Transcript of VET in Schools and the shadow of ATAR

28 April 2022

Vocational Voices: Season 7, Episode 1

VET in Schools and the shadow of ATAR

Professor Peter Shergold AC (00:04)
We now essentially require students to stay to the end of year 12 or equivalent. If there's been a failure of public policy, I think, and Simon may disagree with this, it is that we have never satisfactorily articulated what or equivalent is. So what it means in most instances is we want you to stay to the year end of year 12 but if at the end of year 10, we don't think you're ATAR academic material, then in many instances those students think that the others are being privileged. Their decisions are not being accorded the same status.

Steve Davis (00:43)
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 VET in Schools. Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director NCVER. And Professor Peter Shergold AC, who is the Chancellor of Western Sydney University. From 2012 to 2018 he was the Chair of NCVER so today's a homecoming. And in recent years, he's chaired a major review for Commonwealth State and Territory Ministers of Education on senior secondary school pathways (Looking to the Future) and, with David Gonski, a report for the New South Wales Government on vocational education and training (In the Same Sentence). Welcome both of you to the podcast.

Simon Walker (01:34)
Hi, Steve.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (01:35)
Great to be with you.

Steve Davis (01:36)
Simon, if I can start with you, let's define a few terms. What do we mean when we say VET in Schools, and how does this differ from the term VET for secondary school students?

Simon Walker (01:49)
Well, the first thing I'd say is that in short, there is no difference. But there was a reason why the terminology changed. And that was a perception that the VET delivered to school students was somehow different or under a different set of standards and quality than the VET delivered to non-school students. There's probably a bit of ancient history bound up in this, not the least that schools have been offering vocational education, or voced as it's sometimes known, for many years prior to national recognised training becoming quality assured under a set of standards. And there was some confusion early, particularly in my experience between those vocational programs that were being delivered in schools and vocational education and training that has been standardised through national arrangements. That is largely cleared up. It is VET is VET is VET. It's set under the same standards under the same quality assurance programs, whether you're in a school or you aren't. But that's a little bit of the back story around that.

Simon Walker (02:53)
I might just add to that answer that when we talk about the data we report, we are talking about VET that is delivered to secondary school students that contributes towards their secondary school education. And that doesn't cover all vocational education and training that's delivered in schools, it's only those that are deemed to contribute towards their secondary school education. And the differences between the total number of students that we report, which is around 240,000 a year and what we think or estimate is the total quantum of VET students undertaking in schools is around 50%. So that's quite a lot difference.

Steve Davis (03:40)
Actually. I just want to dive into the numbers before we turn to Peter, Simon. Because I'm looking at the results from the 2021 NCVER report, VET for secondary school students, outcomes and insights. And it says that in 2020, there were 241,200 VET in Schools students across Australia. So you were very close, and that's compared to the previous year 2019. This number is an increase of 2.3%. But when we actually compare the figures to 2016, the number represents a drop by about 0.9%. Now, unless I'm missing something, this seems akin to what I'd call a status quo with a slight uptick may be correlating to the arrival of COVID. So to me, this data suggests a plateauing of VET in Schools student numbers. Is that how you interpret them?

Simon Walker (04:35)
Yeah. And bearing in mind the definition I just gave you a minute go around contributing to a secondary school certificate. Yeah, we would regard that as a steady number of students undertaking VET in Schools. What's probably useful there is to understand what is the total school population or secondary school population. And that is relatively unchanged as well. So there's slightly less than 500,000 10 years ago. Slightly more today. And that in turn is really about the demographic makeup of Australia. So with lower birth rates and all that stuff, the number of 15 to 19 year olds, for example, has been relatively unchanged over the same period. So the participation rate has remained roughly the same.

Steve Davis (05:16)
All right. Peter, in your role as Chair of the Education Council's Looking to the Future report, you note, and I quote "The present transition pathways presented to young adults at school are too often framed in a manner that they perceive to narrow choice, and that many students believe those headed for university are accorded higher status at school than those who prefer to put pursue a trade apprenticeship or a traineeship." In your opinion, do you think this might help explain why the number of school leavers participating in higher education has increased significantly in the past decade while VET participation has lagged?

