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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



EPALE Discussion: Vocational education and training for adults – what is needed and how to get it

by Andrew McCoshan

As part of our November focus on vocational education and training (VET) for adults, EPALE is organising an online written discussion on what vocational skills adults need today and what challenges they face in acquiring them.

The discussion will take place on this page and will start on 30 November 2017 at 10:00am CET. It will be moderated by EPALE’s Thematic Coordinator for Quality, Andrew McCoshan.

Don’t miss this opportunity to share with the EPALE community your experience and views on any of the following topics:

Challenges (10-12:30 CET)

  • What factors are driving change in VET for adults in Europe?

  • How is work changing, how is this affecting the skills needed?

  • Which groups of adults are most in need of VET and are they able to get it?

  • What obstacles do they face? Which groups of adults face most obstacles?

Responses (13:30-16:00 CET)

  • How does VET for adults need to change (curriculum, pedagogy, learning settings, qualifications, systemic frameworks like governance)?
  • Who needs to be involved to make VET for adults effective and why (civil society, VET providers, employers, public employment services, other stakeholders)?
  • What sort of connections do we need to make between continuing VET for adults and initial VET for young people?
  • What obstacles stand in the way of making these connections?
  • What role should be played by the validation of non-formal and informal learning?

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Cristina PEREIRA's picture

Hello everyone,

Although delayed (especially since we had a longer weekend due to a national holiday), here is our contribution


1 - What factors are driving change in VET for adults in Europe?

According many studies, nowadays, the national qualification systems are forced to adjust to world’s profound and rapid transformations. With regard to adult education and training the main triggers of these changes are the demographic and environmental modifications, the technological development, the new work organization and socioeconomic factors (such as economic crises, unemployment and migrants phenomena).


2 – How is work changing, how is this affecting the skills needed?

These factors generate skills obsolescence responsible for long-term unemployment and disengagement from the labour market, gaps between individual jobs skills and changing skills demands of the labour market, social exclusion, poverty and inequality.

Besides that, adults also need new skills, for instance digital literacy, communication, leadership and entrepreneurship, critical thinking, in order to maintain their employability.


3 – Which groups of adults are most in need of VET and are they able to get it?

Those more affected are adults without basic skills (reading, writing and calculation), adults with lower or none digital competencies, migrants, and young adults that drop out school without secondary level of education.

As Industry 4.0 becomes a reality, other adults with more qualifications are also affected, especially those who did not study or work in technological areas.


4 – What obstacles do they face? Which groups of adults face most obstacles?

Recently, the study Building an effective skills strategy for Portugal, OECD concluded that Portuguese adults have low qualifications and do not participate much in learning because: they have low motivation to participate (roughly 5 out 6 adults do not want to participate in education and training), they have limited access to information on learning possibilities and they face unequal access to those information (the access decrease as they get older and as they have less qualification). Other barriers are personal reasons (not specified), the training places distance, the training costs, the family responsibilities, the lack of awareness about education and training importance, the conflicts with work schedule, the lack of employer’s support or public services support and the lack of prerequisites (eg. they have no elementary  skills to access the first level of National Qualifications Framework).

Indeed who face most obstacles are the adults with fewer and lower qualifications. 



5 – How does VET for adults need to change (curriculum, pedagogy, learning settings, qualifications, systemic frameworks like governance)?

Portuguese educational and training system for adults has been restructured since 2000. In that year Portugal announced a national system to recognize and accredit prior learning. In 2015, under a flagship program – New Opportunities Initiative – this system was boosted and implemented as a strategic plan to speed up the pace of secondary level achievement in the Portuguese population and fulfill de goal of rapidly catch up with European averages. However, the economic crises and the high youth unemployment, that happened around 2012, had reversed investment in adult education and training. In 2017, the new Government tried to recover public qualification policies for adults through the creation of Qualifica Program. Therefore, in Portugal, in the last decade there was an inconsistency in public policy adult education responsible for demotivation of the adults without qualifications and the discredit of the civil society.

Moreover, according OECD study “Building an effective skills strategy for Portugal”, nowadays there are three areas that the Government of Portugal should consider as a priority: 1) increase awareness about the importance of skills for success in work and life, especially among the low skilled population and employers, and increase the motivation do undertake or deliver adult learning; 2) improve the access, quality and relevance of adult learning, including pathways across programs, and monitoring and evaluation of results; 3) and ensure the effective governance and financing of the adult learning system.

So, more than curriculum or pedagogic changes, Portugal needs coherent and consistent policies and a new model for financing it. Nowadays, Portugal depends on European founds to have educational and training courses for adults or a national system of recognition, validation and accreditation of competences.


6 - Who needs to be involved to make VET for adults effective and why (civil society, VET providers, employers, public employment services, other stakeholders)?

It is essential to involve employers (because nowadays a huge quantity of training is assured by enterprises), training providers, specialists, public employment services, trade unions, opinions makers, local institutions and services, in a permanent dialogue, in order to: solve the mismatch between qualification system and labour market needs; to reduce costs; to find new ways to get financial resources, and to learn how to develop the potential of workers and citizens.

