Vocational Educational Training Systems The state no longer has a role to play in vocational education and training (VET) systems. Discuss with reference to at least one national VET system. It is important to bear in mind that the content of the answer will depend on the argument that you wish to put forward in answer to the question and not solely on the concepts that the question explicitly identifies.
Throughout the post-war years of the 20th century we have seen a complete, and yet incomplete, overhaul of the education sector across all age groups, abilities, communities; which has re-invented, reappraised, reported and legislated to ensure the best for the future. But no area of learning has been as overhauled as vocational education and training (VET); in this respect it is clearly a system of education worthy of exploration.
The Callaghan speech in 1976 can be seen as the herald for the overhaul of systems that we now accept and understand as Vocational Education and Training (VET). In his research paper Constructing vocational education: from TVEI to GNVQ, Yeomans makes it clear that:
In the wake of Callaghan’s speech, the subsequent ‘Great Debate’ and the election of a Conservative government a plethora of White Papers were produced containing a wide variety of proposals for the reform of vocational education Yeomans (1996).
If we consider the White Papers of the Conservative Government in that era that invoked and created The Manpower Commission (MSC), Youth Training Schemes (YTS), Community Enterprise; to be supplanted by Employment Training (ET) and GNVQ; we find interesting similarities to todays New Labour Government strategies, where we move into the realm of New Deal, Modern Apprenticeships. It begs the question, have we just reinvented programmes, that the State can control, where all vocational and allied educational learning systems are curricula-controlled, regulated and frozen in a timeline of strict coherence of automated learning that is mirrored across the learning functions of any setting for, to coin the new concept in its true context, lifelong learning.
But, given the complexity of such a system in the United Kingdom (UK), how do we define a system called VET; and then move to explore one aspect of a complex concept across, a continually changing and evolving system of state intervention, control and reinvention? These are just some of the questions that will need to be explored in this essay. To enable the coherence of this essay, it is poignant to give definition to the term Vocational Education & training and its common acronym VET that we shall use in this paper.
Therefore, this essay will consider the concept of VET, its definition, social historical context, currency and impact in today’s education system. In order to ensure clear understanding of the VET system, we shall also conceptualise VET in work-based training systems and, in particular, the impact and development of the Modern Apprenticeship programme. This will be explored at the macro and micro management levels of state control, intervention and initiative. This will allow for the question of this essay to be fully explored, contrasted and compared with the wealth of literature against the actual active changes within the wider operational management of the VET setting.
There are many and complex definitions of the VET concept, at this stage therefore, it is important to conceptualise the term, in a framed context, before proceeding to discuss its socio-historical background. Two specific definitions capture the term succinctly:
The Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) which describes VET as:
Vocational education and training (VET) provides skills and knowledge for work, enhances employability and assists learning throughout life. ANTA (2004);
And West (1999) who identifies three types of VET:
The area of vocational education and training (VET) has a high profile within the EU. However, it is important to stress that there is no internationally accepted set of definitions of types of VET. Despite this lack of international consensus, three main types of VET can be distinguished (Descy and Westphalen, 1998): (a) initial vocational education and training (IVT); (b) continuing vocational education and training (CVT); (c) vocational education and training for the unemployed (VETU).
Having now conceptualised and defined the concept, we can move to consider the social-historical debate that enshrines the development in fluidity of the VET system within the UK. It is not within the context of this essay to explore pre-war or indeed, the wider debates of the 1970s educational reforms; but to set them in the context of the actual relationship to the ongoing VET debate and the consequential impact that was to change the face of vocation education for decades and decades to come.
Lord Callaghans Ruskin speech of 1976 provoked a national debate, but its focus was clearly on schools and universities with no real impact or concerns given to further education colleges (then known as technical colleges) or vocational training in the workplace. Nevertheless, the impetus, or the neglected omission of these areas brought about a debate that would last generations and provide incentives and impacts that would be felt at the grassroots of vocational learning.
