Spain: Isabel Couso Tapia

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Isabel Couso Tapia - Education Council of the Community of Madrid

Jim Playfoot talks to Isabel Couso Tapia about the challenges facing educators in Spain, the development of competency-based learning and how the perception of vocational education is being transformed at regional level

Isabel Couso Tapia is extremely well-placed to talk about education for employment in Spain. Her career to date has been spent predominantly in public office addressing these issues from both an industrial/business perspective and, latterly, and educational one, with a particular focus on vocational learning. Her current position, as deputy general director of professional training for the Education Council of the Community of Madrid places her at the heart of Spain's vocational debate. In what is, by her own admission and by common consent, a country heavily defined by regional identity, representation on a regional council carries significant weight and responsibility, particularly when that council happens to be Spain's first city and capital. With over fifty thousand students in vocational education at any one time, operating within twenty-two distinct vocational sectors or 'families', what goes on in Madrid and the surrounding area has significant impact on the national agenda.


The challenges facing Spain

We begin by discussing this regionalism a little further. It is, in Isabel's view, a mixed blessing. She describes the situation in Spain as being 'decentralised'. This, she says, makes the implementation of any national policy extremely difficult. However, this also means that each region has a certain amount of autonomy to explore what works best for them without being shackled by a national agenda. In fact, bearing in mind the highly polarised nature of the Spanish economy and the way in which this is reflected regionally, perhaps such autonomy is the best way to ensure each region gets the system it needs. There have, though, been some moves at a national level. She expands:

"We want to improve and we've introduced new [national] laws recently to do this."

More specifically, there has been acknowledgement of the need for change in vocational education:

"Our vocational training is very good in an academic way. But we need to address other issues to ensure employability."

The challenge, it seems, is to engage with all key stakeholders in order to make that change happen. This involves not only educators and teachers but also business and the national administration. The changes that are happening right now are in the early stages - we talk about the policy that has been recently introduced (the 'new laws' she mentions) but she explains that these have yet to make any real difference on the ground. It's early days. When we go on to talk about the excellent initiatives she is running in the Madrid region, she concedes that these are, at the moment, support projects. She hopes that they will be stepping stones on the way to the core changes - in curriculum design, in teaching methods and so on - that are required across the board to improve standards in the way that the region, and the country, needs.


Building competency-based learning

The cornerstone of the changes taking place in vocational learning - and one of the ways in which the Community of Madrid is addressing issues of employability - is the development of competency based learning programmes. This is something that Isabel is both passionate about and proud of. She explains the process they have undertaken:

"We've worked with [companies like] Manpower - as well as running an international exchange programme with Chambers of Commerce - to understand the competencies needed [for the modern employee]."

As a consequence of this work, the city has developed a competency list that Isabel describes as "...the result of many projects with many companies". The list makes for very interesting reading, being, as it is, a de facto characterisation of the ideal 21st century employee. There are ten core competencies identified: enterprising spirit; oral communication; understanding the customer; adaptability to change; teamwork; critical thinking; interpersonal skills; quality of service; decision making; commercial ability. I mention that this list represents what one might term 'soft skills'. Isabel counters that "...we don't see these skills as 'soft' - they are very important".

Having discussed the individual elements of the list, Isabel begins to talk more about how these competencies become embedded into the educational process. She explains that, currently, these skills (which one may also describe as 'employability skills') are taught largely through complementary programmes. They are not core to the curriculum. She hopes that it's heading that way though. There is, she says, a need to connect the different agents responsible for driving policy in this area. While the debate is very connected in terms of vocational education being linked to employment, the action is less so. She argues that the structures of government need to change in order to bring education and employment together - the link between the two should be explicit in terms of government and administration. The field of vocational training is happier to be directly linked with the employment administration but non-vocational teachers want to remain solely as a part of the education ministry, not wanting to see themselves explicitly connected to the role of 'generating the workforce'. Beyond that there is a need to engage everyone in the right way:

"To introduce these competencies, we need teachers who are convinced about the need. And we need managers who have the sense to introduce these competencies. And we then need support from the national administration. We need these three conditions otherwise it's not possible to introduce these [competencies] into the curriculum."

For the first time, the city is introducing a professional competencies framework for teaching and assessing these skills - a pilot project is running right now. The plan is to roll this out once it's proven to work. If this type of competency-based learning for everyone can be introduced across the curriculum, then real progress can be made.


Changing the perception of vocational education

Alongside the policy changes - and in parallel with the competency projects already being run - much has been done to transform both the perception and the reality of vocational education, particularly in the Madrid area. Isabel explains how the city has invested heavily in infrastructure in the last few years, the results of which can be seen in modern, technology-led schools of vocational learning. With better facilities comes better teaching methods and improved results. Furthermore, the sectoral approach of the vocational stream in Spain has facilitated the development of strong relationships with business and industry that is now reaping rewards, particularly for graduating students:

"[Historically] we have around 70% professional insertion from vocational training within the first year [after graduation]. After three years, we have full employment from vocational training."

These are impressive figures, demonstrating how employers clearly value the qualities vocational students bring to the table. The city is also proactive in promoting these students to the labour market. This year an event was held in Madrid involving over twenty-two thousand graduating students, bringing them together with employers from across Spain.

I mention the fact that vocational education still has a stigma attached to it in many countries and cultures across the world with families not positive about their children taking the vocational route. Isabel agrees but argues that this is, finally, changing:

"Vocational training is not important for the family, but it's very important for business and for society."

She goes on to explain that the success of vocational programmes, the quality of facilities and the modern, innovative approach now being adopted is appealing to potential students (and their families) and is now being taken as the option of choice - above a purely academic route - rather than being seen as the destination for those who fail to succeed on a more academic educational path. This, she thinks, is a significant shift. In fact, she believes that, in many ways, vocational education is now showing the way forward for broader education in Spain: flexible, modern, practical and pioneering - vocational education at its best prepares young people not only for the workplace but for modern life and that's something universities and schools can learn from.