The role of stakeholders in the quality assurance of the design of national qualifications
The vocational programmes in Swedish upper secondary schools provide a foundation for working life and further vocational education. The core content, foundation subjects and orientation are nationally determined by the Government. Schools can combine different courses to create programme specialisations to meet regional and local needs of the labour market and enable students to focus their studies on a specific vocational outcome.
In an ongoing structured consultation process, the National Agency for Education meets with schools and stakeholders to ensure that subjects and courses can be used to build qualifications which meet the needs of working life. For each vocational programme, there is a national programme council with a broad cross-section of industry representatives and social partners in the vocational area for which the programme provides education and training. Some programme councils include representatives from the public authorities. One of the tasks of each programme council is to advise and support the National Agency for Education in relation to the adaptation, development and modernisation of the supply of education and the content of vocational education. This helps to ensure that the competences required by the labour market are met. The programme councils are not decision-making bodies. They fulfil a consultative function and can suggest revisions.
If a revision is seen as necessary, the National Agency for Education organises an extensive review process to inform the decision on a new subject or course. Focus groups of teachers and learners are consulted; the work in progress is published on the agency’s website for teachers and stakeholders to express their opinions; proposals are written and quality assured in the Agency to ensure the curricula aligns with the legislation. Before the National Agency decides on a new subject or course, other national agencies, interest groups, social partners, stakeholders (including school organisers) receive a copy of the proposed changes and have a chance to comment. If a large section of the consultees are opposed to the proposal, the National Agency may decide not to proceed or revise the proposal. The Agency may stop, revise or alter a proposal if a single influential group is against the idea. The same process is used for core and foundation courses which are decided by the Government. In these instances the National Agency acts on a request from the Government and makes their proposals to the after following the same review process.
How is this practice linked to the EQAVET indicators?
Before revising or introducing a new subject or course, there is a careful analysis which includes an assessment of why the changes have been proposed. This includes a review of the indicators such as the number and percentage of an annual cohort that attends and completes a particular IVET programme which leads to a formal qualification. These indicators look at the effectiveness of the qualifications by looking at information on the future needs of the labour market.
As all school managers in Sweden are required by law to have a systematic quality assurance process in place, 100% of education providers apply internal quality assurance systems. The quality assurance arrangements are not regulated in detail but it is common for school to use indicators such as participation rates, completion rates and placement rates in their analysis.
What problems were encountered and overcome in using this EQAVET+ indicative descriptor?
There is a tension between the curricula that prepares students to be adaptable and learn how to learn, and industry’s need for the provision of competence. One frequently expressed view from the world of work is that students are not well enough prepared for their working life when they graduate from upper secondary school as they do not have enough experience of vocational training.
The framework for upper secondary education, including VET, is highly regulated in Sweden, but its operationalisation is highly deregulated. The vocational programmes of upper secondary school last for three years and cover a broad spectrum of vocational areas and vocational outcomes. Programme structures and courses are determined nationally but there is flexibility for schools to decide the content of programme specialisations. The courses are defined by ‘upper secondary credits’ which, in conformity with ECVET points, are not related to time but indicate the scope of the studies or effort required to attain the course goals. Transversal competences which largely correspond to the European Key Competences are included in the curricula. Learning at one or several workplaces is compulsory in upper secondary school's vocational programmes. Work based learning (WBL) is compulsory and covers a minimum of 15 weeks of the three-year education. WBL covers practical learning of course content, contributes to students’ developing professional skills and identity, and develops students’ understanding of the professional culture of the workplace. If more than half the learning takes place at a workplace, it is referred to as upper secondary apprenticeship education. In these situations the school organises the provision and is responsible for the quality of provision, ensuring that the WBL is aligned to the course contents and curricula, and the students’ safety.
The framework for VET education is regulated to ensure quality, equality and equity, but it can be adapted to local and individual needs. VET education provides a foundation for working life and lifelong learning, and prepares learners for changes in the labour market. In many situations learners are prepared for a vocation which is recognised by industry. In other situations, industry require graduating students to work as journeymen or a “company-apprentice” before taking a trade exam for a trade certificate.
What lessons have been learnt by using this EQAVET+ indicative descriptor?
When the process of quality assuring of the design, assessment, certification and review of qualifications is thorough and transparent, it is more likely that the final proposals are accepted. If everyone has the chance to express their opinions and views, the proposed qualifications are more likely to be adjusted to suit the needs of social partners and all relevant stakeholders, and be of higher quality.
The tension between the aim of preparing students’ transversal skills through, for example, learning to learn, and stakeholders’ and industry’s needs for the provision of competence, is also mediated in the process of quality assuring the design, assessment, certification and review of qualifications. The mechanisms and meetings in the national programme councils take a long time but they are thorough. A lot of the data that is needed is not available at the national level and it can take several years before it can be used to analyse the quality of a VET programme. The first students from the reformed upper secondary school of 2011 completed their education in June 2014. Data to measure indicators like placement rates will be available for these students in 2018. Therefore the design, evaluation and review of qualifications are slow processes, and the councils have to rely on impressionistic data which means they can be susceptible to lobbying by particular industries.
These processes contribute to a better awareness of the gaps between the national and regional levels. While there are well established mechanisms on a national level for the quality assurance of the design, assessment, certification and review of qualifications, there are few examples of regional mechanisms for cooperation and quality improvement.