VET in the UK was not centred in institutions, like other European systems where priority was given to close ties to vocational qualifications (VQ) and the employment market. The UK approach to VET, even at the height of its close relationship with the economy, always reflected its inferior status: neglect by national policy-makers, lack of national coherence, and an absence of general education or theoretical learning within which to frame technical skills.
Technical colleges were transformed into colleges of further education during the 70s; two clear trends emerged from this step. First, there was the growth of academic courses for all ages and abilities. This led to stimulated expansion of higher education, becoming more accessible to all ages. The second trend was the decline of traditional employment, the growth in unemployment from the mid 70s and the realisation that unemployment was not to be a temporary social and economic problem.
Government provided a focused answer in the creation of what some might see today as an early quango, in the form of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) which developed schemes for unemployed school-leavers, such as the youth opportunities training scheme. The youth training scheme (YTS) was intended to be a modernised apprenticeship for everybody, committed to providing places for all 16- and 17-year-old school-leavers who were out of work in order to enhance their “employability”. In retrospect it was seen as:
an attempt to align education more closely to the ‘needs’ of industry and commerce and rectify some of the knowledge, skill and attitude deficits of school leavers. This type of instrumental, economic analysis remains important in political debates about education across the main political parties. Yeomans (1996)
The continuation of mixed vocational and formal courses within the setting of further education up to the incorporation of colleges, where the colleges moved out of local authority control to be more independent and coherent in their delivery of programmes that met the need of localised economic and sustainable development.
Despite this move of central government to strengthen the abilities of the post-16 education sector in a free market economy, to allow for competitive and commercial incentives against the backdrop of localised business needs, the mix of responses to learning and development strategies has still involved, invoked and brought about government incentives, intervention and control setting, through remodelling, measurement and inspection. But what should be seen in clarity is that:
There is still relatively little discussion about whether vocational education (or any form of education) should, or can, play the functional role assigned to it by the prevailing instrumental discourse within the economic system. It remains axiomatic for most politicians that education and training, if only we can get it right, will have strong and tangible economic benefits. Yeomans (1996)
Now VET enters another significant period of change brought about by New Labour strategy: this restructuring of the post-16 system;
Still the cry goes up from politicians and employers that the British workforce is inadequately educated and trained. Still unflattering comparisons are made with our partners/competitors in Europe and further afield (Prais, 1995; Smithers, 1993). Still the search is on for a more effective system of vocational education and training. Yeomans (1996)
The demise of the training and enterprise councils (TEC) and adult and community education (ACE) as we had known it; to be reborn and reformed, through a restructuring in the formal establishment of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) system in April 2001. This lateral thinking of the State to be more accountable within the VET structure has, in part, reincarnated the TEC in another set of clothing, albeit now under state control and not autonomous as its previous incarnation. Interesting enough is the mission of the new LSC:
We have a single goal: to improve the skills of Englands young people and adults to ensure we have a workforce of world-class standard.
The LSC is responsible for planning and funding high quality education and training for everyone in England other than those in universities.
Our vision is that by 2010, young people and adults in England have knowledge and skills matching the best in the world and are part of a truly competitive workforce. LSC (2006)
This statement, found on the LSC website, has overtones of its previous incarnation, where it a hands off approach was the focus for the development of sector-led needs towards an employable workforce. It is also worth noting that the LSC now has to date 47 integral parts or sub-sets of itself. These replaced the TECs in their regional settings across England. They undertake similar, but not identical, responsibilities to the old TEC functions. Their inception and many counterparts were a creation of a Conservative government initiative that survived the early years of the Labour administration, to be demised in the wake of the reforming strategies that have effectively circumnavigated previous political initiatives for VET schemes.
