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.

Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.

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Diversity training: what’s the point?

Lifelong learning is often treated as a magic potion – ignored and even despised for the most part, then  enthusastically embraced as the ideal solution when crisis hits. I’ve long thought that one of the best examples of this trend is the way in which organisations suddenly offer diversity training in response to criticism, as the Metropolitan Police did when the Macpherson Report concluded that its current procedures and policies were ‘institutionally racist’.

bohnet-cover

From the Mechanics Institute Library milibrary.org

In short, I think that senior managers often use diversity training as a fig leaf or a diversionary tactic. Rather than changing their practices, they try to change the attitudes of staff, particularly relatively junior staff. In turn, people who are sent on diversity courses on a more or less compulsory basis are hardly going to be the most receptive learners. The upshot is that cynical leaders purchase cynical training programmes which  produce cynical workforces.

In a new book which is attracting widespread attention, Iris Bohnet argues that apart from anything else, diversity training simply doesn’t work. There is simply no substantial evidence base of its effectiveness, nor would she expect it to work because it tries to engage the rational part of our brain in finding rational solutions, when what we need is to avoid the problems in the first place. If we want  to overcome gender bias in organizations and society, we should focus on de-biasing systems (eg how we evaluate performance, recruit, promote, or form teams) rather than on de-biasing people.

New Picture

You can read more about Prof Bohnet’s case in her new book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. I suspect that some people will focus on her ‘take-away’ messages rather than reading the book, and conclude that all diversity training is pointless.  She doesn’t argue that training for diversity, or women’s leadership programmes, are necessarily pointless or counter-productive; on the contrary, she thinks it has a part to play in changing behaviour, along with such other ‘nudge’ factors as gender-blind recruitment procedures.

There is plenty to disagree with in What Works. I found her account of the brain, and its associated decision-making, particularly crude and simplistic. But I do think the overall message – change systems first, and then help workers adapt to the new procedures – is a useful basis for any equality strategy.

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.

Green Party policy for lifelong learning

Several people recently took part in a Twitter exchange about the policies of the main parties towards adult learning. I expressed the view that all the main parties – including Labour and the Scottish Nationalists – of cutting public favoured reduced spending on what was already a very small field. Effectively, their policy means privatised provision for those who can afford it, and minimal public provision geared to narrowly instrumental policy aims for the most stigmatised.

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett

The only party to take part in the discussion was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, who sent me a link to the relevant section of their education policy statement. No-one expects the Greens to form the next UK Government, but they are polling well enough at the moment to suggest that they might be able to influence a minority Labour Government if that is what we get. So here is what they have to say about adult learning:

ED260 As stated in the Introduction the Green Party believes that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society.

ED261 As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low.

Policy

ED262 There should be funded opportunities to study at any level at any stage of life. This is essential for the 21st century; it may be done increasingly on-line, but with local centres for study support groups and face-to-face meetings with tutors.

ED263 To promote accessibility it will be provided in town centres rather than in out of town universities where possible.

ED264 There will be a minimum requirement to provide free education for adults to learn essential literacy, numeracy and life skills including Parenting programmes, and to acquire skills and qualifications which will help them directly gain employment. This will include provision for distance and e-learning, following models such as that of the Open University.

ED265 Adult education should embrace and encourage learning for learning’s sake and as such funding for additional courses will be decided at a local level, without it having to be target-driven and focused only on qualifications.

Like a lot of Green Party policies, there are gaps and loose ends. Funding is one, but so is responsibility for aligning supply and demand. For example, how does this relate to the Party’s policies on decentralisation – and how far will local government have any part in local delivery? Nevertheless, it is welcome that one of our smaller but still serious parties is developing clear policies that do not rely primarily on the free market, with all the inequalities and inefficiencies that untrammeled markets involve.

Note: I am a member of the Green Party

What’s happening in workplace learning?

French labour market researchers at the CEGOS Observatory have just released their annual survey of training in Europe. It involves a reasonable size sample (2,470 workers in six countries) and the findings suggest that participation is holding up reasonably well in the recession, though the authors speak of ‘a French and Spanish sickness’. They also confirm the integration of new technologies and social media into workplace learning is increasing apace, and that those who are already highly educated continue to receive the most training.

So far as Britain is concerned, the findings broadly support those who argue that our workplace learning system is comparatively strong. Workers in Britain were most likely to:

  • report participation in distance learning and blended learning
  • receive information about training from their manager
  • say that they have benefited from training.

They were least likely to claim that training had been imposed on them, though not by much. In Italy, 38% said they generally had training imposed on them by their employer, as against 35% in Germany, 32% in France and 31% in Britain. Even though most workers said that they were able to suggest training activities for themselves, the survey finds that more training results from employer instructions than from dialogue and negotiation. This is more surprising for countries like France and Germany, where work councils are well established, than it is in Britain, whose labour market is less tightly regulated.

A summary of the CEGOS findings can be downloaded at: http://www.cegos.fr/actualites/Pages/enquete-formation-professionnelle-en-europe-2013.aspx