Building a bridge between school and work

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Despite a current low level of unemployment, Portugal's labour market faces a problem of low qualification levels and low-skilled jobs. A key factor is the high drop-out rate from school and the lack of links between the worlds of education and work. A report from the Employment and Vocational Training Observatory, published in summer 2000, proposes a number of measures to address these problems.

Portugal's unemployment rate, at 3.8% in the second quarter of 2000, is currently at its lowest level for nine years (PT0009108N). However, trade unions contend that this masks an underlying fragility in the labour market, arising from the large numbers of workers with low qualifications and the high percentage of jobs requiring little education. This scenario has led the European Commission to recommend that - as part of its National Action Plan for employment in response to the EU Employment Guidelines (PT0006194N) - Portugal should create more jobs in the service sector and implement an overall educational strategy and a system of lifelong training, This would address one of Portugal's main labour market problems - high drop-out rates from school and the lack of links between the education system and the world of work.

Drop-out rates and the missing link between school and work

Some 45% of Portuguese young people between the ages of 14 and 18 drop out of school. Their labour market situation is then exacerbated by other obstacles, such as their lack of professional experience and the dearth of efficient mechanisms to help young people make the transition into an active working life. In effect, the process of integration into working life has, over the years, become more difficult and protracted. Joining the labour force nowadays is rarely as simple as going from school into a stable job. More and more, it involves an erratic, stop-and-go itinerary that can take several years.

According to data from the Permanent Youth Observatory (Observatório Permanente da Juventude), there are two sets of reasons behind Portugal's high educational drop-out rate:

  • a lack of integration into the educational milieu, said to be the reason for nearly half of the drop-outs. Associated reasons include difficulties in learning (10.4%), dislike of academic work (36.2%), and underestimation of the need for practical knowledge to ensure success in later life (2.5%); and
  • limitations of a family or social nature. The main factors in this category are financial difficulties (15.1%), underestimation of the importance of school in obtaining a successful career (17.3%), lack of family support (3.2%), marriage and relationship commitments (2.5%) and entry into the labour market (1.4%).

Report highlights gap

The Employment and Vocational Training Observatory (Observatório do Emprego e Formação Profissional) is an official body set up by the government. In summer 2000, it published a study (No. 14/200) entitled The relationship between school and the surrounding labour market (Relações entre a escola e o mercado de emprego envolvente), which confirms that there is a major gap in the educational system between the supply and the demand for training, since there is a mismatch between the skills taught at school and those required by the economy and society as a whole. The study therefore "proposes an orientation, measures and procedures that will strengthen ties between learning and know-how - school and the labour market - to reduce the self-containment of each and consolidate and develop learning that places a higher premium on work and employability".

In other words, says the report, the gap between education and the labour market must be bridged. However, "bringing the world of work into the school and the school into the world of work" has still not been taken up by the social partners as a priority area for intervention. Though the social partners have participated in initiatives to bring the school closer to the world of work, these actions have been patchy, uncoordinated and lacking in depth - "there is no clear, concerted, integrated and all-embracing strategy in this area." To make matters worse, according to the study, schools appear to be increasingly cut off from the system of employment: the assessment of student performance is based largely on learning and acquiring theory-based knowledge, while learning is teacher-centred. This limits opportunities to apply innovative and diversified methods, especially within a work context. The result is a vicious circle: schools that are not fully open to the world outside; and the system of employment responds by not knowing or recognising the educational system or the vocational measures it may be producing.

The report proposes the following solutions in order to build a bridge from education to employment:

  • a better flow of information between schools and companies;
  • more investment in school management and organisation; and
  • training -based assessment - ie evaluating primarily the qualifications and skills acquired by the student.

Measures proposed

The Observatory's report puts forward a number of proposals to improve the relationship between education and work, setting out for each a set of priorities, goals and objectives, and measures. These are summarised in the tables below.

Table 1. Reducing the drop-out rate by improving the quality of the educational system
Priorities Goals and objectives
- Ensuring widespread coverage of pre-school education. - Cutting standard educational and training periods and offer vocational training that potentially covers all areas of the labour market. - Including employers themselves in defining areas of study and allocating premises, qualified instructors etc. - Promoting job-oriented training to facilitate entry into the job market. - Training teachers to be able to respond to the challenge of helping students make the transition to working life by developing teaching/learning skills. - Eradicating school-leaving before completion of the ninth year. - Gradually making access to secondary school education and vocational training more widespread. - Building up those components of learning which take place within a work context.
Measures
- Information on educational and training opportunities. - Educational and vocational guidance counselling. - Creation of "educational areas of priority intervention". - Alternative curricula and specifically formulated academic/vocational courses. - Creation of a commission to combat child labour
Table 2. Helping students to gain the skills to adapt to technological and economic change, and gain qualifications demanded by the labour market
Priorities Goals and objectives
-- Developing training programmes that instil in young people a spirit of initiative, creativity and entrepreneurship. - Developing curricula that bring new information and communication technology into schools, thus reinforcing the scientific and technological areas. - Facilitating the acquisition of knowledge that will act as an interface between general education, technology and areas of employment. - Strengthening mechanisms that ease the transition between the training/educational system and working life. - Making experimental teaching and technology more widespread in basic and secondary education. - Increasing the number of types of training to make up the deficit in training opportunities. - Introducing alternating work/study programmes into technical courses at the secondary school level; - Doubling the number of students. - Supplying students with vocational and educational guidance and information. - Developing programmes that make use of information technology within schools.
Measures
- Promoting a culture of science and technology and making experimental teaching methods more widespread. - Expanding the Internet programme - Disseminating information on educational and training opportunities
Table 3. Promoting integration into the labour market
Priorities Goals and objectives
- Strengthening policies aimed at combating unemployment among young people. - Expanding and improving the quality of training aimed at giving young people skills. Stepping up the participation of young people in work-oriented programmes. - Stimulating the recruitment of young people. - Expanding vocational training for young people (aimed at increasing employability). - Expanding programmes providing for work placements.
Measures
- Before six months of unemployment have elapsed, giving unemployed young people a new chance at training or retraining, or a new vocational or work experience, or another initiative that will promote their vocational integration.

Commentary

One of the conclusions reached by the study is that relevant institutions and educational authorities, including the social partners, have for the most part come to recognise the importance of the school's relationship to the community in general and the labour market in particular, acknowledging the relationship as a key element in improving education. However, due to the way that the Portuguese educational system is organised and the manner in which it functions, a number of barriers stand in the way of establishing a cooperative relationship between schools and the world of work. Fostering this relationship should, therefore, be a priority. The exchange of experiences and information among educational, social and economic partners can improve responsibility and understanding; this in turn will allow schools to gain greater credibility, while allowing the social partners to formulate and adjust their ideas of what can be expected and demanded of the school system. (Ana Isabel de Almeida)

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