What can we learn from VET teaching in Nordic countries?
20 Feburary 2023
As an advocate of TAFE teachers I have an enormous amount of respect for the VET teaching profession – those who have mastered their crafts over a lifetime before turning their hand to teaching and “giving back” to their trade. However, the apparent unwillingness of education leaders to do what is needed to raise the status and standing of vocational education in society, including elevating the status and standing of the VET teaching workforce is a crucial failure that will have long lasting impact on future generations.
Access to VET teacher training
Until early 2021, I was the course coordinator of the only initial teacher education (ITE) university program in Australia specifically designed to recruit and upskill tradespeople to become qualified VET and technologies secondary school teachers. To my lament, the course did not survive the COVID-19 pandemic, and along with its closure, came the loss of opportunity for tradespeople to gain a professional VET and technologies secondary school teaching qualification in Victoria. Now, I could talk for a long time about why the closure of this program is problematic, but I boil it down to three areas of particular concern: (a) quality of VET teaching and learning available in schools, (b) opportunity for VET trainers to gain a secondary teaching qualification, and (c) the low status of VET in society.
Although VET in Schools (VETiS) or VET Delivered to Secondary School Students (VDSSS) has been around since the mid-1990s, to date Australia has been unable to create a sustainable or productive enough way of producing the quantity of ITE or teacher-qualified VET secondary teachers needed to resource the nation’s secondary schools. In fact, teacher-qualified VET teachers are today so rare, they are literally referred to as an “endangered species” by the national authority responsible for teaching standards, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)1. At this point, someone usually reminds me that VET trainers are able to work in schools so long as they have a special authority or Permission to Teach (PTT). PTT is something school principals can call on in times when they can’t find suitably qualified teachers to teach their programs. It enables them to employ non-qualified teachers (trainers) to fill in during times of teaching skill shortages. PTT is supposed to be implemented only on the proviso that the candidate can demonstrate that they are enrolled in, and working towards a full teaching qualification. Today however, at least in Victoria, these rules have been changed so that VET trainers no longer need to demonstrate that they are enrolled in a secondary teaching qualification2. In fact, VET teachers are so rare that they have been given their own special category of PTT. But given the importance of VETiS programs to the nation, it is worth considering why is it that VET school teachers are so rare.
VET teachers are an endangered species
One major reason why VET teachers are on the “endangered species” list is due to the absence of viable or accessible undergraduate ITE programs for tradespeople and other VET professionals to enrol in so they can become qualified VET secondary school teachers. This problem has become so serious that it is no longer possible for tradespeople to find an undergraduate ITE program that offers a VET specialisation and two years of advanced standing in recognition of their trade qualification and industry. Unless Australia does something to address this issue, and fast, we will be needing to upgrade the conservation red flag from “endangered” to “near extinct”. So why should TAFE teachers care? Well, if you don’t teach VET in schools, and you have no intention of ever teaching VET in schools then it may not concern you directly at all. However, for anyone that does care or may one day like to teach their vocational to young people in schools, there is a very good chance that they will end up doing the work of a teacher but without access to the same pay, conditions or professional opportunities enjoyed by every other school teacher in Australia. In other words, they are likely to end up working as “second class” teachers in schools, which brings me back to my point about the social status of VET and VET teachers in society. Issues that underline the dereliction of suitable pathways to the point where it is now almost impossible for a VET practitioner to achieve professional parity with general teachers in schools. And spoiler alert, it will not be possible to raise the status and standing of VET in society while VET and those who teach it are treated as second class citizens.
Fuelled by determination to do something to avoid this fate, I applied for a Victorian Department of Education-sponsored International Specialised Skills (ISS) Institute Fellowship to find out how other countries go about producing qualified VET secondary school teachers, and in May this year, I was on my way to Norway, Sweden and Finland to try and find out what their best practice looks like. Following are a few things that I learned about VET in Norway and Finland that may be of interest.
Status of VET and VET teachers in Nordic countries
One of the striking differences between Australia and Nordic countries is the high level of respect, and social regard afforded VET education and VET teaching staff more generally. VET upper secondary teachers are not only industry experienced – many hold craft or “journeyman” trade qualifications – but they are highly educated as well. Finland and Norway are world famous for their social equity, high rankings in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scales, free education systems, and the high levels of trust and respect afforded their teaching workforces. There is a strong commitment to life-long learning and their education systems have been carefully designed so that there are “no dead ends”.
