Skills Minister Nick Boles told MPs this month the Dutch system of vocational education and training might be a model for England. Jeroen Onstenk outlines the Dutch system and considers whether Mr Boles might be onto something.

Vocational education and training (Vet) in the Netherlands is primarily part of the education system, rather than the labour system.

There is an elaborated system of technical and vocational education, with two pathways (apprenticeship and school-based), both including (in different proportions) school-based as well as work-based learning.

There were two separate Vet systems — a school-based system and an apprenticeship system — up until 1996, at which point various vocational learning paths and school types (the apprenticeship system and school-based vocational education; initial and adult vocational education) were integrated.

In the Dutch Vet system, hybrid qualifications are nowadays a broad and accepted part of the educational system. Highest level Vet qualification (level four) gives right of entrance to higher professional education (HPE), and, after successful completion of at least one year in HPE, also to university.

The Vet system is under constant pressure to respond to changing societal and economical demands.

Vocational education is increasingly regarded as the beginning of a vocational learning career, rather than as the culmination of skills acquisition.

During working life, workers will have to attend further training and change jobs on a number of occasions. This means that vocational education must afford a broad basis including technical, organisational and communicative as well as learning skills.

The system has been thoroughly restructured several times in the last 20 years. New courses and new contents as well as new didactics for vocational schools and apprenticeship have been implemented to respond better to the needs of a changing labour market.

The aim was to introduce, from 2005, a well functioning, clear and transparent qualification structure for senior secondary vocational education, which offers the possibilities of constant renewal and is an effective instrument for both the labour market and the educational field.

As it turned out, it took to 2012 before a new system was accepted. By then, the concept of competence had become so disputed that it was discarded by the ministry.

One important lesson is that Vet can become a recognised part of the education system as a whole

However, the main characteristics of the new system (focus on occupational tasks; integration of knowledge and skills; broad qualification profiles) were kept intact.

Although the Vet system is mainly funded by the government, employers are on at least two levels actively engaged in the Vet system — defining qualifications/setting standards and delivering training and learning opportunities (internship and apprenticeship).

Regional Vet colleges are developing from what could be called industrial training centres into innovative learning centres, in order to prepare students better for working life as well as lifelong learning and citizenship.

One important lesson is that Vet can become a recognised part of the education system as a whole. Equality of esteem can be promoted by opening up educational career possibilities (into higher education) as well as opening up realistic labour market opportunities.

There are some lessons to be learned from the qualifications restructure: reducing complexity; clustering professions (‘broad occupational profiles’); developing vocational tracks, organising and implementing successful hybrid qualifications.

Also lessons could be learned about the educational opportunities and the role of schools in Vet. Vocational pedagogy is broader than just preparing for specific jobs but is aiming for broad development with regard to vocational competence, citizenship and learning competency.

Although certainly not without difficulties or always successful, engagement of companies in such a broad aiming Vet and cooperation with schools in delivering high quality vocational education turns out to be possible.

By this cooperation and networking schools can compensate for lack of specialist expertise in vocational subjects.

Click here for an expert piece on comparison of the English Vet system with that of the Netherlands by City & Guilds UK managing director Kirstie Donnelly