Civil society should also participate, especially to understand the relevance and impact of non-formal and informal learning.


7 – What sort of connections do we need to make between continuing VET for adults and initial VET for young people?

We need to develop preventive strategies to avoid young people to leave school earlier, without a qualification to get in the labour market. We also should invest in a new high school access model that can be more appropriate and favorable to students completing secondary level qualification courses. Today, these students have not the same conditions in access universities courses than the other ones. These two factors prevent many young people from pursuing their studies or from accessing available jobs. Consequently, they reach adulthood with many deficits to solve in all dimensions of their lives.

The investment on digital and soft skills should happen in the early years of education for young people, so they can have the relevant and effective skills when they became adults. That type of competencies allows them to adjust to the new challenges they will face in the future.

8 – What obstacles stand in the way of making these connections?

Portugal is reducing the rates of early school and training leavers (the rate decreased from 18,9% in 2013 to 14% in 2016). The PISA study shows an improvement in achievement in reading, maths and science literacies. The rates of adult participation in learning are also recovering as the promotion of adult education plays a central role in the current education policy.

According the “Education and training Monitor 2017”, “despite these positive trends, concerns remain over equity”. This report shows that “the proportion of low achievers among students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile is 25 pps. higher than from the upper socioeconomic quartile” (“4,5 % among students from the top socioeconomic quartile compared to 29,9% for students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile”). In addition, with more than 31 % of students having repeated a grade, Portugal has the third highest rate of grade repetition in the EU. The social gap in this respect is significant, with rates over 52 % among disadvantaged students and less than 9% among advantaged ones. The gaps between non-migrants and both first- and second-generation immigrants - as measured by early school leaving rates, PISA performance and grade retention - are comparatively small”.

To prevent early school leavers and consequently adults without qualifications in future, Portugal also needs to increase the attractiveness of education in general. The curricula must be more flexible, integrating and significant for students. Maybe it is a step solved when all curricula will be redesigned (based on learning outcomes).

Other obstacle is related to pedagogic methods, because they have to be adapted to new skills that will be needed in the future, mainly in soft skills training (for instance, cooperative learning).

 9 – What role should be played by validation of non-formal and informal learning?

Validation of non-formal and informal learning is essential for an effective lifelong learning. All of us are able to learn in all contexts of our lifetime, so everyone has knowledge that can be harnessed to continuously learn more. Nobody should have to learn again what they already knows. The validation of non-formal and informal learning can be used to set someone on a certain level of qualification.  Having this setting, adults can pursuit higher levels of qualification.

The recognition of prior (non-formal and informal) learning is relevant because it enables the correspondence between those learning and the formal national system of qualification. It also supports the mobility across Europe.

This recognition is also positive because it can value the experience and the knowledge of the adults and, at the same time, is a motivator for lifelong learning.

Studies carried out in Portugal about New Opportunities Initiative showed that evidence as the adults expressed willingness to keep learning after finishing a recognition, validation and certification process.

Nowadays the work of the Qualifica Centres highlights the value of this validation. Adults without qualification in Portugal have the opportunity to work with a team that helps them in vocational counseling. Then, these adults can identify their skills and choose a new path to reach a higher level of qualification (school or professional).

That’s why Upskilling Pathways initiative considers this validation.  This initiative aims to help adults acquire a minimum level of literacy, numeracy and digital skills and/or acquire a broader set of skills by progressing towards an upper secondary qualification or equivalent (level 3 or 4 in the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) depending on national circumstances).
Rumen HALACHEV's picture
Thank you all for participating in today's discussion and for sharing your thoughts. We hope the discussion has been interesting maybe even inspiring. :)

And thank you, Andrew, for moderating yet another lively the discussion on EPALE.

We will leave the comments open so everyone is still welcome to post their thoughts.

All the best,
Andrew McCoshan's picture
0 0 1 316 1806 Andrew McCoshan 15 4 2118 14.0 Normal 0 false false false EN-GB JA X-NONE

I can't do justice to the many comments made this afternoon, but here are some of the things I will take away myself:


We should be starting with the teachers and also the managers of vocational institutions, and those responsible for training in companies. At the moment, those of us involved in policy tend to say “let's do X" and then train the teachers. Instead, we should be saying “let's discuss with teachers what X should be".


We tend to focus on national policy and practice, but especially in larger countries, we should also be emphasising regional and local action. We need to get the spatial scale correct!


We need “vocational +" in which transversal skills are given just as much prominence as technical ones. The key question is how best to teach and capture these within programs?


When it comes to learning settings, we have a great opportunity opening up for a mixed approach–it's not a question of either/or when we're talking about virtual learning and physical settings, but about mixtures of both and offering learners choices that suit them.


But it's a great challenge we face in, essentially, convincing the entire labour force not just of the value of learning, but giving people the skills to be autonomous learners. As part of this we need to develop the idea of “learning careers" to sit alongside “work careers".


No one seems to disagree with the idea that we need to lose the distinction between initial and continuing vocational training. But does the content stay the same? And even if it does, we will surely need different pedagogies for young people and adults.


