Carry on as much as possible, adapt where necessary: this was the intuitive response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Dutch VET. However, on 15 March 2020, the Government decided to close all schools for primary and secondary general and vocational education with immediate effect. The question was how to balance between business as usual and preventing the spreading of Covid-19? Should we use this crisis as an opportunity to reinvent VET?
Shaping policies with stakeholders and experts
On 17 March, the Minister for Education outlined the implications of closing the VET colleges in a letter to Parliament, along with a detailed Service document. Despite the short timescale, many parties were involved in drawing up the document, including the National Council of VET Colleges, the VET student union and teacher unions. Given the situation, it was agreed to update the document weekly, if necessary, and send guidelines directly to VET colleges. Topics addressed in the updated versions of the document were no different but fed by practical experiences.
Distance learning in VET
Education and training institutions had to operate within the framework of safety measures announced by the National institute for public health and the environment (RIVM). Education has been offered via distance learning and face-to-face internet contacts between learners and teachers, as VET schools have been closed for almost all learners. VET colleges have made a considerable effort to keep contact with learners, particularly with disadvantaged ones such as those in unsafe home situations, with multiple problems, or with no access to distance learning. VET colleges could host these learners in their own venues provided that both they and their teachers do not have Covid-19 symptoms.
A web portal on distance learning in VET has been set up providing information by several public organisations for education and ICT, the Ministry of Education and the councils of VET colleges.
How to continue workplace learning?
Practical training in companies in both VET tracks (school-based and dual) continued, provided that the company agreed to act in accordance with the Government’s and RIVM’s guidelines. The school supervised remotely the learners who continued their internship.
Learners in the dual track have an employment contract with a company. If a contract was terminated because of the Covid-19 crisis, practical training was also terminated. In that case it was up to the school to assess whether learning objectives and practical assignments could be considered completed by taking results from previous internships and alternative (practical) assignments into account. Alternatively, the practical training had to be postponed or learners could be transferred to the equivalent school-based track.
Practical training in the school-based track continued unless it was taking place in sectors temporarily closed according to government guidelines (such as hospitality) or if the training company suspended its activities and/or could no longer supervise learners. When no alternatives were available, the practical training was postponed. Learners in international mobility programmes were advised to return home. All learners were entitled not to continue an internship if this was leading, in their opinion, to risky situations.
The way forward
Provided that Covid-19 remains under control, VET colleges are allowed to reopen on 15 June. However, they should provide distance learning as much as possible and will continue in doing so in the near future. After 15 June, education activities that may take place at school premises will be limited to practical training and testing, while the supervision of disadvantaged learners will continue. These activities may take place from 11 am to 3 pm and after 8 pm for learners to avoid rush hour travel.
VET colleges are advised to help learners who would normally graduate within the 2019/20 school year to do so before 1 January 2021. Each school board determines the way exams will be conducted, in accordance with RIVM guidelines. School boards and each college’s examination board are responsible for safeguarding the quality of the process. Given the circumstances, exams could include online oral parts and examinations at the workplace. Colleges are also free to take into account intermediate assessment outcomes, when deciding to award a diploma. For subjects tested in national exams (Dutch and English languages and maths), all tests issued by the Board of tests and examinations (CvTE) are digitally available and the exam period has been considerably extended. However, exams still must be taken within school buildings, in accordance with the CvTE and RIVM guidelines. In the cases of VET diplomas that are awarded only if legal requirements associated with an occupation have been met, fulfilling these requirements remains a condition of awarding them, unless otherwise communicated by the authorities in charge.
Back to normal?
VET colleges have mostly defined their situation as ‘holding the line’, once the most acute problems had been solved and procedures adapted to the circumstances. This permits time for damage assessment and a first glance into the future. The first impression is that VET colleges have generally been able to keep almost everybody on board and have adapted themselves to distance learning needs at a surprising speed.
An important issue related to VET is the effect of the Covid-19 crisis on the economy, and how it will affect the willingness of companies to offer internships. To prevent the collapse of workplace learning, the tripartite Foundation for Cooperation on VET and Labour Market (SBB) launched an action plan for the preservation of workplace learning and apprenticeships.
The near future raises concerns, though. How to adapt school buildings to social-distancing needs? How to identify organisational and financial effects of extending the school time for specific learner groups, and who will pay for this? More important, what is the knowledge level of each learner after such a long period of distance learning? It is feared that differences between learners, in terms of achieved learning outcomes, may have increased: if this is the case, how to intervene? And how to upgrade teachers’ competences in using digital resources and social media?
Solutions taken under great stress may not be the best ones: it is important to discuss how to improve them and how to share experiences and learn from others. It is expected that, in finding the answers to these questions, VET colleges will not aim to restore the past but instead to rethink the provision of VET in a more flexible and sustainable way, less dependent on transport facilities and buildings/classrooms.