France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

New Picture (3)

First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!

 

 

What is new about Germany’s national strategy for continuing education?

Well, the first thing that is new is the fact that it exists at all. Under the German federal constitution, responsibility for education lies with the individual states (Länder) and the federal government (Bund) is cast in a largely supporting role. The new strategy is the first of its kind, jointly produced by the Bund, the Länder, employers, and labour unions.

“Sharing knowledge, shaping the future, growing together: National Strategy for Continuing Education”

The rationale offered for this spirit of cooperation is digitisation. One much-cited study claims that a quarter of German employees work in occupations at high risk of replacement through the new technologies, and that report is duly mentioned in the new strategy.  The focus here is on workplace skills as a means of tackling the challenges of digitisation for individuals and enterprises alike, with a particular focus on small and medium sized firms and on the least skilled workers.

The strategy sets out ten ‘action goals’, and commits the partners (federal ministries for education and labour, Länder, employers, unions) to putting them into practice. These goals are:

  1. Supporting the transparency of continuing education possibilities and provision.
  2. Closing gaps in support , putting new incentives in place, adjusting existing support systems.
  3. Strengthening comprehensive lifelong educational advice and skills guidance, especially in SMEs.
  4. Strengthening the responsibility of the social partners.
  5. Testing and strengthening the quality and quality evaluation of continuing education provision.
  6. Making visible and recognising workers’ prior skills in vocational education.
  7. Developing continuing education provision and certification.
  8. Strategic development of educational institutions as skill centres for vocational continuing education.
  9. Strengthening continuing education staff and preparing them for digital change.
  10. Strengthening strategic foresight and optimising continuing education statistics.

if anyone wants more detail of these broad goals and their implementation, let me know.

Imp-lementation starts after the summer break. Responsibility for overseeing progress against these goals is being handed to a national committee of the partners, which is charged with producing a joint progress report in 2021. At the same time, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has been asked to produce a national report on continuing education in Germany.

Those who look for a broad and civic approach to lifelong learning will not find it in this strategy. Its focus is aimed entirely at change in continuing vocational education, with a view to reducing the rigidities of Germany’s skills system, and promoting greater labour flexibility flexibility in the face of tech change, and digitisation in particular. As a strategy for upskilling, though, it’s an enormously interesting development, and given Germany’s wider influence in Europe and beyond, it’s worth watching closely.

Is Germany’s dual system faltering?

German apprenticeships have long served as a global model for vocational training systems. The German system has an enviable reputation for combining quality with volume, and for balancing a continued academic education with systematic on-the-job learning. It remains a source of pride nationally, and continues to attract a steady flow of foreign visitors in search of a solution to their own skills problems.

Of course, no vocational training system is perfect, particularly when seen from close up. At different times the system has been criticised for embedding gender divisions, and its rigidity is often seen as incompatible with the shift towards more flexible regimes of labour. Some have cautiously expressed concerns over reported variations between standards in the different Länder.

What is causing particular concern within Germany at the moment is that apprenticeships appear to be losing their attraction to school-leavers. In 2014, German employers signed on 522,200 new apprentices – the lowest figure since unification in 1990, representing a fall of over 40,000 young people. And while some of this may be caused by demographic changes, this is not the only explanation.bibb

What many foreign observers often miss, or ignore, is that well-qualified school leavers in Germany often entered an apprenticeship in the past, but now prefer to enter higher education. . As I’ve said before, the point at which the number of undergraduates overtakes the number of apprentices is bound to have symbolic significance in a country that has made its apprenticeship system a gold standard.

Adapting the dual system is complex and can be slow. One of the system’s great strengths is that it is supported actively and well understood by a range of stakeholders – employers and their associations, different levels of government, trade unions, parents and the wider public. But involving all these stakeholders in reform is unlikely to produce quick and easy solutions, and so it has proven.

Several measures have nonetheless been agreed. Part-time pathways were opened up in 2005, but ten years on they still have the temporary-sounding status of a project. Apprentices are being recruited in other EU member states, particularly those with high youth unemployment like Portugal and Spain. Selected school-leavers can combine work-based-learning with a higher education qualification, a pattern known as “duales Studium”. The government is urging employers to lower the entry qualifications for apprenticeship contracts, and is funding coaching to help make up the gap.

There are also discussions over opening the scheme up to refugees, though this is likely to prove politically controversial. And so far the question of adult entry into apprenticeships remains off the agenda – in contrast to the UK, of course.

I dounbt whether the measures taken so far are enough to stem what has been a steady and long-term process of erosion. The remorseless rise in higher education participation rates is a global phenomenon, and its effects on the German apprenticeship system are unlikely to diminish any time soon.

Personal training accounts – supporting adult skills in France

The new system explained (with beret, naturellement). From www.senat.fr

The new system explained (avec beret, naturellement). From http://www.senat.fr

This month saw the introduction of a new way of supporting adult learning in France. The new ‘compte personnel de formation’ (CPF), or personnel training account, is based on the principle of a time bank, which starts when you enter the labour market and continues through your working life.

The new CPF affects all those active in the labour market – workers, job-seekers and apprentices. Essentially it provides for an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work, accumulated over an eight-year period. Previously, the law guaranteed 120 hours, accumulated over two years, and to be used within six years.

Inevitably there are restrictions on what can be studied, with a centrally-determined list of 3,881 eligible forms of training at different levels, reflecting the government’s priority of supporting ‘short-to-mid-term economic needs’. And there is a requirement for certification, whether through a recognised qualification or through the national system for accrediting vocational learning (validation des acquis professionels). And in order to receive paid leave, you must apply at least 60 days before the course begins.

