A new NCVER report entitled “Journeying through VET: a case study of foundation skills learners” is a piece of ’exploratory research’ that aimed to “learn more about those who undertake nationally recognised foundation skills programs after school and to investigate their training and employment outcomes.”

It found that “foundation skills learners often embark on complex journeys through the VET system, with these involving multiple enrolments in LLND [Adult language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills] or employment skills programs and, in many cases, other VET programs.”

There are 4 distinct learning journeys for learners

The report used “the unique student identifier to track learners’ pathways through VET based on the learner’s enrolment status in a defined list of LLND and employment skills programs between 2016 and 2019.” It identified “four distinct groups of foundation skills learners, with each having varying student, program and provider characteristics.” These were:

First, ‘foundation skills only’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and only enrolled in LLND or employment skills programs subsequently. This group represented about 41% of students in 2016.

Second, there were ‘foundation skills followed by other VET’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and enrolled in other VET programs in subsequent years. This group represented about 13 to 14% of students in 2016.

The third group, making up around 27% of the total, were ‘foundation skills and other VET concurrently’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program and another VET program concurrently in 2016.

The final group, around 18% of the total, were ‘other VET followed by foundation skills’ learners, who enrolled in a VET program in 2016 (not LLND or employment skills) and then subsequently enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program.

Characteristics of foundational skills students and providers

The report found that “just over half of the students enrolled in LLND programs were born in countries other than Australia (52.4%), with similar proportions of students indicating English either was (45.8%) or was not (46.7%) the main language spoken at home.” In addition, and in relation to employment skills programs, higher proportions of those enrolled were Indigenous students, had a disability or lived in regional or remote areas in comparison with those enrolled in LLND programs.

In terms of key program and provider characteristics, “the majority of enrolments in employment skills programs were government-funded, certificate I, accredited qualifications and undertaken with a TAFE institute.” For LLND program enrolments, the pattern was not as distinct, likely reflecting the broader range of programs captured under this category. In addition,

“two-thirds of LLND program enrolments were with TAFE and were either at the certificate I or certificate II level. Almost 60% of LLND program enrolments were accredited qualifications, with approximately one-fifth being in accredited courses and a similar proportion in training package qualifications.”

Some key messages

While completion of studies and employment outcomes are often seen as key measures of success for VET programs, this is not necessarily the case for foundational skills courses as there are a broad range of reasons why learners enrol in them. So, according to the report, understanding learners’ underlying intentions or motivations for enrolling must also be considered when gauging such program’s success or otherwise. It notes that:

“A narrow focus on post-training outcome measures as indicators of success, risks ignoring the full range of reasons why learners may be undertaking foundation skills training. Understanding their underlying intention or motivation for enrolling is important. For some learners, getting a job may not be the goal; instead, their intention may be to improve their English language skills or their numeracy skills, enabling them to more confidently engage with their community. Similarly, not all learners are looking to complete a full qualification.”

Therefore, policy makers and others need to be wary of making simplistic judgements about the value of these foundational courses by measuring ‘success’ in too simple or limited a way. This is particularly so for the first group and largest group [foundation skills only learners] who may be seen in policy terms as ‘churn’ in the system in that they are not achieving any substantive outcomes. However, the outcomes they do achieve may be very real and important, but we just don’t measure these effectively because our traditional measures of success do not recognise what has actually been achieved. Put simply, we are not conceiving or measuring their course outcomes and measures of success comprehensively or validly. For example, success might include helping learners to develop the “essential ingredients for greater social engagement.”

The report argues that there is an increasing need for individuals to build and develop these skills “with the continuing growth in the use of technology in the workplace causing a shift away from low-skill work.” The same argument is made here and elsewhere for a greater focus on the development 21st Century and generic skills. This is a theme we have touched on many times before in VDC News.