For many EU countries, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic represented the biggest disruption to educational continuity since the Second World War. School closures impacted over 17 million students; 8.5 million of them were enrolled in Vocational Education and Training. Two years on, despite the colossal efforts to guarantee quality, accessible education to secondary school students, IVET and apprentices, the challenges ahead cannot be minimised, or left unaddressed. They need to be tackled openly and bravely, in order to build the future of apprenticeships that we want for the post Covid-19 era.
As highlighted by President von der Leyen in her 2021 State of the Union, where she announced 2022 as the European Year of Youth, it is crucial that young people, and learners in this case, are put at the centre of the process. At the crucible between education and the world of employment, the VET sector too must make the most of the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in society: a renewed commitment to achieve a just, digital, green transition.
With this paper, the European Apprentices Network, as representatives of learners in vocational education and firm promoters of quality inclusive VET, want to highlight the priorities of learners in vocational education and training for the future of apprenticeships in the post Covid-19 era. This paper is complementary to our reaction to the Osnabruck Declaration published last year and to our list of 7 priorities, which are the founding principles of the European Apprentices Network.
Learning methods: flexibility and digitalisation in apprenticeships and VET
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, VET students were amongst the most impacted by school closures. While many general education schools had often more resources and opportunities to adapt their teaching to the online environment, VET students saw their apprenticeships, work-based learning and work placements frozen by the workplace closures, and were precluded the opportunity to continue learning online due to the lack of investment to facilitate the digitalisation of practical and workshop based education- into an online environment.
Not only were apprentices amongst the most impacted, but also amongst the least researched groups of learners. We need to link research and collection of good practices with programme development and implementation and we need VET learner representation for this to truly reflect and address the challenges posed by grassroots experiences, views and concerns.
One of the great strengths of VET has been its historic accessibility to all. As we recover from the pandemic we would reiterate that all VET students, whether people with disabilities, low-qualified/skilled persons, minorities, people with migrant background and people with fewer opportunities because of their geographical location and/or their socio-economic disadvantage, have the right to benefit from high quality education.
Whilst we recognise the importance of the recent Council Recommendations regarding the importance of flexibility and accessibility of VET programmes, both in preventing early leaving and widening access to more remote and rural areas, this flexibility must not come at the cost of education quality. Flexibilities cannot be used as a race to the bottom pushing learners out of the classroom or workshop in order to provide a “cheaper” option for employers and training providers.
During the pandemic we saw a variety of practices regarding assessment. As a sector VET had to adapt in unprecedented ways the usual practice-based assessment. What is clear is that assessment methodologies that were once immutable were called into question. We applaud those teachers, principals, employers and sectors that used the pandemic to innovate their assessment methods whilst keeping the learner at the centre of decision making. Where learners with disabilities have been asking for decades for adaptations during the pandemic many of those changes finally became commonplace. We now know it is possible to create learner focussed assessment methodologies that fulfil the requirements of employers and the education system, and to move from assessment of learning, to assessment for learning.
Apprentice’s rights and participation
As a European community it ought to be our utmost priority to address the issue of apprentices’ rights – rights to decent work opportunities, to safety in the workplace, both in
terms of physical threat and contractual obligations, wages and lifelong learning. With a stagnating labour market, where corporate greed often undermines workers’ rights, guaranteeing these rights in apprenticeships should be seen as a starting point to transform the demands and imperatives of the market as a whole.
Once again we would highlight the need for quality and effective representation of apprentice and VET learners to guarantee protection and support to apprentices. Without access to that support apprentices and VET learners cannot access the warm words offered to them at a European level. It comes as no surprise that when we look at the VET systems with the best outcomes for learners and employers we also find strong, independent, apprentice representation.
Furthermore whilst we insist on apprentices’ right to participate in a just green transition in order to engage apprentices and VET students with the efforts to green the economy, they first of all need their basic needs to be met. Decent wages, good quality education and opportunities to play an active part in society are a prerequisite so that we too can help shape a more just sustainable transition.
Last, but not least, we argue firmly that, while skills development needs to stay at the core of apprenticeships, the development of key competencies for lifelong learning and active engagement in society need to take a bigger role in vocational training. It should be pivotal for national and local governments to include global citizenship competencies in apprenticeships curricula, and to stimulate the practice of active citizenship through direct participation in decision-making in educational institutions.
Work-life balance and apprentices mental health
Stress is the first cause of death in the workplace in the world. The solution to the other pandemic, of poor youth mental health, cannot be to try and make workers tougher or more resilient. Instead we need to transform the way we understand work-life balance and how this impacts mental health. For young people who are at the start of their careers, employers are increasingly willing to provide a plethora of chat bots, wellbeing apps and mindfulness exercises.
These may or may not be effective in alleviating some of the symptoms of poor mental health but apprentices have consistently articulated that workplace precarity, isolation, poor pay and poor housing all contribute to stress and poor mental health. As one apprentice said: “I don’t need another app, I need a pay rise”.
The role of the European Apprentices Network
As a network of apprentices, VET students and young people working on a fair transition to the labour market, the European Apprentices Network will work continuously to defend and advance the right of apprentices and VET students, who are too often underrepresented in political and policy debates concerning their lives. Through the participation in institutional fora and the cooperation with national and European networks of students, apprentices, business and civil society, the EAN will continue to advocate so that apprenticeships become a first-choice educational path for all and all over Europe.
Click here to download the position paper in pdf.