We opened with Dr Jim Hordern (Department of Education, University of Bath) who offered two contrasting views of the role of the workplace in VET. In the first, he argued, employers firmly take the central role. They dominate the learning discourse, while educational providers supply ad hoc support. In this model, knowledge and learning are culturally and socially situated - learners become part of the workforce with minimal institutional input.
The second view sees the workplace as complementary to formal learning. In placement-centred or integrated models of VET, learners access specialised knowledge related to occupations through institutions but are only able to realise the full potential of this knowledge through workplace practice (where they also develop context-specific knowledge, like organisational procedures). While both views recognise the importance of work-based learning, each situates it differently in relation to VET, and each raises questions about pedagogy, relations between employers and institutions, and learner identity.
Next, Dr Bill Esmond (Associate Professor, Education & Employment, University of Derby) discussed the use of ‘craft’ within VET to recall virtues associated with work practices that predated the mechanisation of industry that followed the industrial revolution: attention to detail, patient repetition, personal responsibility. Its popularity reflects its suggestions that expertise resides in the practice of relatively autonomous practitioners. Bill argued that these notions were sometimes opposed to school and college learning. However, he noted a distinction, even within VET, between workplace learning that complements college learning (in more technical vocational areas) and workplace learning that prepares young people for routine employment through socialisation.
Drawing on historical evidence of craft practice, he argued that this included contextual knowledge, including understandings of materials and use of products not only in the workplace but in the rural economy and natural world. In a time of climate emergency and green new deals, this suggests that VET should contextualise the practical skills associated with work-based learning within their surrounding environment, preparing a workforce more broadly sensitive to the planet. Taking this view, craft needn’t just hark back to a disappearing world but can help prepare for an improved future.
Next, for a view from the ground, we heard from Mark Langhammer (National Education Union, Northern Ireland) who offered a case study of electrician apprenticeships. In Northern Ireland, these place employers and trainees at the centre, with additional support from colleges and the Electrical Training Trust (ETT - who provide employer liaison and business support). The curriculum is driven by the ETT and the National Electrotechnical Training Organisation (the industry awarding body). Apprentices spend one or two days a week learning health and safety, transferable skills and key competences. However, they mostly learn on the job. To qualify, they must obtain their AM2 qualification (a practical assessment), take exams (for theory) and their employer must sign them off. An employer-led curriculum, well-cared-for apprentices, rigorous testing and paid apprenticeships all contribute to a high-quality qualification with excellent market currency.
Finally, we heard from Dr Lesley Powell (Nelson Mandela University) who brought a South African perspective. Discussions around work based learning, she noted, usually focus on formal work, often in large enterprises. However, the reality in South Africa is that 61% of people work in informal and insecure jobs, such as street vendors, bakers and mechanics. Furthermore, research with young people in urban townships highlights a desire to contribute to their communities via socially useful work. This has meant entirely rethinking approaches to VET in South Africa.
For instance, the theoretical distinction between vocational and academic pedagogies is not one that young South Africans relate to. Rather, they see things more in terms of ‘meaningful opportunities’ to take their lives forward. The language of VET ‘pathways’ is also problematic, Lesley argued. A more accurate description (reflecting financial instability and the uncertainty of work) would be ‘oscillation’, shifting back and forth between vocational education, formal and informal work.
Ultimately, regardless of geography, VET needs to move away from mere considerations of income and utility to incorporate individual wellbeing and social entrepreneurship. Crucially, future definitions of VET must be shaped with greater input from minority and disadvantaged voices.
This latest debate offered a fascinating range of perspectives and, as ever, gave attendees plenty to discuss. To ensure that future approaches to VET in England do not fall into the trap of narrow policy goals, Edge looks forward to doing a great deal more work in this area.