Transcript of Quality of VET teaching: perceptions and realities

19 March 2021

Vocational Voices: Season 6, Episode 1

Quality of VET teaching: perceptions and realities

Linda Simon (00:04)
Of all the teachers, and I'm teaching the teachers these days, I've never heard anyone actually express concerns about the fact that that they're doing a higher qualification, even if that's not required by their employer. They feel that they're able to give so much more to their students by having a greater understanding of the pedagogy behind teaching. There is almost a cringe that goes on in the VET sector, that we don't actually have to come up to the same standards as teachers in schools or teachers in higher ed, that somehow we're something different. And as far as I can see, a teacher is a teacher, no matter who it is that you're teaching.

Steve Davis (00:46)
Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis, and today's topic is the quality of VET teaching. Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director NCVER. Hello Simon.

Simon Walker (01:07)
Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (01:08)
Martin Powell, Chief Executive Officer VET Development Centre, or VDC. Hello Martin.

Martin Powell (01:14)
Hi Steve.

Steve Davis (01:15)
And Linda Simon, educationalist and researcher, who currently teaches in adult education at Charles Sturt University. Welcome to you, Linda.

Linda Simon (01:24)
Hi Steve.

Steve Davis (01:24)
Now, new research suggests there are some key issues affecting the quality of vocational education and training teaching that need to be addressed. These include entry level requirements, limited career pathways, workforce casualisation, and lack of support for professional development. The report, Building capability and quality in VET teaching: opportunities and challenges, reveals that these issues affect the recruitment of capable VET trainers with industry expertise in high demand skills, particularly in regional areas and impact on the quality of VET teaching.

Steve Davis (02:04)
In this episode, we'll tease apart these issues, and see if we can find some common ground on what might help us build capability and quality in VET teaching. Now, given the underlying theme of this topic, I think I should start by asking, should we be concerned about the quality of VET teaching? And I know, Simon, that you've got some results of surveys of students and employers, what did they have to say?

Simon Walker (02:29)
Well, I think the first thing I'd say is we have to be careful when we talk quality of teaching. It is an elusive concept, and it is one that's based on perception. So the information we have through our surveys is from the student outcomes survey, which talks about a range of things and requests a lot of information from students, one of which is about their perception of their training experience, including their perception of the quality of the training and the teacher.

Simon Walker (02:58)
And the good news there is that there are extremely high levels of satisfaction, and they've been consistently high for many, many years. So when I talk about high, about 85 to 90% of respondents are satisfied with the quality of the teaching experience. We also have a survey of employers called the survey of employers' use and views. A slightly different question, but specifically around whether they were satisfied with the trainer's knowledge and experience of the industry and we're about to talk a little bit about the dual roles that a VET teacher has. Again, high satisfaction levels in that 80 to 90% range.

Steve Davis (03:35)
All right. Well, that gives us a benchmark to start with. Martin, may I turn to you? Because in the NCVER report, stakeholders feel that what's leading to variability in the quality of VET teaching is the challenge that teachers need to meet dual prerequisites of both industry currency and teaching skills. How fair do you think that summary is?

Martin Powell (03:59)
Yeah, I'd follow on from what Simon was just referring to, in terms of the clients of the sector being the employers and the students, they're obviously quite satisfied with the teaching engaged with. So it might be unfair, like with any profession, to expect the teacher to be carrying the whole business or organisation. So the varying quality of an employee of a business is probably down to the recruitment and support, perhaps, that they're getting in their organisation. So I think it's a bit of a generalisation. I would think if someone isn't performing well in a teaching role, it wouldn't be because they're grappling with being a teacher and their industry currency, it might be the other supports that are around them.

Steve Davis (04:47)
So do you think we're over egging the omelette in trying to say this is a unique situation of needing to have teaching skills and industry currency?

Martin Powell (04:58)
Yes, I would, because I would say a lot of vocations have a regulatory environment around them and a CPD requirement, an entry level of education, an expectation of their employer, their market perception. So I don't think it's unique to this sector at all.

Steve Davis (05:15)
The report highlights great resistance to changing or adding to entry requirements for VET teaching because the sector lost many teachers after the recent training and assessment, or TAE upgrade. Linda, as someone who teaches in adult education, does it worry you that any moves to lift qualifications or standards might lead to a further exodus of teachers from the sector?

