Young early school leavers are increasingly enrolling in private Vocational and Education Training (VET) providers, but new research reveals these organisations are often ill-equipped to respond to the needs of this emerging cohort, many of whom are disadvantaged.
This influx comes after several years of federal, state and territory governments promoting a competitive, market-based training system, resulting in private VET providers capturing a larger share of the training market.
Our research, released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) and developed in partnership between researchers at the University of Melbourne, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Victoria Institute, examined the role private VET providers play for early school leavers.
Looking beyond the funding and quality assurance debates, the focus was on practice and delivery at the provider level. We wanted to know how private VET providers are responding to the needs of disadvantaged early school leaver learners.
The early school leaver cohort in VET
More than 140,000 early school leavers were undertaking a VET qualification in 2015. With Australia’s average year 12 completion rate at 83%, for young people without a Year 12 or school completion certificate, the VET sector is one of the main ways in which they can continue and complete their initial education and training.
Our research found that early school leavers represent a growing cohort within private VET providers. More than half (59%) of the private VET providers surveyed for our research indicated they had experienced an increase in enrolments of early school leavers in the last five years. While the market share of private VET providers varies across Australia, growth has been particularly significant in Victoria (36.2% market share of 15-19-year-old early school leaver learners), Queensland (35.3%) and South Australia (23.3.%).
Role of private VET providers for early school leavers
School leavers are more likely to be low achieving and socioeconomically disadvantaged learners. Our research found private VET providers are generally ill-equipped to address complex personal and social barriers to learning that are common amongst early school leavers. Providers described a range of challenges facing early school leaver learners, including low literacy and numeracy skills, a lack of family support and limited clarity around career goals. Several providers also noted that welfare payment requirements were playing a coercive role in directing some early school leavers into VET programs.
Private providers also expressed concerns about early school leavers having low employability skills. This was seen as particularly problematic for young people who had exited school before completing Year 11. These provider concerns were reiterated by employer feedback that early school leavers often lacked the social skills needed in the workplace.
In response to these learner needs, support offered within private VET providers was often limited to study spaces with computers and some academic skills support. While remedial literacy and numeracy programs were available in many providers, accessibility to support was inconsistent across the private VET providers consulted. Low levels of literacy and numeracy amongst early school leavers was described by providers as placing significant pressure on VET trainers.
How can the role of private VET providers be strengthened?
Dubious practices amongst private VET providers and accusations of poor provision have featured regularly in recent media reporting. Private VET providers faced intense criticism during the period in which this research was undertaken. Private VET providers participating in this research expressed frustration with blanket negative perceptions of private providers within the VET sector.
Given this ongoing community and political focus on private VET provision, there are several policy implications that emerge from the research.
Private VET providers should be regarded by governments and youth referral agencies as partners in systemic efforts to re-engage early school leavers. To support their role, changes are needed to address the limitations of private VET providers in addressing the complex needs facing these learners.
The private VET providers who participated in this research considered their small-scale and relatively informal learning settings as a distinct advantage in catering to disadvantaged learners. While small and informal learning settings can work well for disadvantaged learners, there are limitations as smaller providers often lack the infrastructure and economies of scale of large TAFE institutions.
In order to successfully target support where it is needed, enrolment processes need to include the gathering of data that relates to student wellbeing, and more holistic understanding of the educational and employability needs of young people.
This article is drawn from research funded by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) and led by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in partnership with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Victoria Institute.
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