Considerable debate continues about the value of vocational education and training (VET) and in particular the value of VET delivered to secondary students. “Vocational education is central to Australia’s economic growth and business productivity. The VET reform agenda is multi-faceted but focused on getting better outcomes for students, employers, training providers and taxpayers.” (Australian Government, Department of Education and Training, July 2015)
VET programs allow students in the latter years of high school to study towards a nationally-recognised vocational qualification, while at the same time earning credits towards the senior secondary certificate of education. In 2014 the Education Council decided to update the New Framework for Vocational Education in Schools released in 2001 when the VET sector and vocational education in schools was expanding.
The Hon Sussan Ley MP led the review aimed to, “ensure that vocational learning and VET delivered to secondary school students reflects modern schools and workplaces.” The resultant policy document, Preparing Secondary Students for Work, is essential reading.
It was considered that Australia’s VET system needs reform, and in 2015 the Australian Government, through The Hon Simon Birmingham, embarked on an ambitious reform agenda to lift the quality of both training providers and their courses, to enhance the very significant contribution that VET makes to the job prospects of students and to the competitiveness of Australia’s economy, and lift the status of VET amongst families, students and employers, industry and community.
A paper from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Certification Authority (ACARA) explored the general misconception that VET delivered to secondary students is somehow different from all other VET. The reality is that:
- All VET is drawn from nationally-recognised training packages or accredited courses;
- All VET is delivered and/or assessed by Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) or in partnership with one, all of whom are compliant with the VET Quality Framework or the Australian Quality Training Framework;
- All VET is assessed within a competency-based assessment framework by assessors who comply with the VET Quality Framework; and,
- Students are awarded nationally-recognised VET qualifications and/or Statements of Attainment by the RTO delivering and/or assessing the VET.
At this point it is important to note that, under the rationale outlined, VET delivered to secondary students is the same as VET delivered to non-secondary students, i.e. VET managed by the VET sector.
Preparing Secondary Students for Work makes a clear distinction between vocational learning (managed by the school sector) and VET, which is managed by the VET sector. Schools and industry need to be clear about the differences. The framework recognises the importance of both in preparing secondary students for work.
‘Vocational learning’ describes a wide range of activity delivered within the broader school curriculum and includes career education programs, through which secondary students explore the world of work, build career development skills and learn about the different education, training and employment pathways available to them. VET delivered to secondary students is a more formal program of learning through which students achieve, or make progress towards achieving, a nationally-recognised qualification through an industry-developed training package or a course of study that is accredited through national and state quality assurance processes.
Many in industry have the view that VET delivered in schools, or in partnership with schools, is different to other VET and does not prepare students adequately for the workforce. Certificate I and Certificate II courses are designed to provide in most cases preparatory/prevocational-level training and there is an expectation that students continue into post-school education and training. These Certificates have little to offer employers and gone are the days where young people can enter the labour market directly from school and access sustainable employment.
National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) research data indicates that more than 90% of schools offer VET to Year 11 and 12 students. There has also been a 38% increase in the number of secondary students undertaking VET between 2005 and 2012, and a 77% increase in the number of school-based apprenticeships over the same period.
We must improve engagement between industry/employers and schools and address the issue of school and RTO understanding of employer expectations for workplace learning as part of a VET qualification. VET programs are developed in consultation with industry, as well as the VET sector. The focus in this collaborative work is two-fold: what is appropriate for school-aged people to be studying and under what conditions should this training be undertaken?; and, what skills are most relevant to employers?
Javier Amaro Castillo (President at Australian Society of Training and Development; 11th June 2015); argues that for a VET system to work effectively, it must have industry relevance, operational standards and global pathways.
Students and the community need to understand the benefits of VET, how VET can support their lifelong learning and how VET can serve as a bridge for employment and further studies.
What needs to be done?
If we are going to create a vocational education and training (VET) system to supply “job-ready graduates” to industry then clearly some things must change.
- The value of VET must be re-defined to meet the needs of learners, industry and communities. It must provide a career pathway for learners and an alternative but convergent route to education embedded into the higher education system.
- Teacher registration bodies must look at flexible ways that will allow the delivery of key competencies in a school-based environment. Many industries advocate for workplace delivery and assessment of VET in training packages but the sheer weight of numbers would make this impossible. An alternative (that works very well in some jurisdictions) is for tradespeople to deliver some key competencies in the VET training packages.
- Like a teaching practicum, the quality of a work placement is often dependent upon the environment and the supervisor. All students must have access to quality industry specific workplaces. These are often difficult to find and industry must take the lead in this area.
- VET programs should be promoted as a pathway to higher-level post-school study, rather than as a pathway directly to jobs without further training.
- Expert career guidance is essential. Schools need support to ensure young people understand how to combine VET with their other school studies in a way that gives them the best chance of continuing in post-school training.
- Funding arrangements must be “sorted out”. According to Role of lower-level qualifications in Australia’s vocational education and training system (ACER March 2015) enrolment patterns demonstrate the sensitivity of enrolments to changes in funding arrangements.
- Adequate resourcing must be provided for VET. Role of lower-level qualifications in Australia’s vocational education and training system (ACER March 2015) says that the “expansion of VET as a result of the changes in the school leaving age and the embedding of VET qualifications in the school leaving certificates of states and territories requires additional resources if quality standards are to be met. Organising and supervising workplace learning for school students, if properly undertaken, is an expensive activity. The purchase of equipment necessary for some vocational training can also be expensive.”
- Schools must consider good practice when planning for, implementing and reviewing VET delivered to secondary students and their capacity to deliver VET.
- Teacher training? With the large proportion of secondary students either engaged in VET during secondary education or articulating into training as a post-secondary pathway all teacher graduates need to be adequately prepared to either deliver nationally-recognised training or, provide up-to-date advice about the VET system and the breadth of opportunities available to their students.
Rob Nairn BEd, Dip Teach, MAICD, MACEL
Rob is Executive Director of the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA Ltd) and Adjunct Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University. He has extensive experience in metropolitan and regional Senior High Schools in Western Australia, particularly in low-socioeconomic areas. Rob is passionate about developing exemplary leadership to provide high-quality secondary education to all young people no matter what their geographic, social or personal circumstances.
Rob is Deputy Chair of the Board of Principals Australia Institute (PAI Ltd), Director of Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), Chair of Edith Cowan University Applied Health Research Centre Advisory Board, Director of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) Advisory Board and Executive member International Confederation of Principals (ICP).