Vocational subject-making and the work of schools: a case study.
The recent growth in VET [Vocational Education and Training] in schools ... is part of a drive to prepare students in secondary schooling more effectively for employment ... [V]ocational education in schools also forms part of a number of other reform agendas; for example, addressing broader concerns about the relevance and effectiveness of the senior secondary school curriculum, improving the transition from school to further education and training, and the promotion of lifelong learning (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training Report, 2004, 7.1).
In Australia, as in Europe, governments, training bodies, business councils and academic theorists are eager to scrutinise the changing economy, to identify the desirable attributes of the 'new worker' and to put in place (or critique) changes to education and training in terms of these 'new times'. A common theme in many of these discussions is that the new worker needs to acquire or display orientations and attributes that go beyond specific items of work-related knowledge and competencies. They need to be flexible; to be oriented to lifelong learning; to be able to present and communicate appropriately in different contexts; to maintain, update and present to the best advantage portfolios of their achievements; and to be enterprising. Another common theme in these discussions is that institutional changes are required, that schools must learn to become more vocational, or vocational in a different way; and that rigid boundaries between institutions need to disappear, so that 'pathways' can become more flexible. But rhetorical calls for a re-construction of the worker and their training are one thing; the enactment and take-up of new practices is another.
Previous research has drawn attention to a range of problems and issues that are confronted when new policy rhetoric meets conflicting stakeholder interests and particular institutional and sector histories. Boreham (2002) for example, discusses the inherent conflict of interest between employers, governments and individual students in relation to training agendas and qualifications at school, and discusses how these play out differently in different structural conditions of governance of training in Germany as compared with the United Kingdom. Cho and Apple (1998) show that an attempt to instill new 'work subjectivity' through educational reform in Korea achieved only token changes, due both to the inadequacy of implementation conditions in terms of bringing teachers on side and to the resistance of students attuned to other markers of social status. Williams (2005) reviews Australian reports and literature on new definitions of 'generic skills' in the 1990s and beyond, and points to the ambiguities and frequent contradictions as to whether these 'generic' competencies are seen as innate attributes of the person or are conceived as things that may be learned and taught. Huddleston and Oh (2004) discuss some messiness and lack of empirical warrant in the hopes and agendas associated with 'work-related learning' in schooling policies in the UK. Shacklock (2000) argues that one of the directions most popular in recent Australian policy reform for schools, the fostering of 'enterprise', is popular precisely because it is a 'nebulous and contradictory' term. Similar arguments are made by Pring (2004) in relation to the ubiquitous use of 'skills' in education reform policies in the UK, and by Hayward and Fernandez in reviewing shifts in key skills agendas (Hayward, 2004; Hayward & Fernandez, 2004).
This article draws on a case study of two school-based 'dual accreditation' vocational classes in New South Wales (1) studied as part of a larger Australian Research Council-funded project, Changing Work, Changing Workers, Changing Selves, studying vocational pedagogy across different institution and industry types (Chappell, Solomon, Tennant & Yates, 2003b).The background of the project is the rhetoric and literature regarding the 'new worker'. In terms of new vocational skills and transformations of self, the project sought to study whether and in what ways capabilities such as 'communication', 'enterprising self' or 'flexibility' are being enacted in programs today, and how they are or are not affected by local specificities. Across the different education sites, the project asks two types of questions about the developments: first, what is actually being enacted in classrooms now as 'knowledge' in these vocational subjects? And second, what identities about work and working knowledge are being constructed, affirmed or marginalised in the process? Vocational subject-making is both about constructing courses of study and about producing people with particular vocational identities.
