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A UK Perspective on How Well Initial Vocational Education and Training Facilitates Lifelong Learning

Alan Brown

Institute for Employment Research
University of Warwick, UK

Ewart Keep

Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE)
University of Warwick, UK

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

This paper is produced as part of the Lifequal Project, a six-country study funded as part of the European Socrates Programme, on the "Effective processes for the acquisition of qualifications for lifelong learning- with the focus on processes of school to work transition through vocational education and training".

Structural Aspects of the (Vocational) Education System Affecting the Fostering of Lifelong Learning


In considering the effectiveness of school to work transitions to foster within individuals a commitment to lifelong learning within a particular national system a number of structural features need to be examined. First, there is the extent to which there is an implicit or explicit attempt to promote a positive attitude towards lifelong learning within (pre) vocational education programmes. However, any review of the effectiveness of transitions has to consider the question of transition to what. This means the unit of analysis cannot be just the educational component, rather it has to include a coupling to the subsequent outcome, and certainly the structure of the opportunities in the labour market have to be taken into account (Roberts, 1975).

Our argument will seek to problematise how far in an English context current and possible future patterns of work organisation provide a suitable context for maintenance or development of a commitment to lifelong learning by employees. Because without suitable supportive work contexts it is hard to envisage school to work transitions generating a continuing commitment to learning in many people. Additionally, there is an even more fundamental problem, and that is even if it were successful with most employees entering learning-rich employment, might a work-based learning society intensify some problems associated with social exclusion. However, it is important not to present an over-structured view of educational development and we need to acknowledge the significance of individual differences in attitudes towards learning and learning careers.

Attempts to Promote Positive Attitudes Towards Lifelong Learning Within Vocational Education: The Case of GNVQ as a (Pre) Vocational Pathway

In the set-up of GNVQ as a ‘middle pathway’ in a three track education and training system, there were mixed messages as to how GNVQ was to prepare students for learning in the future. Bates et al (1998) consider that GNVQ contained elements of a progressive ideology, but these were constrained by "alternative educational ideologies and practices in a largely hostile environment of ‘controlled vocationalism’" (p109). That is, emphases upon student choice, experiential learning, core skills and learner autonomy were constrained by regulations framed by state agencies. Thus, for example, a progressive commitment to self-directed learning ends with learners in GNVQ being given responsibility for their learning, in a manner of their own choosing (in how they put their portfolio together), but with the outcomes being tightly pre-specified. Hodkinson (1994) suggests that education for all young people should include three over-lapping dimensions: personal effectiveness, critical autonomy and community. Such calls should give pause to thought for those who view VET primarily from a narrow technicist frame.

Problematic Transitions From Education to Employment and Effects on Lifelong Learning

Conventional competitiveness perspectives see VET as a primary determinant of economic success, yet Fevre et al (1998) consider it is more accurate to see economic configurations as determining patterns of participation in VET.

Constraints Upon Visions of ‘High Skill’ Demands in Jobs of the Future

Regini (1995) suggests the model of a high skills/high value added strategy allied to a supportive VET system that can deliver a highly educated and trained national workforce (as in Germany) is simply one of a number of viable models available to European firms and nation states. There are other, perhaps equally attractive routes to competitive advantage from which firms can choose. This is an unwelcome message for policy makers, but one that reflects the reality that research into product market strategy reveals. Far from a single, simple, universalistic movement towards higher value added and higher quality goods and services throughout the developed world, different companies, sectors and even countries are following a range of divergent trajectories. These alternatives include seeking protected markets, growth through take-over, seeking monopoly power, and cost-cutting and new forms of Fordism.