Linda Simon (05:42)
That doesn't worry me most. And I wonder whether there's another way of putting that question, so that it's actually about if we don't look at lifting qualifications and we don't look at lifting standards, what might be the impact of that? So it's coming back to, I guess, where Simon started about quality being a variable thing, and I think that Martin picked up on that too. But of all the teachers, and I'm teaching the teachers these days, of all the teachers, I've never heard anyone actually express concerns about the fact that they're doing a higher qualification, even if that's not required by their employer. They have gained so much out of it as teachers, and they feel that they're able to give so much more to their students by having a greater understanding of the pedagogy behind teaching.

Linda Simon (06:42)
And I think that there is almost a cringe that goes on in the VET sector, that we don't actually have to come up to the same standards as teachers in schools or teachers in higher ed, that somehow we're something different. And as far as I can see, a teacher is a teacher, no matter who it is that you're teaching. And you should be able to have the best qualifications, and therefore, the best understanding of how to deal with the diversity of your students, to be able to use a diverse range of methodologies in your teaching, as any other teacher. And I think that the fact that we have not expected that, and somehow have dumbed down our teachers in the VET sector for so many years, I think that that has become a real problem. And I think it's about time we turned around and sort of said, "Hey, you're great teachers."

Linda Simon (07:42)
Well, the NCVER data shows that for a start, but we also know anecdotally and through quality research that you're great teachers. We appreciate you, and we're going to continue to support you in order to increase and take on different qualifications. And that is not about just adding another unit of competency to the TAE, and I think that was some of the frustration that people felt. And that's why some walked away, rather than they're feeling that they did not want a higher level qualification.

Steve Davis (08:16)
Linda, I do love the fact that you reframed my question. It's always a wonderful as an interviewer. So I'm going to turn the tables as well, I'll meet you there. Because you opened that answer by saying that you don't think anyone would be unhappy about taking on more qualifications or lifting the game. But there is an aspect to this from the report that in this sector, the VET teaching sector, it's a highly casualised sector, almost half of teachers and assessors are in non-permanent roles. So there's a worry about the cost that comes with achieving these higher qualifications. How does that sit with you?

Linda Simon (09:00)
And I guess that comes back to the cringing issue. And with that, this idea that the VET teacher is actually a trainer and doesn't need to understand a whole lot of pedagogies in relation to teaching their students, then to me, it's that sort of issue that's half of the problem, and that we should be able to turn around in some way. Now, the VET sector has been casualised, well, certainly as long as I've been in it, and I've been in it for a few years now. The higher education sector is very casualised too, but that doesn't suffer from, I think the same problems that we think about in the VET sector.

Linda Simon (09:41)
We can either differentiate between the qualifications that are expected of people undertaking different roles within the sector. We can look at ways that we can better support those who are in casual roles. Because once again, if you're a teacher, you're a teacher. Then we can look at better ways that we can support. We can mentor. We can ensure that they have access to increase qualifications. That they have financial support, that would be nice. And that we can have ways of setting up networks that will continue to support. And I note that the research picked up on some of the wonderful national networks that used to operate in the sector, and were ways that people could get together to share their knowledge, to share and build on their professional development. And that would be accessible to casual teachers, as accessible as to those who are tenured.

Simon Walker (10:42)
Yeah. I was just wondering, in relation to the issue of the qualification and the level of education to be a teacher, there's probably a distinction in the nature of someone who's being recruited into the training system, particularly for someone from industry, and someone who's been a VET teacher for many years or even decades. And with the Training and Assessment qualification, one of the requirements was that every five years you had to update that qualification for a new version. And I think, and I'm actually kind of posing this to both Linda and Martin, is that there's a lot of resentment to someone who's been teaching for 20 or 30 years, to have to continue to re-qualify as a mandatory requirement of their teaching credentials. When, as far as they're concerned, they've been doing the job, they know what they're doing, and they're having to be forced back into this. And that was one of the reasons, rather than completely replace the previous qualification, it was decided to add two units, because of that known resistance and resentment to actually having to do that qualification again.

Steve Davis (11:49)
A comment Martin?

Martin Powell (11:51)
Yeah, I think that's a great point, Simon. And I know the paper that came out recently by NCVER focuses on capability frameworks versus professional standards. And I think the real strength with capability frameworks is the ones that work well, identify a beginner, intermediate, and advanced professionals in VET. And that may be a way, if there was some way of monitoring one's career in progress, you mightn't be obliged to go back and do those mandated type of upgrades to your qualifications if in fact you'd already been in a CPD or merit recognition system that would demonstrate you had those skills.