This particular article draws on research related to schooling as a site. One interest here is to consider actual classroom practice in relation to the rhetoric by which the policies and reforms have been introduced; a second is to consider the actual classroom practices against the burgeoning literature on new times, new knowledge, new forms of work and identity (for example, Cairney, 2000; Curtis & McKenzie, 2001; Garrick & Rhodes, 2000; Gee, 2000; Howse, 2001; James, 2002; Lumby, 2004; OVAL, 2003).The article focuses on two aspects of vocationalism as pedagogy in the context of schooling: the different conceptions of the agenda being expressed by different players in this arena; and the driving force of assessment regimes, and the conflicting epistemologies and imputed worker positionings these embody. It deals in turn with three questions, all framing a dialogue between policy and literature on the one hand and the case study empirical data on the other. (For elaboration on methodological approach, see Yates, 2003). Firstly, in terms of 'new' and 'old' vocationalism: who speaks what language? Secondly, how do you combine two conflicting assessment regimes? And thirdly, who is the worker imagined to be?
In this case study, two vocational classes, one in Hospitality Operations and one in Information Technology, are being taught in the final year (Year Twelve) of a NSW high school. The classes are both 'dual accreditation' subjects: students are assessed for Certificate II competencies within the Australian Qualifications Framework, a recognised assessment scheme for industrial awards. Students taking the subject can also take examinations in those subjects within the Higher School Certificate (HSC), and by doing so gain scores that will count towards their combined university entrance score (UAI). The subjects are recognised components of the Year Twelve course of study regardless of whether the student sits the HSC examination, and it is not mandatory that they do the latter. Only students taking the examination, however, will receive a numerical score and be able to use the subject for university admission purposes.
'New' and 'old' vocationalism: who speaks what language?
In 2002, the Commonwealth government funded a national conference on VET in schools, run jointly by the Australian College of Education and the Enterprise Foundation. The funding stream itself bears tribute to the fashionableness of concerns about 'new vocationalism' and 'new work order' referred to in my introduction; but the papers and discussions at that conference signalled that what VET in schools means is constructed differently by people positioned in different places in the schooling system (Australian College of Educators, 2002). For some, the issue is about developing greater vocational attributes, orientations and identity across all students. For others, the issue is about how accredited vocational subjects should be taught, and the problems in adequately teaching these, especially in relation to work placement. For yet others, the issue of VET is about marginalised or at-risk students, and special projects that can be put in place in partnership with industry to save these. The parliamentary inquiry report into VET in schools itself spends two out of its ten chapters discussing differences and conflicting agendas in relation to this arena (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training, 2004).
Agendas about vocational learning in schools are messy because the new policy moves confront older constructions both about who vocational students in schools are and about what vocational knowledge is. Historically, 'vocational' in the context of secondary schools in Australia was framed in a class-based differentiation of types of students and a mental versus manual differentiation of types of knowledge. 'Vocational' subjects were particular courses of study for those students who do not do well in 'academic' subjects, forms of study where core subjects such as English and Mathematics will be modified and seen to be of lower standard, and where students taking the vocational subjects will proceed to jobs or apprenticeships and not to university. 'Vocational' teachers often were recruited differently to 'academic' teachers, with different courses of training and more restricted career opportunities. Vocational students in this conception were not all students but some students.
In terms of what vocational knowledge looks like, the contemporary forums and policy changes confront a second issue: the changing nature of jobs and of work. The various attempts to construct 'generic' skills and attributes are emblematic of the new problem. (Curtis, 2001; Hayward, 2004; Hayward & Fernandez, 2004; Williams, 2005). Policies and literature across a wide spectrum are concerned about the knowledge society, ongoing change, and the belief that workers will be required to change jobs and learn new things in the course of their working lives. So, the question of vocational curriculum for schools also elicits questions about whether 'working knowledge' today is about having particular skills for a particular workplace, or about learning a process of learning, or about learning to be a certain type of person who possesses more generic abilities to present one's competencies to best advantage and more general foundations in ongoing learning (Beckett & Hager, 2002; Chappell, Rhodes, Solomon, Tennant &Yates, 2003a; Chappell et al., 2003b; Gee, 1999).