This re-appraisal of VET opens up the debate once more, to explore the necessity for the States role in such developments. In Page & Hillages paper, Vocational Education and Training in the UK, Page clearly inferred that the state influences its training system, with the capacity and desire to involve engagement and debate with business:
There has been increasing employer influence on institutions and training structures, and changes have been made to incorporate employer engagement so that the state-influenced training system best meets what businesses say they need. This market-led approach is in contrast to much of the training policy across Europe. Page & Hillage (2006)
The interesting fact that the UK has some comparison to that of its European partners is not in itself unique. But what is of some interest is that the EU partners have been prioritising vocational education for many decades, alongside that of its labour markets. This is a coherent message from the new Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) whose members validate vocational qualifications and approve delivery centres across the UK. This response to the Governments Report Skills Strategy, 21st Century Skills Realising Our Potential Individuals, Employers, Nation makes stark reading and offers some direct advice to government in ensuring that VET is prioritised.
The English system is complicated enough for employers and individuals to negotiate without having to try to understand and put together the various national systems. FAB (2003)
SSCs should focus on analyzing and identifying the skill needs of their sector and ensure the supply of up-to-date national occupational standards that are fit for purpose and benchmarked against European and International standards. With only two SSCs licensed currently, there is a great danger that this important role will not be fully fulfilled over the short to medium term. Urgent action is needed to ensure that work on national occupational standards is not threatened by the commitment to the development of a strategic Skills for Business Network. FAB (2003)
Considering the FAB concern that only two of the new Sector Skills Council (SSCs) had been licensed at that stage, they are worthy of note, and since the report was published most sectors now have their own SSC. These new, part-public funded organisations are now needed to look to bring a micro understanding to most, if not all, VET systems.
This reform of the VET system also has a strategic umbrella organisation called The Sector Skills Development Agency SSDA, The SSDA website explains its function as:
The Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) is responsible for funding, supporting and monitoring the network of Sector Skills Councils (SSCs). The SSDA is a non-departmental public body with its main base in South Yorkshire and representatives across the UK. The organisation is led by Chair Margaret Salmon and Chief Executive Mark Fisher, both of whom were appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills SSDA. (2006)
Sector by sector, each employment sector has an SSC, with acronym to match it. As an example we have the SSC that governs the Health & Care Sector, which has seen more upheaval in legislative reform than many of its comparative industries under this current Governments reforms. From this organisational example we can show the ongoing changes across the VET system of Modern Apprenticeship schemes, as most have been founded in the same annotated system of programming. To include: the NVQ, Key Skills and a Technical Certificate.
Albeit briefly we must also mention that, during this upheaval of changes across the VET schemes, we have also had a complete overhaul of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which has been invoked and monitored by the Qualification Curriculum Authority (QCA) and another agency of the Department of Education and Skills (DES). It has also been raised in academic circles that this upheaval has done nothing to procure strong quality assurance and cohesion. Roodhouse (2006) states that:
The failure of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to coordinate their frameworks and respective procedures in the national interest is discussed.
Each SSC was/is responsible for regulating qualification frameworks across its own industry; therefore, it could be suggested that each sector has changed itself, under the strategic SSDA, Sector Qualification Reform Programme (SQRP), and its reasoning:
The Sector Qualifications Reform Programme (SQRP) is part of a broad reaching initiative to radically change the landscape of vocational qualifications in the UK.
It aims to ensure that the qualifications and other learning programmes available across the UK are more effective in equipping people with the skills that employers want and that learners need to secure and maintain employment. In so doing it will contribute to the UK’s business productivity, by ensuring that employers are able to make the most of the skills of their employees. SSDA (2006)
This sectors SSC is known as Skills for Health (SfH). We shall use this example to explain the micro function it controls and show that overlapping governance that interacts with its functions concerning VET Schemes. Therefore, we shall consider briefly SfH’s own website introduction to its functions:
Skills for Health (SfH) was established in April 2002 and licensed by DfES as the UK Sector Skills Council (SSC) for health in May of 2004. We are part of the NHS, being hosted by a Trust, but with our own Board and management.
We cover the whole health sector NHS, independent and voluntary employers. We are funded through the four UK health departments, SSDA, the Education Act Regulatory Bodies and the sector.
