From education to employment

Transversal Abilities: The answer to all our problems?

Government policy on work experience

With government policy and inspection focus centring more and more around the outcomes for learners, the question of how the curriculum, careers advice and guidance, and teaching, learning and training help with concrete choices and opportunities following a course of study or training for learners is really important. The CAVTL (Commission on Adult and Vocational Teaching and Learning) Report put it that there needed to be a ‘line of sight to work’ which would help achieve those outcomes and the 16-19 Study Programme is an attempt to give that line of sight in the option of work experience. The prospective Technical and Professional Education routes being mooted also seem aimed to embed this idea of work experience.

Such policies and courses of study think that these experiences give the learner a preparedness for what employers may look for and even, perhaps, give the learner a real taste of how well suited they are to particular types of employment. In the case of TPE they will be a part of the programme of study itself. This is surely a good thing.

Apprenticeship is an Immersive Curriculum

But the very idea of a line of sight to work is one that is really based in the apprenticeship route and that suits an ‘immersive curriculum’ (one that has an integral design of learner experience in the occupation or trade). It doesn’t suit all vocational educational and training options. And the option in the 16-19 Study Programme to give work experience a place in the curriculum is already looking weak with Sixth Forms now not being required to offer it and the option being deflated to a relevant offer for students.

While Technical and Professional Education routes may build work experience into their course of study we need to note that, unless in regulated occupational sectors and unless tied to employment (which means ‘being an apprenticeship’) this is not an ‘immersive curriculum.’ In an immersive curriculum the identity of the learner is transformed within a community of practice. The learner is ‘becoming’ a practitioner in the workplace they are in. This is the model for apprenticeships and communities of practice where one can move from peripheral participation to core participation (becoming ‘skilled’ and taking on a new identity with new responsibilities and obligations).

Employability – do we still need to ask?

Then there are those who think that work experience is about being ‘job’ ready (suggesting a very definite line of sight to work) or ‘job’ compliant (punctuality, dressed appropriately, reliable, communicative), but those attributes of course are either too specific (in the former) or too generic (in the latter). Debates often try to unpack what ‘employability’ or ‘soft skills’ mean to employers, learners and teachers or tutors who ‘should’ be teaching them.

Restrictive Vocationalism

I think of such reductive approaches to work as a ‘restrictive vocationalism’ because they tend to assume that work is about the person doing work (being job ready) or about ‘seeing’ the work (literally, a line of sight!). Work experience here is the idea that one can be moulded to the work – and the evidence for such an idea is that it instils confidence or responsibility in the learner. It is also based on the idea that the learner mimics the work and on that basis the work itself is judged as good or bad; ‘shelf filling’, for example, is thought of as bad work experience and therefore a waste of time.

These notions are not actually about ‘work’ they are about how a learner prepares for a working life (generally) or how they experience particular job tasks (shelf filling is then bad work experience). They have their place, of course, but they are not really suited to a new conversation about work, education and training and how they can align. And, even if they were, the notion that mimesis (copying or replicating performance) is not related to expert performance would be bizarre. Of course, we copy behaviour – try learning the piano without copying somebody. Unless you want to do it the hard way, of course.

What is ‘work’?

If we began with ‘work’ as it happens in the workplace, then we might reach much better conclusions, better policy and better practice. It’s why one can wonder at the richness of work, the skills, the endurance, the patience, the judgement, and so it’s even more of a puzzle as to why this isn’t ‘known’ about or why there is a motivation problem with young people. But, isn’t it simple – we think young people need to be moulded to a concept of work that is restrictive and compliant, while the experienced and capable simply see the richness and wonder that actually exists in making, creating and developing things, ideas and services? We need to up our game and help the learner understand work, not just do it.

Expansive Vocationalism

So, what would an ‘expansive vocationalism’ look like? Well, that’s where ATL’s ULF project comes in. We do think that work is relevant to young people and we do think a more balanced curriculum is required in schools, but where do we get that balance? Where are the ‘skills’ to be taught?

We continue to decouple work from education and education from work!

And the problem is that government policy in the sphere of education thinks that ‘work’ is the end point of learning, and doesn’t think about it as a place of learning. Yet, government views on industry and skills thinks the workplace should be about innovation and high productivity. That just about shows the decoupling of the two spheres of interest (education and industry). We no longer talk about lifelong learning, of course.

Trade unions as new mediators of education and work!

For BIS the workplace is special and needs support, whether SMEs or large businesses. That’s why BIS (Department of Business Innovation and Skills) have been great supporters of UnionLearn Funded projects because they see the role that trade unions in workplaces can do. Who doesn’t want a better and more effective workplace? Who doesn’t want a better qualified workforce? But we can do much more from functional skills to post graduate work, from basic training to bespoke professional courses and continuing vocational education and training (CVET).

