As the dust settles from National Apprenticeship Week 2012, surely all eyes now are on the next big event of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest. Aside – obviously – from Adult Learners’ Week in May.

Our recent Eurovision record is almost as good as my ability to link pop culture references to topical issues in further education. Rubbish. But while we might have a comfortable lead on this Eurovision League Table, our colleagues around Europe have a lot to teach us in the area of apprenticeships policy, participation, models of funding, teacher and trainer training and employer engagement.

At a conference on international practices, organised by the National Apprenticeship Service, I saw a presentation by Dr Ursula Scharnhorst from the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training. For the first time, I heard someone talk about an apprenticeship system, participation, quality, standards and equality with central emphasis and very explicit reliance on qualified vocational teachers and trainers.

How have we become used to a narrative around apprenticeships being about ‘quality’ and ‘standards’, devoid of the language of teaching and learning in this country?

We need to learn from our colleagues in Europe, not just about funding and policy models, but how the very best teaching and training for apprentices and workbased learning works in practice”

While the sector debates definitions, numbers and infrastructure, we, for the most part, are ignoring the teaching, training and learning experience. Unless we understand the whys and hows of good teaching and training and increases in completion and success rates, this progress is unsustainable.

Switzerland operates what’s known as a ‘dual system’ apprenticeship mode where the roles of employers and the state are very clearly defined. Functional and academic learning is funded by the state and delivered through ‘vocational schools’ or equivalent institutions, and vocational competency based learning is delivered, funded and managed entirely by the employers. Those who teach in functional and academic learning do so in Vocational Education and Training (VET) Schools. To qualify, they need to complete a Diploma including six months of integrating practice and pedagogical studies and 1,800 hours of teaching hours.

Trainers in host companies need to qualify with a VET Diploma, and each company needs to have at least one person who is qualified at this level. They will have needed to have demonstrated two years of practice in the vocational area, undertaken 100 hours of teaching and will have completed a 40 hour specialist course on instructing apprentices.

All of this falls under principles set out by the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training. These principles are explicit on bridging industrial practice with pedagogy, of experience which is current, on expert coaching and mentoring and on teaching and learning using interactive platforms.

The Institute for Learning (IfL) has long shared the principle that teachers and trainers need to be trained experts and continually keeping up to date in both their field and in teaching and training methods and we will  explore how teachers and trainers in this country can draw on approaches to professional teaching and training practice in other countries.

What do we know already? We can say with confidence that our teachers, trainers and assessors are committed to their own professional development and are determined to be at the top of their game in terms of subject knowledge and teaching and training methods. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is clearly a major part of this. Based on our regulatory responsibility, IfL reported earlier this year in our annual review of CPD in the sector that, on average, 48 hours was carried out by each teaching practitioner in our sector as a whole.  In work based learning specifically, our members on average declared 62 hours of CPD last year – more than double what is required of them.

We know too that here in the UK, nine per cent of 16-18 year olds participate in an apprenticeship. In Switzerland, it is 53 per cent participation with a success rate of 90 per cent.

What I took from that conference during National Apprenticeship Week was that we have a strong base to build a truly world-class vocational educational system in this country, but to do that we need to broaden what we mean by success and excellence.

We need to learn from our colleagues in Europe, not just about funding and policy models, but how the very best teaching and training for apprentices and workbased learning works in practice, as well as how our own cultural values, social attitudes and interest in brilliant learning opportunities rely on the very best teachers and trainers.

Shane Chowen, Policy Officer at the Institute for Learning