Steve Davis (12:32)

Linda Simon (12:33)
I noticed that the report picks up on the issue around currency, and the fact that if you're actually a VET teacher and you're teaching, that's not considered to be a matter of counting for industry currency. I've always thought that that was, I don't know, a little degrading for those teachers not to have that. The fact that were there, they're teaching, they're working with their students, they're working with their local industries. If all of that doesn't count towards their currency, I'm not quite sure what does.

Linda Simon (13:05)
So I think that coming back to that idea of being able to value what teachers do, and therefore by using a capability framework or some other method, allowing them to identify where they are doing well, where they do need to build on different skills, where they'd like to branch off and do something different, and therefore do something there. And I was part of an NCVER research project on applied research, where we developed a capability framework around what skills you might need if you're participating in applied research and innovation. So there are a range of things that people can do. And I just think that the sector is not really expanding its horizons to accept the diversity, to accept that there's not just one way of getting there. That the certificate four is not the only way, and new units in the certificate four is not the only way of building people's capabilities and professional development.

Steve Davis (14:08)
Well, I'd like to pick up because you've touched on frameworks there and professional standards. And I was going to ask Martin in particular, because in the report opinions divided on the merits of having a nationally prescribed framework, or set of professional standards for VET teachers, while at the same time there's high support for capability frameworks. Can you tease that apart for us, Martin?

Martin Powell (14:32)
Yeah, that is interesting, isn't it? And perhaps reflects the nature of VET being a federation model, where all the states and jurisdictions of Australia run their own training systems. So there has been some talk for some time about national sort of regulation or registration of teachers, and that's gone back and forth as a policy debate for some time. So that could be a nuance of the challenge there. Whereas a capability framework, there's quite a few that are referenced in that recent report, and they all seem to have similar themes. Where I think they're popular and have a lot of value is what they're for predominantly is to help with job design for practitioners. It helps with their career progression, their annual reviews. And the better ones, I think have the elements of professional values and ethics, which really, what Linda was saying too, it gives status and acknowledgement of the role that the practitioners play in the education system.

Martin Powell (15:42)
So going back to the Australian model of where it's different around Australia, I think frameworks that are acknowledged, rather than one professional standard, may allow that flexibility between professions and the way things are done in each state and territory to work. For example, with VET Development Centre, we have a model in Victoria where the state government provides funding to the VDC, to provide professional development for all the Skills First providers in the state, which is an incredibly popular model and good to see it referred to in a lot of research.

Martin Powell (16:20)
But people from interstate also come to our fee-for-service programs as well, looking for that same sort of professional development. And we use the IBSA VET practitioner capability framework, which is one that is from... I think 2012 it was developed. It's really the underlying themes, and domains, and capabilities that are now reflected in a lot of other frameworks. But probably the example of how a framework can influence other TAFEs or providers that take on their own system. So something still worth exploring. And I think the most powerful thing about a framework is, it lets there be multiple providers for CPD, and it lets the different sort of public private and community organisations tailor their own way of developing their staff and having some autonomy, but everyone having a central idea of what are the right professional knowledge and practice engagement skills, digital literacy now more so than ever, and the continuous professional development and entrepreneurialship and innovation skills that you'd want to see through the career progression of a teacher.

Steve Davis (17:34)
I'd like to go a little bit deeper down that pathway because you touched on professional development there, and that leads into the support and mentoring of our VET teachers. And yes, VDC did get some favourable mentions in this report, which is heartening. But if I head back to Linda though, because you raised this really early on in this interview. How do you think we're faring as far as that support or mentoring for our VET teachers? Where are we doing well? Where do we have lack from your perspective given that you teach the teachers, you work in this field of adult teaching.

Linda Simon (18:07)
It is very variable, Steve. And obviously I don't necessarily know a lot about where the teachers are stationed, and what their support mechanisms might be. I have to say that, and acknowledge Martin and VDC and others in Victoria, that we often get fairly strong information from those who come from Victorian institutes that there's often some very good support and interest in developing the teachers, and in providing them with both that initial qualification that they're expected to have, but also with the opportunity to develop and move into different ways. And I mentioned the applied research was now part of their agreement down there in the TAFEs in Victoria.

