Smoothing the Transition to Skilled Employment: School-Based Vocational Guidance in Britain and Continental Europe

By Jarvis, Valerie | National Institute Economic Review, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Smoothing the Transition to Skilled Employment: School-Based Vocational Guidance in Britain and Continental Europe


Jarvis, Valerie, National Institute Economic Review


(24) Students enter LBO schools at age 12. During their first two years at an LBO school, pupils follow an academic curriculum similar to that of the higher-level MAVO, along with four periods a week of 'general technology' (woodwork, metalwork, cookery and IT). In their final two years of compulsory schooling, LBO pupils 'specialise' in a vocational area (eg, electrical engineering, construction, industrial cookery), spending roughly 60 per cent of their time on the practical and theoretical elements of their 'vocational' subjects (see: S.J. Prais and Elaine Beadle, Pre-Vocational Schooling in Europe Today, National Institute Report no. 1, 1991). The Dutch education system is currently in the process of a major reorganisation, including moves towards a comprehensive approach. The outcome of the changes in practice is still unclear. The description of the Dutch system in this article relates to 1. Introduction

Since the mid-1970s technological advances and demographic changes have obliged employment and education ministers throughout Europe to pay more attention to the employment prospects of young people leaving school. The immediate goal of the vast majority of 16-year-old school leavers in Britain--'getting a job'--stands in stark contrast to the predominant route to adult working life in other European countries, which typically involves additional education and training. This more gradual and progressive transition to the labour market on the Continent promotes a higher degree of competence, and helps shelter Continental youngsters from the vagaries and casualisation of the labour market which characterises much of the British school leaving scene.

The 'vital role' of vocational guidance in smoothing the transition from school to work has been repeatedly acknowledged in official policy documents in the UK,(1) yet there have been few attempts to compare the guidance offered in British secondary schools with the vocational preparation carried out in other countries. In the light of the recently-ordered review of careers guidance by the new Secretaries of State for Education and Employment, the object of the present article is to compare vocational guidance provision in Britain and three European countries--Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland(2) and to ask whether anything of significance can be learned from our European neighbours, particularly in the way they raise the career aspirations and motivation of young people of average and below-average academic attainments.

The economic success of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands relative to Britain is well known; and the contribution of vocational training to inter-country differences, industrial productivity and competitiveness has been well-documented by National Institute researchers.(3) The case for improved vocational training for youngsters leaving school at 16 has been strongly argued,(4) and is now firmly rooted in government policy. Nevertheless, a far larger proportion of British youngsters prefer to leave school at 16 than in most other European countries, while participation in post-compulsory education and training of British teenagers remains notably lower than elsewhere in Europe.(5) Armed with below-average academic qualifications and little desire to return to full-time education, many British youngsters drift from school into unemployment or casual work, with few promotion possibilities and little prospect of continual employment.

Undoubtedly many factors contribute to a successful school-to-work transition, and certainly none of the countries considered in this article could claim to have eliminated all the problems of school leavers seeking to enter the world of work; yet it seems--from our comparisons that Britain has rather further to go than the other countries studied here in preparing its school-leavers for a world in which unskilled work is no longer abundantly available and in which further education and training are increasingly a prerequisite to employment. …

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