VET reforms in Poland - major changes, new challenges

w.stechly 228pxThe last ten years have seen major reforms of the Polish VET system: new and revised core curricula based on learning outcomes, introduction of new types of VET schools, upgraded infrastructure, opening the examination system for extra-mural students with previous learning or working experience, strengthening existing institutions for non-formal VET to name but a few. We talked to Wojciech Stęchły (IBE), about the Polish VET system, the Integrated Qualifications Register, the ongoing development efforts, demographic trends and building more life-like models of learning pathways.

Interview with Wojciech Stęchły, Lead Expert at the Educational Research Institute, Warsaw

What kind of VET reforms have been undertaken in the Polish education systems in the last ten years?

Wojciech Stęchły: The 1989 transformation was followed by 20 years of stagnation in the VET sector of education - previously strongly linked with the state-owned enterprises. Significant reforms took two steps - in 2012 and 2017-2019. During the last 10 years, the vocational schools significantly improved their infrastructure, effectively using ESF funds. Even more so, the dynamic changes in recent years are complemented by attempts to change the  course of economic growth by supporting formal VET,  developing new and strengthening existing institutions for non-formal VET for adults (e.g. introducing market qualifications, strengthening the crafts sector). 

New core curricula based on learning outcomes were put in place in 2012 – they also introduced the term qualification to VET legal acts. The core curricula were further developed and supplemented by addition of verification criteria in 2019. The centralized and external examination system originating in the mid 2000s was continuously improved (better examination design, assessors training, use of ICT) and the exams are now obligatory for students in VET schools. The VET remains a system based on ca. 200 occupations, however since 2012 partial qualifications have been specified for these occupations – leading to two types of qualifications: vocational diplomas (corresponding to the scope of a whole occupation) and vocational certificates (of narrower scope). All qualifications in Polish VET have been included in the Integrated Qualifications System since 2016, and have NQF/EQF levels assigned. 

The 2010s were characterised by growing demand for skilled labour. The conditions were favourable for an increased employers' involvement in VET. The 2017-2019 reforms further strengthened and institutionalized this involvement, by enhancing the role of employers in shaping core curriculum content and the educational offer of schools, introducing new forms of regulations for work-based learning and enabling organization of vocational examinations by employers. 

In summary, a lot has been happening and even more remains to be done. The VET teachers and trainers group is ageing and teaching jobs in VET remain unattractive for young professionals. The VET financing remains relatively low and employers' involvement, on the ground-floor level (enrolling students)  needs further boosting. On a positive side: developing evidence-based policies will be supported by the monitoring of VET system using a central information system and nationwide tracking of VET graduates using data on employment patterns and earnings. 

How would you describe the trends in VET in Poland in terms of student enrollment and structural changes?

WS: One of the most visible changes was the introduction of new types of VET schools, namely the stage I and stage II sectoral schools in 2017. This led to the extension of the time of vocational training by 1 year (at the expense of general education). Since 2012 new forms of training based on core curriculum have been created,  and the examination system has been opened for extra-mural students with previous learning or working experience.

The enrollment of youth in VET education is negatively affected by demographic trends and by a preference for the general education track. This preference can be seen in an increased interest in technical schools, which can lead to higher education.  The introduction of stage II sectoral schools, however, opened that path as well (however these solutions are yet to be phased in, as the first cohort leaves stage I sectoral schools). 

The stage I sectoral schools (previously basic vocational schools) enrollment plummeted from over 800 thousand to less than 150 thousand students between 1990 and 2018. [On a side note, it is worth mentioning that ca. half of this cohort is in dual training - have status of youth-workers and participate in crafts-led VET]. At the same time the number of students in technical secondary schools fell from over 600 thousand to less than 530 thousand (but reaching a maximum of 970 thousand in 2000) and general secondary schools remained stable at 445 and 470 thousand respectively (also reaching a maximum in 2000 - over 920 thousand). These changes were accompanied by an unprecedented boom in higher education: the number of students grew from 400 thousand to 1230 thousand  between 1990 and 2018 (with a peak of 1950 thousands students in 2005). 

What were the changes in the revised core curriculum?

WS: The changes in 2012 introduced learning outcomes and   qualifications to the field previously described only using the concept of occupations. Although education in Polish VET is still organized around occupations and based on the regulation on the classification of occupations for vocational education, the core curriculum specifies partial qualifications for each occupation. As a result students can obtain a  partial qualification after the positive outcome  of an examination (a VET certificate) and a full qualification (a VET diploma) after collecting all required partial qualifications in an occupation and completing the general education component.

There are approximately 250 partial qualifications specified for 200 occupations. In many cases two occupations (e.g. electrician and electrical technician ) share at least one partial qualification (e.g. “Installation, commissioning and maintenance of electrical installations, machinery and equipment”), which creates a mechanism of accumulation of credits during education. Each partial qualification is described by sets of learning outcomes and individual learning outcomes. As of 2019 the learning outcomes are further defined with verification criteria. 

The recent changes in organization of VET introduced innovations in regard to the educational offer of schools and/or learning opportunities for students. The new legislation provides a number of additional sets of skills that students can achieve in the workplace and which are not part of an occupation. On the other hand, students can also gain market qualifications, for which they can be trained within  a designated part (20 percent) of their learning programme in school. 

How do the changes in the revised core curriculum may impact the development work on the ML/AI based software to help students/counsellors identify learning paths and connections between qualifications?

WS: The fact that learning outcomes become a common language provides a good starting point for comparisons between different groups of qualifications. The fact that VET qualifications and market qualifications have a similar structure (sets, outcomes, verification criteria) and a similar perspective of description (closely corresponding with work tasks) allows making comparisons that take into account more “layers” of texts. 

The first thing to say is, that these changes allow for a better human understanding and comparison of qualifications from different institutional settings (e.g. formal education and non-formal education). Some of the changes have in fact, opened new learning pathways (e.g. easier access to HE for students in some strands of VET, new market qualifications for VET students and graduates) – creating new fields for recommendations, which can also be supported by language processing.

However, the challenge remains in the ambiguity of language in general and vagueness of some descriptions. To overcome this challenge both for teaching purposes and for developing IT applications either a controlled vocabulary or an ontology of skills will be needed. 

What lies ahead? 

WS: The Integrated Qualifications System in Poland needs to function in relation to different types of credentials. There is a need to expand our knowledge  concerning various instances of these credentials (such as digital badges, micro-credentials, professional certificates or qualifications that have not been included in the IQS so far). This will allow for building a more life-like model of learning pathways. At the same time such a database / corpora could be used for building more accurate language models and, on another level, better public policies.