In the schooling component of the Changing Work, Changing Workers, Changing Selves project we interviewed education department personnel working in the VET in Schools directorate of the state education department, the principal of the school where the case studies were located, the class teachers of the two subjects, and a group of students from each of the classes. We found that the rhetoric of the new vocationalism was much more apparent at the centre of the education bureaucracy than it was at the chalkface. In the school, for the principal and students as well as the teachers, short-term and industry-specific concerns dominate.
Sociologically, it is hardly surprising that the literature of the new vocationalism, the talk of enterprise and flexibility and lifelong learning, is much more likely to be found among those who have the time and conditions to be reading, talking, going to conferences about the big picture. The people in the policy and professional development units of the education department were the ones at home with these themes, and were producing a stream of manuals for schools using the new terminology. When we attended a briefing by the people from this unit, they indicated their approval that we used the term 'vocational learning' rather than VET, and gave us a copy of a handbook they had produced and were hoping to distribute to all schools, which guided students to produce a portfolio of vocational accomplishments that they could use for later work purposes. This Work Skills Logbook for schools, we were told, is:
... meant to provide a way for students to record what they are learning vis-a-vis work in all the contexts of the student's life. In documenting various activities in their lives and the sorts of competencies involved (for example, 'leadership'), the logbook trains students in how to explicitly link other parts of their life to work or job skills so they can show these in their CV and can articulate those links in a job interview (Department of Education NSW, 2002).
The orientation of the people employed in the VET directorate within the education department was one of broadly 'vocationalising the curriculum'; which, of course, would also offer opportunities for greater prominence of their own particular unit within the labyrinth organisational structure of this particular large education bureaucracy. They saw their mission in terms of increasing the vocational orientation of all students, including students in so-called 'academic' streams as well as those tagged 'vocational', although in structural terms it was the VET teachers who were their professional development constituency.
These curriculum developers emphasised the centrality of planning, portfolios and flexibility in the modern world. They talked of their frustration in getting selective academic schools to take their work seriously. One curriculum developer said that 'in many ways it is those tertiary study students who most need to plan their career pathways because a lot of them drop out or else make other decisions.' Another observed that 'the days of one career, even in law and medicine, are over and you're probably going to have to make a whole lot of transitions, so it's the planning process that enables them to "get the evidence"'.
The curriculum developers (and policy-makers), then, are the vanguard of certain new moves to vocationalise schools more broadly, but are also constrained by their association with an area that already has a history and given set of associations, and in which speaking from a 'vocational' unit carries less class-based prestige and power than those closely associated with high-status subjects and universities. It is probably the latter rather than the resistance to portfolios and career planning as such that was causing the unwillingness of higher status schools to engage with this unit.
At the school level, the principal voiced his view that vocationalism was taken up not because it was important for all students, but because it specifically benefited those students who had been losing out within a traditional academic hierarchy. He saw the VET area as being centrally about a different type of knowledge:
So rather than doing a watered-down version of the traditional academic course, a student, particularly in hospitality, can demonstrate an extremely high level of skills, be very highly regarded in the work placement, go out into the workforce and through TAFE get an excellent job; whereas they may have left a school with the traditional HSC that didn't value those skills with a very low UAI and a very poor opinion of their own academic skills. At least by participating in VET it enables those particular skills, the VET skills, to be recognised and acknowledged and rewarded.
The principal promoted these particular programs because, as well as benefiting students, it offered a niche opportunity for his school:
In 1999 to 2000 an opportunity arose. This was at a time when there were discussions in relation to the new HSC, when there was an intention from the Board of Studies to strengthen the place for vocational courses within the curriculum and allow students to include those courses in their university admission. Now at this time [name of school] was very well placed because already we had established a very high reputation for courses such as hospitality and furnishings. Students were coining to [name of school] from other schools in the district that weren't able to offer these courses. An opportunity then arose to apply for Commonwealth funding from ANTA [the Australian National Training Authority] to apply for the establishment of a skills centre.