Professor Peter Shergold AC (05:58)
I think it is part of the explanation. When I undertook that review, I knew quite a lot about tertiary education, vocational higher education. I didn't know much about senior secondary education. I talked to a lot of experts, but I also talked to a lot of year 10, 11, 12 students. And I've got to say, I am convinced by what they told me, that intentionally or not in most, not all schools, there is a tendency to privilege certain academic routes towards ATAR. And ATAR becomes that distinguishing sign post in a way in which I think it was never intended to be. And so what you have at the moment, I believe, is ATAR is distorting senior secondary education in profound ways in which for most students, it looks like certain academic pathways are being privileged above vocational and training pathways. It's a complete nonsense, but that is how it's perceived.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (07:07)
And so I suppose Steve, I think the problem starts not almost with secondary education. It starts with what's happening in the tertiary field. Because students are being told at around, I don't know, 14, 15, 16, you've got to start making choices now because when you leave school, you are going to a labour market and you can either go through higher education or vocational education. In fact, it often gets simplified. You go to uni or you go to TAFE. It's even more simplified. And of course we know, a lot of NCVER research shows this, it's complete nonsense. Once you leave school, there are in fact a proliferation of pathways that you can follow to find your future career.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (07:51)
But what we're doing through ATAR, we're saying, are you going to study for ATAR or not? Are you going to be the 50% going for higher education or not? Now that has a disastrous effect. So what started as an administratively convenient university ranking tool is often mistaken by many parents for a school certificate themselves. They think their child is studying for ATAR and it's the school certificate. And so that is the most profoundly distortionary impact, I think.

Steve Davis (08:22)
From the work that you've been doing and just reflecting on your experience, what do you think Peter, might help our education sector emerge from what I might call the shadow of ATAR?

Professor Peter Shergold AC (08:38)
So I think there are things we can do very specifically with ATAR. Now, a lot of people, or in fact an expert minority of people think that I welshed out by allowing in my report, ATAR to have a role. My view, for what it's worth, is that I think over time it is dying of its own volition. What I mean by that is what most school students and their parents don't understand is that ATAR actually only plays a relatively modest role in how students are selected for university, let alone for the non-university higher education providers. Less than half of students at university are selected predominantly on the basis of their ATAR results. So I think what you're seeing, and it's been accelerated during COVID, is increasingly universities are deciding they're going to have a variety of different entry tests.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (09:36)
And ironically vocational education is a key path, work experience, mature-age entry. And of course, many people swapping from one university to another. So I think people are overestimating the impact of ATAR on your future career prospects. What can you do about it? What I want school students to do is study what turns them on, which is.. what is their passion? If it's advanced level maths, go for it. If it's physics, go for it. If it's history, go for it. If it's ceramics, go for it. If it's a cert two or cert three, go for it. But allowing people to have that choice. There is no need to make a choice at about 15 about these being the alternatives. So what I would do keeping ATAR is one of two things. I would either have more vocational or general subjects included in the ATAR calculation, or I would reduce the number of subjects included in ATAR and give students the complete freedom to choose whatever else they want to do in senior secondary education.

Steve Davis (10:48)
I just want to go low rent for a moment and refer to a quote from Gary Vaynerchuk, who is a very popular entrepreneur. Someone just quoted him. I saw this 30 minutes ago, a quote that said, "Some people might call you lazy. I don't. I just say you're engaged in something that doesn't interest you. When you're engaged in something that interests you, you will be consistent." And I think that actually marries with what you were just saying, Peter.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (11:15)
Well, absolutely. Look, we now essentially require students to stay to the end of year 12 or equivalent. If there's been a failure of public policy, I think, and Simon may disagree with this, it is that we have never satisfactorily articulated what or equivalent is. So what it means in most instances is we want to you to stay to the end of year 12. But if at the end of year 10, we don't think you're ATAR academic material, then in many instances, whatever the teacher's intention, those students think that the others are being privileged. Their decisions, and it may be a decision not just because they can't do academic subjects, their decisions are not being accorded the same status. Now, if of course we were preparing people for a future labour market, in which in fact the number of vocationally oriented skills was substantially diminishing then there might be some logic to it. But everything we know about the future labour market shows that a knowledge nation requires knowledge of the head, yes. But also of the hand and the heart. There's no indication that's going to change in the next generation.

