November 06, 2017

It's not just about jobs

By Kirra Clarke

Australia, like many Western education systems, places a strong emphasis on completing school and gaining skills for the workplace. We are all by now familiar with the mantra of the changing employment landscape accompanied by a general decline in full-time employment and a demand for higher levels of formalized skills and knowledge. High skilled and sub-professional jobs have experienced that most growth in the last decade and are predicted to represent almost half of employment in the coming years. This context has brought with it intensifying demand for a more diverse range of curricula for young people in the senior years of school.

Beyond the demand for higher skills, we know that the transitions from school to work and towards adulthood are transforming; becoming increasingly prolonged and uncertain. Gone are the days when an employer would pick up a plucky young school dropout to do manual labour, start an apprenticeship or work the front desk. Now one in five unemployed Australians is a teenager. In the past, high school completion or qualifications at Certificate levels I and II had some currency for accessing entry-level jobs. Today, there a few chances of young people entering sustainable employment directly from school.

As our economy demands higher and more flexible skills, the negative impacts of leaving school early or with limited skills and knowledge are intensifying. Despite targets and a range of strategies to retain and engage students, and provide access to a range of applied and vocational learning, a significant minority of Australian students still leave school without gaining the foundational skills and knowledges to be successful and secure in work.

VET in Schools as the panacea

VET in Schools is increasingly relied upon to be the panacea to the challenge of youth unemployment. Last year, more than 250,000 Australian young people participated in VET in Schools. This includes more than 20,000 School Based Apprentices and Trainees (SBATs). Demand for VET in Schools programs is growing, with the overall number of VET in Schools students rising 41% since 2006.

Significant numbers of VET in Schools students go on to take up post-school education and training. This includes 68.9% in Victoria, 62.2% in New South Wales and 55.8% in Queensland, moving from VET in Schools programs into post-school further study.

While the patterns of transition from VET in Schools to post-school training are pleasing, the efficacy of VET in Schools in enabling and enhancing transitions directly to the labour market is hotly contested. What we know from those states that conduct post-school tracking surveys (e.g. Victoria, Queensland and more recently New South Wales), is that there are declining opportunities for full-time, secure employment for young people who attempt to move from school directly to work without any post-school training. The most common labour market activities of VET in Schools students are part-time work or looking for work (e.g. unemployed).

What about those who don’t finish school?

While school completion and qualification attainment in Australia are considered high by world standards, secondary school retention rates have been sluggish if not stagnant for the last two decades. A significant minority of Australian young people (approximately 1 in 4 of all secondary students) leaves the schooling system without attaining a school completion certificate. Dropping out before completing school is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon, with current evidence suggesting that slightly more than 16 per cent of young people within OECD countries do not complete upper secondary education.

The implications of moving into the labour market without completing school are illustrated in the data from the Victorian On Track survey which highlights the risky outcomes for early school leavers, with almost half (46.2) of those leaving school in 2013 not continuing in education or training, and only one in five of those successfully accessing full-time employment.

This unforgiving labour market context has the flow-on effect in other areas of young people's lives, particularly in health and well-being. In addition to lower earnings over a lifetime, early school leavers and those with low educational attainment have an increased likelihood of welfare dependency and engagement in criminal activity. Research has shown that early school leavers may also experience higher rates of drug and alcohol use, greater levels of depression and social isolation, and greater likelihood of teenage parenthood.

How do we make VET in Schools stronger?

So, we have the evidence that clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of both those who slip the cracks and leave school early and for those who complete school with limited achievement and skills.

Within many of the models and approaches to VET in Schools established and operated by the various state and territory based schooling systems, there is a reliance on predominantly foundational certificates (e.g. Certificates I and II) and the use of narrowly defined occupations as the structural basis for school-based vocational curriculum. This reliance becomes problematic when young people and their families view VET in Schools as a ticket to support entry to the labour market and access to sustainable employment.

A recent three-year program of VET in Schools research funded by NCVER, found that vocational education programs in schools should be promoted as a pathway to higher-level post-school VET study, rather than as a pathway directly to jobs without further training. Within the VET in Schools context, our marketised training landscape reinforces problematic assumptions that learners choose their qualifications and providers based on an informed understanding. In many VET in Schools programs, learners exercise very limited agency in choice or provider and even more problematically, there are instances of limited choice in qualification or industry area. I will never forget one particularly confronting research trip to the outer suburbs of a capital city, where a group of VET in Schools students explained to me why they were participating in a particular manufacturing certificate in Year 11. Pointing out the window across to the adjacent industrial area they said - “We didn’t get a say. Can’t you see the factories? They are training us to work there”.

Partnerships and coherent pathways

A key element to the complex task of promoting VET in Schools as only the first foundational steps on the way to a technical or vocational career, is cross-sectoral collaboration. This collaboration is needed to strengthen the ways in which school-aged young people explore, taste and engage with both the world of work and applied learning environments. This involves not only closer school-employer partnerships, that have been so fervently promoted in recent policy, but a closer look at the nature, resourcing and development of school-TAFE partnerships.

There are numerous examples of effective TAFE taster and trade exploration programs across Australia. These types of experiences are crucial to enabling learner agency in choosing and deciding their vocational path. Unfortunately, we still have a very long way to go in providing access to authentic taster and exploration experiences as a common core across our schools.

Any re-development or strengthening of VET in Schools needs to consider how to enable, within foundational or entry-level qualifications, the exploration of a broader range of related occupations within an industry. This exploration needs to integrate meaningful ‘learning about’ a chosen industry, including understanding issues of mobility, growth and local labour market issues. Underlying all this is a need for system level leadership in creating and promoting clear, coherent and transparent pathways from these foundational or ‘career start’ qualifications to the intermediate and higher-level qualifications that young people will need to access and retain sustainable and meaningful employment.