For the principal then, the new vocationalism of policy-makers is a field of niche opportunity but one that is taken up within more long-standing and binary conceptions of who vocational students are and what working knowledge looks like.
For the classroom teachers, too, there was little emphasis in their interviews or informal comments during classes about a need to prepare a new type of person, a person with a new awareness of their own skills (as in the work logbook portfolio conception), or a person for whom this would be just the first step on a continuum of 'lifelong learning'. (Our observations and interviews here are discussed in more detail in Tennant & Yates, 2003, 2005). For the hospitality teacher, what was important was to produce students who had a real commitment to this particular industry, who had the technical skills for the entry-level positions they would enter, and who would display these well to employers in their work placements:
Those who want to go into the industry are very quickly identified by the way they work. They are the ones that get in. In the theory, maybe not so much, but in the practical, they are the ones that are really trying hard to hold the knife, to put the fingers in the right space, to get the proper product, to plate it up properly. And they stand out. Already in my Year Eleven class I have identified three or four students who I've directed into work placement.
For the IT teacher, the important point was that those who wanted to get new skills alongside their academic studies could do so, and those who had skills already had the opportunity to display this to employers. In the interview with us, this teacher did talk some of the language of the new vocationalism:
School students need to learn communication skills because I think although they probably have the ability, and they probably do have good skills, they don't always use them. I mean, they are mature in some ways but they are still their age. I try to get them to appreciate that there are other points of view besides their own so that when they are in situations, like conflict situations, instead of getting crushed or taking things personally, they can step back a bit and think about how to handle it. That's all I was trying to get through to them.
When we observed the teacher actually teaching the communication topic in class, however, the lesson was dominated by definitions drawn from old textbooks, with little attempt to relate this to students' actual workplace experiences. For this teacher, a central reality of students' workplace futures is that a high HSC score is important, and needs to be given priority in the way she teaches the course.
In our focus groups with students from the two classes we found a limited and mixed take-up of what it meant to be vocationally oriented. It was common for students to recognise the value of certification of skills. A hospitality student said, 'It helps you in life. You get a certificate for doing it.' One IT student commented simply that, 'I just wanted a certificate and the HSC' while another was completing the certificate 'just to show that I had some knowledge of computers, for future reference.' A third said, 'Oh, I'm actually doing another certificate at TAFE, part-time at night, just to get knowledge.'
Others saw it as a way to keep their options open. One hospitality student said, 'You can fall back onto it knowing that you still have a certificate and then, even if you don't want to be a chef, in the hospitality industry you get exempt from heaps of the stuff because you've done it at school.' Another observed that 'The other subjects I'm doing are different from this, so if I don't want a career in those subjects I can fall back on this. I'll do the HSC course and the exam, and also hopefully Certificate II, and have that so that I can show if I want to work in a restaurant or whatever. I can have that.'
The students, however, in IT in particular, were not certain that they were learning anything of value. Many already had the hands-on skills for the level certificate they were undertaking, and they had little respect for what they referred to as 'theory', the answers they would be required to produce for the HSC examination. The hospitality students were enthusiastic about the hands-on elements of their course. Apart from the implicit recognition of a portfolio self that accompanies the respect for certification, there was virtually no unsolicited mention of anything relating to generic skills or abilities as part of these students' sense of what they were gaining within these subjects.
Combining two conflicting assessment regimes
The dual-accreditation systems operating in the classes we observed were the Higher School Certificate (HSC), a written examination-based system that is associated with the school system and that regulates entry to university by converting achievement in subjects studied into a common scale and a single university entrance score; and the Australian Qualifications Framework Certificate II (AQF), an assessment regime that is recognised for industrial awards, that has been traditionally taught through TAFE or workplaces and that requires assessment places and assessors to be registered and accredited as Registered Training Organisation by a system that has regard to recent and relevant industrial experience, quality of the equipment and so on. The AQF is a competency-based certificate in which assessors tick off a long list of competencies as they are achieved by students, and in which the assessment is not graded but marked as 'achieved' or 'not yet achieved'.
