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Integrating vocational and academic secondary education
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Integrating vocational and academic secondary education

Research 5 minute read

Internationally, the provision of both vocational education and training (VET) and academic subjects has been one strategy designed to meet the broader challenges and demands of schooling. It is estimated that around 120 countries provide some form of technical or vocational secondary education, as distinct from a purely generalist curriculum.

In some OECD countries, such as Austria, Germany, France and Italy, VET programs for secondary students are designed as separate stand-alone programs that are run for two to four years alongside general programs. While there are important contextual differences, such systems consistently report high levels of participation, strong retention and completion rates, good employment and further study outcomes, and high quality learning.

However, a criticism of streaming is that the curricula of the two tracks are incompatible, so that for students who are on the margin between the two streams, taking upper-secondary VET courses can potentially limit their access to university.

Other countries have sought to accommodate vocational and academic subjects within a single senior secondary certificate, such as Australia through a diverse array of VET programs offered to secondary school students (formerly referred to as ‘VET in Schools’ programs).

In the mid-1990s, Australian senior secondary or ‘post-compulsory’ education, once undertaken exclusively by those pursuing a university pathway, was re-positioned as the minimum level of educational attainment. This was designed to serve the dual-purpose of providing entry into further education and training opportunities (including university), as well as preparing young people for entry into a labour market that was placing an increasing premium on higher level knowledge and skills.

Over two decades since their implementation, there now exists a good evidence base on the outcomes and efficacy of VET programs undertaken by secondary school students. Several research studies have highlighted their positive impact on student retention, engagement and aspiration while others have focused on labour market outcomes. Overall, these studies have reached broadly the same conclusions to report that VET for secondary school students can provide positive benefits to students and schools by offering:

  • a ‘practical’ alternative to curriculum geared towards university entrance;
  • opportunities for career exploration, part-time work and a ‘smoother transition’ to employment-based training;
  • a pathway to further education and training;
  • a dual-certification model to assist with gaining employment following school; and
  • a foundation for entry to mid-level VET, apprenticeships and traineeships.

Yet, while the benefits are well-recognised, there remain a persistent set of issues in terms of low quality training, skewed participation levels, the onerous cost burden placed on schools and students, the industry currency of teachers and poor post-school employment outcomes of graduates.

The OECD has suggested that vocational education and training programs in schools do not contribute to improved educational outcomes unless they show particular characteristics. These characteristics include: employer support, the integration of general and vocational programs, facilitated movement between programs, and close alignment between curriculum and certification and the structure of the labour market.

However, questions remain as to how well – if at all – vocational and general education have been sufficiently integrated and what the implications are if the status quo is maintained. Studies have also identified a perception of VET as a second-rate option by both secondary students and staff.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the research literature shows that VET for secondary school students in Australia does not support post-school pathways into VET or full-time employment. Instead, secondary school graduates of VET programs achieve similar labour market outcomes to those of other Year 12 graduates who go straight into the workplace, largely in jobs that are poorly paid, low-skilled, casual or part-time and without security or a career structure.

According to the World Bank, if the primary goal of school-based VET programs is pre-vocational education, close attention needs to be paid to restructuring the connection between secondary and higher education. In particular, vocational electives need to be acceptable for entry into advanced technical or higher education. Achieving this may require tertiary education institutions’ involvement in the design of secondary school vocational curricula.

The key question for the coming decades is to how best ensure Australian vocational secondary education’s relevance, quality and outcomes are designed and implemented in a way that does not further perpetuate the dichotomies of a two-tiered approach – a problem that may persist with a system that simply ‘accommodates’ but does not genuinely ‘integrate’ vocational and general education into one coherent and high-quality senior secondary education. ■

Read the full paper:
Integrating vocational education and training for secondary school students by Dr Justin Brown, (Australian Council for Educational Research) for the NSW Education Standards Authority, 2019.

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