Limitations of UK Conceptions of Core (Key) Skills

Green (1998) who examines the concept of core or key skills within the English context throws this gap into stark relief by work. He points to the historic absence of a strong element of general education within English vocational education and training and argues that "alone amongst the major European nations in the 19th century, England developed a technical and vocational education that had no inherent connection with general education and involved no general education and often little vocational theory" (1998: 24-25). By contrast with, for example, France, English VET lacked any entitlement to a common foundation of general education and culture, or any strong notion that technical mastery could be viewed as an extension of applied science and therefore required abstract knowledge and an understanding of theory. The gap left by this absence of general educational element within English VET came, eventually, to be filled by the much narrower surrogate of core skills. Green analyses both the content and process of present day English vocational education and training for the young with what is on offer in Germany, France and Japan, and concludes that the English concentration on a restricted range of core or key skills (such as communication, IT and the use of numbers) provides a much narrower education to a lower standard than is generally found overseas

Employers' Demand for Key Skills and What It Tells Us About Work Organisation

In the UK there is an absence of a strong tradition of general education within vocational preparation and instead the use of an inadequate proxy in the shape of key skills. This in itself places barriers in the way of the development of a highly skilled national workforce. However, even within this limited frame of reference, research probing British employers need for key skills suggests that they may only be looking for even narrower capabilities and at a low level. Their responses also, and more worryingly, appear to reflect a heavy reliance on methods of work organisation and job design which are deeply Taylorist and suggest the use of Fordist or Neo-Fordist production strategies. For example, as Dench, Perryman and Giles suggest, "there does seem to be some tension....with the rhetoric around the nature of job change and employers' actual needs" (1998: 61). Certainly their findings are in stark contrast with the world of leading edge work practices and job design depicted in the small sample of leading edge employers surveyed by Guile and Fonda. There seem to be few signs that "instead of managers who control the flow of work by managing people who are expected to carry out tasks, organisations increasingly need people who manage, or contribute to managing, a growing range of processes" (Guile and Fonda, 1998:1). Indeed, far from desiring a workforce of self-reliant, self-monitoring, polyvalent, self-developers, Dench, Perryman and Giles conclude that "in reality most employers simply want people to get on with their job, and not to challenge things" (1998:61).

Variations in Employers’ Attitudes Towards Their Skill Requirements

The massive and perhaps growing dispersion of requirements as between the manufacturing employer quoted as wanting "only basic skills, we were looking for enthusiasm basically" (Employee Development Bulletin, 101, May 1998: 5), and those organisations that have adopted the high performance model of workplace organisation and require autonomous, self-reliant workers, will continue to raise problems for the education system. Different sections of British employers complain that the education system is not supplying them with young people who possess the skills they need (see, for example, British Chambers of Commerce, 1998).

Regini (1995) makes clear there are two fundamental models of skill production operating within European national economies. One aims to generate "a flow of skilled labour supply in excess, both quantitatively and qualitatively, of actual demand" (1995: 198). In this model VET is broad based, covering basic knowledge, theory and specific vocational skills. The other model Regini dubs 'lean training', where supply is geared to meet current demands and where "the distinctive features....are the selective and focused nature of firms' training schemes, which target the segments of the labour force deemed crucial at any particular time; their company-specific, ad hoc and reactive-to-changes character; and a lack of interest in training the rest of the rest of the workforce (1995: 198). As Streeck (1992) and others have argued, the high skills, high value added model of competitive success requires the over-education and/or over-training of the first model in order to support quality production of high value added goods and services. The UK VET system is currently manifestly incapable of delivering this level of broad upskilling.

A major consequence of limited demand for significant upskilling in many jobs is that the current emphasis upon selling lifelong learning and the creation of a learning society on the basis of the impetus generated by workplace and labour market change may be a lost cause. Trying to link the learning society to employers needs for higher skills may produce limited results because many workers are not experiencing these demands in the jobs they currently occupy (Fevre et al, 1998). On the other hand, efforts could be made to change patterns of work organisation. For example, Sommerlad and Stern "take issue with the largely deterministic stance that pervades much of the literature. Work organisation and skills are not, as they assert, determined in a linear fashion by particular technology or market conditions. Options are available and strategic choices can be made" (1998:14).

Might a Vision of a Work-Based ‘Learning Society’ Intensify Aspects of Social Exclusion?