HSC is designed to produce spread and hierarchy; to work as a selection filter. AQF is designed to assess competency and job level classification and pay. HSC presumes different intellectual areas of study can be conflated into a single hierarchy of academic potential for university through a single entry score (the UAI). AQF presumes that a certificate level measures readiness to take on a particular role in an industrial hierarchy. The teachers we observed were accredited assessors but were being required to resolve, on their own, how to combine these two forms of assessment. They did not have a textbook or guide to follow. Teachers in the two classes we observed were using very different processes.
The hospitality teacher was explicit in her disapproval that formal traditional examinations had been introduced for her subject. She told us this several times; mentioned it to the principal in our presence, and told us that she and other teachers had written to the education department to protest when the examinations were extended. This teacher loved the food industry and loved being in restaurants; her aim was, as far as possible, to replicate the training she had experienced in TAFE and to simulate practices of industrial kitchens. She expected the students to dress in uniform; disciplined them in the manner of a boss or a head chef by yelling at them if they did the wrong thing; spent a lot of time preparing them for their work placement and talking about it afterwards; and demonstrated concern and pride that her students would demonstrate the technical skills of cutting, using equipment and so on, as well as the entry-level personal skills of punctuality, good appearance and obedience that that workplace would want. She was proud of the fact that her subject took students who often had an unsuccessful past history in academic subjects, and got them involved, interested and working well. She was also proud of the fact that a number of students each year gained job offers as a result of their work placement. She emphasised the kitchen hierarchy and that these students needed to understand their place at the bottom of this. Her emphasis then was on creating an identity for her students as workers in commercial kitchens, and that this involved technical skills and knowledge and attributes of conformity and obedience. There was no obvious reference to developing either 'enterprise' qualities nor to futures involving 'lifelong learning'. Nor was there any sense that the intellectual hierarchies of HSC and assessment had any place in preparing to enter hospitality. The mode of teaching was by traditional demonstration and practice and review.
In terms of the generic skills issue (Curtis & McKenzie, 2001; Hayward & Fernandez, 2004; Pring, 2004; Williams, 2005), this teacher seemed to see specific skills--how to dice vegetables, or plan a menu, or give ingredients and meals the right names--as something to be taught; but skills under the more generic label, such as communication largely as something the students brought to the situation. She often talked to us, for example, about the shortcomings of students from families that had limited experience of eating out. Those who would do well were the students, largely middle-class girls, who were skilled at presenting themselves appropriately in different contexts. This was not something that was taught in the curriculum. For the teacher as well as the students, writing examination answers about communication was something quite unconnected with actual work capabilities.
By contrast, the IT teacher told us repeatedly that she felt a responsibility to prepare these students to do as well as possible on the HSC examination and she gave most of her teaching time to this. Like the hospitality teacher, she marked off competencies along the way, and, with some difficulty, arranged work placements that were required by the course. But her over-riding concern was what type of knowledge students would need to do well on the written examination. When we first saw the class, she was teaching a unit on communication, using rather dated material from an old psychology textbook, having been left to find her own suitable resources whereas many other HSC subjects in this state issued a standard authoritative textbook. She repeatedly told the students how important it was to use the right terminology and to learn correct definitions. On one rare occasion when she asked students about their own experiences in the workplace, specifically exploring strategies for handling embarrassing situations, the students gave some good answers; for example, one student commented that 'I apologised and said I'd do it straight away, which I did'. The teacher, however, did not take these up or comment further on them.
