Netherlands: Pasqualino Mare and Rob van Wezel

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Pasqualino Mare and Rob van Wezel - Vocational Education Specialists at Kenniscentrum Handel

Jim Playfoot talks to Pasqualino Mare and Rob van Wezel from KCH in the Netherlands about the dynamics of the Dutch vocational system, the engagement of businesses in the development of qualifications and the challenges of implementing competency based learning

KCH occupies a unique but vital position with the vocational education landscape in the Netherlands. The largest of four divisions, Kenniscentrum Handel, describes itself as a centre of expertise on vocational education, training and the labour market for the trade sector. They effectively sit between employers and industry and education providers in order to define qualifications and standards and assist in the delivery of apprenticeships and traineeships. They work with employers, employees and trade organisations to deliver this work and act as a kind of sector skills council. They are a commercial organisation delivering against a publicly funded education programme with a sectoral focus in retail, wholesale and international trade. As the Netherlands begins to implement a framework of competency-based learning throughout its vocational programme, Pasqualino Mare - who manages international projects - and Rob van Wezel - who leads on competency-based learning - are well placed to analyse a vocational system in transition.

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Harmony between industry and education

We start by talking about the interface between business and education. In any effective system of vocational education, it is vital that the voice of employers is clearly articulated and that the design of qualifications and, more broadly, the definition of required competencies, is something that industry has a strong hand in. The Netherlands, it seems, has a history of making this happen. Pasqualino, who has significant experience of other countries in Europe, suggests that the traditions of vocational training provide a good base for this interaction.

"If you look at how qualifications are developed in the Netherlands, employers are very much involved in the process. We have committees who go into great detail to define the job profiles, the standards and the competencies. That structure is very much integrated."

The job profiles lie at the heart of the process. These provide the basis for the qualifications that are delivered in vocational schools across the country. There is some scope for industry to adapt and build on these profiles. Rob picks up on this point:
"We developed, for example, a general description for a sales assistant. In the end, the supermarket then adds its own profile [to augment this]. The qualifications are updated every year. The labour market has a voice - professional profiles are all based on information from industry."

Both Pasqualino and Rob agree that the current system provides a good level of interaction between business and education and that the resultant profiles developed are effective in what they set out to do. Furthermore, all parts of industry are represented with the mechanisms in place for small businesses and SMEs to contribute to the process as much as larger corporates. Rob concludes:

"If you look at different committees there is a good representation from all types of businesses including small businesses and SMEs. The structures exist for all stakeholders to have influence on this process. [At KCH], we translate professional occupation description into competencies, knowledge and skills for that job. And it works."

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A system in transition

Our conversation moves to a more detailed analysis of the changes being implemented in the Netherlands. In 2003, the country began introducing a system of competency-based learning. Currently, the system is still voluntary - meaning that training providers are not compelled to deliver competency-based programmes - and not yet fully embedded. During this period, there has been significant work done to reduce the number of qualifications on offer. Pasqualino explains:

"If you look 3 or 4 years ago, we had 750 qualifications in the VE system. Now, we have reduced it to around 250. The criticism was that there was too much detail and not enough space for mobility of skills for the individual."

Although this process of rationalisation is broadly seen as a good thing, there are issues. The reduction in the number of qualifications has inevitably meant that the focus of what's left is more general. Pasqualino picks up on this challenge:

"The balance [needs to be] between very specific outcomes and very general outcomes."

Furthermore, the challenges of a system in transition are clearly articulated. The voluntary nature of the competency-based approach has left the Netherlands with issues around the diversity of approaches that exist. Rob expands:

"[In the Netherlands, you can find] four different systems of education for teaching a shop assistant but all shops want the same thing. This can be a challenge for employers."

While the move to competency-based learning will, over time, become more embedded, the period of transition, started in 2003, is creating issues for all involved.

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The challenge of provision

Exploring these issues further, it becomes clear that there are real challenges around what you might call 'the business end' of education. Having explored the strengths of the Dutch system, particularly in relation to the way in which qualifications and occupational profiles are designed and developed, we begin to uncover some of the current weaknesses. Chief among these is the way in which qualifications are delivered. The system in the Netherlands allows for significant local interpretation of the qualifications, competencies and profiles. Bearing in mind the fact that not all training providers and schools even teach from the same basis, this creates huge differences in the outcomes for different students completing the same qualifications. Rob explains the challenges:

"We are heading towards competency based learning. The question is how is this stuff learnt? In the start there is a standard professional description but at the end, the system of competency based learning is not delivered in a practical way. [Ultimately], the end point is different for different students. In one city, three students have been taught and assessed in a different way so the quality assurance is a big problem. Their education is different."

The issue of quality is a consistent theme. Pasqualino describes it in very simple terms:

"The key problem is the provision of training and the interpretation of how training is delivered."

This situation has got so bad that it has become a serious political issue in the Netherlands, with significant press coverage and even demonstrations by students protesting about the lack of quality and consistency in the education they are receiving. There are, Rob believes, two key issues that are affecting this situation:

"Diversity of material is an issue. Diversity of assessment is also a problem. Education is based on the same qualification but the education itself is different."

This lack of consistency is undermining the good work done in defining what sort of education is needed for different occupations as employers can no longer trust that the qualifications they helped to shape are being delivered in a way that makes the student ready and able to work. There is some hope however that the situation will improve. Assessment is a key issue, with a lack of agreed standards rendering the qualifications gained meaningless in some cases. This is being addressed as Rob explains:

"There is a move towards a more centralised assessment and that will improve standards."

He also argues that there simply needs to be a better understanding of the curriculum, a clearer communication of the profiles and an agreement of what needs to be achieved during the educational experience.

Talking to Pasqualino and Rob, you get a strong sense of both the strengths and weaknesses of the vocational system in the Netherlands. In many ways, the country is well ahead of many others with the status of vocational against academic study remaining high. A key systemic strength resides in the positive engagement of industry and business in both the design and provision of education. This is core to the success of any vocational programme and the Netherlands has much to applaud here. There is a culture of businesses being involved in work-based learning - KCH have access to a database of 35,000 companies that are accredited to provide experiential work-based learning. And the structures are clearly in place to help employers shape the education that schools and colleges deliver. However, significant issues around provision and the uncertainty generated by a system in transition are leaving some students - and, by extension, some employers - less than satisfied with the end results. Improving standards and consistency in the quality of education provision is evidently the next hurdle to overcome in the evolution of Dutch vocational education.

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