Simon Walker (12:35)
Yeah look, just to reinforce what Peter was saying there. When this retention strategy came in and there was I think a declaration amongst all governments back in about 2008, nine. And by around 2010, all jurisdictions had a requirement that you stayed in school until 17 or 18 or year 12. And, as part of that, they gave the options of going into school or going into full-time training or going into full-time employment. So this notion of earn or learn. Those options are freely available under all legislation around the country. But, the behavioural response was, for those students that would otherwise have left school and gone into employment or otherwise have left school and gone into further training or education, they went back to school. And a lot of that's bound up in what Peter said earlier around expectations of schools and parents and the like. There are some other interesting, unusual, anecdotal reasons why some of those kids went back into school rather than going to a job or into a TAFE, for example.

Simon Walker (13:47)
But it was the behaviour response that they actually went back to do school studies rather than take up the options that exist. How much of that is awareness? I think that's a part of it. So in the sense that the policy probably fails by not making people aware of those options. And how much are expectations of parents who thought, well I'd rather have my child go all the way through to year 12. And there's no doubt, because there is evidence there that completing year 12 does have benefits. But similarly, there's no doubt those options simply weren't taken up in the manner that you might have expected.

Steve Davis (14:25)
You've brought parents into the fray and I want to touch base on them now. Because it's widely believed that parents have a profound influence on the pathways chosen by students. Although I do note from the NCVER research that 70% of VET in Schools students who were surveyed said they were the ones who decided to enrol in their VET course themselves. I'll just park that to the side. Be that as it may, parents are still influential figures, school counsellors are influential. Should we be improving our efforts in providing them with information about pathways and careers as well as students? And what would we hope to achieve by this enterprise?

Professor Peter Shergold AC (15:07)
Well, absolutely. So you have to always go careful when you talk about schools, because you make these generalisations always knowing there are some absolutely brilliant schools which buck the trend. But overall I have no doubt, and I'm talking across jurisdictions, that overall the standard career advice offered at school is pretty low. Tick a box type. And to be truthful, without proper training, what does a teacher know most about? A teacher knows most about universities. That's their skill set. So we absolutely need to improve the quality of professional career advice given at schools. And indeed I think that's important because I want a kid to learn at 14 or 15 that in your future you're going to need career advice now until you're 54 or 64. You are going to keep changing careers, getting new skills. This is going to be a part of your life.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (16:09)
So we absolutely I think have to professionalise the career advice that is available, both to students and to their parents. I think the other thing we need to do in career advice though, is to say that the future of work is extraordinarily uncertain. There is a debate about the extent to which cognitive technologies and robotic process automation and artificial intelligence is going to change the workforce, but it will change the workforce. And it will change it in a way quite different from last century where most automation was really about the mechanisation of factory type employment. What you've got now is, if you like, an undermining of many professional skills. So what we should be saying to people as they are preparing for a future of work, is you need career advice and the one thing we can tell you is there are certain generic skills you will need.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (17:13)
Not just good you are at math or indeed how good you are at plumbing. But everything we know about the future suggests that you'll need to be able to communicate effectively, that you will need to be working as part of a team collaboratively, that you will have to solve problems creatively. And then pause and make it clear, you can do all those things, whatever the educational choices you are taking. Honestly, Steve I've been helping my daughter on occasion where she's getting some work done on her house. And so the other day she went to work and I decided to go and meet the plumber. And he was giving a number of options. It was a great exercise. He said, look there are really three options here. And went through how difficult it was to do, what the difference in price was, what the difference in impact was.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (18:12)
And honestly I listened to this five minute explanation, which was really well done, and thought I could not give public servants a better letter, for example, on how to advise a minister. It was absolutely that practical, creative problem solving. So I think we've got to put much more emphasis on those generic workplace skills, which will serve whether you want to become a professional, a worker in a high tech modern construction industry or a care worker, you will need those skills.