At the time, the interchange in this part of the lesson gave me the impression that the students were more practically experienced than the teacher, that she was not making enough of their knowledge. This teacher had not worked in the IT industry, and many of the students did have part-time jobs using IT skills. Later, when I looked at the HSC examination, I realised I was doing her an injustice. Examination questions were not related to any actual situated contexts, and doing well did actually require one to learn what the past approved answers would be, not just to be able to conduct oneself well in the actual setting or even to know more generally the answer to the question. This example is taken from the HSC Hospitality examination:
Q. Why are chefs required to wear uniforms when preparing food?
A To prevent damage to their clothes
B To designate the chain of command in the kitchen
C To promote a team spirit and foster good team morale
D To protect themselves and protect food from contamination (All examples from Board of Studies New South Wales, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2001d).
For ease of marking, examinations begin with some fixed choice short-answer questions, followed by some shorter problems and then some longer essays. But the short-answer questions suggest that learning to be a worker or understand the workplace is a single and factual intellectual exercise, like learning a mathematics formula, rather than a situation that may be thought about and require understanding in multiple ways. To get the correct answer in the short-answer situation necessarily requires attention to what the examiners have themselves defined as the correct answer. Arguably, in the question quoted above, all of the above are correct--for example, at one of our other sites, a private hotel training school, the chain of command in the kitchen, answer B in the exam, was repeatedly emphasised to the students--yet the HSC examiners' report back to teachers simply lists their correct answer (D) and does not find it necessary to explain why other answers were incorrect (such an explanation is given in the case of any questions considered contentious).
Getting a good score on an HSC examination requires learning a particular genre of response, conquering the 'invisible pedagogy'. A question in the IT HSC examination was phrased this way:
As a member of the company's help desk you have received a phone call from a receptionist at one of the branch offices. The receptionist, who has a standalone computer, is unable to print documents. (a) Explain ONE software problem that may be causing the receptionist to be unable to print.
The examiners' notes on the scoring of answers to this question reported: 'Candidates failed to recognise "explain" involved "cause and effect". A high percentage gave a 'cause' answer but very few extended their answer to include an effect.' The examiners' notes cited an example of an insufficient answer, one that gave 'cause' only, as this: 'The printer's driver may not be functioning correctly or is not installed properly.'
In fact, the question itself had already cited an effect 'causing the receptionist to be unable to print'. According to examiners, however, a proper answer had to spell this out in the manner of the following exemplar: 'There is a problem with the printer driver. This means that the computer does not recognise the printer, and therefore cannot print.'
So what is at stake here is the understanding of a particular genre of textual response. The IT teacher correctly understood that learning the rules of elaborated codes and the academic game was something she needed to teach.
In the hospitality and the IT classes, then, quite different things were being emphasised as knowledge. For the hospitality students, knowledge was technical skills, discipline, knowing how to act appropriately as one who was on the most junior rung of the occupational hierarchy. What bosses would think was constantly emphasised. In the IT class, what HSC examiners would think was the repeated emphasis. There was some skills teaching here, just as in the hospitality class, students who wished to do the examination were set essays and other tasks that were part of that preparation, but the dominant emphases in each case were marked and different from each other, and there was little integration of why both conceptions of knowledge might be combined in these vocational classes.
The teaching strategies in the two classes were not just arbitrary choices, but related to each teacher's own experience and position: the hospitality teacher was well established in the school hierarchy, financially able to resign if she got sick of it, and felt sufficiently powerful to voice her criticisms of HSC or of other provisions very forcibly; the IT teacher was not a permanent teacher and had not worked in the IT industry, having trained as a science teacher.
The strategies also related to the cohort of students in each class and the teachers' perceptions of this. In the hospitality class, fewer of the students were seen as 'good' students academically, and few intended to try to go to university. In the IT class, we were told repeatedly about what a strong class this was academically, and only one student did not intend to sit the HSC examination.
The different pedagogies evident in the two classes also reflected these teachers' own interests and identifications. The hospitality teacher was passionate about restaurants, and believed in TAFE training approaches, of which she had had some experience. The IT teacher had come to do her degree through a circuitous route. She valued the opportunities that going to university had given her.
