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The study Key competences in initial vocational education and training: digital, multilingual and literacy revealed a high number of policies (79) promoting literacy, multilingual and/or digital competence in IVET in 2011-18 in the EU-27, Iceland, Norway and the UK. These policies often overlap with a focus on more than one key competence at the same time. More than half of the policies have a broader scope than IVET. Digital competence received the most attention from policy-makers. It is also more often addressed by policies exclusively devoted to one key competence, compared with literacy and multilingual competences. The research showed that such competences have been included in almost all qualification types in IVET between 2011 and 2018.

Approximately two-thirds of policies promoting the selected key competences have the explicit objective to embed these competences in IVET, contributing to observable changes in programme delivery, reference documents, teacher/trainer training and assessment standards. The remainder promote the selected key competences without embedding them in IVET.

The research confirmed that promoting the selected key competences in IVET is usually linked to broader societal objectives. Compared to the other competences, policies on multilingual competence more often have broader objectives, related to supporting lifelong learning (37% of the policies). Social inclusion is slightly more often the broader objective of policies promoting literacy compared to the other competences (25%). Policies promoting digital competence have employability as the most common broader societal objective (33%).

Stand-alone subjects/modules are the most common way of including literacy and multilingual competence in IVET. For digital competence, integration is key. Based on the analysis of sample curricula (in three sectors), digital and multilingual competences are mainly perceived as ‘pure’ key competences compared to occupation-specific competences. There are important differences by sector. For instance, multilingual competence is most often seen as an occupation-specific competence in the accommodation and food service sector (32% of all programmes in this sector) compared to digital competence, which is considered an occupation-specific competence mainly in the manufacturing sector (41% of all programmes in the sector).

National policy developments in 2015-20 in the EU

The Riga conclusions (2015) set strengthening of key competences in initial and continuing VET by 2020 as one of its five priorities. At the beginning of the 2015-20 policy cycle, most Directors-General for VET (DGVT) reported that strengthening key competences in VET by 2020 was among their national priorities. In total, 60% of all Member States rated strengthening key competences in VET as a high or medium priority (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Strengthening key competences as a national priority until 2020

Source: Cedefop based on information provided by the Directors-General for VET

Cedefop’s Enhancing European cooperation in VET: outcomes of the Riga cycle (2020) shows that policy developments in this area in the period 2015-20 have focused on literacy and multilingual competences (25% of developments), digital competence (21%), maths/science/technology (15%) and entrepreneurship competence (including financial competence) (10%). ‘Key competences have been emphasised in national education/VET/lifelong learning strategies. IVET and CVET curricula and programmes have been revised accordingly. Specific dedicated strategies, campaigns and public agencies were set up, for example on digital competence or literacy. A trend to develop tools supporting key competences (competence mapping tools, tools to support the acquisition of digital skills, learning-to-learn, entrepreneurship competence and other emerging key competences) is on the rise’. At national level, a wider variety of competences, for instance physical and mental wellbeing, historical awareness, spatial awareness, and sustainable development are promoted.

Nevertheless, the 2018 PISA results showed that the share of young people with low performance in reading, maths and science has remained above the EU 2020 target of 15%. This share has increased compared to the 2015 PISA survey results in science and reading, i.e. there were more young people who lack sufficient key competences at age 15 than three years before and remained stable in mathematics. There is therefore a need to implement policies that further promote acquisition of key competences in upper secondary education, placing special focus on VET. For instance, according to PISA results, an important gap exists between the performance of learners in general education and VET programmes in reading.

Figure 2.  Share of 15-year-olds with low achievement in reading, maths and science in EU-28

NB: Low achievement means failing level 2 on the PISA scale.
Source: OECD PISA 2012, 2015 and 2018 results.



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