How to Promote Students’ Transitions in VET?
Transitions between successive levels in Vocational Education and Training (VET) often appear to be very problematic for students. In many countries, such transition problems resulting in high student drop-out rates have been reported (e.g., Harris and Rainey 2012; Jäppinen and Maunonen-Eskelinen 2012). Possible causes for these transition problems have been discussed by Biemans, Mariën, Fleur, Tobi, Nieuwenhuis and Runhaar (2016). Crucial issues in this regard are the lack of curriculum continuity and the absence of true integration of successive educational levels (see Biemans, De Bruijn, Den Boer and Teurlings 2013).
To improve students’ transitions and to prevent high drop-out rates, continuing learning pathways have been implemented in VET (and general education) systems around the world (see Biemans et al. 2016). For example, in The Netherlands, the context of this particular study, many experiments have been initiated in the last decade by governmental policy (e.g., Dutch Educational Council 2014) to design continuing learning pathways and, thus, to connect the various levels of the VET system (i.e., pre-vocational secondary education (vmbo), secondary vocational education (mbo) and higher vocational education (hbo)).
This study aimed to compare the effects of such continuing learning pathways with more traditional routes in terms of students’ learning performance at the mbo level and transitions to hbo. Continuing learning pathways are “characterised by curriculum continuity in particular competence areas or subjects lasting several years, and encompassing more than one qualification level” (Biemans et al. 2013, p. 109). Prominent examples of continuing learning pathways in Dutch VET are the Green Lycea (GL), offered by institutes for vocational education in the agricultural (or ‘green’) education domain. The GL are typified by specific design characteristics (see for more details Biemans et al. 2016, p. 321):
- Sharp selection of a specific category of students who combine a relatively high cognitive level with affinity for practical assignments in authentic settings;
- Acceleration of the learning trajectory;
- Integration of the respective educational (vmbo and mbo) programmes;
- Theoretical level attuned to hbo;
- Tailor-made, adaptive education based on the talents and interests of individual students;
- Specific attention for development of study skills needed in hbo;
- Educational orientation on professional practice;
- Broad orientation on hbo sectors;
- Systematic attention for career orientation and guidance (see also Kuijpers 2014).
At this moment, GL are offered by 12 schools of 6 VET institutes in the ‘green’ domain in The Netherlands.
Biemans et al. (2016) showed that the GL with their specific design characteristics were more effective than the traditional vmbo pathway in terms of students’ learning performance and their transitions to mbo (i.e., the first part of the VET learning pathway) but, at that point, the question remained whether the GL are also more effective in promoting students’ transitions to higher vocational education, which could be considered as the ultimate goal of these continuing learning pathways (see also Bradley 2008; Gorard, Smith, May, Thomas, Adnett and Slack 2006; Watson 2006).
Therefore, in the present study, the GL were compared with a traditional pathway to hbo (i.e., regular secondary vocational education or mbo in the ‘green’ domain). Thus, this study was aimed at examining the effects of the second (mbo) part of this learning pathway. The following research questions were formulated:
- Do GL and regular mbo programmes differ in terms of percentages of students who obtain a mbo diploma?
- Do GL and regular mbo programmes differ in terms of percentages of students who proceed with an hbo programme after obtaining their mbo diploma?
- Do GL and regular mbo programmes differ in terms of the nature of hbo programmes that are chosen by the students after obtaining their mbo diploma?
To answer the various research questions, the first substantial cohorts of students who could have graduated from the GL learning pathway in The Netherlands were contrasted with a control group of comparable regular mbo students (in terms of their cognitive level -as indicated by their mean national vmbo final exam score for the core subjects Dutch language, English language, Mathematics, and Biology- and their gender) from the same two educational institutes. The GL group consisted of 86 students (52 male and 34 female students; institute 1 with 2 cohorts: N=22 and N=43 and institute 2 with 1 cohort: N=21). The control group of regular mbo students (N=86) was characterised by an identical group composition in terms of gender, institutes, and cohorts, and all students in this group had started at the highest mbo level 4, which is identical to the GL mbo level. For all students from both groups, the nominal period of study time for their learning pathway was taken as the starting point. This meant that students from both groups could have obtained their mbo diploma at level 4 (which is required to enter hbo) in the same years 2015 or 2016, depending on the particular cohort.
To answer the first research question, percentages of students who either did or did not obtain a mbo diploma (at level 4 in the nominal period of time) were calculated for both groups. In addition, to examine research question 2, percentages of students who either did or did not proceed with an hbo programme after obtaining their mbo diploma were calculated for GL and regular mbo programmes. Finally, with respect to the third research question, percentages of students who proceeded with an hbo programme either or not in the ‘green’ domain were compared. Percentages of students from the GL group and the control group (regular mbo) were compared through Chi-Square tests (either Mantel-Haenszel or Pearson) using a Crosstabs (SPSS Statistics) procedure. Non-parametric statistics were used to answer the research questions because of the (nominal) measurement level of the data resulting in percentages (cf. Biemans et al., 2016).
Regarding the percentages of students who obtained a mbo diploma at the highest level 4, the GL group appeared to score significantly higher than the regular mbo group (Χ2(1)=11.56; p≤0.001): Students in the GL pathway more often obtained a mbo diploma at level 4 than comparable students in regular mbo. Students in regular mbo more often obtained mbo diplomas at lower levels or did not obtain a mbo diploma at all.
With respect to the percentages of students who proceeded with an hbo programme after obtaining their mbo diploma, again the GL group scored significantly higher than the regular mbo group (Χ2(1)=12.75; p≤0.001): Students coming from the GL pathway more often proceeded with an hbo programme than comparable students coming from regular mbo.
Regarding the percentages of students who proceeded with an hbo programme in the ‘green’ domain, the GL group appeared to score significantly lower than regular mbo group (Χ2(1)=9.21; p≤0.005): Students coming from the GL less often opted for hbo programmes in the ‘green domain’ than comparable students coming from regular ‘green’ mbo. This finding makes sense because broad orientation on hbo sectors (not only the ‘green’ domain but also other professional domains) is one of the crucial GL design characteristics (see also Biemans et al., 2016).
Based on the results concerning the percentages of students who obtained a mbo diploma at the highest level and the percentages of students who proceeded with an hbo programme after obtaining their mbo diploma, the GL appeared to be more effective than regular mbo programmes in promoting students’ transitions to hbo (with a mbo diploma at level 4 being an important precondition). Comparable continuing learning pathways could be an option to improve students’ transitions to higher (vocational) education in other countries as well.
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