Why are countries like Germany and Switzerland more successful economically than France and the UK? The reason could lie in the different approach that these countries give to vocational education. The French educational system ‘looks down on vocational training perpetuating the notion that intellectual jobs are more worthy than manual work,’ says Jerome Frantz, chairman of the Federation des Industries Mechaniques.

Switzerland and Germany take a very different view on the value of vocational education. In Switzerland, about 65% of 15 to 19 year-olds obtain apprenticeships compared with just 6% in England. Students, on average, spend three days a week at the workplace and two days studying at a college – a combination that makes them highly employable. Unlike many other Europeans, the perceptions of the Swiss and Germans of vocational education are very positive. ‘They are considered real professionals ...the school and work experience form a solid basis of theoretical and practical skills.’

As long as people feel that vocational education is inferior to academic training, we will continue to have disappointing failures in students’ achievements. Parents need to look at vocational education as a perfectly acceptable career path for all students and not just those who find academic learning unattractive. When technical schools were closed down some years ago, a vacuum was created in our educational system. That has to some extent been filled by MCAST which remains our most effective vehicle to give vocational education the high status it deserves.

The challenges ahead for vocational education in Malta are formidable but they can all be won. One critical success factor is more employer engagement. Employers need to be more involved in assessing the vocational education and training curricula of courses allowing them to match curriculum content with the needs of the labour market. They should also be more generous in offering meaningful apprenticeship programmes to school leavers.

The education authorities need to focus more on upgrading the quality of vocational education courses. We also need to offer more guidance to students on the value of courses on offer and the likelihood of job opportunities that these courses provide. To sharpen the effectiveness of our vocational education system we need a more systematic and intensive effort to identify and assist potential dropouts before and at entry into vocational programmes.

The building of a new campus for MCAST should boost the image of vocational education. More activities aimed at improving the college’s climate will reduce student absenteeism and improve their motivation. These activities should also include campaigns to create systematic awareness and educational activities directed at increasing parents’ involvement in programme planning and support. Vocational education students may be adults, but if parents are involved on a purely voluntary basis we could ensure that family support for these students will be reinforced.

Educators who work in the coalface of our vocational education system need to be involved in all stages of planning and execution of educational strategies if we want vocational education to become an effective engine of economic growth.