AELP UK skills delegation in Australia

What an AELP delegation learnt Down Under

Last month, AELP led a UK skills delegation to Australia sponsored by NCFE and with valuable assistance on the itinerary provided by Kerri Buttery of VETNexus.

Centred on Sydney and Brisbane, the visit was a real eye-opener and this article gathers together my reflections and those of the delegation on what we learnt.

Schools’ championing of vocational education

Obviously, the delegates were only prepared to incur the expense and time of travelling over 10,000 miles if they realistically believed that business development opportunities might exist in Australia for their organisations and they knew before they arrived that the system there was different.

Perhaps the most striking aspect was to see how the Australian vocational education and training (VET) system was embedded into the school journey with credible career knowledge of realistic opportunities available for young people.

It was also refreshing to see first-hand that trades roles are embedded into Australian society with a level of credibility and pride not seen in the UK. It certainly seems that from government down, the value of a vocational route as a genuine alternative to academia is established and this should serve as a beacon to guide government policy in the UK. The schools we visited were really impressive and the enthusiasm of all concerned a highlight of the visit.

For some of us, the most startling thing was sitting in a hospitality suite in a secondary school north of Brisbane, listening to the deputy head talk with authority and passion about the value of vocational skills. Not only that, but he spoke with knowledge and understanding about hospitality, hairdressing, engineering and many other trades. None of us were sure that we had ever heard a senior leader in a secondary school in the UK talk with such an understanding.

Every young person in secondary school has an entitlement to a fully funded vocational programme alongside their school studies. Many schools have high quality vocational learning environments which are delivered by Recognised Training Organisations (RTOs) or TAFEs, i.e. technical colleges. Certainly, it varies between states and indeed schools, but the system is an integrated one.

The impact of this system has several benefits:

  1. Firstly, there is no academic snobbery; one former student training to become a concierge in a five-star hotel was as celebrated as the former student that went onto university.
  2. Careers advice was so much more effective because the vocational trades delivered in the school gave the opportunity for pupils to experiment alongside their academic studies.
  3. Teachers and senior leaders in schools had a much better-informed understanding of the opportunities available to young people because of the work they did in school with the RTOs.
  4. Expertise in vocational delivery was done in partnership between the schools sector and those organisations with the expertise to deliver.

In Australia, schools see having a partnership with training providers and colleges as the norm to offer a curriculum and pathway that meets the needs of the individual and where doing a vocational pathway has equal if not greater standing than that of an academic route way.

A different regulatory system

A big difference with the UK is that the Australian RTOs don’t use awarding bodies and are not subject to an inspectorate in the same way that the UK is. They do however receive audits from ASQA which focus on policy and process (desktop) rather than learner outcomes / journey.

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This has not led to a fraudulent sector operating in a mercenary manner, although Australia has suffered its scandals in the past, once again due to a government allowing free rein over the entry of new providers and not enough control over the programmes offered.

Instead it has led to a sector that has the freedom to focus on employer and learner needs in their respective vocations – a truly creative sector. However, I think everyone on the visit could see how an accreditation service would actually enhance the system rather than detract from it.

The Australian VET sector appears to deliver a fantastic range of services, aligned to local and federal priorities, much the same as we do in the UK. Where we felt that the UK can deliver value added is in the area of regulation, compliance and accreditation. For the awarding organisations who went on the trip, this certainly represents an immediate opportunity and one they should explore further.

The planning and regulation of RTOs and TAFEs when being set up is significant and robust, but there is little other than procedural audit in terms of system oversight thereafter.

There is no observation of teaching and learning either internally and certainly nothing like an Ofsted regime. It was difficult to see how the system assures itself of public confidence in the standards being delivered, assessed and awarded. This is something the Joyce Review, that has just been undertaken in Australia around this work, has tried to grapple with.

It’s very easy coming from the UK where we operate in a highly regulated space both in terms of teaching and learning and then assessment and qualifications with not one but two regulators, Ofsted and Ofqual, to espouse an adoption of our approach, which is where we found ourselves at the beginning of the week. The differences in how a system should be regulated is a conversation worthy and important to be had.

We left believing that the Australians have a rather light oversight regime and perhaps they have something to learn from our system. However, the Australian approach to integrating and valuing the vocational achievement alongside the academic in the schools system is certainly something we could do well to learn from.

Prospects for UK skills providers

The trip confirmed that Australia presents real opportunities for UK and international providers of training and other services. VET is clearly a valued pathway given students can study several VET training packages alongside their general education while having the added benefit of being positively respected by parents.

The outcome of the Joyce review of VET "Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System", published earlier this year (March 2019), identified the need for:

  • Strengthening quality assurance
  • Speeding up qualification development
  • Simpler funding and skills matching
  • Better careers information
  • Clearer secondary school pathways and
  • Greater access for disadvantaged Australians.

The fact that the plan seeks to deliver a stronger skills sector furthers the options for revenue generation.

The Australian government’s commitment of $525 million to implementing the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package with its support for an additional 80,000 apprenticeships over the next five years should help the VET sector deliver the skills critical to the economy now and into the future.

Our delegation felt that the Australian market could support the set-up of an ITP from the UK, although the process would be difficult and cost heavy to begin with.

We felt that:

  • It could take 2 years of delivery before being able to access state funding. That said, most of the Australian market appears to be Fee for Service delivery resulting in direct charging for programmes.
  • To deliver any accredited programme, providers would need to be on the Register of Training Organisations (RTO).
  • Becoming registered could be a lengthy process, similar in part to the ESFA’s RoATP application with windows opening and closing; a local specialist consultant would almost certainly be required.
  • Companies would need to be registered in Australia. This could be an issue as it is also a requirement to be trading for a least 1 year prior to application.

Arguably therefore, the quickest route to market to deliver an accredited course would be to identify a programme useful to Australian industry and partner with an existing RTO. Opportunity certainly exists and the people who hosted us could not have been more welcoming and open. But differences interstate and a slightly disjointed funding environment necessitate a cautious approach. Some members of our delegation were alive to forming a joint enterprise among themselves.

Indeed, an absolute success was that delegates were from a wide range of sector specific businesses that didn’t overlap too much. As such, they had much to share including views on the current state of the UK marketplace.

Conclusions

Following AELP’s trips to the USA and now Australia, it is our intention to further seek out business development opportunities for ITPs and service providers abroad and the relevant departments in Whitehall (DfE, FCO and DIT) are taking a close interest in what we are doing.

We are learning all the time on how to make the itineraries better but the general verdict from delegates is that they found them very good value for money and the Australian visit was no exception.

Therefore, AELP is busy looking ahead to 2020 with another visit possibly in the pipeline.

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

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