Since the change of government in 1997, there has been an emphasis upon policies aimed at combating social exclusion. One intention is to promote social inclusion through economic inclusion (DfEE, 1998), with vocational education and training being seen as influential in helping the (potentially) socially excluded into employment. While for obvious political reasons much attention is given to ‘disaffected youth', there may be hidden problems even for low achievers who successfully manage to find unskilled work. They may even receive some firm specific training, as job specific training has been increasing, even among companies using relatively low skilled labour. However, much of this training is geared to the internal labour market, and even where it does have a wider value this may only lead to access to other comparable ‘low skilled’ jobs in the secondary labour market, as there is little chance to gain further qualifications (Ashton, 1993). Indeed with the bifurcation of the UK labour market a key issue becomes how to prevent permanent barriers being erected between those working in low skilled, low paid jobs, with little training and few prospects for progression and those working in more highly skilled jobs, that are relatively well paid and give access to training and opportunities for further skill development.

A fundamental problem identified by Ball et al (1999) is attitudinal: "for some students the end of compulsory schooling is very much, at least for the time being, a definite end point to their appetite for education" (p17). The lack of employment opportunities, coupled with estranged or damaged ‘learner identities’ (Rees et al, 1997), greatly constrains their choice. The numbers of those with very poor GCSE performance are swelled by those already excluded from school or who fail even to sit their exams. The possibilities for the post-16 ETM effecting a recovery for such individuals is remote, and in any case Ball et al (1999) argue that misses the point: "our compulsory system as presently organised is not geared to inclusivity or achieving maximum post-16 participation. Indeed, many of the policies currently in play work directly against this goal. A policy for lifelong learning needs to begin at 3 not 16" (p18).

Consideration of the role of VET being undertaken during the compulsory phase of education should be reviewed in the context of a discussion as to how to prevent social exclusion, not least because some students are sufficiently disenchanted with school to require provision which they view as vocational and ‘alternative’ (Oates, 1998a). He recommends an approach to, whereby vocationalism as a theme and a mode of delivery, which can deliver ‘academic’ content. Such an approach would seek to harness the potential power of a vocational emphasis to address issues of social inclusion at a stage and age when ‘learner identities’ are not necessarily irreparably turned against formal provision for those still in the compulsory phase of education.

Individual Differences in Attitudes Towards Learning and Learning Careers

At the other end of the spectrum, Ball et al (1999) show the marked differences in attitudes towards learning among the low-achievers at age 16, with some students being particularly critical of "other students in their classes whom they describe as disruptive and who make unreasonable demands on over-worked teaching staff" (p26). Such studies, coupled with others looking at aspects of VET in relation to the identity formation processes of groups of young people emphasise the need to examine ‘learner identities’ (Rees et al, 1998), learning careers (Bloomer and Hodkinson, 1998) and to move towards the development of more dynamic models of occupational identity formation (Brown, 1997).

The Relationship Between the Broad Aims of Initial VET and the Facilitation of Lifelong Learning


The argument for trying to strengthen links between initial education and training and continuing professional development through an emphasis upon lifelong learning is compelling for the most highly skilled members of our society. As we have seen in Section 1 the argument has been well rehearsed, if over-stated in terms of its widespread applicability. The problem therefore is not with this vision per se, but we need to acknowledge that it represents the likely future for only some of those currently in initial education and training. Further, there is a different, but equally compelling, argument that continuing education and training needs to be directed towards the less skilled members of our society, who otherwise may be increasingly marginalised and excluded. In such circumstances other targets of VET like promotion of social justice, mainstreaming equal opportunities, addressing special needs, and tackling issues around the racialisation of post-16 education and training markets (Ball et al, 1999) could also be seen as having profound significance for the subsequent learning careers of individuals. This section will therefore consider ways whereby the broad aims of initial VET and facilitation of lifelong learning might be expressed in a more inclusive way.

Policy Emphasis Upon Increasing Demands for Skills, Knowledge and Understanding and the Necessity for Lifelong Learning

As we have seen (in Section 1) there are major doubts about the applicability of the high skills vision to deliver sufficient numbers of highly skilled jobs in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, there is little doubt that this vision (or aspiration) is acting as a significant influence upon discussions of the future direction of VET policy. Any consideration of lifelong learning has to adopt a broad frame, which addresses issues concerned with social inclusion, participation and societal needs. This is what the Fryer (1997) report on lifelong learning attempted to do, and it does provide a wider context than just attempting to anticipate the skills required of the workforce of the.

