A vocational dimension to secondary education

We need to understand the nature of vocational learning and the processes it entails, not only what it is that VET students learn, but also how they learn

The need for the introduction of vocational subjects has long been felt by secondary schools and indicated clearly in a number of reports and studies. The new National Curriculum Framework aims to emphasise employability abilities and to widen the spectrum of educational opportunities and experiences that cater for the interests and aptitudes of all secondary school students by introducing a vocational dimension to the secondary curriculum. 

The Directorates of Education embarked on a Vocational Education Development (VET) Pilot with four vocational subject areas that are in line with Malta’s economic and strategic priorities. Hospitality, Engineering, Health & Social Care and Information Technology are being piloted in 10 schools – six state and four non-state schools – as option subjects in Form 3, alongside the other option subjects. These vocational programmes lead to a Level 3 qualification (Certificate Level) on the Malta Qualifications Framework.

The piloting of the four BTEC Subjects has reached its main objectives earlier than planned, by establishing parity of esteem with the academic qualifications at secondary level, and by building enough capacity and expertise in vocational education to be able to develop a VET qualification delivery model that is suitable for secondary schools in Malta.

With effect from this scholastic year, home-grown qualifications designed by the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) – which are the main VET providers in Malta – are being piloted in the same schools, thus replacing the BTEC qualifications. The teachers who have been involved in the management of the BTEC Pilot collaborated and contributed in the writing and eventual management of these local qualifications.  Thus, during scholastic year 2014-15 eight state and non-state secondary schools are managing these local VET delivery models on a pilot basis so as to assess the effectiveness of these programmes.

The MATSEC Board has agreed to administer and manage vocational subjects being taught in secondary schools, considering them vocational SEC subjects. For this reason, the MATSEC Board has revised its statute to include representatives from MCAST and ITS. The syllabi of vocational subjects are to be managed by syllabi panels just like all the other SEC subjects. The MATSEC Board has also recruited a Principal Subject Area Officer for vocational education to direct and support the vocational syllabi panels and to liaison with the Directorates of Education and schools to ensure that the new SEC procedures and regulations governing the quality assurance of the vocational subjects are being followed.

The introduction of these vocational subjects aims to broaden and enrich the secondary school curriculum through the adoption of teaching and learning methods that move away from formal learning to a learning progression process based on an on-going assessment of practical tasks, project work, experiential learning related to work, written assignments and portfolios – thus leading students to develop into autonomous learners. It aims to provide alternative assessment for formative purposes and support their competencies in terms of learning outcomes.

The evaluation of vocational subjects is based mainly on on-going formative assessment on written and practical tasks rather than on written examinations to provide initial VET certification to students. With this we plan to make education more relevant, meaningful and attractive to students who are at risk of becoming early school leavers because they do not learn the world through the academic achievement discourse.

The first two cohorts of fifth-form students studying the BTEC vocational subjects obtained an outstanding success, with 92% obtaining the BTEC qualification in May 2014, of whom more than half got the highest grade. In May 2015, 93% of the second cohort of 107 fifth-form students obtained the BTEC qualification, with more than two-thirds of them at the highest grade. This is mainly the result of a high teacher professional profile, continuous teacher support, a learner-centred – rather than teacher-centred – pedagogy and an on-going formative assessment based on practical and written tasks – rather than on formal written examinations.

Contrary to the normal transmission mode of learning, where the teacher is the main actor and the transmitter of content, in teaching the vocational subjects the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator of learning, enabling students to discover and assimilate the learning while at the same time nurturing in them important competencies and employability skills. This constitutes deep learning. The Maltese case study of the Vocational Education Development Programme indicated clearly that, through this pedagogy, students become more motivated to learning and tend to perform to the best of their abilities.

During scholastic year 2014-15, an expression of interest for teachers to teach vocational subjects was issued in state and non-state secondary schools. The objective is to introduce at least two vocational subjects in all state and non-state secondary schools as from scholastic year 2015-16.

Other vocational subjects would be introduced in scholastic year 2016-17. Successful participants were accredited as proficient to teach UNIT 1 of the vocational SEC subjects they were trained in.

In all 165 teachers and B.Ed. 4th year/PGCE students have completed successfully the training in the five SEC vocational subjects. Throughout the current scholastic year all state secondary schools will be running vocational SEC subjects as option subjects.

In Scholastic Year 2015-16 this will be increased further in several Colleges. Furthermore, during the next scholastic year, 13 Church secondary schools will offer vocational education, one of which will be offering two vocational subjects. As from scholastic year 2015-16, three Independent secondary schools will also offer vocational SEC subjects as option subjects.

One of the major challenges is developing the relationship between learning and identity. We need to understand the nature of vocational learning and the processes it entails, not only what it is that VET students learn, but also how they learn.

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