Vocational lessons from six of the best systems in the world


Professor Nancy Hoffman will be speaking at an event this month on the lessons that can be learnt from the world's best vocational education systems. David Harbourne explains.

In her book Schooling in the Workplace, Professor Nancy Hoffman examines how six of the world’s best vocational education systems prepare young people for jobs and life. Written with the aim of influencing policy and practice in the US, the book has equally important messages in the UK.

In England – as in America – there is a deep-seated suspicion of early access to vocational education. In part, this is based on a belief that dividing students into “academic sheep” and “vocational goats” simply reinforces existing social divisions. There are also concerns that starting vocational courses too soon will reduce students’ future opportunities; education should prepare young people for life – preparation for work is seen as narrowly utilitarian.

It is intriguing, then, to see how other countries approach the education of young people: to look at what works, what doesn’t, and how systems evolve over time. Prof Hoffman (pictured) has focused on six countries in particular – Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. Broadly speaking, these countries fall into two camps: those with early specialisation in technical and vocational education, and those where students remain on a general or academic path for longer.

The German education system provides for three broad types of secondary school. The number of students choosing immediate entry to higher education has been rising, but even among students from what we would call grammar schools, many still choose technical and vocational pathways. The dual system, which combines on-the-job apprenticeship training with classroom-based general education, also remains popular and successful.

One reason is that apprenticeships have evolved to accommodate the high levels of knowledge which young people need to work effectively in the modern economy. Prof Hoffman notes that IT apprentices at Strato – Europe’s second-largest web-hosting company – leave the dual system with a set of technical skills and knowledge that would probably enable them to transfer to the upper division of a technical university in the US.

In Switzerland, modernisation of vocational education has greatly increased provision in commercial apprenticeships in banking, retail and public administration. These white collar jobs call for high standards in maths, writing and speaking along with 21st century skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.

A shared advantage of the German, Swiss and Austrian education systems is that core knowledge and skills are taught in context. Working on a practical, hands-on project helps students understand how to use maths for real, not just on paper. Explaining what they have done and how they have tackled problems improves their communication skills. Employers, teachers and trainers also emphasise the importance of preparing future citizens – not just future workers – through the core educational elements of vocational programmes.

It is important to realise that choosing a vocational track at 14, 16 or 18 is not a lifelong commitment: as many as 20 per cent of German apprentices change direction within a year, because they discover their interests lie elsewhere. Changing track is straightforward, because so much of their educational achievement can be transferred from one context to another.

In these systems, preparing young people for employment is a seen as a central goal of education, albeit not the only one. And it works: Germany, Austria and Switzerland have lower rates of youth unemployment than we do in England. 

Prof Hoffman also visited Australia, which is closer to England culturally, socially and educationally. Technical schools disappeared from the secondary landscape in the 1970s, but new forms of vocational education and training were developed in the 1990s to boost the performance of young people disengaged from a largely academic curriculum. There are clear parallels with England: we lost our technical schools in the 1960s and took renewed interest in vocational pathways in the 1980s and 90s.

The difference is that while we have chopped and changed every few years, Australia has followed a more gradual, evolutionary approach. Today, 60 per cent of upper secondary students in Australia are enrolled in vocational education and training, with about 40 per cent undertaking an apprenticeship as part of a senior secondary certificate. Again, there is evidence that young people can and do move away from their first field of vocational study, either into another field or into full-time higher education.

The key message for England is this: we must decide what we want to do, then stick to it. Results will follow. Obviously, we cannot simply take what happens in another country and impose it here, but we can and should learn from others.

  • David Harbourne is director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation.

The Edge Research Conference
Prof Hoffman will present an overview of Schooling in the Workplace at the Edge Research Conference in Birmingham on Friday, November 16. Edge is an education charity which believes that “learning by doing” should be valued equally with academic learning. Its first ever Research Conference takes place alongside the Skills Show and will present research about technical, practical and vocational education. Places cost £30 (plus VAT). Visit http://worldskillsuk.apprenticeships.org.uk/the-skills-show/conferences/edge-conference



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