Linda Simon (19:05)
In other states and territories, once again, it seems to be variable. But often if they're at university, of course, they're coming from somewhere that does recognise that they there is a good opportunity for somebody to be able to take on a higher qualification, and therefore they have support and mentoring from back in their particular workplaces. So it's there, it's recognised in all the literature as good practice. Yet, I'm not quite sure that always the employers within the VET sector put that good practice into place. And I'm aware of somewhere recently, where I was talking to a Minister in education, and raised the issues about professional development and building capabilities of the staff, and the minister said, "Well, that's the responsibility of the teacher. It's nothing to do with the government."

Linda Simon (20:12)
Now, I found that a rather unfortunate comment, and certainly I would hope it was just the sort of an off-the-cuff, and that maybe with a little re-thinking that they might realize that they actually had an incredibly important role to play in ensuring that there was funding to maximise professional development for VET teachers across both public and private. And I think that that's been shown as a really important issue. As whatever happens with COVID-19, I mean, we've been told all around the place, and I just think we all recognise how important the VET sector will be in helping to train and retrain people as we move into new industries, or we change the way we do things. And we need to make sure that we have supported our teachers in a whole range of ways to be able to meet those challenges.

Steve Davis (21:11)
I'm still boggling over the Minister's suggestion that teachers mentor themselves.

Linda Simon (21:15)
Yes. Well, I was a bit boggled too.

Steve Davis (21:18)

Simon Walker (21:19)
Yeah. And just picking up on that point, the report does refer to an old program, a nationally funded program called Reframing the Future, where a significant amount, but arguably not enough, was provided on an ongoing basis, specifically for the professional development of vocational education teachers. And that went by the by over the years. And there's a strong view that there should be a more systemic source of funding for the professional development of VET teachers. And of course, if you can't get that through a government process, then it is, as Linda rightly points out, the obligation on any employer to have their staff fully trained and skilled, whether that's a VET teacher or anything else.

Simon Walker (22:05)
And I think the distinction, if we go right back to where we started on the quality issue, is it's probably not so much the teacher as the institutional environment that they're working in and those supports, I think Linda mentioned that. And in the unfortunate, and hopefully minority areas, where we have known issues with quality providers, it's probably more about the institution of that provider than it is about the staff and the teachers that work within it.

Steve Davis (22:34)
Martin, I'll just quickly insert, you did reference that we have a federated model and that leads to differences around the place, but you've got the ears of everyone at the moment. If I had to ask you from a VDC perspective, is there one or two particular ways in which support or mentoring is modelled and put forward, what would you love others to be pondering and reflecting and sizing up from their perspectives?

Martin Powell (23:01)
That's a great observation, Steve, because and it's not being parochial, but Victoria is the jurisdiction that kept the spirit of that Reframing the Future by having the VDC in place for 15 years now. So if you receive government funding in Victoria as a provider, you also get professional development. Now, that doesn't just mean webinars and workshops. We also do community of practice, and certainly have leadership and mentoring programs. And that's something that we're going to expand further in the coming years, particularly with the pivot this year to online training, which we're able to deliver everything that we'd planned to this year, but we were already in the virtual environment webinars, but now we've gone further.

Martin Powell (23:44)
So I think people have got used to the technology of Zoom meetings, and other platforms they might not have been willing to use in the past. So I think there's a new opportunity for all the other states to, if not have a VDC model, get the right providers or use their own institutions to reach people and do this community of practice and mentoring through the online means. Because I'm sure the practitioners were always wanting it, but now, it'll be easier to do out of hours or not face-to-face, and really reach those areas.

Martin Powell (24:19)
It's interesting too. I think the motivation of the organisation that you work at probably plays a factor in this rather than the teacher's motivation themselves. The VDC is for public, private and community providers. We get called Switzerland in a way, which I think is quite a compliment. It's not about politics. And when you see the practitioners together, which Linda talked to as well, they're really just seeing themselves as fellow practitioners, not so much that you work at a TAFE and I'm from an RTO, or anything like that. That's where the mentoring and learning really works to support each other. And when organisations see that and the employees come back to their staff and influence them, they'll start to encourage them to come to other sorts of training that they're happy to pay for as well. So really it's a change culture model, that could work across the country.

Steve Davis (25:17)
If I lift my gaze now, and we look at the recruiting question of attracting new people into the VET teaching sector. No doubt there are going to be some challenges. I'm going to float two complex ideas at once, and ask if you'd both like to reflect on this. One of them is there is a suggestion in the report that the VET sector might consider attracting trades-persons, at the moment, who might be out of work because of COVID-19, to come into the teaching field with the risk that when things change, restrictions are lifted, they might be tempted to go back and we're going to lose them to industry.

