Bridging Divides – Curriculum Studies and Empirical Work for a Sustainable VET
Vocational education and training (VET) is at the core of educational and political debate both at European level and in national education contexts. This includes discussion of the role that compulsory education activities could have in supporting the students´ future occupational choice. Furthermore, the current economic and political climate seem to indicate that a long-sighted strategic development of vocational education and training is needed to secure employability and social cohesion. This need is also backed by research. A recent national inquiry in Sweden found problems attracting students into VET (SOU 2015:97). The Swedish debate and research findings echo concerns being found internationally where VET systems are being challenged to improve skills development, employability and social cohesion (c.f., EFA, 2012).
There are two key issues that inform the political and educational debate related to Swedish VET that is common to other European contexts: how to tackle low application rates to the programs and how to deal with the problem of dropouts. Why this is, and has been for a long time, an issue of societal importance is twofold. First, because it is important for individual employability and for the knowledge production that is vital to the successful trade and industry. Secondly: a successful, well-functioning VET, has a positive impact on social cohesion (Lundman 1979; SOU 2015:97). Both of these aspects are vital to a nation's capability to build social capital and remain competitive internationally (Winch, 2000).
However, Swedish research has predominantly focused on investigating various problems related to vocational education and training at the upper secondary level, such as, social stratification, the classroom activities and policy development (e.g., Henning Loeb, 2012; Panikan, 2014). Internationally, more attention has been given to the development of skills and knowledge of relevance for future vocational education and training as part of compulsory education activities (c.f., Cedefop 2014; Moreno Herrera, 2000; Westerhuis, 2008).
Findings from earlier studies suggest the convenience to look closer to the learning in non-academic subjects in compulsory education as this specific learning might provide knowledge and skills of relevance for VET.
Thus, for a deeper understanding of the challenges that VET faces, it is important to develop research that bridges the gap between policy studies and empirical studies . The proposed project will to both.
The research proposed here attempts to investigate how non-academic subjects in compulsory school have contributed to conceptions of VET and occupational paths both historically and in contemporary education. Equally, it will empirically investigate perceptions of how educational practices in non-academic subjects and activities could potentially prepare individuals for vocational education. Consequently there are two main areas of attention. First, an analysis of historical curriculum development. Second, empirical work in the form of a longitudinal study with focus on perceptions of how the present non-academic subjects foster knowledge, skills and attitudes of relevance for future VET.
Based on Swedish context the study presented in this paper intends to draw valuable learning for other contexts. The theoretical foundation of the research is curriculum theory. Curriculum theory applies to the development of understanding in both the past and the present and will therefor serve to link comprehensively the two aims with the study.
The historical study utilizes text analysis using central concepts from curriculum theory and the interpretative methods of materiality of schooling. The outcome of the historical analysis will serve as a framework to understand findings in the empirical study. More specifically this means that concepts like rationality, mass education and differentiation offer opportunities to scrutinize how school is, or is not, organized to enhance VET. The concepts will then be elaborated to provide better understanding of the findings of the empirical study.
The empirical part of the project consists of a longitudinal study with a methodological design that combines different sets of empirical data. The design and pilot testing of the research instruments will be done during the first term of the first year of the project. Research will be conducted using questionnaires and interviews, following well established canons in research methods literature (e.g., Bryman, 2012; Denscombe, 2014). Attention will also be given to the shortcomings highlighted in the methodological research (e.g. Hodder, 2003) as well as the latest methodological developments (e.g., Creswell, 2014; Quinn Patton, 2015).
Interviews and questionnaires are carried out with the intention to analyze inner consistency and possible development of the perceptions of the subjects participating. Four groups of stakeholders will be used for data collection: Group A: students, Group B: teachers, Group C: parents and Group D: representatives from Swedish trade and industry sectors. A careful initial sampling will be done on statistical bases using, among others, data from SCB (Statistics Sweden). This is intended to secure representativeness and consequently to ensure validity, reliability and the highest possible level of generalizability.
There are two overall outcomes of the project that are significant. First, the project will provide a deeper understanding of how curriculum shapes the form and content of non-academic subjects. Second, the study will provide new insights into the perceptions of key stakeholders about how current non-academic subjects in the compulsory school are, or are not, and could be contributing more to the development of knowledge, skills and attitudes relevant to future VET career paths.
We expect to achieve a better understanding of how the rapid development of the labor market and the need for qualified workers is mirrored in educational reforms throughout the post WWII period, meanwhile developing an education system based on equality as well as differentiation. Findings will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the legitimization of the non-academic subjects, at a time when the gap between schoolwork and professional work is increasing.
By investigating the problem within the Swedish context the project expects also to create basis for international comparative studies. This is of particular significance considering that internationally there is a relevant volume of research about the preparation for VET and the bridging of compulsory education and VET. The present shortness of similar research in the Swedish context creates difficulties to benefit from the international comparative studies; a problem that this project intends to contribute to ease.
It is anticipated that this study will enhance future educational policy and decision-making concerning non-academic subjects in compulsory education.
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