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Reflections on Reforms of Vocational Education in Some European Countries: Leonardo da Vinci Project ‘Sharpening Post-16 Education Strategies’ (SPES-NET)

Marja-Leena Stenström

Institute for Educational Research
University of Jyväskylä, Finland

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

Abstract

The Leonardo project SPES-NET is a dissemination project of the Post-16 Education Strategies project, carried out in 1996-1997. A central aim of the SPES-NET project is to improve the status of vocational education in different European countries by means of a range of reform strategies (vocational enhancement, mutual enrichment, linkages and unification). An important challenge to its dissemination activities is improving links between vocational education and employment.

The partnership brings together 14 institutions from all over Europe. There are 6 new partners, mainly from the eastern and southern parts of Europe. The question facing the SPES-NET project is whether the four previously identified post-16 education strategies are still relevant to the new partners. An analysis of the new partners’ country reports has indicated that it is not easy to classify the educational reforms in these countries in terms of the four post-16 education strategies. Such an analysis is particularly difficult in those countries which are undergoing structural and political changes and in countries where vocational secondary education is not well developed. A successful analysis and evaluation of post-16 education strategies seems also to require that a few years have passed since the given educational reform. The SPES-NET project will concentrate on analysing ways of enhancing vocational education, particularly parity of esteem, in European countries.

An Introduction to the SPES-NET Project

The Leonardo project SPES-NET is a dissemination project of the Post-16 Education Strategies project, carried out in 1996-1997 under the coordination of Dr Johanna Lasonen, who also originally launched the SPES-NET project. The project, funded by the European Commission, the Finnish Ministry of Education and the project partners, will run from 8 December 1997 to 7 April 2000.

The partnership brings together 14 institutions from all over Europe. There are 6 new partners, mainly from the eastern and southern parts of Europe. The 14 institutions making up the partnership are as follows: from Austria the Institute for Industrial Sciences (IWI), Vienna University of Economics, from Belgium Bureau d’Ingénierie an Éducation et en Fromation (BIEF), from Denmark The Danish Institute for Educational Training of Vocational Teachers, from England the Post-16 Education Centre, University of London, from Estonia the National Examination and Qualification Centre (NEQC), from Finland the National Board of Education, from France the National Institute for Pedagogical Research (INRP), from Germany the Institute of Vocational Education, Work and Technology (BIAT), University of Flensburg and the Institute for Technology and Education (ITB), University of Bremen, from Greece the Laboratory of Sociology and Education, University of Patras, from Hungary the Technical University of Budapest, from Norway Agder College, from Scotland Clydebank College, and from Spain the Faculty of Education, University of Valencia.

Aims of the Project

Many European countries are reforming their educational systems to meet the requirements of information society and the labour market. A common trend in present educational reforms and policy-making in Europe is a concentration on specific reforms and programmes.

The starting point of the SPES-NET project has been meeting the following demands:

increasing the attractiveness of vocational education and training;

forging links between educational establishments and enterprises;

disseminating the results of the Post-16 Strategies project and developing reform strategies.

The aim of the SPES-NET project is to disseminate the findings of the Post-16 Strategies project at both national and international level. In addition, a central aim of the current project is to improve the status of vocational education in different European countries by means of a range of reform strategies. An important challenge to its dissemination activities is how to link learning in work placements with learning in educational settings.

Reflections on Post-16 Education Strategies

The Post-16 Strategies project was chiefly concerned with the four post-16 education strategies (vocational enhancement, mutual enrichment, linkages and unification) identified by it and by the school reform schemes connected with them. The four strategies for promoting parity of esteem between vocational and academic/general education were seen as tools for analysing the differences and similarities between the reform approaches adopted in the eight European countries involved (Lasonen, 1996; Lasonen 1999; Lasonen & Young, 1998; Raffe, 1996).