Steve Davis (25:55)
And on the other side, and particularly for Linda this one, given that you work in that academic field of teaching teachers at Charles Sturt University. When I grew up, my dad was a builder and he hated the paperwork and admin side of being a builder. And I noted in the report, there is talk about the administrative load of working in the VET sector. It might be like trying to blend oil and water within the DNA of people who have come with industry experience. So I'm going to pop those on the plate, and ask you both to reflect on them. And perhaps Linda, would you like to start by reflecting on these challenges ahead for recruitment?

Linda Simon (26:37)
Steve, we've always had a, well, a long term, I think view that would be a very good idea to be able to attract more tradespeople into VET teaching, and of course we do. And some stay, some love it, some decide that it's not for them, and some rightly say, "I make more money in a day as a trades-person than I do as a week as a teacher." So I don't see that really this is any different. I think that we should continue to look at how we attract, not just tradespeople, but people from a whole range of industries. I mean, apprenticeships and trades are only, really when it comes down to it, a relatively small part of the VET sector, albeit the part that often gets some of the most attention. And we should look at how then we offer them opportunities to gain qualifications as a teacher. And once again, avoid that cringe of, "Oh, no. You might not like to do this qualification, so therefore we shouldn't expect it of you." Well, I think that we set the standards high, we set the expectations high, and we may find that those people who really do want to be teachers will come and will meet those. So I don't think we should be concerned about that issue of what we expect of people coming in.

Linda Simon (28:08)
And in terms of admin, well, yes, you don't have to go far with teachers in the VET sector, and the private, public, wherever, of asking about the thing that annoys them the most. And it is the issue around compliance, it is the issue around admin. And as they say, it doesn't seem to improve a thing that they do with their students. So should we have a re-look at it? Should we have a look at quality being about what you actually do with students? What it is that you're able to do to help develop their potential, their capabilities. And if all the admin and the paperwork on the side detracts from your abilities to do that, then maybe we should re-look at that.

Steve Davis (28:56)
Thank you, Linda. I also note that's three times in this interview that I led you towards the cultural cringe aspect of this debate. So I apologise, and I will leave much more enlightened in the future. Martin, your thoughts on this question, just to finish off this chat.

Martin Powell (29:13)
It's been very interesting. When the free TAFE started, there was a great surge in demand for courses, and that led to a shortage of teachers. And so once again, the need to find people from industry rather quickly, and trying to compete with the salaries, which was an immense challenge. And I think institutions were even poaching from each other to get the teachers. It's probably more about, and I think the paper touches on this too, attracting the right sort of person. VET's virtue is that it's flexible and responsive to the needs of industry, and it's about turning people around quickly for skill shortages and for business in demand.

Martin Powell (29:57)
So equally with the teachers, you want to attract the best practitioners. And industry people, tradies as it were, but you don't want to scare them away with too much training or paperwork. What we find is when tradies, if you like, become teachers, they don't actually realise that they already have these skills and they're already applying them, and they have been for years in the workplace anyway. So I think it comes back to more that mentoring idea of that's the sort of people we want with the industry currency. But to give them more of a softer entry into the profession, and then have others to support and help them through the paperwork side.

Martin Powell (30:38)
I think, as I said before, regulation in most professions now is part of life, and no one really likes the admin side, but it's the governance models we have. Or if they had a better understanding that that's why their RTO, or TAFE, or Learn Local, requires a license to operate, so therefore you're required to adhere to those rules, I'm sure they'd understand that, or be more sympathetic toward it if it was broken down better. Because they've done that in their trades anyway, having to be registered as a plumber or the like. They understand that there's certain rules and regulations that are in place for a reason. So I hope that doesn't jar with what Linda was saying, because I agree, but I think there's a maturity there perhaps as well, in this being a true vocation.

Steve Davis (31:24)
Hmm. That's a rallying way to finish. I'm looking for an application form now, I think.

Martin Powell (31:31)
There you go. That's good.

Steve Davis (31:33)
Look, thank you so much for having this conversation with me today, Linda, and Martin, and Simon. I would direct anyone, if you'd like to dive into this report, it would be on the NCVER website, it's called building capability and quality in VET teaching: opportunities and challenges. And to the panel, thank you very much.

Simon Walker (31:53)
Thank you, Steve.

Linda Simon (31:54)
Thank you.

Martin Powell (31:54)
Thanks Steve.

Steve Davis (31:57)
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