Going Beyond the Economic Nexus in Considering the Relationship Between Initial VET and Continuing VET

The relationship between initial and continuing VET can be framed as one highlighting issues around flexibility of provision and possibilities for individual occupational (and/or geographical) mobility. Within the UK there has been a strong tide of arguments against an individualist approach to lifelong learning. Duke (1995) highlights the significance of learning networks, whereby individuals draw on a range of people and resources to support their learning, while Rees et al (1997) point to the way a focus upon individualisation in the development of lifelong learning can undermine concerns for structural inequalities in society.

Facilitating Self-Directed Learning

One possible way of conceiving of the relationship between initial and subsequent education and training is that the ultimate goal in at least some cases should be self-directed learning. Attention has been focused upon facilitating self-directed learning in a number of VET contexts. Within initial (pre)vocational programmes such as GNVQ, encouragement is given to self-directed learning, although usually within fairly tight curricular guidelines. In vocational HE learner autonomy may also be an explicit aim, but it is in the area of adult learning, including outside formal educational institutions, that greatest emphasis has been given to the development of learner autonomy (Harrison, 1996).

Access to Additional Qualifications for Individuals Later in Life

One structural feature, which may influence the attitudes that individuals develop during initial education and training towards lifelong learning relates to the possibility of individuals subsequently being able to obtain additional qualifications. For individuals, additional qualifications can perform four functions. First, they can attest that a worker has reached a level where he or she can perform effectively in an existing role. Second, they can highlight that a worker has attained some specialist qualifications useful for a current or prospective work role. Third, they can be used to confer an advantage within an internal labour market. Fourth, they can have a general labour market utility (Brown, 1998).

Increasing the Flexibility of VET Provision in Order to Facilitate Lifelong Learning

One of the ways VET provision is seeking to respond to calls to facilitate lifelong learning is through improving flexibility in the VET system as a whole. This incorporates issues at a number of levels, spanning the flexibility and responsiveness of local VET provision through to flexibility of national systems of VET.

The Limitations of a Narrow VET Perspective

A consideration of how the broad aims of VET interface with a commitment to lifelong learning also has to acknowledge that there are significant structural factors influencing that relationship that lie beyond the confines of VET: for example, the effects of compulsory schooling and the labour market. Entrants to VET are influenced by the way the initial education system selects and structures, rather than facilitates, subsequent progression. Thus a major problem affecting UK VET provision is the way GCSE examination performance at age 16 operates to differentiate, select and structure, rather than facilitate, subsequent progression (Ball et al, 1999). Recent research highlights the way performance prior to and at age 16 also acts to influence the construction of ‘learner identities’, and these in turn influence how "alternative courses of educational action are evaluated" (Rees et al, 1997, p493). So just as attitudes towards learning of entrants to initial VET may constrain aspects of VET provision, including how easy or difficult it is to generate a positive attitude towards the prospect of lifelong learning, so subsequent events may affect the extent to which there are opportunities for continuing learning. In this respect labour market segmentation may be a significant factor.

Building up Work-Related Knowledge

One of the key tasks of initial VET is not only to start the process of developing work-related knowledge but also to ensure that individuals are subsequently able to continue to build up such knowledge.

Learning From Others

In order to learn throughout life it is important to be able to learn from others in a variety of settings and consideration to this should be given in initial VET. For example, Eraut et al (1998) highlight the extent to which feedback from colleagues, and consultation and collaboration within working groups can form the basis for substantive learning, including through mutual consultation and support. Some people at work pointed to the extent to which they could learn from others outside their department, from professional networks or from suppliers and customers (Eraut et al, 1998), and it would seem appropriate to expose trainees to opportunities for such learning.

