Should we set up Centres of Vocational Excellence?

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Some time ago we had the Institute of Trades Skills Excellence, which operated in Australia for a time as a model for promoting quality delivery in the trades. Centres of Vocational Excellence, or CoVEs are a more generic version of this approach. Is it worth a go?

CoVEs have operated in the UK and a recent paper from Europe looks at them too. They are also being trialled in New Zealand at present in the Construction and Primary Industry sectors.

Early initiatives in the United Kingdom (UK)

In the UK, the approach was overseen by the (then) Learning and Skills Council with Centre of Vocational Excellence status given to departments within individual further education colleges deemed to provide good quality teaching. Amongst the aims of the program were an increase in collaboration amongst learning providers, and the promotion of good quality provision and promoting innovation and flexibility in meeting employer needs.  CoVE ‘pathfinders’ were established to help set the standard for aspiring CoVEs and to help develop the criteria used to measure their achievements.

Significant initial and subsequent funding for CoVEs was provided to further education colleges based on plans of action they developed and submitted. Funding went to individual colleges, or to partnerships based locally, regionally or nationally. Importantly, they were also required to disseminate good practice and help other providers to raise standards in specialist vocational provision. You can read a little bit more about the UK process here.

Initiatives in Europe

A more recent paper released by the European Training Federation in 2020 points out that CoVEs can take a number of forms. One involves individual vocational schools or training centres but they can also be coordination or development centres or networks rather than individual providers.

They can have two potentially contrasting purposes too. The first is to make skills provision more responsive to the changing needs of industry. This approach typically favours more specialist skills providers that are deeply and extensively tied to their industry. However, a second purpose aims improve the performance of the whole skills provider network, which places more emphasis on coordination, cooperation and strategic development and is a vehicle for introducing a culture of continuous improvement and innovation into the VET community. While the first purpose might appeal more to an industry-led VET system such as Australia’s, the second is more provider focused.

CoVEs can also be a vehicle for developing new tools and resources. In turn, this requires the creation of network institutions to transfer accumulated knowledge to other VET institutions and more broadly. The European paper argues that:

“Collaboration can lead to cost savings through the sharing of services or equipment, but it can also lead to new provision if organisations find it feasible to offer a new service or product together… [ and it] … can lead to the improvement and innovation of services or products, particularly when it brings together different kinds of organisations.”

This enables expertise, knowledge, practice and funding to be bought together to address common goals. However, successful collaboration really depends on willingness to collaborate, trust, common goals, breaking down silos, adequate funding and distributed leadership.

Meanwhile across the ditch in New Zealand…

CoVEs in New Zealand are in their early stages of development and they can have an industry or occupation focus, or be concerned with particular delivery issues, for example: online learning or foundation education. Each CoVE aims to bring together the ‘right people and organisations,’ including industry players and providers, as a consortium which is created to be ‘’fit for purpose rather than tightly proscribed.”

Their purposes are potentially broad and, amongst other things, they aim to support the growth of excellent vocational education with a focus on teaching, learning and research and the development and sharing of high-quality curriculum and programs. There may also be a focus on the effective use of learning technologies and high-quality pastoral care for students. Finally, they can look to how to innovative approaches and solutions actually happen.

To date, New Zealand’s initiatives are in their early days and there has been little rigorous evaluation of the impacts of CoVEs in Europe. So perhaps any pilot programs in Australia need to be the subject of formative evaluations? Dialogue with those in New Zealand and Europe about such initiatives may be a useful first step too. Maybe they would be a good addition to the VET workforce development strategy highlighted in our first article in this issue.

Should we set up Centres of Vocational Excellence? | VDC