Norway to go

15th July 2016 at 00:00
The non-EU country is not only in the news because of Brexit, but also because of its celebrated approach to vocational education. Stephen Exley visits Oslo to find out what following the Norwegian method could mean for the UK’s schools and colleges

No one used to talk much about Norway in the UK. Unlike its neighbour Sweden, it has no Abba to ingratiate itself into our national psyche. Unlike Finland, it has no Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) halo that drew the eyes of our government, which sent out search parties to Helsinki for insights. And unlike Denmark, sat just across the water, it has no popular noir TV dramas bringing the country into our living rooms on a weekly basis.

What it does have is its status as a member of the European Economic Area – but one that sits outside the European Union. Before the UK’s referendum on whether to leave the EU, that meant little to us. However, during the campaign, the Brexit camp seized upon Norway as an exemplar of how a prosperous, inclusive and forward-thinking European nation can thrive outside the European Union. We were – we are – all suddenly talking about Norway.

Former skills minister Nick Boles could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. He was busy highlighting Norway as a model to follow way before Brexiters got in on the action. And the reason could prove to be just as important for the UK as any lessons about life outside the EU.

Last summer, Boles undertook a ministerial visit to look at the Norwegian vocational education system. By all accounts, he liked what he saw. Lo and behold, when a government review of vocational and technical education was announced back in November, Norway was cited as one of the “best technical and professional education systems”, which the UK would look to emulate.

The resulting publication – the Sainsbury review of technical education – was released last Friday, along with a plan to implement what the government described as the biggest change to post-16 education since A levels were introduced in 1951 (see box, page 29).

What it proposes is profound: at the age of 16, students will be forced to choose between academic and vocational qualification pathways. How this will work is a mixture of work-, college- and school-based routes that, as observers have noted, bears more than a passing resemblance to the system Boles observed during his visit to our Scandinavian neighbours.

The Norwegian Way is coming to the UK. And schools, particularly those with sixth forms, just as much as FE colleges and businesses, need to be aware of just how big an impact that could have on the way they operate.

Northern insights

On a sunny day on Oslofjord – an inlet in the south-east of Norway – there are few more spectacular workplaces than the one enjoyed by Chris Langøen Olstad. The 24-year-old is an apprentice at Veidekke, the fourth biggest construction firm in Scandinavia. He is busy helping to sink 50m metal poles into the solid rock beneath the city’s harbour front.

He is laying the foundations for what, come 2019, will be the city’s flagship tourist attraction: a 13-storey museum to house the artwork of Edvard Munch, including two of the four versions of his most famous work, The Scream. After enduring a difficult time at school in his home city of Bergen, he is also now finally laying the foundations for a successful career.

While most Norwegian apprentices commence with two years of vocational education and training (VET) at school at the age of 16, before becoming a lærling (apprentice) at the age of 18, Olstad’s journey has taken a while longer. Disillusioned with school, he left after just one year of post-secondary education.

But, after an assortment of low-paid jobs, he moved to Oslo, and won a place at Veidekke’s Skole på byggeplass (school at a building site), which is funded by the local authority to train up would-be apprentices.

Apprenticeships are a vital way of bringing in staff for Veidekke, according to the company’s executive vice president, Hege Schøyen Dillner. Some 5.8 per cent of its employees in Norway are apprentices. “We build from the ground,” says Dillner. “Often apprentices go on to become managers.”

Olstad is now just six months away from attaining the fagprøve (trade certificate) and becoming a fully qualified construction worker.

“I didn’t have that much work with books at the school, it was more like you go to the building site and build stuff. You earn money as an apprentice as well. It was a perfect fit for me.”

Olstad’s route has proven to be a little more circuitous than most. One of the strengths of the Norwegian system is in providing clear and varied pathways from school through to employment. The journey begins at the age of 6, when pupils start primary school. Most pupils progress to secondary school at 13, where they continue until the age of 16.

At this point, they have a choice to make: those who want to go on to university can opt for a general studies programme, made up of traditional academic subjects. The rest opt for one of nine VET programmes (see graphic, page 28-29). These courses last four years, culminating in the awarding of a trade certificate.

In most cases, students take the “2+2” approach: the first two years in high school, involving practical training in school workshops and short work placements in a company, followed by two years of apprenticeship training in a company or public body.

Both academic and vocational routes are on offer at Kuben yrkesarena (Kuben Vocational Arena), the largest vocational school in Oslo. The school, located on the edge of an industrial estate, boasts a wood-clad contemporary exterior with an open plan internal layout, on a par with any of the spectacular schools built under New Labour in the UK.

