By Mark Ravenhall, Associate of Learning and Work Institute
For much of modern history vocational education and training (VET) was seen as the sole responsibility of employers. In fact it’s quite a recent phenomenon for governments to get involved in VET at all. Some have argued the reason we need the involvement of policy makers (and the use of our taxes) is because VET helps shape the sort of economy we want to have. Welsh Government has been very clear about that: Wales needs to be greener, more tech-savvy, and generally more agile in a fast-changing world. VET also has wider social benefits: impacting positively on our health and wellbeing, levels of trust in society, as well as the pounds in our pockets.
Put simply, like other parts of lifelong learning, VET transforms lives.
That was why we were delighted over the summer to lead a review of one aspect of VET. Welsh Government asked us to look at the evidence for establishing a system based on the differentiation of ‘initial’ and ‘continuing’ vocational education and training. I won’t go into the definitions here—the summary report explains them very well—but in a nutshell it’s about whether Wales needs different approaches for younger and older adults.
Our review of 88 evidence sources showed, across Europe, most countries define Initial Vocational Education and Training (IVET) as applying to the 16-24 age group. Generally speaking this is likely to be a preparation for working life and be predominately delivered off-the-job. For Continuing Vocational Education and Training (CVET) the focus is very much on-the-job, and is about upskilling, retraining, and professional development. CVET is predominately aimed at those aged 25 and over. Crucially CVET can also be aimed at those wishing to re-enter the labour market after a career break (due to ill-health, caring responsibilities, or redundancy).
We sent a summary of our evidence review to a range of stakeholders, international experts and sector representatives to get their views. They told us, in over twenty hours of interviews, about many examples of great practice across Wales and beyond. However the consensus was that the Welsh VET system lacked coherence. It was acknowledged that adults have different needs in various stages of their lives.
Many stakeholders (including learners) paid testimony to the transformative effect of VET on peoples’ lives. Employer representatives were keen to stress the need for softer skills alongside vocational qualifications made ‘for’ or ‘in’ Wales. VET providers (colleges, universities, training providers) told us about the need to invest in a more dynamic relationship with industry and their own staff. All were keen to stress the importance of sub-national approaches that bring together employers and providers.
The report also highlights the challenges in ensuring access to VET through the medium of Welsh and creating a level playing field for young adults accessing enrichment opportunities.
Despite many examples of good practice, the current VET system was seen as lacking all these elements in a coherent picture. Therefore it was felt Wales needed an overarching VET strategy within which all this sits. The role of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) was particularly welcomed by stakeholders going forward. But it was also recognised that CTER will face challenges without sufficient resource and direction from Welsh Government.
Which brings me back to lifelong learning.
Ministers in Wales have been at forefront of the UK debate around lifelong learning. There have also been calls for CTER to develop a lifelong learning approach as the foundation for its activity. Perhaps now’s the time to take this forward in the context of vocational education in its widest sense. One that meets the needs of emerging industries, employers, and citizens at all stages of their lives.
Please read the report and tell us what you think.
Mark Ravenhall and Colin Forest are Associates of Learning and Work Institute and part of the team who worked on this project with other members, including Jackie Woodhouse, Nicola Aylward and Joshua Miles.