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A matter of change? VET reform in Australia

Clare McBeath

Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987
Perth WA 6845
Telephone: (61 8) 9266 2182
FAX (61 8) 9266 2547

Summary of presentation at the 3rd International Conference "Researching Vocational Education and Training"
July 14 - 16 1999, Bolton Institute


This decade has seen unprecedented changes in the nature and delivery of vocational education in Australia. The Australian national training reform agenda has brought about far reaching reform in every area of Vocational Education and Training. Inestimable time and money has gone into the definition of endorsed competency standards, assessment guidelines and a new qualifications framework.

This paper describes research into the effects of mandated change on the implementers and users of new educational programs. It calls on 25 years of published research on educational change in UK, USA and Australia. For a quarter of a century educational change theory has emphasised how difficult it is for the implementers to understand and accept change and the importance of collaborative interaction and "ownership" before change can be implemented successfully.

A series of Australian research studies reveals that little attention was given to the effective dissemination of change, the production of good teaching and learning materials, the support of teachers and lecturers through the changes, or to the encouragement of teacher participation or collaboration in development. Two recent case studies brings to light teachers still frustrated and critical about the changes, but experiencing stronger local identity and ownership than they did in the earlier research.


The details of the Australian national training reform agenda probably look familiar to trainers in the UK. Economic rationalism has been the driving force in both countries in our attempts to make industries more efficient and workers more highly skilled and competitive. The new concepts of competency based, modularised training, industry defined learning outcomes and formally accredited course awards did not come from the British Government, the Australian government, or any other government. They have been spawned in the new climate of economic globalisation emanating from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, World Trade Agreements and similar international sources. There has been an irresistible inevitability about the push towards reform in vocational education and training, and it is likely that training in all industrialised countries will eventually experience the changes referred to in this paper.

Training reform includes a range of management, quality and financial issues. However, the features which have most intimately affected lecturers and students in the Vocational Education and Training sector (VET) have been competency based learning outcomes and assessment criteria, modularised training structures, flexible delivery and nationally mandated levels of qualifications and awards. Essentially, these are curriculum issues.

This paper will concentrate on the curriculum issues of VET reform, which ultimately are those which most affect lecturers and students.

The literature

Research on the characteristics and difficulties of curriculum change spans 25 years. Changing an education system was identified as problematic as early as the 1970s (Fullan, 1972; Fullan & Pomfret, 1977). This early work pointed to important elements missing in the management of change which resulted in widespread misuse or disuse of curriculum innovations in schools. Researchers seeking reasons for the failure of many of the large curriculum projects of the 1960s and 1970s, looked initially to change theories from outside education, (Havelock, 1969; 1973; Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). They came up with a variety of personality, organisational, communication and cultural factors thought to be important for the success or failure of implementation of new curriculum products (Rudduck, 1973; 1980; 1991; Olson, 1980; Loucks & Lieberman, 1983; Huberman & Miles, 1984). The concepts of the diffusion, dissemination and implementation of new knowledge and practice were explored and their importance in the change process confirmed through research.

British curriculum scholars in particular stressed the importance of a strong participative role for teachers in curriculum development and change (Kelly, 1982; MacDonald & Rudduck, 1971; MacDonald & Walker 1976; Olson, 1980; Rudduck, 1991; Stenhouse, 1975). They saw teacher input, collaboration in development and ownership as the most important ingredients for bringing about lasting change.

Rudduck (1991) pointed out that, while it remains difficult to define, the term ownership is a word that makes people feel that they are participating in worthwhile communal action. It inspires a "collective confidence" (p.123). She is supported by USA and Australian scholars (Marsh & Huberman, 1984; Fullan, 1985; Kennedy, 1985 for instance) in contending that teacher ownership can exist side by side with central initiative and direction, and that ownership can legitimately be claimed by both teachers and central administration. The most important element in achieving successful change, according to the literature, is the transfer of "meaning" from the developer to the teacher. Teachers need to reconstruct the innovation in a way which has meaning to themselves and their students before change can occur.

The place of dissemination in the curriculum change process

Although researchers had accumulated knowledge of the processes of educational change, in the world of practical curriculum development diffusion, dissemination and implementation continued to be ad hoc and limited in scope and duration, unsystematic or at times completely nonexistent (Dynan, 1983). One response to this was that dissemination began to be seen more as a specific marketing technique, with a narrow focus on tactics and guidelines, such as described in the USA Rand (Berman & McLaughlin 1978) and Crandall studies (Crandall, et al, 1983) and in the early work of Huberman and Miles (1984). The word dissemination was increasingly identified with this process, while diffusion became attached to the concept of the largely unplanned, spread of the "cultural meaning of change" (Rudduck, 1980).

Curriculum dissemination nowadays can be described as the planned spread of educational innovation from developer or reformer, to teachers or users. Dissemination was defined for the purpose of this research as the process of informing teachers about new or revised curriculum ideas, strategies, documents or materials, so that they understand and accept the innovation. It looks as much at the intentions of policy makers as at its effect on teachers. While it is the user, the teacher, who has most to lose or gain from the dissemination process, it is only by the commitment of the policy maker, the curriculum officer, or the "change agent" to use Havelock's term, that dissemination can be made to work efficiently.

Dissemination requires both management and teacher perspectives. It needs to include the meanings of both dissemination and diffusion. It must fit comfortably into top-down, prescriptive, political and technological frameworks, and bottom-up, humanistic and user-centred environments. It needs to accommodate mandated reform as well as finding a place for personal reflective interpretation of directives. It needs to concern industry, management, instructors and students. Dissemination should not have to fit into predetermined stages of curriculum change, but should exist as a central part of the change process, subsuming and being subsumed in all parts of the process.

