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Policy issue 2: Stark divide between upper secondary general and vocational pathways

One central question countries face when organising upper secondary schooling is the degree of differentiation between general and vocational education. in recent years a growing number have aimed for greater integration of general and vocational pathways in an effort to better prepare students for both further education and working life (OECD, 2007, 2014b). Latvia’s strict division between vocational and general upper secondary education schools and programmes has long hampered efforts to follow this trend. Meanwhile, several studies, including our own, have noted that the subject-heavy, knowledge-based upper secondary curriculum and teaching practices have not kept pace with the demands from the labour market for school and college graduates (OECD, 2015a).

A “divided”, school-based upper secondary system

Education systems across OECD countries vary greatly in the degree to which general and vocational studies complement each other and in the ways in which they are sequenced. Different practices reflect the historical, political and cultural traditions of individual countries (OECD, 2014a). Sahlberg (2007) identified three principal ways in which OECD countries organise upper secondary education:

  • • Divided school-based upper secondary school system with upper secondary education divided into general and vocational schools (e.g. Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands).
  • • Unified upper secondary school system whereby upper secondary education is organised within one school offering different programmes (e.g. New Zealand, the United States).
  • • Parallel school-based and work-based upper secondary school system whereby upper secondary education has school-based general and work-based vocational education options (e.g. Austria, Germany, Switzerland).

Latvia fits the first category, in which upper secondary education is largely school-based and divided into general and vocational schools.

Several OECD countries have in recent years aimed for greater integration and a softening of the divide between general and vocational pathways in an effort to better prepare young people for both further education and for working life (OeCd, 2007, 2014b). The stark division between vocational and general upper secondary education schools and programmes in Latvia has militated against the partnership approach required to share and develop the pedagogical and assessment approaches needed to support such integration.

The ongoing reorganisation of the school network together with other reform initiatives, like the ongoing modularisation of vocational education programmes and the intention to move towards a competency-based upper secondary general curriculum (MoES, 2014), provide Latvia with an opportunity to reconsider and narrow the divide between upper secondary general and vocational education.

As discussed above, many of Latvia’s smaller vocational schools are being reassigned to the control of the municipalities and are to merge and/or collaborate with small general education schools or VECCs. This reorganisation is intended to better prepare “specialists” for the regional labour market, as well as lead to greater co-ordination and efficiency of the general and vocational education school network (MoES, 2014). There are some good examples of schools achieving this aim. The upper secondary school of Dobele, for example, has been offering vocational and general education programmes since 2011. The school’s facilities are efficiently used, teachers of general study subjects work with general and vocational programme students, and more programmes are provided (Cedefop, 2014).

Municipalities and MoES should continue promoting such organisational and pedagogical innovations to narrow the divide between upper secondary general and vocational pathways. They should not overlook the need to strengthen the teaching and learning that takes place within them, however. Teachers need the time and support to draw on the growing body of innovative practice within the country and beyond, particularly in relation to creating more opportunities for situated learning so that academic and practical skills can be developed and assessed in context.

The gradual transformation of large vocational schools into VECCs, such as the Riga Technical School of Tourism and Creative Industry (Box 4.2), means they can offer both general and vocational upper secondary education programmes. VECCs can be considered promising innovations to the Latvian school system for several reasons, including their potential to further reduce the divide between the two educational pathways, but this potential does not seem to have been fully exploited yet.

Though in practice such innovations can come about naturally (“bottom up”) MoES should consider more actively encouraging VECCs to blur the boundaries between students in general and vocational programmes. Collaborations with general schools are to be encouraged to allow them to benefit from pedagogical and methodological support, for example in authentic learning.2

Box 4.2. Riga technical school of tourism and creative industry

Originally founded in 1980 as a technical school, Riga Technical School of Tourism and Creative industry was given the status of a VECC in 2014 and is the largest vocational school in Latvia with over 2 000 students and 255 staff, it operates as a “Government Company” and its activities are divided between: educational provision (70%), commercial work (20%) and short courses (10%). The school offers both general and vocational upper secondary education from basic through to diploma level and students can join a wide range of extra-curricular clubs. Vocational programmes are offered in the following specialisms (the asterisk denotes the two most popular and, hence, most selective programmes):

  • • catering services*
  • • hospitality*
  • • tourism
  • • patisserie
  • • food processing
  • • interior design
  • • fashion design
  • • sewing technologies
  • • beauty/hairdressing

The school works closely with the relevant SECs and has sector and employer representatives on its governing council. It has 1 500 agreements with local, regional and national employers to provide work placements for its students. It has a strong record of international partnerships and is involved in a range of European Union projects and initiatives (e.g. ERASMUS) from which both students and teachers benefit. The key aim of the school is to develop graduates who have the creative capacity, expertise and personal skills required to progress in the European labour market. This requires that teachers design and employ curricular, pedagogical and assessment approaches that generate opportunities for students to develop both occupationally specific and generic skills. IT skills are embedded in all subjects and developed through an integrated approach.

Source: Rlgas Turisma un Radosas Industrijas Tehnikums (n.d.), Rlgas Turisma un Radosas Industrijas Tehnikums [Riga Technical School of Tourism and Creative Industry] website, www.rtrit.lv/par-rtrit.

 
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