Pathway of the poor

September 2012

 

Facebook       Tweet

JUDE BARBACK talks to Australian expert, Dr John Polesel, about the need for quality, structured, and well-resourced vocational education and training programmes at secondary schools.

Olly is 16. He doesn’t feel he is particularly academic and therefore, doesn’t have his sights set on going to university when he finishes his secondary school education in a year’s time. He would rather pursue a career as a chef, but Olly’s school doesn’t offer much in the way of training that will lead him into this vocation. There are a handful of subjects that might suit, but one of them requires his family to fork out extra money. Olly’s family is not well off and therefore, he’s not sure exactly what to do. Perhaps he would be better off leaving school early and seeking employment.

‘Olly’ is fictitious, but he represents many young people who are ripe for a clearly defined, well-resourced, school-based vocational training programme.

According to Dr John Polesel from the University of Melbourne, the majority of young Australians now complete school, and only four in ten will go to university. Yet, secondary qualifications remain geared for entry into university. Vocational training programmes are generally acknowledged as a necessary alternative pathway for the six out of ten who won’t opt for university, but these programmes appear to lack the quality and esteem needed to make them an appealing option for students.

From Polesel’s research, pursuing a vocational programme at secondary school constitutes enrolling in one or two vocational subjects as part of a broader senior certificate. Typically, these programmes are unstructured and fail to provide a positive or clear pathway into a vocation. It is rare for a student to do enough vocational training to get even a basic vocational qualification.

Polesel has spent much time investigating this paradox. He shared his research at the recent ‘Te Ara Whakamana: Pathways, transitions and bridges to tertiary education’ forum in Wellington, which was co-hosted by Ako Aotearoa: National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence and The Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways at Manukau Institute of Technology. Many

New Zealand educators, policy makers and researchers from both the tertiary and secondary sectors believe students, whichever pathway they choose to pursue, should receive the tools, guidance, and support they need. Unsurprisingly, many were in attendance at the Te Ara Whakamana forum, interested to learn from Polesel’s research and experience concerning vocational education in Australia.

The origins of vocational education in Australia are interesting. School-based vocational training emerged in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when Australia’s growing economy had labour shortages in key areas of trades and technology. The government argued that it needed state secondary schools, not to compete with the existing private schools but to address the need “to prepare the sons of the working classes for some special trade or occupation”.

Thus, Melbourne Continuation School emerged in 1905. The school was supposed to be vocational in orientation; however; the curriculum was not exclusively vocational, and it was made clear that the school was designed to assist poor children in gaining access to the University of Melbourne. As a result, students ignored the technical, industrial, and agricultural subjects and chose subjects that would lead to university, without the price tag of a private secondary school education. However, the technical and scientific competencies needed by the economy were not achieved.

In 1912, a decision was taken to establish the first technical schools – separate and specialised state schools focussed on vocational training. At the time, many in government opposed technical schools, fearing it would lead to social selection, with middle class children in university and working class children in trades. Although there are no longer technical schools of this kind, there is still debate today about the role that vocational education should play for young people.

Polesel, originally a secondary school teacher, has long had an interest in the link between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes. His research initially focussed on disadvantaged children, but funding in the area of vocational education and training prompted him to hone his studies in this area. He points out that there are many parallels between disadvantaged kids and the role of vocational education in upper secondary school.

Indeed the fears held 100 years ago, that a divided curriculum would be socially selective, are well-founded. Polesel’s research confirms that the social background of vocational education students is very different from the background of students heading to university. There is considerable evidence that the students who take vocational training where it is offered are more likely to come from poorer social backgrounds.

A study Polesel conducted in a working class school in a poor suburb echoed the findings of his research at a more macro level. The study showed that most students in this school take vocational subjects, but even within this school, these subjects were much less likely to be chosen by the few children with university-educated parents.

Interestingly, Polesel found that even at this school, where vocational subjects are favoured, the traditional subjects are given priority. “If there are teacher shortages, maths is top priority. If a teacher is made permanent, they are allocated to ‘proper’ subjects – not vocational subjects. I would argue that this is a problem of school culture.”