The strategy of vocational enhancement entails reforming the content of vocational education and training separately from general/academic education. Esteem for vocational education is linked with the standard of the content offered and the pedagogy applied in vocational education and training

In the strategy of mutual enrichment the aim is to cooperate across the divide between general and vocational education and to give students in each track a wider range of options by drawing on the best features of the other track. The two types of education are brought closer to each other but retain their distinctive character.

In the linkages strategy, vocational and general/academic education are given the same formal status and linked through a common certification framework. Both types of education guarantee qualification for further studies, and earlier studies are recognised irrespective of track.

In unification the distinction between vocational and general education is abolished by combining them within a unified system and developing a curriculum which integrates the two types of education.

The first three strategies aim to maintain a separate identity for vocational and general education. By contrast, the fourth strategy seeks to combine them into a uniform upper secondary education system (Lasonen 1999).

The question facing the SPES-NET project has been whether the four post-16 education strategies are still relevant to the new partners or whether a model of two strategies (tracked and unified) should be adopted instead .

In the first stage of the project the new partner countries (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary and Spain) have familiarised themselves with the reform strategies of the old partners and analysed vocational education and training in their own countries from the perspective of the four strategies. The old partner countries were asked to comment on the new partners' country reports and describe, in collaboration with the new partners, what they have learnt from the new partners' reports in the light of their own previous experiences of the given reform strategy.

Table 1

A summary of the Four Post-16 Education Strategies in the SPES-NET Partner Countries

Countries Vocational enhancement Mutual enrichment Linkages Unification Not specified
Western Europe England

France

Scotland Belgium*
Central Europe Austria

Germany

Southern Europe Spain* Greece*
Nordic countries Denmark* Finland

Norway

Sweden
Eastern Europe Estonia*

Hungary*

* = new partner

An analysis of the new partners’ reforms indicated that it is not easy to classify their educational systems in terms of the four post-16 education strategies. Such an analysis is particularly difficult in those countries which are undergoing structural and political changes, such as Estonia and Hungary, and in countries like Estonia and Greece, where vocational secondary education is not well developed. As a result, young people go on to the tertiary level in order to obtain credentials valuable on the labour market. A successful analysis of post-16 education strategies seems also to require that a few years have passed since the given educational reform, making it possible to evaluate it.

One reason for the difficulties encountered in classifying the new partners’ strategies is that no clear distinction has been made between the described reforms or experiments and the features of the educational system as a whole. Separate analyses of the educational reform strategy chosen by a partner country with a view to improving parity of esteem (vocational enhancement, mutual enrichment, linkages or unification) and of the structural organisation of its educational system (tracked or unified) could help to better identify the differences and similarities between the partner countries. A model of two strategies might be considered useful in that it allows more tools for analysing the actual change because every educational system contains both tracked and unified elements (see Young & Raffe, 1998, pp. 35-46; Young & Volanen, 1998, pp. 161-168).

However, it was decided to continue working with the theme of redefining post-16 strategies. The focus has been placed especially on how reform strategies improve vocational education. The new partners joining the SPES-NET project have brought alternative perspectives on post-16 education strategies intended to improve parity of esteem between vocational and general/academic education. These perspectives have provided an opportunity to further refine the four post-16 strategies as well as to test them against the reforms undertaken in the new partner countries.

In his framework paper Michael Young (1999) has suggested that similar problems were encountered as a result of comparing the eight country case studies during the Post 16 Strategies project. These problems all related to how attempts to improve vocational education continued to be inhibited by the persistence of academic/vocational divisions in the curriculum. The first problem was academic drift or the tendency for increasing numbers of students to opt for academic programmes. The second one was the concern expressed by both employers and vocational teachers about the poor quality and lack of motivation of students on vocational programmes. The third one was that academic/vocational divisions were inhibiting the development of new types of vocational programmes in the 21st century.