We do not provide training directly and see education and training providers as some of our key partners. SfH (2007)
The interesting aspect of this statement is its primary aim to: To help the whole sector develop solutions that deliver a skilled and flexible UK workforce in order to improve health and healthcare. Apart from the sector references, it has similar if not parallel macro- and micro-management like the LSC and the SSDA! This interesting fact is mirrored across all of the Sector Skills Councils.
This new system for the VET can be seen in the continuation of reform to many of the National vocational learning strategies and programmes. None more so than that of the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme, which had for some time been the flagship of the former TECs alongside that of its counterpart, the National Traineeship. Now formally owned by the related SSC that governs the related scheme contents, and in collaboration with the LSC in the regions, allocated funding and part-funded places are provided to employers through the network of training providers who again, are then governed, monitored and inspected by the Government Agencies, to include: the LSC, ALI, Awarding Bodies and QCA. It is also worth noting that this framework, scheme in care, we find that ownership of it is held jointly with the Care Council, another Government Agency to regulate care standards across the sector!
Whatever the MA programme or the sector it represents, all apprentices have to undertake a formal induction called the Employment Responsibilities and Rights (ERR) requirements, the health and social care industry being no exception. But, what is also fairly interesting is, to work in the Sector at any level, all employees and potential employees have to undertake the formal Skills for Care induction programme to the sector, its remit being extremely similar to that of Skills for Health:
Working in consultation with carers, employers and service users, Skills for Care aims to modernise adult social care in England, by ensuring qualifications and standards continually adapt to meet the changing needs of people who use care services SFC. (2007)
We have seen from the wealth of literature, research and development that to all intents and purposes despite much having been done to move the VET scheme into a model for the 21st century we have seen that we have come full circle. That the State has the controlling focus of VET progression, albeit through what appears to be a hands off approach, but, in hindsight it can be clearly seen through the many new public funded bodies at both the macro and micro levels, that: inconsistencies and contradictions, including the responsibility for funding Workforce development to deliver this agenda. (Roodhouse 2006)
Under the former Conservative government, it could be seen that commercial strategies had been used to replace control of the state, and that economic market forces were utilised to ensure the best potential for economic growth and development of wanted VET schemes, which were, monitored and focused across an holistic approach through the operational enterprises of the TECs and the former MSC; with little or no ingrained State involvement. It is interesting to consider Conservative impact and future strategies concerning the furthering of the programmes of vocational skill-based learning at this juncture. In a recent Guardian article, it was cited that the current Conservative opposition party was prepared to consider the funding of future VET schemes alongside that of other schemes whereby the learner could potentially be able, with guidance, to use the funding given to them by the state to choose and maintain their own levels of learning and development. The former leader of the Conservative party, Michael Howard, stressed that: “Our society needs skilled craftsmen, accomplished electricians, capable plumbers and a whole host of technically trained new professionals, [and] the way to build esteem for these professions is to raise the quality and standard of education that the system provides.” His spokesperson went on to state that the grants would help to tackle the crippling skills shortages reported by employers. But more importantly, that this grant, would address demand for more skilled workers. It was also made clear that vocational education had been too fragmented and inconsistent.
In the same article, the potential incentive was met with disdain and rejection by the former education secretary, Ruth Kelly, who stated that; the Tory education manifesto would pull the plug on the government’s adult skills budget”.
But, what is even more poignant is that the article cites two important factors that are worthy of consideration for the furthering of VET systems. Firstly, The government has emphasised the need for more graduates to serve a high-income, high-skill economy” and more importantly, the overhaul in England, proposed by the former Ofsted chief, Mike Tomlinson, also presumes a much bigger role for vocational education. BBC News (2005)
Without any political bias it is clear that the future of VET Schemes, will be a consistently featured topic in the arena of the vocational and transferable skills debate, as we become more reliant on a very competitive global economy where vocational education, training and experience will have its own validity and currency in a market-driven economy.
