Lessons for the UK

by Ken Manson 
Co-ordinator (Communications), UK Commission for Employment and Skills

Simon Field is an expert on the comparative analysis of vocational education and training (VET) systems. He leads the OECD’s policy review of VET systems, and is lead author on the OECD’s VET policy publications. I spoke with him about the upcoming launch of the Skills Beyond School review of post-secondary VET systems based on studies in 20 OECD countries.

Skills Beyond School Synthesis Report will be published on the 13th November, and will hold its publication launch at the VET Conference at the Skills Show at the NEC in Birmingham. For information on how to attend, see the Vocational Education and Training Conference website.

Ken Manson: Could you talk a little bit about the background to the report and some of the individual country studies you’ve done that have fed into this synthesis? 

Simon Field: We have done a lot of work on vocational education and training (VET) at the upper secondary school level, where a number of European countries have substantial apprenticeship systems. We published a report called Learning for Jobs back in 2010 which drew that together. One of the things that came out of that was the importance in many countries of post-secondary vocational systems.

First of all, if you go to some of the countries with very strong classical dual apprenticeship systems, like the Germany and Austria and Switzerland, what you find is that at post-secondary level they support that system with a whole tier of further vocational qualifications. That’s very important, because it provides a career ladder for apprentice graduates to aspire to and go on to.

Conversely, if you go to the United States, what you find is that very often people are going through general high school education, and later on, at post-secondary level they will be pursuing some form of technical or professional training that will lead them into work. So that would be their first vocational qualification. That’s a different model, but it is still one where post-secondary vocational programmes are very important.

In the UK, there isn’t a huge amount of post-secondary vocational education and training in the sense of shorter, after-school vocational qualifications. Where it exists, it has very often occupied quite niche areas where there is a particular legally required qualification in a regulated profession like childcare.

KM: One thing that UKCES is particularly interested in is trying to encourage employers and training providers to work together. In your research, have you seen any good examples of that, and what lessons do you think the UK could draw from those systems?

SF: We think that encouraging partnership between training providers and employers is absolutely fundamental. Unless you have that, you don’t have very much, in truth.

Sweden is a particularly interesting example, and this example will be presented at the event on the 13th November. Their higher vocational education system involves grant funding by central government of employer/training provider partnerships. They’re not just funding training providers. Instead, they’re funding training providers who are in partnership already with employers to provide a programme of study to students with a built-in element of work based learning. That has been very successful, the labour market outcomes look good, and there is very rapid growth in that programme.

The key thing about this model is that it changes the incentives, because instead of saying, well, we’ll fund people to provide training places, and they’re going to try very hard to work with employers who will then provide some element of work-based learning, but often they fail. Instead, it’s very simple: unless you actually have the employer from the outset working in conjunction with the training provider, then the programme is not funded. That changes the incentives radically.

KM: Where have you seen examples of [education] providers making links with employers to make their qualifications more attractive? Almost a promotion exercise, where providers have been proactive and marketed themselves to that employer audience. Have you seen good examples of that?

SF: There is no better test of marketing to an employer audience than by building in work placements into your programme of study. If an employer is interested enough to provide work placements and support a programme of study, then that almost certainly means that the employer is going to be interested, potentially, in employing graduates of that programme. If there is a programme of study that can’t find an employer willing to offer a work placement, then that raises some serious questions about whether the programme of study, if pursued, is likely to lead to employment.

That led us to recommend building in work-based learning as a mandatory element in programmes. It is often said, well, you can’t make this mandatory, because you won’t be able to find the employers to offer work placements.  But we find this fairly robustly contradicted in a lot of different country circumstances. We believe it is feasible to insist on work-based learning.   Whats more, work-based learning brings other good things in its train, linking teachers in vocational colleges with employers, getting employers interested in working with providers to build relevant vocational qualifications.  In many ways it is the key that unlocks the door to employer engagement.

KM: How will we know when it works? With the broad range of systems that you’ve studied, what kind of metrics would you be looking at to quantify the success of that system? 

SF: Well, you’ve put your finger on it. The data in many countries are very weak. The acid test of any vocational programme is whether it leads to a job in which the skill that has been learnt is exercised. There are different types of destination surveys which measure exactly that; you follow up students six months or one year after they’ve left the vocational programme to find out what they’re doing. They have to be used with a little bit of discretion, of course. It’s well established that, even in countries with dual-system apprenticeships, you often follow up apprentices and find that they’re working in slightly different fields of study. That’s not a bad thing; it shows that their careers are developing.

KM: If someone reading this interview wondered if they should come along to [the VET Conference at the Skills Show in] Birmingham, why should they come to the launch of this report?

SF: The main reason is that the Birmingham event and our report will provide a picture of what is going on in the UK and how it compares with other countries, and that’s hugely valuable. The truth is, what is going on in the UK is really quite different from other countries.  One can have all sorts of opinions on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing and in what ways things are done better or worse in different countries, but there is no question that a lot can be learnt from those comparisons. It means that at the very least what goes on in the UK is less likely to be seen as something that is just taken for granted. It is a particular and special system that has grown up in a particular way. It could be managed in other ways. Seeing that in itself is enormously healthy and will open eyes to all sorts of possibilities.

The National Vocational Education and Training Conference, at The Skills Show, Birmingham, 13-14 November 
The Skills Show: Programme
Skills Beyond School Synthesis Report
A Skills beyond School Review of England
Learning for Jobs
OECD Vocational Education and Training (VET) webpage
UKCES blog: “What is going on in the UK is really quite different from other countries”
Photo credit: Teacher teaching students bricklaying in vocational school / @Shutterstock

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