Response to Firth Review

Response to the Review into Vocational and Applied Learning Pathways in Senior Secondary Schooling

By David Gallagher

Peter Kirby’s review of post compulsory education and training was considered the birth of the VCAL. VCALs prime purpose was to provide a pathway or transition from school to work or further training. But almost from the first day the qualification was labelled as the “alternative to the VCE” or worse “VCAL for the dummies”. The last 20 years has shown that despite all efforts that poor perception has remained, but its primary purpose is still vitally important.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020 was seen by many as the death of VCAL, particularly if you restricted your reading to The Age headline – VCAL axed. But the more enlightened made several strong cups of coffee and embarked on an epic read of over 286 pages and read the Review into Vocational and Applied Learning Pathways in Senior Secondary Schooling - John Firth – The Firth Review. I believe there was no better person to undertake this review, a review that was necessary if Victoria is serious about supporting all students to complete a senior secondary education. I consider the Firth Review as VCAL’s renaissance. The VCAL name will disappear from the vocabulary of senior secondary education but the important elements that VCAL introduced into the senior secondary curriculum will remain and be strengthened. The Firth Review Finding 3 states -

The strengths of the current design of VCAL should be incorporated into a new vocational specialist pathway, namely, its strand structure, opportunities for integrated learning, flexibility, its focus on work-based learning and work readiness, its opportunities for community engagement and partnerships, and its development of workplace capabilities.

The report also mentioned the importance of the 21st century skills and their contribution to support student transition from school to the next stage in their education/work journey.

There is little in the report that worries me and much to be commended but as often is the case the devil is in the detail. The challenges for the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) and the Department of Education and Training include:

  • Students to be at the centre of the applied learning and the current flexibility for students to have input into their work will remain

  • Literacy and numeracy units not to be replaced with VCE English and VCE mathematics. This I believe would be a backward step

  • Employability and 21st century skills remain as the foundation for the applied learning units learning outcomes.

Much of the criticism levelled at VCAL can be attributed to teachers who were not supported with training on applied learning pedagogy. Those teachers who contributed to VCALs poor reputation are still in the system and will be teaching the new applied learning units. These teachers will need support and professional learning to ensure the applied learning units will be respected and valued as the equivalent to any other VCE study.

Although not worried by the Firth report I am disappointed by one area that warranted further attention in the review. The review does address the need for improved quality and more support in VET delivery. However, the report failed to mention that Design and Technology teachers and VET teachers only require Permission to Teach and not a teaching degree and therefore have limited or no training in curriculum design, assessment, applied learning pedagogy and community engagement. The Department would not allow an unqualified science teacher to deliver VCE physics or chemistry. As the biggest single employer of teachers, I would like to see the Department provide support trades people e.g., scholarships to enrol in the appropriate initial teacher education course. Since the report has been published Latrobe University has closed the only initial teacher education course (Bachelor of Technology Education) that was training trades people to teach design and technology and VET programs in schools.

I thank John Firth for this comprehensive review and look forward to the next stage in the induction of applied learning into the VCE.

David Gallagher was the former VCAL manager at the VCAA and is now a lecturer in applied learning at Latrobe University.

14 December 2020

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