I have been a little preoccupied over the past couple of weeks with working through some reports that are a little difficult to digest. Part of my research will be making comparisons between Workplace Learning in Scotland, the UK and Europe, focusing their efforts to make Workplace Learning ‘fabulous’. I am not saying that it is not already fabulous (well okay, let’s say available and invested-in), but it does need some work, and I am going to explain some of the interesting things I have found out so far from reading some reports into different European and UK strategies. In this blog post I will focus on the UK reports, mainly as there are so many European reports that I think that deserves a post on its own!
Firstly, in the UK, workplace learning plays a major part in education. A report by the Open University (OU) explains just that. The Open University understands that those who create courses need some way to ensure that students are gaining transferable skills they can then use when going into employment. In their report on work-based learning models and approaches, The OU explained that their courses are designed with the aim of giving students an academic qualification in the area that they wish to work in as well as helping them develop that important skills-set. Often, this is the problem. Students attend university but have very little ‘transferable skills’ to show. Now for me, I understood this very quickly during my undergraduate degree and applied everywhere for some form some voluntary work so that I could build up my skills and have something to show for it. I knew that a degree in Psychology was very academic (and competitive in terms of graduate jobs) and although I had the option to gain some skills during a placement, this would probably not be enough in the world of work. I kept records of achievements and reflective diaries so that when it came to interviews I had kind of an evidence portfolio which was partly academic and significantly skills based.
Anyway, The Open University took this one step further. They understood that students need to be able to show what they have gotten out of their course and also be able to show this as part of transferable skills in employment situations. Each course is developed individually against Occupational Standards and are assessed according to its content to ensure the students are adequately qualified on completion. It explains that if a career path needs a lot of face to face contact and interaction, then more practice based observations need to be made to ensure the student meets these Occupational Standards. The example given is nursing or midwifery: every day a practitioner would have a lot of patient contact compared to someone who work in ICT for example, who may not see different people each day. To address this, the Open University ensures that each course has a suitable amount of placement or observable practice in order for students to demonstrate what they have learned. They also emphasise the importance of mentoring and support within this context so that students can be supported through their journey of learning, buy both academics and also professionals in the area. Something else is important too. Through combining academia and work based learning it then means that those who have completed a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) at Level 3, which are competency assessed qualifications, can then have the opportunity to progress onto a higher education level by studying modules at the Open University. The benefit is that they do not need to be an academic high flyer!!
Higher Education institutions in England seem to follow this. A case study by Murdock (2004) explains that universities are now expected to show that their courses adhere to Codes of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards. So basically, if you are training in an area that needs work experience, the course had better have this included! Universities must provide their students with placement opportunities that are appropriate in terms of delivering a high standard of education and workplace learning all in one. As university fees are quite high anyway, more importance is being placed on gaining that vital learning in the workplace, and universities need to be able to identify and exemplify the value of such placements within their courses. This is what is often appealing to students.
The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study explains some of the benefits of having experience in the workplace and suggests that employees will contribute to innovation and improvement by connecting with what they do if they have further understanding of the workplace through learning. They will react to problems more effectively and contribute to the decision making of the organisation which in turn can help productivity of the organisation if the employees are involved. From 2004-2011 staff involvement increased, with more organisations using meeting style situations like staff and team briefings so that staff felt involved and would be able to contribute to the workings of the organisation.
One positive thing that I did read was that the UK government has pledged to increase apprenticeships as there are currently more applicants than vacancies – not surprising then. By 2020, according to the Apprenticeships Policy Document (December, 2015), the UK government want an additional three million apprenticeships available. Now in the UK, often incentives are needed to help facilitate the development of such apprenticeships. Organisations are given money if they employ an apprentice, particularly if it someone who is not currently working. Public sector bodies will now have new targets set in order to increase apprenticeships within their organisations.
Funnily enough there are organisations like the National Apprenticeship Service who help facilitate this and support the regulation of apprenticeships within organisations. The service has several advisers based in North East England who are there not only to support employers in terms of legal and formal aspects, but they are there to support the applicants to help them find an apprenticeship. The UK government has invested money into supporting apprentices and more importantly helping employers create those important vacancies for individuals to apply. This has been done by the Skills Funding Agency who fund training and skills development in the UK, and is the funding body of the National Apprenticeship Service and National Careers Service.
Now whilst plodding through these reports, I did find one most useful. A report was commissioned to review the European Social Fund (ESF) and its programme supporting In-Work Training In England and Gibraltar. Peter Dickson and Richard Lloyd produced the report to explore the effectiveness of the fund’s programmes (from 2007-2013), reviewing 41 projects by interviewing government officers, co-financing organisations, project leads, key partners and employers and employees. They discovered that the following factors were found to be success factors in effective practice:
- Flexible provision – it is important provide a range of items to adapt to the needs of the employees. These include delivering the programme close to learners in terms of travelling distance, varying ends dates of the course to take into consideration different abilities and unforeseen circumstances (illness, stress of work load on participants), using blended learning so part of the course is taught and part is available for online and distance learning.
- Partnerships – help to engage employers and learners to build up a relationship, using sector and community based organisations to access and build up trust with target groups.
- Committed and competent staff – high quality of staff through the journey, both delivery and management of that journey so that learners feel supported by those who know what they are doing.
- Other factors: these include providing financial support to learners and employers, having firm foundations, having previous experience with ESF funding and having an effective assessment process.
So as you can see, there are some areas that the UK are focusing on, primarily education and apprenticeships. Some of the reports highlight important factors to consider when developing workplace learning and others exemplify what needs to be done. All in all, I think it is quite simple to say: workplace learning in the UK is complex and it is not perfect. However, making the right moves towards supporting learning in the workplace can benefit not only the organisations involved, but the individuals themselves who wish to take up the learning on order to develop their own employment and career prospects.
From a more personal perspective, a former Careers Adviser (based in England)… workplace learning is important. I have spoken to many callers (both adults and young people) who wonder why they cannot get job, why they are struggling to get experience or why they cannot get where they want to be. Quite often, there is a simple solution. In a career, if investment is put into workplace learning through things like apprenticeships, sandwich courses and training or development ‘on the job’, then the outcomes are often far better than the journey it took to get there. The person will never experience that journey unless they try. It only takes one simple thing to start – go out there, search and learn. If a person can evidence those transferable employability skills, whether they be specific to a certain sector or not, they will have a better chance of securing the career they want, that promotion or their own personal development at work that has been waiting for them to take a bite.
Murdoch, I. (2004). Developments in the evaluation of work-based learning: A UK perspective. Industry and Higher Education, 18(2), 121-124.