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Proud to promote vocational education as first choice

Caroline Jenner, CEO JA Europe

There are few people who have done as much to raise the profile of Vocational Education and Training (VET) as Marianne Thyssen, outgoing EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. It was she who in 2014 launched the idea of a European Vocational Skills Week to heighten awareness of the value of VET and stimulate collaboration between stakeholders. Her mantra in speech after speech was that VET should not only be an equal choice, but a first choice. She is right.

Yet most EU citizens agree that “general education has a more positive image than vocational education” (Cedefop). Some have said that we should find a better name for VET, something ‘cool’ that would appeal more to young people. But experts agree that better marketing is not the solution. The problem is that VET is perceived as what you will end up, rather than the beginning of something. Today is about learning continuously, having highly prized skills, multiple “gigs” and perhaps switching lanes several times in a career.

For VET to be truly FIRST, it needs to make progress in several areas. F could stand for “Flexibility”. Why shouldn’t young people be able to switch into or out of VET, depending on their interests and opportunities? In Norway, for instance, a student can take one year of VET and, if they want to transition to university they can take a bridging course to do so. And, from this fall, after one year of university, students can switch to VET without having to make up the year. University and VET stand side by side, as complementary learning pathways, allowing people to build their skills portfolio and their chosen specializations in their own way. Upskilling and employability would be greatly facilitated by building more flexibility into the system.

“I” could stand for “Innovation”. Leading VET schools are actively transforming themselves into dynamic hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. TKNIKA is a VET centre under the Basque government in Spain which has had excellent results transforming innovations into businesses through their in-house incubation scheme. At The Entrepreneurial School Awards 2019 in Helsinki, half the 34 secondary schools awarded were VET schools. Europe needs more innovators and entrepreneurs and VET has to be a prime source. Moreover, participating in hands-on entrepreneurial projects can take students’ mastery of their profession to the next level and increase their motivation for learning in other subjects. The average increase in grades among the students participating in entrepreneurship education was around 10 % more than in the control groups in the Erasmus+ funded ICEE policy experimentation project. Learning through ideation, innovation and entrepreneurship is highly impactful as a teaching method because, as one of the teachers in the ICEE project said, “…students like to be in the driver’s seat of their own learning”.

Closely related to innovation is “R” for “Relevance”. VET has to stay close to industry developments and ensure its curriculum is as state of the art as possible, but the pace of change is such that any syllabus will struggle to keep up. It is also essential that VET builds in training that develops students’ creativity, adaptability, leadership and problem-solving skills alongside their specialization, a blend of so-called hard and soft skills is essential. As digital continues to evolve and disrupt, we must foster these soft skills in order to give people the “best chances of success”. [PWC Global CEOs Survey].

VET will not be able to truly mobilize on flexibility, innovation or relevance without fully engaging with multiple actors in the community, so “S” should be for “Stakeholders”. What distinguishes high performing VET schools is the quality of their relationships outside their institution. VET is certainly ahead of general educational in its long tradition of partnership with the business community, but it can go much further. Businesses can participate in different (yes, flexible and innovative) ways—their experts can go into VET schools as coaches and mentors for instance, not just host apprentices on site. Closer collaboration could be established with the start-up world for instance and with micro-financing. Stronger links with other educational institutions such as universities and more international opportunities for students. Collaborations with other ecosystems and networks that can add value through additional extra-curricular, non-formal and informal learning opportunities. EuroSkills and WorldSkills are a great example. VET is in principle already a blended learning experience, but it can aspire to be much more so.

Last, but not least are the educators themselves – T is for “Teachers”. The single greatest driver of change inside an institution are the teachers and leaders. It is they who bring new ideas into the classroom, who can innovate their practice, who proactively connect with others outside the school environment as inspirers and mentors. Research by the Lappeenranta University of Technology cited in the Entrepreneurship Education Monitor 2019 shows that while enterprise experience is important for a VET leader, training in learning-by-doing methods and partnerships is the most important driver of a more modern approach in the school.

Making VET a truly FIRST choice, and transforming VET schools into schools of the future, demands more flexible pathways, greater focus on innovation, a relevant blend of soft and hard skills and deeper, more diverse, stakeholder engagement. All of this has to be core training for VET leaders and teachers.

As President von der Leyen and her team take office, I trust they will continue to push for better vocational education and training. This has to mean more constant collaboration between Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. For the sake of the young people we serve, it also has to involve more partnership at national level between ministries of education and economy, and likewise more sharing across borders. Diversity and teamwork brings not only innovation, but better results.

 

Category : Policy & Research Posted : 5 December 2019 10:20 UTC
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Caroline Jenner, CEO JA Europe

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