However, vocational programmes are expensive to run. Schools often need to generate funding by charging the students themselves. Therefore, vocational education can’t make a legitimate claim on school resources, like science or maths. Given the link between socioeconomic status and the likelihood of pursuing a vocational pathway, it is disturbing that those students most likely to have to pay additional costs for their education are those who are least able to afford it.

The social stigma attached to vocational education could be one reason programmes have struggled to cement themselves in secondary schools. Many parents and students still perceive the vocational pathway to be inferior and many teachers don’t believe it’s a legitimate part of secondary schooling.

It isn’t a problem unique to Australia. International research and literature show that many countries are grappling with the same sorts of concerns. A recent published New Zealand book, Children of Rogernomics, describes how in the 1990s, more New Zealanders participated in tertiary education than ever before. As a result, many young people now believe that university is the best, and in many cases, the only, transition pathway following secondary school, despite a changed economy, fewer university places available, and higher fees. The book describes how a failure to achieve a straightforward transition, from school to tertiary education to employment, results in personal inadequacy.

Meanwhile vocational education is low in the status hierarchy of education. Polesel describes it as a tool used by government to fix problems, like skills shortages or unemployment. He suggests we are risking the learning of young people by focussing on narrow vocational competencies instead of broader generic competencies and the broader cultural base of knowledge.

How are we to change an education system that appears to be at odds with the needs of our students and economy? Polesel says the one-size-fits-all approach will not continue to work. He believes the curriculum needs to be broader to allow for better and more positive tertiary-level or workplace-based training. “Change will require ensuring the pedagogy used is relevant to a broader range of kids,” he says.

Polesel says we can learn from the European experience, where many continental countries have specialised vocational schools that are funded largely by industry. This model allows industry to have input into the training their future employees will be receiving, allowing them to get the level of skill they desire in their workforce. Industry unions play a strong role between school and employers.

Polesel thinks it is unlikely such a model would work in Australia, as industries do not perceive it to be their role to fund the education of their future employees. Instead, he says the Australian Government is increasingly relying on importing cheaper migrant labour at the expense of Australian students, a situation reminiscent of the UK’s. To change to a model where investment was poured into the vocational education of students by industries themselves, would require significant political change and leadership.

There are, of course, initiatives afoot that are aligned with this line of thinking. New Zealand’s industry training organisations (ITOs) are taking an increasingly prominent role in liaising with training providers to ensure a skilled and competent workforce.

Similarly, and more along the lines of Polesel’s research,

New Zealand’s trades academies, designed to generate more pathways for students, are gaining momentum. The academies are the result of a Ministry of Education policy that gives priority to high schools engaging with the tertiary sector and industry. Such academies are typically partnerships between schools, tertiary providers, and ITOs aimed at providing 16 to 17-year-olds with the opportunity to combine a secondary school programme with learning in tertiary education and/or industry settings. Government funding for the initiative means that senior secondary students enrolled in a trades academy programme can make a start on their trades career without paying fees and earn credits towards NCEA at the same time. Eight trades academies opened around the country in January 2011, with 13 more set to open their doors this year. West Auckland Vocational Academy, a joint Unitec and Massey High School programme, is a good example, allowing students to attend classes in subjects like electrotechnology, carpentry, and hospitality with Unitec tutors two days a week in addition to their regular school work in the remaining three days.

However, Polesel doesn’t think trades academies present the whole solution. While no one appears to dispute that school-based vocational education programmes are required, the evidence suggests the real problem is the quality of these programmes. Polesel says there is an onus on schools as institutions to raise the status of vocational education, both in terms of resources and in symbolic terms.

The next phase of Polesel’s research will look at structures for reform. Australia’s federal system presents many challenges as it will mean liaising with the education departments in every state, each with an interest in protecting its academic certificate.

It will be interesting to continue to observe the Australian experience. Meanwhile, should we be looking to effect similar change here in New Zealand?