It can be seen that institutional histories, cohort composition and particular teacher life histories all impact on how assessment and curriculum policies are read and enacted. Equally evident is that the workload of trying to integrate two existing training and assessment structures left little time for these teachers to be creatively developing attributes that were not already signalled in those assessments: context specific or reflexive knowledge; career planning; or the ability to be enterprising.
Who is the worker imagined to be?
At the national VET in Schools conference I referred to earlier, there was some confusion about who and what was the target of the discussion. Was it all students, and their need to be made more enterprising and vocationally self-conscious? Was it the students on the 'vocational' trade-based training pathways and how they might be managed in a school context? Was it those who were 'at risk' and for whom new environments and opportunities needed to be found?
An even more pervasive slippage is evident in the policies of curriculum and assessment. Vocational qualities and vocational learning are constructed as attributes or achievements of some abstracted learner-worker, with no regard to embodied and demographic differences of actual students or to actual workplace hierarchies, prejudices and problems. The policies may refer to generic skills, or to nurturing students who are flexible, reliable and enterprising but these tropes stem from some idealised working world, and some non-embodied and non-power-differentiated conception of the workplace. This was evident when interviewing teachers and hearing about other issues that were a necessary part of their own consideration of work placements, employability attributes and conduct in the workplace but were almost entirely invisible in the policies and curriculum guides provided for them.
The IT teacher, for example, was struggling to find work placements for all of her students because her duty of care to under-age students limited her options in terms of the appropriateness of the composition of the workplace and the late travel that might be required, particularly for the young female students. At the same time it is clear, when the hospitality teacher points out the students who have been popular and successful in their workplace and likely to be offered further work, that being an attractive young woman is one employability characteristic. In both cases, being embodied as female rather than male is not irrelevant to work placement opportunities and success. Specific local work placement realities and work opportunities can be different from the knowledge and aims that are formally taught in the curriculum and assessment documents. Employer bodies argue for 'enterprise' skills; but the hospitality teacher's experience is that most industrial kitchens want unquestioning obedience rather than anything else from their most junior trainee. The students in the IT class could supply examples of how they had dealt with communication issues in their workplace but the assessment, particularly in the form of the examination, is acontextual and requires abstracted answers rather than lived or creative ones.
While the hospitality class was attempting to train students to simulate being workers and to expect and practice being at the lowest rung in an hierarchical workplace, the HSC examination presumed a hypothetical worker who could assume any position in the hierarchy. In a single IT examination, for example, some questions are of the type a lowly administrative assistant might have to deal with, some presume a help-desk type of role. Others again presume positions further up the hierarchy, such as this example: 'Draft a memorandum to staff explaining the company's policy and procedures for minimising the risk of computer virus infection and transmission.' Or this:
The extension of non-smoking areas is a recent development in the hospitality industry. With specific reference to current occupational health and safety legislation, analyse how this development impacts on the roles and responsibilities of employers and employees in a hospitality enterprise.
Of course the point of these latter questions within the examination is to produce hierarchy and spread, to assess intellectual ability and not to assess role identifications for an actual workplace. A function of a question that requires analytic, synthetic and reportage skills as compared with getting a definition or calculation correct is to distinguish those who will be awarded distinctions, who will be seen as worthy to proceed to university--and as likely to become managers.
In the focus groups and from the class observations, it was evident that the students most likely to proceed to university were most self-consciously aware about the presumed new work environment--of the need to gather multiple qualifications along the way, to have 'fall-back' options that would allow them to be flexible, regroup, and take advantage of other opportunities. By contrast, in the IT class, the male students who were already highly skilled in technical computing envisaged the future simply as a skills-based ongoing extension of their present experience in their part-time job. They see their future as continuing to learn new technical things as different 'fixing' issues arise, but do not think about a future where they may go on to different types of work, or about what type of knowledge they would need to do so.