If these criteria are met, the employer must agree to let you attend. The costs – including travel and subsistence – are met by what looks to me very much like a training levy on employers, administered by a body agreed by the employers and the trade unions which also meets half of your salary costs while away from work.

This interesting system was introduced under France’s law on vocational training, employment and social democracy, and it replaces the earlier system known as ‘droit individuel a formation’ (DIF, individual right to train). It is, of course, too early to say how the system will work, but it has been generally welcomed by workers’ representatives as offering wider choice and greater control, and a recent survey estimated that 74% of workers intended to take it up.

In one respect, though CPF isn’t working as well as the old DIF. The central body charged with drawing up the list of eligible courses apparently ‘forgot’ to include languages. As 30% of requests for DIF involved English language learning, this came as something of a shock, but it is apparently in the course of being remedied.

Otherwise, this looks like a really worthwhile reform. I hope that policy makers in other European countries, and those who represent adult learners, are watching the CPF with lively interest.

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.

Is the Dual System in Germany at a turning point?

Germany’s apprenticeship system is known and admired across the world. Widely seen as guaranteeing a high-skills labour force, the German ‘Dual System’ combines a broad education with intensive mentoring, supervision and practice in the workplace. Germany’s universities, by contrast, enjoy no such reputation for dynamism and success. So it is interesting to hear of growing concern in Europe’s economic powerhouse over the future balance between the academic and vocational pathways.

For many decades, the vocational path was taken by the great majority of German school-leavers. And impressive numbers continue to do so. In 2012, almost 550,000 young people signed contracts to begin one of the 350-odd officially recognized and heavily regulated apprenticeships. Yet the numbers starting in the dual system are falling, while the numbers entering higher education are rising.

In 2011-12, some 518,000 enrolled in a higher education institution. If current trends continue, more school-leavers will be entering an HEI than are following an apprenticeship. And that will, at least in symbolic terms, be quite a turning point.

Unsurprisingly, some Germans think this a most unhealthy trend. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a Munich philosophy professor and social-democrat politician, describes the trend as an ‘academicization delusion’. For Nida-Rümelin, the dual system should be valued for producing highly educated and well-trained skilled workers, who come from all layers of society. But he also shares with other leading academics a belief that too many young people are entering higher education who cannot cope with the demands of their chosen subject.

On the other side of the debate, the German government and the OECD see the growth of higher education as a welcome step towards a knowledge economy. Currently, the proportion of graduates in German society lies well below the EU average. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says the market is sending a clear message: if graduates earn 74% more than those who complete apprenticeships, then of course young people will enrol in higher education.

This earnings differential should raise some eyebrows in countries where the German dual system has been held up as an example. How can it be that the world’s best-trained skilled specialists earn little over half as much as the graduates of a rather middle-ranking HE system? Part of the answer lies in the very scope of the dual system, which encompasses a vast range of occupations, including some that are not always well-paid.
The largest single group among the 2012 intake were people training for the retail sector. And yes, before you ask, the majority of this group were women.

So while it is true that the dual system produces some very skilled and rounded workers in specialist trades like mechatronics or medical technicians, it is also producing shop assistants. Thanks to the dual system, German shop assistants are mostly highly literature, pretty numerate and often competent in one or more foreign languages. And closer to home, given my interests, the system produces bakers who understand the science of bread-making and brewers who understand the science of beer.

But the risk that Julian Nida-Rümelin points to is that apprenticeships are becoming a second class pathway, while the academic option becomes the royal road. And the example of Britain is not, in this respect, particularly encouraging.

We’re so good at switching people off learning

The Matthew effect is well-known among adult educators: the already well-educated get more, and the least well educated get none. So I was interested to read a recent piece of research examining the learning intentions of low-qualified workers (a link is below).

The researchers surveyed 673 workers in 39 organisations, who had few if any school-leaving qualifications. The results were analysed using methods that allowed the researchers to control for a range of variables, so that they could isolate the factors that predict intentions to learn. They also interviewed 14 workers to provide greater depth.

Two factors were clearly linked with intentions to learn in the future. The first was what they called ‘self-directedness’ in their views of work. People who had a high degree of self-directedness placed a higher value on learning. This is an interesting finding, but of course self-directedness is not an abstract and free-floating personal quality – it develops over time as a result of being involved in work and workplace relations that make you feel there is a point to positive planning.

This is why researchers like Lorna Unwin and Alan Felstead have placed so much emphasis in their recent writing on what they call ‘expansive workplaces’ that promote high levels of autonomous learning. And interestingly, one reason why some of the low-qualified workers rejected learning was that they thought it would lead them into more stressful and unpleasant roles.

The second factor was people’s earlier experiences of education.  It wasn’t just that school learning had switched people off, though that was certainly one of the findings. The researchers also reported that learning intentions were higher among those who had learned during working hours, gone on study tours, or had taken part in an innovation project or a study group. For other activities – including self-tuition through online learning and after hours taught classes – there was no positive effect on learning intentions.

In other words, bad memories of schooling are overcome by positive experiences of adult learning. The question is then how we get people back into learning – particularly if they are on the margin of the labour market, in precarious work, or on a fixed-term contract.

 

‘Examining the learning intentions of low-qualified employees: a mixed method study’, by E. Kyndt, N. Govaerts, L. Keunen and F. Dochy, Journal of Workplace Learning, 25, 3, 2003 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1366-5626&volume=25&issue=3&articleid=17085193&show=abstract