Social Ecology of Vocational Education
The article analyses the issue of the reputation of vocational education through the prism of social ecology.
Vocational education is often viewed in school-based systems, like Estonia, as little more than basic vocational training after the basic school, which leads students down a separate educational path and incorporates a conflict between the general and the vocational education at the level of secondary education. The lower status of vocational education compared to the general education is reflected in the educational choices after the basic school, whereby traditionally two out of three basic school graduates have chosen an academic path (secondary school – higher education) and one in three have opted for vocational training; furthermore, vocational training is often viewed in popular opinion as something that is meant for the academically less capable students. This attitude is linked to the selection aspect in secondary education and can potentially lead to the polarisation of skills on the labour market.
Signals and feedback from the labour market refer to the different options available to the graduates from basic vocational training and those who have chosen academic education, particularly those with a higher education degree. Differences are clear in salary levels but another crucial aspect is their ability for mobility on the labour market. This last aspect has also become painfully obvious during crises. It is difficult to improve the reputation of vocational education because it involves various institutions and agents with their particular interests and interdependencies, which is why the problem keeps regenerating.
Vocational education reform in Estonia, which has been ongoing since the mid-1990s and has been strongly influenced by the EU vocational education policy, has not fixed the problem. The key factors that keep the social ecology unchanged are founded, firstly, on the Soviet historical and cultural legacy; secondly, on signals from the labour market that describe the key competences of vocational education graduates as inadequate, which in turn impedes flexibility in education and career; and thirdly, on the institutional separation between the general and the vocational education. Although great examples exist in Estonia on integrating vocational and general education, and despite the fact that the current education strategy objectives include the dismantling of institutional barriers, this has not yet become a general practice and may not lead to hoped results without the simultaneous and systematic support of general competences. The latter in turn create the base for the students’ ability to construct their own individual learning paths by integrating components from general as well as vocational education. We need to keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to directly influence public opinion which furthermore has historical roots, but it could be influenced by a simultaneous application of the above opinion-shaping factors. Efficient solutions should deal with all the listed factors systematically and simultaneously.