, which see VET in Schools as providing a direct pathway to work, towards an approach that builds the skills and theoretical knowledge needed for entry to further higher-level vocational education and training and employment-based training. In order to gauge stakeholder responses to potential variations or structural changes to current models of VET in Schools, the researchers outlined these ideas during the roundtable discussion. They included: thematically linked subjects; industry-broad rather than occupationally specific knowledge-based curriculum; compulsory industry/workplace learning integrated with theoretical learning; and explicit links between VET in Schools curriculum and post-school VET. While VET in Schools in its current forms is structurally linked to the post-school VET landscape, stakeholders suggested more needed to be done to explicitly articulate these links to students and their families.

The researchers also sought to test the receptiveness of stakeholders to models of VET in Schools that may not include components of national training packages. The researchers were aware that this is a controversial idea, and stakeholders were initially very sceptical of the potential feasibility of a model not inherently linked to the broader VET sector and its standards and qualifications. In Queensland and New South Wales, two states with some of the largest participation in VET in Schools, several stakeholders were open to considering models not built around existing VET qualifications: they were aware of the declining currency of the entry-level (foundational) AQF qualifications more broadly and for 15 to 19-year-olds in particular. The openness of these stakeholders, from both school and system backgrounds, is significant for the continuing discourse on strengthening, and finding new approaches to, vocational learning in schools.

Looking forward
The roundtable consultations highlighted the gap in the understanding, communication and synergy between the vocational learning in schools and the vocational options available to students post school and the need for a clearer role for VET providers in informing the pathway choices of young people.

Looking towards the third and final year of the ‘Entry to vocations’ research, the findings from the second year consultations provide an insight into ways by which VET in Schools might be strengthened. Firstly, in light of the data on poor employment outcomes for VET in Schools students (Department of Education and Training Queensland 2011; Rothman et al. 2011), VET in Schools could be strengthened through a stronger focus (at a policy and practice level) on its role as a foundational pathway to further training. Secondly, greater integration of vocational and career learning within the school curriculum could address VET provider and employer concerns that VET in Schools students are leaving secondary school without the requisite disciplinary knowledge to support their vocational skills and/or vocational learning at a higher level and without sufficient exposure to industry learning. With a possible shift to a focus on vocational education and training in the senior secondary years as a foundational pathway to further training (as described above), there is scope for discussion of a school-based VET curriculum not based on national training packages. The feedback from stakeholders suggested that VET in Schools, despite significant evidence of its weak job-preparation role, is still perceived in school communities as a suitable pathway for entry directly to work. A shift to an approach that focuses on the role of VET in Schools as preparing for further study, rather than employment, opens up space for considering other models or approaches to the vocational curriculum in schools, including models and approaches not necessarily tied to the national training packages.

A purpose-built school-based vocational curriculum could strengthen VET in Schools by being more closely aligned to the broader preparatory role of the senior secondary certificates. A constant theme during the roundtables was the concern that VET in Schools students were not ‘job ready’, due both to a lack of exposure to workplaces and industry and the level of qualifications they had undertaken. A strategy that may address some of the concerns might be mapping out a clearer role for employers, and industry more broadly, in the development of vocational programs in schools. If a strengthened approach to VET in Schools is one in which there is a stronger focus on pathways to post-school training, there is a need for those pathways to be made more explicit.


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