In this blog post, I focus on what is distinctive about vocational education. What makes vocational education different and why is this important?
First, and most critically, vocational education is avowedly instrumental in the way that the extrinsic value of what is provided is pivotal in a way that is not so in other forms of education. Where in academic education external influences from employers and the state are often perceived as a threat to independent thought and academic freedom, in vocational education, wherever it is provided, these influences are at the very centre of successful provision.
This is not to say that needs of students are not also critical – this acknowledges the ‘education’ in vocational education; it must therefore be student-centric, as well as employer responsive. The point is that in vocational education the blend must be more consciously developed and maintained, most notably by what the 2013 Commission on Adult Vocational Education and Learning (CAVTL) called a ‘two-way street’ of conversations and exchanges between providers of vocational education and employers.
‘Where in academic education external influences from employers and the state are often perceived as a threat to independent thought and academic freedom, in vocational education these influences are at the very centre of successful provision.’
Though exchanges with employers in schools may be highly desirable in introducing children to the world of work and in forming career intentions, they are not central in the same way as in vocational education, nor need they be continuous. The central purpose of such earlier education is in the development of the individual. Likewise, some academic education at higher levels quite properly relies upon established and emerging theory that should not be constrained by direct and continuous input from employers, or other interest groups.
A further observation upon the question is that it fails to make reference to training, often the overlooked part of vocational educational and training (VET). ‘Training’ is arguably treated as a lower order and less respectable activity than ‘education’, being even more explicitly related to the needs of a task, job or workplace. My reflection is that balance is perhaps again a useful way of looking at the relationship between education and training in VET, with education predominating in the blend in the years of compulsory education up until the age of 18; from that point onwards preparation for the workplace, born of economic necessity, assumes greater prominence, not least for adults seeking to change jobs or to improve their prospects.
A further lens to reflect on the balance in vocational education could be to distinguish between education through a vocation and education for a vocation. The former uses vocational content primarily as a means of engaging students and developing wider life skills; the latter is more explicitly driven by the need to prepare students for a particular job or workplace. Both are valid activities, with education through the vocation being particularly salient for younger students ahead of confirmed career choices. The point is in building a curricula offer; the difference in emphasis should be acknowledged.
So vocational education and training is different in a way that should be obvious from the use of the word ‘vocational’, but acknowledging and accepting the differentiation is critical in determining its purpose and practice. It must be both student-centric and employer responsive in differing degrees at different points in supporting the development of a system that serves the needs of individuals and society.