Focus Upon Core Problems

One means of seeking to integrate knowledge acquisition with problem-solving and key skills development is through a focus upon core problems, as a basis for building commitments to continuing learning and development. This approach is most appropriate when the initial VET contains significant exposure to authentic work contexts. The core problems relate to the central challenges found within occupational communities of practice. This approach is pedagogically driven, and all aspects and activities of this approach fit with the ideas previously outlined, as they imbued within the same conceptual and theoretical framework. The common approach is underpinned by a commitment to continuing learning and occupational development as a reflexive process, grounded in the importance of critical reflection as a basis for learning. The approach to learning is also collaborative with a particular emphasis upon the use of problem-based learning, situated close to the work context, so that it is possible to focus upon the ‘core problems’ typically meant by groups of practitioners (Onstenk, 1997).

Using Transferability as a Focus for the Acquisition of Qualifications for Lifelong Learning

Need for an Inclusive Focus for Initial VET

The preceding arguments have made much of the diversity and complexity of VET provision and the dangers of applying a single vision of the necessity of adapting VET to meet the needs of an imagined high skills economy of the future. There is no argument with the need for one part of VET’s mission to be to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding of individuals to equip them to continue to work and learn in high skill, learning-rich environments. However, VET also needs to be concerned with the development of social citizenship, promotion of social justice, mainstreaming equal opportunities, addressing special needs and tackling issues around the racialisation of post-16 education and training markets.

Even restricting arguments solely to those relating to employment it should be clear that a different, but equally compelling, argument could be that one priority for continuing education and training needs to be development for the less skilled members of our society, who otherwise may be increasingly marginalised and excluded. Now it should be clear that the goal of development of flexible highly skilled workers is too exclusive a vision, in practice as well as theory, to act as a unifying force within initial VET and in order to facilitate a continuing commitment to lifelong learning. Rather it may be more appropriate to frame facilitating lifelong learning within the aim of producing adaptable citizens, who are able to bring what they have previously learned to new situations and, as appropriate, apply aspects of their developing understanding. Thus an emphasis upon transferability could be used as a focus for the development of the qualifications for lifelong learning for everyone involved in initial VET.

The Importance of Changing Contexts as a Stimulus for Learning and Transfer in All Types of VET Provision

Changing contexts and arrangements of learning between education, training and employment can be a powerful means to develop key skills, the ability to transfer skills, knowledge and understanding, and a sense of significant skill ownership (Oates, 1998b). This means learning contexts are required that draw attention to the significance of skill transfer, and give people opportunities to practise making successful transfers (Blagg et al 1992). Exposure to a range of contexts then can be valuable both for the way it can enhance and lead to a more complete ownership of a skill and because it allows learners to make connections (and think about transfer) between contexts.

Ideas Upon How to Promote Transferability

The above argument would suggest that significant benefits could be obtained from a focus upon transfer, but that it is quite difficult to implement such an approach in practice. A recent document on the need to promote transferability in learning programmes comes from Tim Oates of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). In a "Key Skills Strategy Paper" Oates (1998b) argues that the current specifications of key skills in GNVQ and other programmes have certain benefits, but that they do not engage with the issue of how to design learning programmes such that individuals are able to transfer what they have learned to new contexts. Oates highlights the value of the development in learners of adaptability "the transformation of existing skills and knowledge in order to perform effectively in unfamiliar tasks" (Oates, 1998b, p1).

One key message for those charged with designing effective learning programmes in VET is that a focus upon transferability has a number of advantages. First, emphasis upon the development of transferability draws attention to the need for the prime concern of the inter-relationship between education, training and employment to be upon learning. Second, the emphasis upon continuing learning across contexts reinforces the need to ensure learners possess or develop effective learning strategies. In particular, if the intention of a learning programme is to help learners develop the ability to transfer skills, knowledge and understanding, then learning contexts are required which draw attention to the significance of skill transfer. Processes of review and critical reflection are pivotal for this, and the whole approach can be driven by a coherent pedagogical model (of skill transfer). Finally, organised reflection on what has been learned and what needs to be learned in new contexts can act as a means of linking working and learning, and as a bridge between the skills that are currently required and those that may be needed in future. That is, it can be a means of facilitating an initial commitment to lifelong learning that can be reinforced over time and across contexts.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 22 September 1999