Vocational education the Swiss way

Vocational education the Swiss way

As another review into apprenticeships begins, guest reporter Shane Chowen visits Switzerland and reports on what we can learn from their apprenticeship system

“For me the decision was easy. Most of the students at my school got apprenticeships, my dad did an apprenticeship; it’s a normal thing to do here. I’m looking forward to working for a few more years before going to university.”

This quote, from a fourth year IT apprentice at a large Swiss bank might strike you as unusual for all sorts of reasons. You probably don’t know any Swiss IT apprentices for a start. It might be the fact that most of his class went on to do an apprenticeship. In fact, in 2011, two thirds of Swiss school-leavers went on to do apprenticeships. It might be that he’s a fourth year apprentice. Almost all apprenticeships last for three years in Switzerland, some trades require four but never less than three.

Or maybe it’s that he’s off to uni in a couple of years; about 20 per cent of apprentices take what’s called the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate which entitles them to a place at a University of Applied Science and, if they pass a further aptitude test, one of the country’s two Federal Institutes of Technology.

The academic and vocational education systems are intertwined so this kind of progression is possible and the universities are managed so that they can’t select between people who are qualified; if you get the grades you get a place.

In last week’s FE Week, I reported on my recent study trip to Switzerland through the Swiss Embassy and an organisation call Presence Switzerland. It was a packed programme and I learned a lot. But what can we learn from a system that has the game-changing advantage of being embedded within the nation’s culture for more than a century?

Employers know that that it is their responsibility to deliver occupational and vocational training to a high standard, they know that they are training a member of their own team and so are willing to invest in them and in the next generation of their trade.

To start, we need to agree on who and what apprenticeships are for and build a system around that, rather than letting a system develop and then arriving at debates over definitions. Of course you can’t create a consensus overnight, but in Switzerland, for example, everyone knows where they stand.

Employers know that that it is their responsibility to deliver occupational and vocational training to a high standard, they know that they are training a member of their own team and so are willing to invest in them and in the next generation of their trade. When asked about how he would react if someone he paid to train left to work for a competitor, one trainer told me “it’s an opportunity; we need to understand why they didn’t want to work here anymore.”

Professional associations know that they act as guardians to their occupations; they know that they need to safeguard for the future by telling the apprenticeship system what is needed, and they know they need to be driven by employers to monitor short term employment and skills needs. Vocational schools (a bit like FE colleges) are state owned, they know that it is their responsibility, on behalf of the state, to provide a broader, general education including things such as languages, citizenship and sport alongside their vocational studies.

For too long, perhaps, we’ve seen apprenticeships as something intentionally separate from the education system and forgot the education part of it. Vocational training, no matter how specific a framework, is still education; which means creating a holistic experience of learning a trade, becoming an active citizen and being able to thrive in your community. I think that we forget that here sometimes, and it wouldn’t take centuries of cultural development to change that.

Then comes the responsibilities of the state, which in Switzerland are devolved to the cantons. One of the reasons that the Swiss believe their system is successful (as they judge by their low youth unemployment figure of 7.2 per cent) is the devolved nature of their apprenticeship system means that the professions and companies say what skills are needed, and where and what the jobs are, which feeds directly then into careers advice and in shaping the curriculum. It also works because there is a single curriculum for each trade or profession.

A ‘national curriculum’ for each trade leading towards a single, universally (not in the cosmic sense) recognised federal qualification. It’s straightforward, young people at school understand it, companies know what they’re getting from job applicants and they know how to influence things outside the flexibilities they get in the frameworks. In other words, an apprentice plumber in a north west canton of Switzerland will follow the same curriculum for the same qualification as an apprentice plumber in a south west canton.

All of this has been possible because politicians have kept well away.

There’s a legal requirement that every five years, curricula of the federal vocational qualifications have to be reviewed to ensure that the trades and professions evolve and adapt with the times. This process involves the relevant professional association, the cantons and the federal government, to a minimal degree, under the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training.

They see no need for private providers, or for awarding organisations.

The state also takes its careers guidance responsibilities seriously. We visited the cantonal offices of Solothurn where we were shown what is effectively a local authority website displaying all the apprentice vacancies in the area; and because apprenticeships start with the academic year, companies can easily plan when a third or fourth year is about to graduate so they can get recruiting early on. It’s was a bit like a cross between UCAS and the FE Week jobs page.

All of this has been possible because politicians have kept well away. They’ve created an infrastructure that gives confidence to the public and they’ve let the players do their thing within it. Effectively, the apprenticeship system is able to run and develop by itself on its own terms, not facing excruciating reform at every change of administration. The local authorities are empowered through law and employers are empowered through their respective professional associations.

What else do you need?