Steve Davis (18:45)
And in the backdrop here, one of the things you mentioned is understanding the changing nature of the workforce. I understand from a good friend of mine, who's a cognitive scientist, that us humans are really bad at imagining the future. So the biggest part of the challenge I think, even if we got all our policy wonks in a row, is how do we empower counsellors, parents, schools to understand really that this is changing in the future. That's a big hurdle.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (19:17)
Yeah, I think that's right. All we can say, I think, with a degree of confidence is that the future will require a variety of skills and it will require people who have learned sufficient flexibility that they continue to adapt, choose new career paths, choose new skills and pathways because although the future is uncertain, I think what is pretty certain is most school students at years 11 and 12, 17 or 18, are going to go through four or five significant career changes by the time they retire at 70.

Steve Davis (20:00)
That's true. And the other thing just running in the background is, will my child or will I as the student be able to earn into the future. And I want to just turn to Simon on this one because I think gnawing behind the scenes is, for some people money. Where's the money going to come from? For others, status is really important. Simon, what does the data tell us? What does it reveal about whether or not participation in VET at school, for example, actually pays off?

Simon Walker (20:31)
It's a really interesting area this. We did some recent work with the longitudinal study of Australian youth. Which looked at the participation of people in VET in Schools. And probably one that most people wouldn't be aware of, but 40% of the students in our sample that participated in VET were actually doing an ATAR or on an ATAR pathway. So their motivations for doing VET are probably less about employment. although interestingly, a consistent theme was getting a qualification. So there's an element of a backstop so that if you don't make university or if you change your mind, you've got something to go ahead with. But nonetheless, they aren't there expressly to look for direct employment into the labour market. They are looking primarily to go to university. So that's a larger proportion that I think people would otherwise expect. If you look however at those that weren't doing an ATAR, they are typically people who are looking to get employment either straight after school or go into further education and then go into employment.

Simon Walker (21:40)
And the general outcomes for those students is good if they participate in VET in Schools. Having said that, choosing the right VET course or pathway is critical. So any VET won't necessarily get you there. And without stifling people's ambition of course, some pathways are undoubtedly better than others. And although school based apprenticeships and traineeships are a very small part of school based activities in VET, they're only about 7%, they have stunningly good employment outcomes directly after school.

Simon Walker (22:15)
So those people, we measured again at 25 as the longitudinal study, and those people that did a trade pathway at school that eventually got into an apprenticeship were more likely to be in full-time in employment and permanent employment at age 25 than any other cohort in the school. So choosing the right course, having the intention in the first place to go into employment, not just doing VET necessarily because it's just part of a suite of things you can do but if you've got a child who is intending to wanting to go into employment, has a fair idea of what type of job they want to go into, and they undertake the VET course that matches that ambition, the outcomes are excellent.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (23:00)
Yeah. And let me follow up, because this word vocational is a really interesting one. You started by saying how many more students now choose a higher education provider pathway rather than a vocational education pathway. At least when they first leave school. But I got to be honest with you. One of the reasons is, universities themselves have become more vocational. Now I got to go careful what I say here, because it always arouses enormous hostility when I say that. And I absolutely accept that universities, my university as it teaches, if you like, vocational subjects does so in a way which does provide the theoretical as well as the practical content. And it's taught by lecturers who have researched the subject and hopefully open up opportunities for students at some point to do their own research. So I understand that there is something about university education, which is different from TAFE education.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (24:04)
But let me also say that when students are choosing to go to university now, not just to become doctors or lawyers. When they're going there to become accountants, engineers, nurses, midwives, social workers, physiotherapists, here's the truth. They are choosing to do that subject because of its vocational potential. They are not just studying it out of academic interest. That is why the first thing a student says or wants to know about a university is if I get this degree, would it allow me to be registered by my profession? So there is vocational intent. So more and more of the students who are actually choosing, if you like, the academic pathway are nevertheless doing so with vocational intent. Not all students, but an increasing percentage of them. And so this idea that somehow at 17, you've got to choose between vocational and academic is almost meaningless now. I believe that many many university students now see what they study at university as a form of professional apprenticeship.

