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German apprenticeships are built on a cohesive national plan – not ad hoc partnerships

Sound foundations. Ian Nicholson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Germany’s apprenticeship system is often put up on a pedestal. Now, as other countries struggle to emulate it, Germany is even beginning to export its model of vocational training.

The trick to the German system is its dual approach – with training separated into two streams, part at a vocational school and part at a business. There are 1.5m people doing an apprenticeships in Germany’s dual system. On average, more than half a million new trainees start an apprenticeship every year.

Germany’s vocational programmes are co-operations between companies and schools. But rather than ad-hoc commitments between individual schools and companies, like the system in the UK, each partnership is based on a unified national programme.

Value on vocational

Vocational education and training (VET) connects educational with economic aims. From the learner’s point of view, he or she is required to develop skills as well as personality. This two-fold perspective is incorporated in the German system. Philosophically, it means that education can be fostered by work as well as by schools. But it also refers to a specific quality of work set out in school syllabi and training regulations.

In the UK, fostering a student’s personal development is a function of the higher education system. This is different in Germany, where it is also seen as the role of vocational education too.

One main difference between Germany and the UK is that in Germany, enterprises pay for education and accept government regulations of in-house training programmes. If a German company decides to take on trainees – which no employer is obliged to do – it offers to take on the costs for education. But the company is then obliged to implement training regulations that, in the end, are formally legalised by federal government decree.

Germany’s dual system

To understand the special features of the German system it is important to get a grip on the basic structure of the dual system with vocational education – known as berufskonzept – on the one hand, and corporatism on the other.

Each has a different set of institutional frameworks regulating each training programme. The frameworks govern issues such as the role and status of training personnel, the funding regime or the supervision of training processes. There are separate forms of legislation and different curricula for work-based training and vocational schools.

Vocational schools have to implement a syllabus, which due to the cultural autonomy of the German Länder (states like Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia) can differ from state to state. However, the training regulations implemented by companies – known as Ausbildungsordnung – are a centralised regulation of the federal government.

In order to secure the comparability of the regional syllabi for schools, a supra-regional organisation called “standing conference of the ministries for culture” has been established.

In contrast, the federal syllabus for enterprises is influenced by different groups. Trade unions and employers’ organisations work out the aims, content and organisational framework of the enterprise part of the training programme and develop the training regulations together. This way, vocational education is driven by a twofold perspective.

UK system lacks unified vision

Looking from Germany at the situation in the UK, it seems necessary to work out better methods of co-operation between British enterprises and further education colleges. At the moment there is ongoing individual regional co-operations between further education colleges and enterprises.

In the UK, there were 860,000 people doing apprenticeships in 2012-3, with the majority of them over 19 years old and 179,000 of them between 16-18. Big changes are under underfoot in the way apprentices are funded. In his autumn statement, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced apprenticeship funding would now be routed directly through employers, with some of it to be paid on results.

Unlike in Germany, these are individual solutions between individual further education colleges and companies. This is like “driving by sight”. One advantage of the German concept is proactive monitoring, because the programmes are developed and monitored on a more general basis.

Delegating to intermedaries

A key dynamic is how the German vocational education system is monitored and organised. The concept of corporatism refers to the institutionalised form of collaboration between governmental bodies, employers’ associations, trade unions and others. It describes the dual system as a state-controlled market model of so-called “Rhineland capitalism”. The state sets the guidelines within which social actors have to make their own choices.

The delegation of regulatory competence for the training system from the government to corporate intermediaries is another important aspect of this concept of corporatism. Organisations such as local, self-governing chambers of commerce and industry, act as intermediate organisations between the state and companies, putting training laws and regulations into practice.

Such intermediate organisations do not exist in the UK. At least, there are no organisations with comparable strength in the system. One result is that policies around vocational training in the UK are largely market based. Whereas in Germany, autonomous bodies and committees are often the initiators of vocational policy. There is an on-going communication between these agencies representing different social groups on the one hand, and government authorities on the other.

Organisations such the chambers of commerce or the Federal Institute for Vocational Education are institutionalised as partners. This leads to a more stable system of organisation that can be used as a platform for changes in vocational educational training. The UK could consider such a system of independent intermediaries in the future.

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