New research shows that the most at-risk young people – including those who are homeless and have mental health issues – are increasingly being enrolled by private Vocational Education and Training (VET) providers to undertake their training.
The report, released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), looked at the role being played by private VET providers for disadvantaged early school-leavers.
It finds that, following a series of government funding reforms since 2009, private VET providers have increasingly taken over a larger share of the training market, once occupied by TAFE. One consequence has been an increasing number of high-needs students enrolling in providers that are ill-equipped to respond to their needs.
Who are the young people affected?
For young people leaving school without completing Year 12, a VET qualification is the main way they can continue their education. In 2015, across Australia, more than 140,000 early school-leavers were undertaking a VET qualification.
Early school-leavers constitute a growing cohort for private VET providers. The market share of private VET providers varies across the country, with Victoria, Queensland and South Australia experiencing the largest growth in enrolments.
More than half (59%) of the private VET providers surveyed for the research said they had experienced an increase in enrolments of early school-leavers in the last five years.
Providers described a range of challenges facing early school-leaver learners. Most commonly mentioned were low literacy and numeracy skills, a lack of clarity around career goals and low employability skills. Providers also noted that some early school-leavers were coerced into VET programs by welfare payment requirements.
Private providers described employer feedback that early school-leavers often lacked the social skills needed in the workplace. Suitability for the workplace and likelihood of completing a VET program was described as particularly low for learners who had not completed Year 11. Providers also described disengagement and a lack of family support as contributing to non-completion of VET programs.
The role of private VET providers
So what were private VET providers doing in response to these needs of early school-leavers?
Remedial literacy and numeracy programs were available at many providers. However, the approach across the private VET providers consulted was inconsistent. Providers described the low level of literacy and numeracy skills of the early school-leaver learners as placing pressure on VET trainers.
Our research found private VET providers are ill-equipped to tackle complex personal and social barriers to learning. Support provided was often limited to study spaces, computers with internet access and some academic skills support.
Developing positive relationships with students was considered vital. Providers identified empathy, patience, humour and behaviour management, as well as a sound knowledge of the chosen trade, as crucial skill sets for trainers working with early school-leavers.
The private providers we spoke with considered their small-scale and relatively informal learning settings to be a distinct advantage. They described it as allowing them to engage disadvantaged learners in small groups or individually.
How can private VET providers improve?
Private VET providers expressed disappointment that efforts to support early school-leavers go largely unrecognised in the context of negative perceptions of private providers within the VET sector.
Given the current political focus on private VET provision, there are several policy implications that emerge from the research.
Governments, other educational providers and youth referral agencies should be encouraged to regard private VET providers as partners in efforts to re-engage young people whose education has been disrupted.
While the complex demands of early school-leavers are clear, changes are needed to tackle the limitations of providers in effectively responding to these needs.
Small and informal learning settings can work well for disadvantaged students. But there are limitations. Private providers, particularly smaller providers, often lack the infrastructure and economies of scale of large TAFE institutions.
Enrolment processes that gather a deeper understanding of the breadth of wellbeing, educational and employability needs of young people are needed to inform targeted assistance.
This article is based on research initiated by the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), with funding from the NCVER. Its main report was co-authored by Dr George Myconos, senior researcher at the BSL Research and Policy Centre.