Steve Davis (25:22)
I want to just explore that footnote on the term vocational, because I've always held it similar in parlance to a calling. It's my next step. It's something important. As an aside Peter and Simon too, if you have an opinion, given that we are going to go through five, six or seven different careers is the weight of getting that vocational choice right less weighty when you're younger, given that we're not just stuck to one, typically we're going to have a multi flavoured rainbow sort of career ahead of us to take some pressure off? And I'm asking personally, I've got two daughters who are 11 and 13. This is right on my horizon as well.

Simon Walker (26:03)
Well, I might start by saying that, and I'll just pick up where Peter left off, vocations as a term has a very specific meaning in the history of apprenticeships for example. So we talk about establishing vocations or registering vocations for trades, for example. So I think some people are stuck on this notion that a vocation is a trade occupation. But of course, more generically a vocation is a job or a career as the case may be. So I think Peter's absolutely right around, there are plenty of vocationally oriented degrees out there. You cannot be an accountant without having to go through any of those processes, or a nurse or whatever.

Simon Walker (26:46)
I think I'd start though, to answer your question by saying, there are so many more pathways for people now than there probably ever was. That's partly structural changes in the labour market requiring changes in careers. But the options for people to get perhaps a foundation degree or a foundation vocational qualification, and then move into other areas is far greater than I would imagine it's ever been. Some of that of course is cultural change. You used to have a job for life, now you don't. And some of this circles all the way back to where Peter started with building those foundational skills is only going to be more important than whether it's a practical skill or a specific professional skill. Being able to give people the grounding to be able to move through the labour market is probably, including those particular attributes that Peter described, is probably the most important.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (27:41)
And for me, why I am convinced that in many instances, keeping young people at school at 17 or 18 years of age, even though they have little academic interest, is to make sure that they do go into the future with the english language skills and the math that they need. If anything, the old core subjects of English and maths have become pretty vital whatever your decision now. And I would probably add that digital knowledge. We've seen in COVID of course, that those who are comfortable with using a digital means to continue to work are so much better placed than those who are at the wrong side of the digital divide. So what I would like of course, is a senior secondary education where people have as much choice and flexibility as possible, and don't have to make decisions on the basis of false premises about the future. But all of them leave with some of those generic skills along with english, maths, digital. If we've done that, then I think in a sense, our education system is succeeding.

Steve Davis (28:57)
In starting to draw some of these threads together. Peter, earlier you talked about our school counsellors and those who are making suggestions on where to, the more professional they are, the broader their base of experience, the better it's going to feed into this decision making. But on the same coin, perhaps the other side is one of the challenges I suppose, facing VET in Schools programs is the recruitment of teachers who have industry expertise so that when they're teaching, they know their stuff, they have industry currency. Now I imagine there's a little of this pressure, even in your tertiary sector too, making sure your professors remain current with their disciplines. But for our purposes, how hopeful are you that this challenge can be addressed effectively of getting that good stock of trainers and teachers in the VET sector?

