Education: We need a change of approach to vocational education and training policy

Berni Brady, director of AONTAS, says attitudes to vocational education and training need to change

If I could change one thing it would be that policymakers would think of education and training as a coherent system with a range of choices designed to serve the varied needs of learners, and not just as a route to higher education.

Last year the results of the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey were announced following major research across 22 OECD and two partner countries. The PIAAC focused on three specific skill domains: literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

The research placed Ireland 17th out of 24 participating countries for literacy and 19th for numeracy.

Ireland has long prided itself on having one of the best education systems in Europe, where success is defined by an increase in the percentage of adults with a third-level qualification. It rose from
22 per cent in 1996 to 48 per cent in 2011. Yet 10 per cent of the adult population between 16 and 65 have achieved only primary education and there is a significant and persistent dropout rate among young people at second level.


The 2010 ESRI report, No Way Back: The Dynamics of Early School Leaving, showed that school dropout rates correlate closely with disadvantage and arise from early experiences of educational failure.

The report highlights negative effects of streaming in school ,with students in lower streams experiencing a climate of low expectations and poor teacher-
student interaction. The quality of relations between teachers and students emerges as a critical factor in young people staying in education.

Many early leavers get insecure, low-paid, low-skilled employment and are more likely to experience unemployment. Their lack of qualifications can be a serious barrier to employment and they often see no way back to second-level education. In my view, this is one of the most serious effects of negative experiences of early learning. It presents huge challenges for the further education and training sector as it seeks to address the shortcomings of formal education. Recent research from the Department of Education and Skills suggests that 55 per cent of early leavers do take up further education and training opportunities but it is too early to track whether they complete programmes or gain employment.

While a number of reforms are underway in the school system, the second-level school agenda is still largely dictated by the Leaving Certificate and the race for points to gain access to the Holy Grail of higher education. Vocational training is often seen as a second-rate option for those who can't quite hack the requirements of the academy.

Lifelong learning
Research by City and Guilds in 2013 gives a fascinating insight into young people's perceptions of vocational education and training. Only half of the young people surveyed understood the term, while 60 per cent regarded higher education as the preferred option. These perceptions are influenced by a variety of factors including parental and societal expectations as well as the lack of emphasis on vocational education and training as an attractive career option by guidance services and teachers.

The PIAAC study confirms the importance of lifelong learning as adult skills decline over time when not in use. Investment in adult/further education and training could yield even greater dividends based on a solid foundation in the formal school system.

Countries performing well in the PIAAC survey such as Finland and Japan have established systems and incentives which combine high-quality initial education with opportunities for the entire population to continue to develop their skills inside and outside the workplace.

As we struggle to rebuild our communities and our economy after the economic crash, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons to be learnt from PIAAC.

Berni Brady is the director of Aontas,
the National Adult Learning Organisation, and was recently appointed to the board of Solas, the new training and education authority.