Research by the Dutch Education Inspectorate, published in October 2021, shows that 16 months after the start of the pandemic there are fewer worries now about cognitive deficits. However, less attention has been paid so far to the social and social-emotional skills and needs of VET learners. Many learners had a psychologically difficult time and struggled to stay motivated.
Can backlogs be cleared?
According to VET schools, the crisis has in particular hit learners in vulnerable positions, such as those with learning disabilities or living in complicated home situations. VET schools were kept open for them, providing for individual guidance opportunities and extra classes. Teachers devised new interventions to keep them motivated. However, there is a good chance that the group of disadvantaged learners currently in prevocational education will enter VET with significant learning delays in the near future. Their disadvantage has been calculated as up to one and a half or twice of that of children coming from highly educated families.
When asked, many VET learners are not overly positive about school online learning facilities: teachers delivered monologues, had little experience with ICT, the pace was too slow, or too quick, and they had to work individually instead of working on projects with their fellow students. It was a big challenge for their concentration to study from home, and they felt less involved in their lessons. In one in ten upper secondary VET study programmes, learners have experienced unsafe situations during online classes, including digital bullying.
Bottlenecks in workplace learning
VET institutions reported that 40% of all study programmes had learners who could not find an internship. The healthcare sector in particular faced great difficulties in organising regular internships. Education teams came to instant solutions: rescheduling internships to a later moment, replacing them by work assignments in VET school labs, and appealing to their personal network of companies. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has been helpful in allowing for deviations from the prescribed hours standards in VET (practical training delivery in school labs and/or the workplace).
Nevertheless, internships have suffered during the pandemic: 20% of VET teachers consider the quality of internships has fallen and their yield is lower, as VET learners were not able to build routines, were less able to practice and were less supervised.
Towards a new normal?
Both VET learners and teachers are keen to go back to school. This is the place to learn and to meet. However, it is questionable whether VET schools will completely return to the previous ‘normal’, once the health crisis is over. For many learners, online classes could be attractive as they involve less travelling time, hence there is more free time. Teachers and school boards see advantages in a mix of face-to-face and online lessons: increased efficiency in teaching multiple groups at the same time or being able to connect learners on sick leave. Many teachers argue for more intensive personal supervision for all learners. Organising meetings online saves time, as does holding online conversations with interns and internship companies.
Some school boards see the coronavirus effect as a springboard to a flexible and customised VET system. The National Association of VET colleges considers that, in some situations, online education has real added value, even though the school remains the place to learn and to meet. A long-term challenge is to keep a good balance between traditional and online education and, in the short term, to bridge the great differences in knowledge and skills of the next generation of VET students.