A further analysis and the experience of the new partners have made it clear that the project must define reform strategies in a more precise manner, distinguishing between the different sub-strategies that might involve different implications for improving vocational education. First, it is important to distinguish between the overall goal of improving vocational education which is shared by all of the strategies analysed, and the specific strategy described as vocational enhancement in the previous project. All the four strategies, including those promoting links between or the mutual enrichment of academic and vocational education or the wholesale abolition of academic/vocational divisions, are designed to contribute to improving vocational education in the broad sense. Second, the specific strategy termed vocational enhancement needs to be broken down into its component sub-strategies. It is possible to differentiate between four sub-strategies of vocational enhancement intended to contribute to improving vocational education. (Young 1999):

improving its links with vocational higher education;

improving the links between vocational education and employment;

improving the status and qualifications of the teachers and instructors involved in vocational education; and

improving the vocational education curriculum.

The sub-strategy of improving links between vocational education and employment is a specific focus of the SPES-NET project. It is being analysed from a theoretical perspective and on the basis of the national cases described by the partners (Marhuenda 1999).

Conclusion

Improving vocational education can be considered from the point of view of the functions of vocational education. A function of vocational education is to deliver qualifications and prepare individuals to serve in jobs that are differentiated both horizontally and vertically. Vocational education must simultaneously ensure educational equality and produce difference. These functions are mutually conflicting because production presupposes differently qualified labour while the ideology of equality demands equal opportunities for upward social mobility through education. A divide emerges between the context of work (production) and the context of education (reproduction). This divide is one of the most difficult problems for vocational education to solve. Vocational education must prepare students to leave one system (the educational system) and enter another (the production system). (Marhuenda, 1999; Stenström, 1997; 1999).

The challenge facing the SPES-NET project is how to link the two main functions of VET: on the one hand VET is required to produce qualifications for working life, on the other hand opportunities for further education. How to promote vocational education in relation to general education and closer links between education and work?

The focus of the project’s future work will be promoting vocational education and training in the partner countries, considered from the point of view both of reform strategies and of improving links between vocational education and working life. The link between academic/general and vocational education will not be forgotten either. In this connection it is important to make a further analysis of vocational enhancement, not only as a strategy but as a general view of vocational education because it seems that there is more than one way to enhance vocational education.

The challenge, in the final stage of project work, is reassessing the strategies adopted in and classifying the educational systems of the partner countries, systems that represent different parts of Europe and stem from different processes of political and educational history. Will it be possible to detect common features despite the differences between the countries or in the dilemmas involved in each country in the tasks of vocational education?

References

Lasonen, J. (Ed.). (1996). Reforming upper secondary education in Europe. The Leonardo da Vinci project Post-16 Strategies (Theory into Practice No 92). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Lasonen, J. (1999). Sharpening post-16 strategies: Building on the results of the previous projects. In M-L. Stenström (Ed.), Reflections on post-16 strategies in European countries. Sharpening post-16 education strategies by horizontal and vertical networking (Working Papers No. 9, pp. 9-22). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Lasonen, J. & Young, M. (Eds.). (1998). Strategies for achieving parity of esteem in European upper secondary education. Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Marhuenda, F. (1999). Draft for a framework on education-work relationships. Unpublished paper for the SPES-NET project.

Stenström, M-L. (1997). Educational and gender equality in vocational education in Finland: The case of commercial education (Research Reports 1). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Stenström, M-L. (1999). Reflections on disseminating strategies for reforming post-16 education. In M-L. Stenström (Ed.), Reflections on post-16 strategies in European countries. Sharpening post-16 education strategies by horizontal and vertical networking (Working Papers No. 9, pp. 159-168). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Young, M. 1999. Analysing vocational enhancement strategies: Towards a framework for European comparisons. Unpublished framework paper for the SPES-NET project.

Young, M., & Raffe, D. (1998). The four strategies for promoting parity of esteem. In J. Lasonen & M. Young (Eds.), Strategies for achieving parity of esteem in European upper secondary education (pp. 35-46). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Young, M., & Volanen, M. V. (1998). Mapping the national strategies: A commentary. In J. Lasonen & M. Young (Eds.), Strategies for achieving parity of esteem in European upper secondary education (pp. 161-168). Jyväskylä: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

This document was added to the Education-line database 24 September 1999