Status turns the job lot into the top lot

21st February 2003 at 00:00

As Britain struggles to remedy its neglect of vocational learning, TES reporters investigate how it's done abroad

As British policy-makers grapple with the problem of preparing youngsters for work, they will be looking at successful systems in countries such as Germany and Holland.

Building close relations between schools and with industry is vital, says Emer Smyth from Dublin's Economic and Social Research Institute.

Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands have built such links over decades. As a result the proportion of school-leavers taking up apprenticeships in these countries ranges from 55 to 75 per cent. In Britain the figure is 15 per cent, and even then most of the training is college-based.

In Britain and France contacts with firms are poor. Even where vocational courses exist in schools, they do not teach skills useful to potential employers.

Countries vary in their reasons for promoting vocational education. In France, Italy and Sweden, it is aimed at encouraging less academic children to stay on in education; whereas in Germany it eases the transition from school to work and cuts youth unemployment.

Because of the length of university education in German-speaking countries and the Netherlands - six years or more for a first degree - apprenticeships are popular even among able pupils. Companies want, and get, high-calibre trainees.

"Particularly in Britain, France and Belgium, there is a view that people following vocational subjects are not bright enough for anything else," says Liv Sommerfelt of Laksevag School in Norway. Persuading able pupils to do apprenticeships may be key to raising their status. It can only have high status if people of high quality take it up, according to the EU's centre for the development of vocational training.

German trainees apply to firms first but then continue training at vocational schools, while also studying academic subjects such as German and English. Practical training is by day-release.

Germany has a selective school system. Middle-ability children do vocational training with core academic subjects. In middle-tier schools (Realschulen) most take up apprenticeships at 16. However, a problem arises in areas where there is little industry to take students. In eastern Germany, this has led to 12 young people chasing each apprenticeship.

Dr Smyth says similar problems would occur if nations such as Ireland, with little large-scale industry, tried to adopt a German approach to vocational learning.

In countries with comprehensive secondary education, such as France and Britain, there is resistance to vocational schools on political grounds.

The fear is that they will be ghettos for working-class children and immigrants. Where choices have to be made at 14 or earlier the risk is that those from backgrounds with low expectations will wrongly opt for technical school and not fulfil their potential.

To avert this, says Dr Smyth, students should be able to change freely between academic and vocational. "Routes need to be kept open between academic and vocational systems as long as possible, so that early decisions can be reversed," says Dr Smyth.

FE Focus, 30

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