The past three decades of policy have brought flexibility and inclusion to vocational education and training, aimed at benefiting pre-apprenticeship students, the unemployed and adult students changing career or upskilling.
A key characteristic of this flexible approach is that it allows people to gain occupational skills and knowledge in the college setting, potentially before they have even started apprenticeships or work in that occupation.
Vocational learners are expected to attend, engage, learn, understand and remember and then to transfer, re-contextualise, apply, practise and embody their college knowledge and skills to industrial standards when confronted with similar workplace situations at some point in the future.
Dislocation of theory and practice
However, "A Study of Tutors' and Students' Perceptions and Experiences of Full-time College Courses and Apprenticeships in Plumbing", my empirical study of full-time courses and apprenticeships in plumbing, found strong evidence that this knowledge transfer was not a simple linear process for most apprentices and full-time plumbing students.
This was partly owing to the dislocation of theory and practice, which was found, in the case of full-time students, between the college classrooms and workshop settings and, in the case of apprentices, between the college and workplace settings.
Using 'ethnographic snapshot' participant observations, I observed three groups of plumbing apprentices over the course of a term at three different FE colleges. A typical group was observed doing the cold water knowledge module in the morning classroom session and the practical gas training in the afternoon. A selection of these plumbing students and apprentices were then observed in their work contexts to see how their occupational learning related to their college training.
Not only did I find that their college learning was, for the most part, not in synchrony with their work activities, but I also observed health and safety risks. It was apparent that the curriculum had been organized with institutional convenience as opposed to the needs of the apprentices (and often their employers) in mind.
Plumbing apprentices and full-time students had often passed their knowledge assessment several months before doing the practical component of their training, which begs the question:
How competent can this knowledge and understanding of plumbing be when it has not yet been experienced in reality?
Potential health and safety risks
Such a disconnect between theory and practice was not the original intention for NVQs. In 1991 Jessup, the architect of NVQs, warned that 'when the body of knowledge is taught separately from the practice of a profession it tends to become an end itself, developing its own structure and priorities, with the result that it does not necessarily relate closely to practice'.
Indeed, much of the vocational education literature emphasises the integration of theory and practice, advocating pedagogical strategies to help students construct conceptual links and embody their theoretical knowledge learning in performance activities with more knowledgeable others. My study showed, however, that the curriculum that was being delivered lacked any opportunity for apprentices to share their occupational experiences with others in an integrated pedagogical way.
Most disturbingly, I also observed possible health and safety risks. For example, full-time students were often being taught and assessed for safety-specific knowledge modules (e.g. plumbing gas and electrics) with no corresponding opportunities to practise and embody their knowledge and skills under supervision in a work context. I also observed a level three plumbing apprentice working beyond the scope of his competence because he had not yet received the electrical training necessary for the task in hand.
In addition, the discontinuity between classroom theory and practical learning had implications for both the quality of learning and the learners' levels of motivation. Many younger students and apprentices were disengaged in the theory lessons, and this often led to multiple resits of the modular knowledge assessments.
The vast majority did not perceive the lessons to be related to the practical aspects of plumbing but saw them merely as a necessity for passing the knowledge assessments. This employer-designed plumbing training did not appear to be fit for purpose in terms of meeting employers' needs for high quality, technically competent workers.
In conclusion, there is a clear need for continuity between theory and practice in the plumbing curriculum and for the integration of apprentices' real work experiences within college teaching and learning. When these approaches were demonstrated, it appeared to help plumbing apprentices develop deeper knowledge and understanding while improving their levels of motivation in relation to technical learning.
Dr Simon Reddy is a master plumber and FE teacher and a founding member of Tutor Voices