Professor Peter Shergold AC (29:53)
Well, we know we can do it. Because whilst I am in general critical of the level of career advice and guidance that's given in most schools, I have been extraordinarily impressed with changes that have taken place over the last 10 years in terms of pastoral care of students. I think most schools are much better at the pastoral care now and having people in the school and teachers who are able to do that in a well thought out and professional manner. Now with careers, of course what I would like is the opportunity to get more people who've got experience from a variety of trades or professions to be able to impart their knowledge to students. It often happens, in fact most schools it happens on a relatively adhoc basis and you've got work experience projects. But it is too adhoc. One means, and governments tend to leap at this is, well why don't we take more professionals who want to do a career change and get them to be teachers.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (31:05)
I am in favour of doing that. I am in favour of doing it in a way, which is relatively short courses to allow them to make that transition. But I sometimes think that some people think that because you're a good accountant and you've reached 50 and you want a career change, that you'll be really good at going into a classroom and teaching math. There's more to it than that. So we can't just assume that because you've got mathematical skills, you can go and teach math. So whatever we do, we've got to be serious about doing the re-training of professionals who would like to do that. What I'd also like to do is something that we do much more at universities. You almost have, if you'd like, adjunct appointments. You have people who, may be tradies or professionals, whatever it is, who on a more systematic basis can come into the school to help a couple of times a year and provide career advice. Can help organise work experience.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (32:09)
Who can go into a classroom with teacher support and say, well if you're interested in intensive agriculture and greenhouses, let me tell you what you need to know about math. So in fact what we're able to do is harness many of those skills on a volunteer basis from people I would think who would like to be able to do it if there was a well designed program to let them do it. We know it works because some schools do it. We know it doesn't work because jurisdictions overall fail to provide that.

Steve Davis (32:46)
That is, I think, a golden insight upon which we could rest our discussion here. But gentlemen, before we do, are there any final comments that you'd like to share with anyone listening in within the VET sector or those who hold the puppet strings above. What should they be pondering in relation to VET in Schools to bring some of these thoughts to fruition or to make sure that for Australia's sake, let alone the sake of our VET students, that the best outcomes possible are achieved?

Simon Walker (33:19)
You want me to start?

Steve Davis (33:19)
Of course, Simon, you're the CEO. You go ahead.

Simon Walker (33:21)
I'm going to pick up on Peter's last comments. The issue of getting professional people or industry qualified people into schools is a really vexed issue. And it's ultimately about money. There is nothing stopping you from having more VET delivered by external professional dedicated VET providers, quality assured VET providers, other than the additional cost. So there are probably too many school teachers teaching VET, when in fact there are 4,000 training providers and some X hundred thousand trainers out there that have got that industry experience and are dedicated to those roles. It's a difficult policy area because of the costs involved in doing that. But I'm not sure we've made enough effort across the country to enable more VET to be delivered by professional VET providers.

Steve Davis (34:22)

Professor Peter Shergold AC (34:25)
I would like to think of how we can use schools to engage young people with the purposes of their education. I was interested in talking to students about what they had learned from maths, calculus. Or what they had learned from history, the foundations of the Australian constitution. And yet too rarely were able to mention the underlying skills they had learned in there, working collaboratively, solving problems, articulating arguments, and so on. And I'd like them to get back to those basics as well as the english, maths and digital basics. And what I really want to do is to encourage students, to engage with what it is that interests them. They don't have to make lifetime decisions by the time they're 18. That the HSC today is just one vehicle. Yes, if you do well at your HSC that's great. Bugger up your HSC, there's a wealth of opportunities out there.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (35:29)
What I'd like to do is say, why are you doing this? What are we doing this for? And I suppose Steve to emphasise, there's not one but two reasons. First, well actually probably three reasons. First because education will provide you with a value for the rest of your life. Whatever you are doing, it will make your life more enjoyable. The second is of course, because of securing a good job and a career within the labour market, but the third, and I think this is profoundly important when we see democratic governments under attack from without and within, is so you can become an active citizen in the future. And if you think of those three, your own personal fulfillment, your labour market prospects, your opportunities to engage as a citizen. What we should be doing is to say to students and you choose to a significant extent what you do, which you think will best provide you with that outcome.

Steve Davis (36:33)
Professor Peter Shergold, thank you.

Professor Peter Shergold AC (36:35)
Thank you indeed. It was fun.

Steve Davis (36:37)
And so Simon Walker. Thank you.

Simon Walker (36:39)
Thanks again Steve.

Steve Davis (36:42)
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