With this debate in mind, it is clear from the plethora of growing EU directives and papers, that we will soon be heralding the commencement of an EU-wide vocational education strategy that will impact on our own economy and educational system. The current EU parliamentary debate is exploring such a strategy. In a report, The European Forum of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (EfVET) has commenced its research for the development of a framework for EU qualifications or EQF. Interestingly, the report on the initial consultations in Europe states that:
The EQF focuses on the individual by valorising flexible, diverse and efficient ways of learning. It could stimulate lifelong learning and create a durable integration into the labour market and society in general. The EQF has to be a clear instrument, which is transparent, not only to experts, but also to the citizen. EfVET (2005)
What is also ironic in the light of the EU preparing for what is to be seen as a qualification framework for Europeans, is that it is also clearly stated in the consultation document that it �should not become bureaucratic or a rigid system. Which, given our own state management of VET, raises the concern: are we ready for this new onslaught of EU directives? The sobering fact that, at the close of the 2006 parliamentary session, the Parliamentary Education and Skills Committee announced that, on behalf of the Government, it is to carry out another further full review of post-16 education; the Committee already acknowledges that:
there are indications from Leitch’s interim report that even meeting current targets will leave England with a significant skills gaps in the future. In addition, employers often say the system ill-fits their needs. Employer investment in publicly funded training is low compared to other countries.
Even though, Government publications show employer satisfaction is at an optimum level for the MA VET scheme (Benchmark/DES 2006). With the current State consistently reviewing and changing systems for VET Schemes, we have to move back towards a controlling mechanism of ensuring movement through cohesion of ongoing government strategies.
This emphasis can be seen in the greater deployment of a macro-bureaucratic model for governance, which appears at close finite micro levels. This system, at best, should remain at a flexible level of fluidity to ensure that each VET scheme is specifically tailored to ensure employability of that related sector with its unique market focus and ongoing development. At best, it should be a model of excellence, like the preceding MSC and TEC systems; then, when placed alongside Government directives and models the hallmark of excellence, could be clearly seen and potentially benchmarked for future initiatives.
The concerns of the awarding bodies that provide and monitor the qualifications brokerage, are raised consistently about the level of State reform to the system. What is also clear, is that they are also finding the inconsistencies of the skills shake-up of vocational education and training systems heavy going and are currently preparing for yet another significant change in policies and procedures. This is cited in the Edexcel policy watch review report of 2005 as the second largest UK awarding body, it is a significant expression of concern. Its author Besley, states that:
So what of 2005, another backbreaking year interspersed with a few jaw-breaking moments, new horizons with golden opportunities? Possibly, but there are some significant differences already emerging for 2005.
The Skills area faces possibly the most intense activity of all in 2005 with a further White Paper, a global review, developments under the adult framework of qualifications and the emergence of Regional Skill Partnerships all significant.
the Government has commissioned the Leitch review of the long-term skill needs and priorities of business and the economy. Importantly, this review, working with the LSC and SSDA, will consider the mix and levels of skills needed in the UK for the future. Beasley (2005)
With the voice of the awarding bodies showing some significant cynicism of the reforms programme, is it no wonder that we are moving into a realm of inconsistency and inertia as each partner at the macro- and micro-management levels of VET Schemes continues to overlap and congregate towards another mix in the formula for this once exciting area of learning and development. Surely, the time has arrived to revisit the formative years of VET and glean from their successes a formula for skills that is easier to swallow.
In retrospect, the MSC and TEC programmes were introduced into the education systems as an �attempt to improve the allegedly low quality of vocational education and training which was claimed to be handicapping commerce and industry in the competitive 1980s and 1990s (Yeomans 1996). Has the control of the State now come full circle, and yet again trying to end the bureaucratic gridlock that currently hampers the fluidity of VET Schemes?
The clarity of the socio-historic and indeed socio-economic impact of the VET Schemes has been within the States management abilities, with formative activities as a benchmark for the future. But, with the current inconsistent and bureaucratic management systems being enforced into the system by the State, we are now in a state of collaborative inertia where the excitement of collaborative advantage is receding as the skills sector tires of the continual intense management by the State. Therefore, the time has arrived to be retrospective and go back to the excitement of basics.
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