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Recognising Prior Learning

November 3rd, 2015 by Graham Attwell

I greatly enjoyed the DISCUSS project conference in Munich last week at which I spoke together with Steve Wheeler. After the morning speeches, there was a cafe type session in the afternoon looking at four key challenges the project has identified for education in Europe. All were interesting and given the venue tended to be reflected through the lens of the present refugee crisis.

One of the issues was the recognition of prior learning. Interestingly, this seems to have been the subject of more European funded projects in education and training than any other subject. Needless to say there was considerable discussion and some divergence of opinion on ways forward on which I will report my view tomorrow.

But Randolph Preisinger Kleine has dug out something I wrote on a previous project, which seems to make some sense of why we have such misunderstandings. (Mind, you can tell how old it is when I say that the UK has a comprehensive system of careers guidance!).

Informal Learning

There is increasing recognition in most European countries of the importance of informal learning. Informal learning can provide a bridge between formal subject based learning and occupational practice. Furthermore, informal learning may be important as a tool for the continuing or lifelong learning seen as economically important in a period of rapid economic and technological change. And informal learning is viewed as a way of assisting socially excluded and under-qualified individuals to re-enter formal education and training or gain access to the labour market.

Integration of informal learning
But if there is increasing recognition of the importance of informal learning, there is less convergence in terms of how informal learning is integrated in vocational education and training practice. The differences may be ascribed to the different histories of vocational education and training, to different cultural practices and to different institutional and systemic structures within different countries. This short article will look at activities in Germany and the UK to illustrate different possible approaches to recognising and valuing informal learning.How can we recognise that learning has taken place? The most general measure is taken to be a change in behaviour. In vocational education and training that change in behaviour or acquisition of new abilities is usually expressed in terms of competences. Competences refer to the practical ability to perform an occupational task or tasks. Whilst the word competence exists in most European languages, our understanding of the meaning of competence differs widely.

Different understandings of competence
So, whilst in Germany, competence is generally linked to beruf (a word untranslatable in English) and refers to the internal, holistic ability to act as part of as profession or occupation, in the UK competence refers to the ability to perform externally prescribed and more atomistic tasks.This, in turn, affects the recognition and perceived role of informal learning. In Germany informal learning is seen as an intrinsic part of formal vocational education and training, especially through the Dual System which brings together school and work based learning. In the UK, informal learning is regarded as an external adjunct to formal training. This might be seen as a somewhat abstract description. But these differences take stark structural forms.In Germany apprenticeship is generally age bound, being undertaken as part of the transition from school to work. Although in the UK some young people do undertake vocational courses, (including apprenticeships) on completion of compulsory schooling, vocational courses are open to students of any age and it is quite common for older students to pursue a vocational training programme. For those students who may have failed to gain initial qualifications or those who have some substantial work experience despite lack of formal qualifications, the UK has evolved formal measures for recognising informal learning. This is known as the Accreditation of Prior Learning.

The labour market
There are also important differences in terms of the relation of vocational education and training to the labour market. Germany has a relatively highly regulated labour market. This means for many occupations formal vocational qualifications are required as the basis for employment. There are far fewer regulated occupations in the UK and the role of the trade unions in enforcing regulation is much weaker. Academic qualifications have usually a higher prestige than vocational qualifications and the numbers of those possessing formal vocational qualifications is less. Thus employers are more inclined to look at academic qualifications plus proof of informal learning as the basis for employment.

In both the UK and Germany, as in other European countries, there has been increased interest in informal learning as a means of reintegrating socially excluded and unemployed people in the labour market, although once more this tends to take different directions and forms in the different countries. Indeed, both Germany and the UK are characterised by a considerable number of projects, programmes and experiments, making it difficult to provide more than a general overview of trends.

Recognition of informal learning in Germany and the UK
In Germany, there is little room for formal recognition of informal learning, because of the strength of the regulatory system. On the other hand, the very strength of this system has mitigated against the development of a formal careers guidance system.This has become problematic with high levels of employment and rapid structural economic change. Thus, the identification and recognition of informal learning is increasingly being used as a means for career and occupational guidance, as a mechanism for recognising aptitude for further vocational training or work experience. This is especially seen in the so called one euro job schemes. Recognition of informal learning may also be used as a way of promoting social and civic integration, regardless of employment opportunities, for instance with long term unemployed or ethnic minorities. In the UK, with a well developed, albeit structurally somewhat incoherent and under-resourced, careers advisory service, there has been more focus on the direct recognition and certification of informal learning. This has taken the form of both supplemental qualifications, often as a precursor to entry to more advanced education or training, or as direct recognition of informal learning for part certification of a formal training course, or rarely, even for a complete qualification.

 

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