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France: Covid-19 crisis - ensuring continuity of learning in vocational training

From the first weeks of 2020, France was heavily hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 16, the government decided to confine the country; a so-called emergency law prescribes the general measures necessary to deal with the epidemic. Strict containment lasted until 11 May.

Basic regulation and texts for implementation

Overall, decisions are taken by the State, after consultation with the main actors concerned. A decree, supplemented by an ordinance, completed the emergency law.

The Ministries of Education and Labour organised continuity of learning in schools as well as in apprentice training centres (Centres de formation des apprentis, CFAs) and CVET training providers. As part of the deconfinement strategy, all training establishments gradually reopened, starting on 11 May 2020, while upper secondary (vocational) schools remained closed until 2 June.

The government is publishing up-to-date data in question-and-answer circulars, particularly on apprenticeship, distance learning and training subsidies.

Cooperation and role of VET stakeholders

Alongside the State, all the players, including regions, have made contributions or taken measures to prevent or mitigate the consequences of the pandemic on employment and vocational training.

The regions and the State have worked together, to create (and finance) a solidarity fund (Fonds de solidarité) for businesses particularly affected by the economic, financial and social consequences of the epidemic.

The social partners and training providers also make proposals. For example, the Federation of Vocational Training, bringing together more than 900 training providers, has proposed a recovery plan to secure practical training for young people and employers.

Standing teaching and evolution of training processes

From the start of lockdown, pedagogical continuity has been established for initial and continuing training, as well as apprenticeships.

In the school track, regular contact is maintained; the head teacher ensures that the student has access to the course materials and is able to carry out his/her homework. Particular attention is paid to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. A partnership with La Poste has been established to enable the collection and supply of computer equipment to pupils who are not equipped, as well as the delivery of pedagogical supports and hardcopy documents.

Principals, teachers and students build on existing networks, particularly digital workspaces (espaces numériques de travail), My Classroom at Home, the ETINCEL platform for vocational education and training, or the Eduscol portals. Since March, a new national initiative (Nation apprenante) has provided quality online teaching programmes in line with school curricula.

In spite of the pedagogical support, it is estimated that, for nearly 4% of the pupils (the rate might rise up to 25% or more in vocational education) a link could not be maintained during lockdown. Primary and secondary schools have been gradually opening since 11 May in accordance with health protocols.

Maintaining in-company training

Pedagogical continuity is also provided in apprenticeship, in CFAs mainly through digital learning. If a training session is postponed, complete training could not be carried out at a distance, or the examination is postponed, the apprenticeship contract can be extended. Free resources (training tools, educational content) have been made available by the State, VET institutions and companies.

For continuing vocational training (CVT) providers, the principle is to ensure continuity through distance learning. In April, the DARES, the national research and statistics service, surveyed more than 5 500 job seekers to assess the consequences of the crisis on training programmes. The results show that a small proportion of the programmes (around 7%) in place at the time of containment were delivered entirely by distance learning. Most of the courses had to be redesigned so as not to penalise the beneficiaries.

Firms have been allowed to make use of short-time working and, in return, facilitate access to training for their employees; financial aids such as the FNE-formation have contributed. Apprentices, as employees, benefit from short-time working.

Pôle emploi, the national employment agency, has decided to maintain remuneration for beneficiaries (job seekers) enrolled in vocational training programmes (financed by Pole Emploi) during the health crisis, even if the training is suspended or cancelled.

The CFAs and continuing training providers can once again welcome their apprentices and trainees as of 11 May, in accordance with health protocols.

Ensuring programme completion in school-based VET

All the general and vocational baccalaureate (end of upper secondary certificates) exams are (exceptionally) suspended and assessed based on the marks in the school report.

For all professional diplomas (CAP, BEP, complementary mention, brevet des métiers d'art, brevet professionnel, baccalauréat professionnel), final assessment is based - instead of physical exams - on the grades from the previous year (2019/20) and the school report 2019/20; a jury will decide on the final grades, taking into consideration learners’ performance during the practical training periods (continuous assessment taking place in simulated environments or at the workplace/company).

The government is answering online questions that students, their families and teachers may have (questions and answers) on programme continuation in both school-based and apprenticeship programmes, information is updated in line with health protocols.

Main challenges for the future

Since the end of March, every two weeks, INSEE has been publishing an analysis of the evolution of the economic situation. In early May, the fall in private salaried employment is estimated at -2.3%, i.e. more than 450 000 net job losses in one quarter. GDP has fallen by 5.8%.

Provision of apprenticeship, which had reached a record level in 2019, could be affected, especially given the uncertainties of young people's appetite for alternance programmes and company difficulties recruiting. CFAs are worried about their financing; they are calling for an increase in assistance to employers hiring apprentices (irrespective of the level of the qualification prepared). A recovery plan (plan de relance) was announced on May, 12 to limit damage; the Minister of Labour will be running a consultation process with social partners to finalise the conditions of the plan.

In school-based (VET) programmes, the challenge is to ensure pupils have gained the (skills and) knowledge to continue their studies and thus reduce the risk of dropping out. This implies increasing the teaching time devoted to the transmission of this knowledge, for instance within the Open school summer 2020 programme. Future plans include an innovative ‘learning holidays’ scheme (beginning and end of the summer school holidays) to enable upper secondary VET learners to resume learning while taking part in cultural and leisure activities.

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