Introducing Transversal Abilities!

In our ULF project we are working with Professors’ Chris Winch (UCL) and Mark Addis (LSE/BCU) to understand the type of abilities that employers think is needed in their workplace and those that employees are actually using in those workplace. These abilities are what we are calling transversal abilities and they are often mistaken for other things (employability – which they could be, but not obviously). They are rarely made explicit in the workplace itself, though often referred to as ‘what it’s all about’.

For example, you might be told on an application form that ‘planning’ is required but you are not told what scope the ‘plan’ might have. It’s all left implicit or assumed. Or, you might need to be a good ‘co-ordinator which effectively means that you will take some key responsibility for your work and you will have an amount of autonomy. You will need to make judgements as to ‘when’ things are done and ‘where,’ along with many other logistical (and political, perhaps) judgements. But in an interview such things are exactly what we hide from applicants – how the workplace really works! There is a way to give the workplace a proper profile without thinking it’s all about personalities or ‘our odd’ ways of working that you will get used to.

To take another common example, ‘communication,’ has a range of possible enactments from being told to put something on a website to devising new social media tools. We are simply not good at distinguishing how much of these abilities people really do enact and how much we need. We think of ‘tasks’ and ‘competences’ but not about the autonomy and responsibility which all of these abilities have a range of. Even one of the most complete example of transversal abilities, project management, which encompasses a set of high level skills is often thought of as just a skill set, rather than making up a range of enactments (those things we actually do) for high level performance work.

We think if we knew more about such abilities and the workforce capacity (real or illusory) then we will be in a better place to train, develop and plan for productive growth. A lot of what goes on in workplaces are ‘imperfect obligations’ that can’t be put down to a contract. They are part of the goodwill, ethos, and ‘quality’ of the workplace. It seems transversal abilities are fundamental to that way of looking at the workplace.


Launch Event

So, what is ATL and its partners (ET Foundation and AELP) doing about this? We are currently putting together a survey (based on the academic research)of transversal abilities found in different workplaces and occupational contexts. We have quite a few employers and networks who have agreed in principle to survey their workforces and we are now looking at a launch date in June to present our concrete project proposal, details of the survey and our follow up work around supporting vocational educators and enhancing work based learning. We imagine capacity will be a definite issue following the interest we have had in our early conversations.

Vocational Educators

Our focus is also on the ‘vocational educator’ that is, somebody who educates, trains, develops skills and training in the workplace (and of course may be subject to that training). We hope to show that teaching and training in workplaces (or places of work) is related to tacit knowledge in the workplace and which is better seen as transversal abilities. Often not covered by inspection, qualifications or even recruitment criteria (certainly, not precisely), we hope to show that they are key to high performing and innovative workforces. Transversal abilities are non-routine and critical abilities, in their fullest form they are part of creative and forward thinking workforce. But they must also must ‘match’ the requirements of the workplace itself.

Vocational educators somehow manage to maintain the cutlure of quality and performance that workplaces have without their full impact being acknowledged.They are key to the sustainable development of workforces when it matters and how.

Implications for employers and business

Transversal abilities can stop disasters, improve the ethos of a workplace, and increase productivity. In a more mundane way they are the lifeblood of every workplace, almost in every instance as to how things are done and the manner in which they are done. If we could tell learners about this richness in the workplace and be open with learners that you might be shelf filling but you can still evidence how those abilities appear around you we would be getting much nearer smart learning?

Learners could go on and compare with others who have been in different workplaces and who have seen very different abilities being used for different reasons. Once we start telling learners the richness of the workplace we may start believing it ourselves, even Ministers of Education…One thing we can be sure of is that the workplace will have more intelligence about what is effective and what is not, about how productive the workplace is and can be.

Implications for FE practitioners

The implications could be that FE practitionerscan engage with and understand the occupational contexts of suchtransversal abilities (or be asked to remember their experiences and share them).

Implications for Work Experience/Placements

That work experience/placements might also need to be reorientated around transversal abilities, rather than around job tasks which are discrete and routine. We see transversal abilities as non routine ‘project’ linked abilities in their fullest sense but, again, as distinct abiliites, such as planning, discretion, communication, co-ordination, which are all often misconceived as generic and simply transferable. How many times do we see lists in job role requirements as ‘desirable’ or ‘essential’ without knowing how they are actually enacted in the workplace. They are listed simply because they happen at some time in some way. That’s not really very refined is it?

Implications for the Workforce

We think transversal abilities are about specific contexts and related to workplace types and occupational sectors. We want to work with employers, vocational educators, and other unions to find out more and to help to develop the capacity of workforces wherever they might be working. We want to encourage new conversations in the workplace around skills, abilities and learning, so that the workplace is seen as a place of enrichment as well as just hard work!

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

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