In Finland, the teaching profession is revered, and teachers hold what has been described as heroic status in part due to the important role they have played in history helping to establish Finland’s independence and the formation of Finnish national identity. Both Finland and Norway have upper secondary VET pathways that are well established and an integral part of their secondary schooling systems. VET secondary school teachers in these countries not only enjoy high levels of education and social status – on par with their academic counterparts – but also receive the equivalent pay, conditions and professional opportunities as general (academic) teachers in schools. Australia would also do well to take note of the popularity of VET in schools in Norway. Today, over half of all Norwegian upper secondary school students (51 per cent) choose to study a VET pathway to the workforce, making VET in schools more popular than academic pathways to university – quite an achievement!
Becoming a VET secondary teacher in Norway
In Norway, ITE-qualified VET teachers are responsible for all school-based upper secondary VET, and all ITE (or student-teacher) programs are regulated at a national level by the Ministry of Education and Research. There are two types of VET teacher education programs:
(a) a three-year Bachelor level program, and
(b) a one-year post-graduate program achieved in combination with an academic degree from a university.
In Norway, the majority of VET teachers hold a trade (or journeyman’s) certificate, at least two years of industry experience (post-trade), as well as two years of higher vocational education (at a pre-university level). A vocational teaching qualification also opens up opportunities for VET teachers to pursue research education at masters and doctoral levels. An important role of VET teachers is to help develop their schools as institutions of learning and education in a democratic society with inclusive cultures.
Becoming a VET teacher in Finland
Finns are quite conscious of the link between the public image of VET and the perceived quality of training on offer. As one of the most respected professions in Finland and the high status of teaching makes it a very competitive field to enter. VET teachers in Finland are highly educated and a recent report indicates that only about one fifth of applicants are accepted into VET teacher education programs. There are nationwide qualification requirements for VET teachers in Finland. They must have a bachelor level degree (or equivalent), three years of industry experience and a pedagogical teacher education of one academic year, although this timeframe is flexible. In occupations where no bachelor-level qualification exists (e.g. with trade qualifications), it is still possible to enter a VET teacher education program so long as the candidate has achieved the highest possible qualification in their occupational field and at least three years of industry experience. Finnish legislation steers teacher qualification requirements, and the content of VET teacher education programs is frequently updated by the universities of applied science that offer it (Nordic countries have both regular universities and universities of applied science). VET school teachers in Finland are trusted professionals renowned for their diligence, and who hold key positions to develop and change the way curriculum is offered. The role of the VET teacher is as much about instilling professional ethos in their students as it is about teaching them a vocation. VET teacher programs are set up so that candidates can be employed by a school while simultaneously completing their teaching qualification, much like an internship arrangement. Finland has a very high level of trust in their teachers, and the intellectual challenges of the curriculum and satisfaction in the knowledge that they have been admitted into such a highly respected profession means that very few teachers leave the profession once admitted.
So, what can Australia learn from VET teacher education in Nordic countries? As a country presently reeling from teacher shortages, we would do well to learn from Finland, where VET teachers are so highly respected that only 20 per cent of applicants are accepted into teacher education courses. And further, as the nation struggles to encourage more young people to pursue VET in schools as pathways to the workforce, we might like to stop and consider why it is that VET is so popular in Norway that the majority of young people, supported by their parents, purposefully choose to study VET ahead of academic pathways to university. Although my fellowship report is still in progress, it is fair to say that Australia has a lot to learn from our Nordic friends when it comes to the high-quality VET in schools. These countries clearly value education, and value their VET teachers so much so that they have implemented specialist teacher education programs that encourage – not stifle – vocational professionals from not only gaining a professional teaching qualification but achieving the same opportunities and levels of prestige as general teachers in schools.
Dr Karen O’Reilly-Briggs is an International Specialised Skills (ISS) Institute Department of Education and Training (DET) Fellow, Victoria University Adjunct Fellow, Secretary of the Australasian Vocational Education and Training Association (AVETRA), Academic Course Manager – Education at Box Hill Institute, and industry experienced and qualified metal engineering and pressure vessel welding tradesperson and former trade teacher. Her ISS report on VET in Nordic countries is forthcoming.
1. Building a high quality and sustainable dual qualified VET workforce: www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/national-review-of-teacher-registration/building-a-high-quality-vet-workforce.pdf?sfvrsn=552d93c_2
2. Victorian Institute of Teaching PTT policy: www.vit.vic.edu.au/sites/default/files/media/pdf/2022-04/Policy_VIT_PTT.pdf
This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Summer 202220 February 2023