However, in the reform of training curriculum in Australia, dissemination strategies which may have significantly facilitated the change process were neglected. Industry and government reformers typically interpreted the change process as one mandated and managed from the top and the lessons from the last quarter century were ignored.

Research into VET curriculum change in Australia

The researcher conducted a number of studies into the current wave of curriculum change in VET in Western Australia and published a series of reports on the findings (McBeath, 1991-97). The original research focused on the importance of dissemination as a central strategy in the curriculum change process and how its neglect impacted on the understanding and degree of adoption by users. As the Australian national training reform agenda gathered strength, the researcher found that the issue became increasingly important as a factor influencing teacher understanding and acceptance of the changes expected by government and industry.

The research established that VET lecturers needed more and better communication, collaboration, interaction, and opportunities for feedback. They claimed however, that they suffered adversely from poor professional development, lack of funds and few opportunities to become involved in the development process. The problems identified included

lack of information about curriculum development

lack of involvement in curriculum development

unnecessary complexity of change at one time

need for development of teaching materials and resources to support innovation

insufficient staff development, time or support structures

lack of formative evaluation and feedback before and during implementation

The areas of greatest concern for lecturers having to cope with innovation were delineated. The majority was not strongly concerned with the occupational or training needs analysis stage, or with communicating directly with industry. However, they believed it is essential to know in advance when major curriculum development is to begin in their study area, and about any changes planned in course structure, or educational changes, such as modularisation, flexible delivery strategies, self pacing, or competency based assessment. They needed to know when the course is planned to begin. They wanted inservice development on any new skills needed in teaching the new course, staff meetings to share and discuss course ideas and the opportunity to give feedback on the innovation to senior staff. Finally, they needed to be given release time from teaching to develop resources and teaching materials, and to share and discuss them. These factors were regarded as essential and need to be built into any model for managing curriculum innovation.

An attempt was made to develop and trial such a model (McBeath, 1997c), using the concepts of coordinated top-down leadership and bottom-up user participation, and the provision of information, involvement and support to assist lecturers to understand and accept innovation on their own terms. It removed as many of the known constraints as possible, and endeavoured to work as comfortably as possible within those which could not be removed. It set up tactics to encourage teacher participation and ownership, to involve them in the study of their own practice, and to break down feelings of alienation and resistance.

The trial of the model ascertained that good dissemination strategies did facilitate the change process and provide ownership to a greater number of lecturers. On the other hand, the trial indicated that there would always be busy teachers who could not avail themselves of the facilities and would still struggle with implementation when innovation was introduced.

These studies covered a period of intensive curriculum reform in Australia. The results were widely publicised and discussed, and it was hope that the findings might have had some affect on the change process in the VET system. To ascertain whether the range of administrative, management, financial and quality reforms introduced into TAFE colleges during the last eight years had made any significant difference to the quality of curriculum dissemination, two further case studies were undertaken recently.

The recent case studies

Teaching staff and Program Managers from the Electrical Trades and Furniture Trades in one college were interviewed in depth on their recent experience of curriculum dissemination and its impact on implementation of curriculum innovation. Both areas of study were implementing nationally accredited, competency based, modular courses.

The Electrical teachers were eight years down the track from the major curriculum change they had experienced with the original introduction of national, competency based, modular courses. They had been one of the first study areas to enter the reform process at the beginning of the decade. In 1998 they had entered a second round of national reform, with significant restructuring of the course and new assessment guidelines.

Staff members from the Furniture Trades were undergoing a far more fundamental curriculum change, similar to that which had occurred in the Electrical Trades in 1991. A new, nationally accredited, competency based training system was being implemented, complete with self-paced, flexible delivery and the requirement of lecturers to facilitate rather than teach.

The researchers were not surprised to hear once again the language of frustration and anger in the responses of the lecturers as they struggled to come to grips with changes which they felt had been thrust on them from elsewhere. Lecturers’ roles were unclear and they were experiencing the ambiguity and stress typical of top-down mandated change. They distrusted the decision makers and resented not being included in the decision making process.

Two new features, however, had emerged since the earlier research. The first became obvious from the experience of the Electrical trades as they wrestled with their second round of national reform. Their earlier experience of change had had an effected on their level of confidence as they began the next. While they were far from happy, and were still expressing confusion and stress, they appeared to be working more closely with each other. Several of the interviewees referred to the significance of their past experience to help them through the current change. They spoke more trustingly of the Program Manager than the earlier studies had identified. There appeared to be better local support structures and the Program Manager was more concerned. This did not seem to be the case with the Furniture Trades which was still facing all the problems of first round reform.

The second new feature may be related and was indeed more significant in the Electrical area. There appeared to be a more distinct sense of "them and us" this time around. The local scene had clearly isolated itself from the systemic and national reform movement. Lecturers were holding frequent informal meetings, often in their lunch breaks, to overcome the problems of implementation. All others outside the college had become "those people" in the sense that they were unknown, not very clever and probably untrustworthy! This characteristic had definitely strengthened since the earlier research.


All of the research supports the basic contention in the literature that changing the curriculum is difficult. National training reform has been time consuming and physically and emotionally demanding on the users. Whether significant and lasting change has actually occurred is doubtful and whether lecturers and students have gained anything at all from the reform has yet to be demonstrated.

It needs to be asked in retrospect whether if it were known by politicians and reformers how important good dissemination strategies are in the change process, and how difficult and time consuming change is, would they perhaps be more cautious about the introduction of large-scale mandated reform in any sector of education in future.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 28 June 1999