This is a period of continuing change in relation to curriculum and institutional arrangements for schooling. A range of different initiatives has been and is being developed in different Australian states. The point of this single case study in one state, then, was not to offer a definitive description of what happens in schools, but to use a close-up study of one situation to elicit some of the issues confronting schools, teachers, students and vocational education policy-makers. The case study reminds us of the different pressures and influences affecting people in different parts of the education system; of the continued centrality of assessment in shaping what will be emphasised and conveyed to students; and of the relevance of teachers' own life histories and students' own embodied differences in the way the curriculum is enacted and its outcomes produced.
In terms of the project's overall interest in pedagogies of the new vocationalism, in the school site discussed here the young people were positioned as vessels to be taught and drilled, rather than as learners who have knowledge and experience that can be brought to the classroom. This was despite the fact that many of the students worked in part-time jobs. 'Knowing that', in the case of HSC, and 'knowing how', in the case of AQF, is conveyed as more important that 'knowing how to go on learning'. What employers thought of students in work placements was important to teachers but teachers had limited means of selecting employers or asking for particular types of input from them, and employers did not have a role in the formal assessment processes.
For the students, embodied being and family enculturation were relevant to how different individuals fared in the classes and in the workplace but were not the subject of attention in the curriculum.
Where course documents portray the good worker as one who is enterprising and flexible, the teachers, drawing on their own experience with employers, see the good entry-level worker as one who is reliable and obedient. The HSC is represented in policy terms as testing knowledge and understanding and intellectual ability; the teachers see it as a technology that has its own local criteria of what 'right answers' are.
It might be that this is a study of a time of transition, one in which the value of bringing vocational subjects into the senior school has been recognised but where assessment and curriculum materials and technologies have not yet been refined into a new accord; and where the literature on 'new times' and the discourses of the flexible lifelong learner-oriented new worker have not yet strongly penetrated the pedagogical and assessment practices. Even if this is the case, however, the study shows why some of these rhetorical demands are not easily achieved: how historical binaries as well as new language permeate ideas about where the vocational sits and who vocational students are--and indeed, what counts as assessable knowledge; how short-term and local has to be somehow put together with longer-term curriculum objectives for what schooling should achieve; and how teachers bring what has been important to them to any new directives. These are characteristics and conditions of vocational subject-making in schools that are unlikely to disappear.
Within this story, there is a story of how the young people themselves are entering these subjects and what are they making of them. In this site, both teachers and students were extremely positive about the opportunities afforded by dual accreditation, as well as about the opportunities to study in these particular vocational areas as part of the school curriculum. They may have to struggle with different visions of what is needed to be a worker today and different epistemological conceptions of what knowledge is and how it might be developed--but they know the value of certification and of keeping options open.
I thank the New South Wales Department of Education and Training for permission to carry out this research, and in particular the principal, teachers, students and curriculum officers who generously gave briefings and interviews and who allowed us to observe their classrooms. This paper is drawn from an Australian Research Council-funded Discovery Project run from 2002 to 2004, Changing Work, Changing Workers, Changing Selves: A study of pedagogies in the new vocationalism. The research team from the University of Technology Sydney comprised Clive Chappell, Nicky Solomon, Mark Tennant, Carolyn Williams and Lyn Yates. The paper draws in particular on aspects of research carried out by the author in conjunction with Mark Tennant and builds on an earlier joint paper, New Times, Old Times: Issues of Identity and Knowledge in the Schooling of VET, presented at SKOPE Conference Oxford, July 2003.
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University of Melbourne
(1) The move to extend vocational orientations and opportunities in school in Australia is a national one, but the school curriculum, assessment and teacher professional development are organised on a state basis, and both the form of the final year certifications and the form in which vocational subjects are currently accredited is not uniform across states.
Lyn Yates is Foundation Professor of Curriculum and Associate Dean Research in the Education Faculty at the University of Melbourne, VIC 3010, and co-author of Re-Constructing the Lifelong Learner (Chappell et al., Routledge, 2003), and Making Modern Lives (McLeod & Yates, SUNY Press, 2006).
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|Publication:||Australian Journal of Education|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2006|
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