Scandi style

Einar Bruu, manager of the department of building, construction, technical and industrial production explains that in Oslo, just 23 per cent of students opt for VET pathways. In some rural areas, the figure is as high as 45 per cent. Compare this to the UK and it soon becomes clear why Boles – with one eye on the government’s election pledge to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 – came back to the UK full of ideas after his trip.

While the overall number of apprenticeships in England has increased significantly since 2010, the expansion has not been without controversy. The total number of apprenticeships started increased by almost a third over four years, from 665,900 in 2010/11 to 871,800 in 2014/15, but this growth has been largely among older learners, many of them already in employment.

The number of apprentices under the age of 19 actually dropped during the same period; this group now accounts for barely a fifth of the total number of apprenticeships.

While the reasons behind this are varied and complex, one key problem identified time and time again has been that secondary-school students in English schools simply don’t know about the VET options that are available.

In May, a survey by the Association of Colleges, carried out in partnership with TES, revealed that just 11 per cent of college principals said that they were given comprehensive access to students in local schools to explain about the education and training they offer. More than a fifth (21 per cent) said they were given only limited access, with 68 per cent reporting a mixed picture, depending on the school in question.

And it is not just colleges that believe there’s a problem. In January, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced that a new law was to be created to force state schools to give vocational routes as much weight as academic options when providing careers advice to pupils.

Contrast this with the Norwegian system, in which it is schools themselves that deliver the first two years of apprenticeship programmes before learners move into the workplace.

There are other big differences between the two countries when it comes to apprenticeship programmes. In Norway, the pathways last for four years; in England, apprenticeships can last as little as 12 months for learners aged between 16 and 18. And an apprenticeship in England can sit at anything from level 2 (equivalent to GCSE A*-C) up to degree level. Indeed, the confusion currently caused by what the Westminster government describes as the “thousands of ineffective courses that short-change employers and young people” stands in stark contrast to Norway’s simple pathways of progression from 16 onwards.

Meanwhile, apprenticeships in the UK include English and maths, but their Norwegian equivalents include a wider variety of academic subjects, at least during the first two years in school. During this period, each student must complete 35 hours of education per week. Of these, 11 hours are focussed on academic subjects. In the first year, these are maths, Norwegian, English and science; additional subjects are introduced in the second year.

Schools are integral to the apprenticeships in more ways than just academic. They also provide a “speed dating” service with employers – interviews between the two are arranged by and held at the school. “We are close with those companies who take apprentices. We need them and they need us,” says Bruu.

It’s a lot of work for schools to take on, but there is money for the provision from government. As for when they get to the workplace, the training is still strictly regulated at a national level by the government, but with some allowance for local variations. The employer receives 130,000 Norwegian krone (around £11,500) per apprentice from the government (more can be paid to support learners with SEND). The apprentices are also paid, receiving NOK 8,000 (around £700) a month throughout the duration of the programme.

Lost in translation?

Would Norway’s approach be welcomed in the UK? Given that, as a result of the English reforms announced last week, students will start being steered down either a vocational or an academic pathway at the age of 16 from 2019, some difficult decisions – likely to result in providers specialising in one route or the other – will need to be made. It’s clear that English schools (particularly those with sixth forms) and FE colleges would need to adapt.

One man who has his doubts about whether the Scandinavian country has the answer is Simon Bartley. The current president of WorldSkills, Bartley played a key role in expanding the UK’s involvement in international skills competitions, and has extensive first-hand experience of different approaches to VET in use across the world, including Norway.

“What a country with a population of 65 million can learn from a country with a population of 3 million, I’m not quite sure,” he says. “We have much less of a centralised system.”

But while he believes that a longer apprenticeship programme would bring benefits for employers, Bartley doubts that, with the Westminster government’s 3 million apprenticeships target looming ever larger, there is much of an appetite to introduce them.

“Year after year, employers say they want an apprenticeship to be in a craft, and it should take four to four-and-a-half years to complete. That’s what employers say they want and they need. For the government to say you can only have a shorter apprenticeship seems to me to be trying to have your cake and eat it.”

As for schools, implementing such a different system would primarily affect those with sixth forms – especially those which offer a mixture of academic and vocational qualifications. All schools, though, would need to play a part in increasing the information about technical and vocational options they provide to students.

Nigel Matthias, assistant headteacher at Bay House School and Sixth Form in Gosport, Hampshire, would welcome a Norwegian-style system.

“The nine VET pathways of the Norwegian system provide an enviable clarity in contrast with the muddled system of post-16 provision that currently exists in the UK,” he says. “Compare this coherent and relatively straightforward system to the increasingly complex array of technical certificates, newly badged tech levels and even applied general qualifications and it is easy to see why some students might look at the Norwegian system with envy.”