Finally, if there is a slogan to emerge from this discussion it must surely be that we need to be “not one step behind, but one step ahead"! It's not enough simply to deal with the “emergencies" facing particular target groups: we need “preventative" mindsets to inform practices for all learners if we are to face the challenges ahead.


We hope you enjoyed the discussion and will find further food for thought in the content posted during November around the vocational training topic, if you haven't already done so!    
Ilze Ivanova's picture
Andrew McCoshan,
Your final thoughts sound as great challenges  for future to be solved in vocational education, paying special attention to the management ,teachers and learners.
Christine Bertram's picture
This has been a discussion I've been having since the weekend with a group of FE teachers and researchers. Hearing teacher as well as learner voices is extremely important.
inez camilleri's picture

Any kind of change, being educational, societal, cultural or otherwise is not easy to achieve and sustain. It becomes even more challenging when there are large numbers of people from all walks of life involved. Change does not happen in a structured or linear way, but is more likely to follow a path of many twists and turns.

A close assessment and Needs Analysis of the current situation i.e. making VET for adult learners and educators effective and careful planning will help in designing a project that meets the real needs of the stakeholders and beneficiaries. The needs analysis initiates the involvement and engagement of all stakeholders:

1.       Funders, education department officials, NGOs, trainers, teachers, learners, parents, employers and employees etc.

2.       The government structure provides the system to ensure that there are no barriers to a project meeting its objectives, therefore all reporting mechanisms and decision making processes need to be embedded into the project model.

 The success of a change programme relies on taking account of people’s feelings and beliefs, as well as exploring and exploiting their skills, talents and experiences which every adult brings along. This opportunity opens up communication with all involved. 
Paul Guest's picture

I have to leave shortly due to other commitments, but I would like to quickly address the final question on the list for this afternoon, namely that of the validation of non-formal and informal learning (V-NFIL) and the role that this should play in the future .

In short, we spend rather a lot of time segmenting learning that takes place at a certain age, or within specific learning environment yet it is increasingly important to encourage adults (and young people) to continue to develop their vocational (and, in some cases, transversal) skills sets throughout their lives, irrespective of time or location.

We need to ensure that systems recognise all forms of learning (intentional and unintentional; formal, non-formal and informal) and that there are clear mechanisms in place to allow for the identification and documentation of previous learning and (where possible) for its assessment and certification or accreditation. Equally, however, we need to ensure that individual learners are sufficiently aware of the skills that they have and of mechanisms for, and the benefits of, presenting these skills to others, especially with a view to securing access to employment, or to continuing education and training opportunities.

In short, we need to reduce the labelling and distinction across different learning environments, and to encourage learning recognition in all its forms.

Andrew McCoshan's picture
As we move into the last hour of the moderated discussion, let's wider our scope to look at some further issues:

What sort of connections do we need to make between continuing VET for adults and initial VET for young people?

What obstacles stand in the way of making these connections?


What role should be played by the validation of non-formal and informal learning?    
Alice Fleischer's picture

Hello everyone, I am Alice Fleischer from Austria. I am with the Institute for Economic Promotion of the Federal Economic Chamber, one of the largest providers of vocational and education training in Austria with about 350.000 cource participants that attend about 33 33.000 training courses and Seminars per year. We also support Austrian companies expanding internationally.  (

Here are some quick thoughts with regards to INVOLVEMENT.  


With regards to the challenges posed by global trends – technological, demographic, socio-economic disruption – and the transformation of industries and business models, the required skills set of employees is changing. Basic skills needed and therefore focused on in VET have to include digital skills.  Furthermore, the required skills sets are becoming increasingly broad and high.

In ordert o address this challenge on a national level, countries need to make VET systems and providers themselves more responsive to companies’ needs. Institutionalised dialogue and a strong role of employers and other organisations of the world of work, such as Chambers of Commerce at system level as well as well as in the provision of the actual training, is one answer. Only this will ensure that VET qualifications and their underlying curricula are geared towards the needs of the labour market.


With regards to the „world of learning“ in its need to CHANGE:


People will have to improve their abilities to handle the unexpected in their daily business routines. Self-regulated learning is becoming more and more important. The necessitv „to know how to do“ – in addition to the mere „know how“ - is a challenge for all of us in our business environment. How do we apply our knowledge in order to handle challenges and solve problems. With regards to training and teaching as such, the need for teachers and instructors is to rethink their role and to to become more of a facilitator rather than a lecturer.  Learners of any age need to become self-confident problem solvers and innovators. Didactics and methodology need to enable that and therefore have to untergo some basic changes. The Institutes for economic Promotion in Austria have developed the learning model LENA with a set of criteria for a vibrant and sustainable learning. (LENA stands for LEbending und NAchhaltig lernen) ( ).

Furthermore, with the growing importance of informal learning due to the technical possibilities, we need to rethink our current frames of examination in order to be able to validate the competences that are actually required in the business world.  This is probably one of the biggest challenges in the world of education and assessing.


Andrew McCoshan's picture
Hi Alice, you show us the scale of the task very well, especially if we are to make sure everyone benefits from the way our economy is developing.  Supporting the move to 'autonomous' learners/workers and 'enlightened' employers is no easy job!