But the Norwegian system isn’t without its problems. One of its biggest strengths is that all young people are entitled to three years of post-16 education; for Bruu, this is also a major weakness.

“It doesn’t matter about your grades in school,” he explains. “That’s nice – and it’s also a problem. When there’s no formality around the grades, you get everyone. Not every student is fit for this.”

Accordingly, the drop-out rate is relatively high: around a fifth of VET students fail to complete the final practical and theoretical exam that is required to achieve the trade certificate.

This is perhaps not surprising. In Oslo, just as in Oldham, students deemed less academically able are often directed down the VET path.

“Some people look down on apprentices,” Bruu continues. “When parents talk to the kids around the dinner table, they talk [apprenticeships] down. Everybody has the right to take one, so there’s no, ‘Wow, you made it through the course’; it’s like, ‘Sorry for you. You have to go to VET school.’ But we try to make them feel proud. A lot of them do. Sometimes it works.”

But often it doesn’t. It appears that the struggle for parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications is one that even Norway, the current poster country for VET, is afflicted by. It is certainly a concern for Norway’s minister for education, Torbjørn Isaksen, who meets me for coffee at the Norwegian Ministry for Education and Research in central Oslo.

“In Norway, vocational training is somehow seen as not as good; academic education is seen as better,” he explains.

He recalls a recent case that made waves in the press. A school careers adviser who was an outspoken advocate for VET came in for some criticism.

“Some of the parents complained in the local newspaper afterwards that he was too derogatory when it came to academic professions and he was talking down becoming a lawyer or doctor and talking up vocational training,” Isaksen says. “I was quoted as saying if we could get a bit closer to that in more places in Norway, that would be good news. A lot of the jobs, especially in the private sector, that vocational training can lead to are really quite competitive.”

It is certainly clear that Norway does not think that it has the issue of VET cracked. Indeed, new reforms of the system are expected in the coming months to link post-16 education more closely with the employment market.

So, if the UK is looking to Norway for the answers, what systems does Norway seek to emulate? Despite the success of the likes of South Korea in WorldSkills competitions, Isaksen doesn’t feel that the East has the answers (“We go to Asia to look at their maths education, but they come to us to look at our vocational training,” he says).

Rather, it is much closer neighbours that Isaksen admires most. Not least Germany, long fêted as a system with a strong record of delivering skills for the workforce.

“They’re much better at preparing students from an early age who both want to and should take vocational paths, and building on that successfully to have a high-quality education,” he explains. The other example that he cites, however, may come as a surprise.

“Denmark has a fund that all businesses pay into. You get your money back, probably even a bit more, if you have apprentices. I think it’s a very good idea.”

An apprenticeship levy? Isaksen nods, unaware that this is precisely the flagship reform currently being introduced in the UK to help hit the government’s target of creating 3 million apprenticeships during the current Parliament.

So, while English politicians are currently casting envious glances at Norway, their Norwegian counterparts may well soon end up making a return trip to find out what they can learn from the English system.

It seems that politicians everywhere are still grappling with the same underlying problem: how to make apprenticeships and VET more attractive and beneficial to young people. Norway may have succeeded in developing closer links between school and the workplace, and clear pathways to encourage progression to work. But, much like the UK, it still has a long way to go.

Even outside the EU, it seems that the need for countries to work together to find solutions to shared problems is stronger than ever.

Sainsbury review: what are the major changes?

At 16, students will now have to choose between an “academic option” – A levels that lead to degree-level study – and a new “technical option” that would lead on to higher-level apprenticeships.

Students who choose the technical option will embark on one of 15 sector-based technical routes, simplifying a system that currently consists of 20,000 different qualifications offered by 160 different awarding bodies. With each route, students must choose between a two-year, college-based programme or an employment-based programme.

Each college-based programme will include a “common core” of English, maths and digital skills, as well as “specialisation towards a skilled occupation or set of occupations”.

After this, pathways lead on to either level 4 or 5 higher technical education programmes, degree apprenticeships or higher apprenticeships.

The Institute for Apprenticeships will have its remit expanded to encompass “all of technical education at levels 2 to 5”. The report calls on the institute to review all existing apprenticeship standards “at the earliest opportunity” to ensure that there is “no substantial overlap”.

Each qualification at levels 2 and 3 will be awarded by a single awarding body or consortium, rather than the current market, which sees awarding bodies competing with one another.

There will be a single set of “exit requirements” of minimum standards in maths and English for both college and work-based provision.

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