Poland: New policy initiatives to strengthen vocational education

The Polish government has adopted two important policy documents on the development of vocational education in Poland. The school year 2014–2015 is also the ‘Year of Vocational Schools’. The sector, neglected and underfunded until recently, now has a chance to adjust to conditions in the contemporary labour market, both in Poland and in Europe. 

Background

Since the end of communism in 1989, the system of vocational education in Poland has been in decline, with a decreasing number of vocational schools, students and specialist teachers, and the prestige of such schools declining also.

There are currently 1,700 basic vocational schools, 1,900 specialist lyceums (upper secondary schools) and 2,200 post-secondary schools in Poland. This contrasts with the situation in 1989 when there were 8,000 vocational and technical schools. The falling number of students graduating from vocational and technical schools has created gaps in human resources in the labour market. The situation is aggravated by large-scale labour emigration, including workers who have vocational-level qualifications. The Central Statistical Office (GUS) estimates that approximately 2.2 million people were living temporarily outside Poland in 2013 and the majority were labour emigrants.

At the same time, unemployment rates are higher for those with vocational and secondary technical education than for those with a higher level of educational attainment. In 2014, the respective unemployment rates for these three groups were 9.5%, 8.0% and 4.3% (Eurostat data). The level of unemployment among those who had entered vocational education immediately after leaving school was 40%, compared with approximately 25% among university graduates. These data show that, despite labour market demand for technical skills, people with vocational and technical education find it difficult to get a job. This in turn indicates that there is problem in adapting local vocational education systems to the conditions in local labour markets.

Over the past 10 years, however, there has been an increasing trend among those leaving lower secondary schools to continue their education in technical upper secondary schools. In 2004, just 28% chose a technical upper secondary school, compared to 37% in 2014. Currently, 45% of young people are attending general education upper secondary schools and 17% attend vocational schools.

Public policy initiatives

Social partner cooperation 

On 10 December 2014, the Agreement on Cooperation for Vocational Education Development was signed (in Polish). The signatories included representatives of four representative employer organisations involved in social dialogue within the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs and the Chair of the Tripartite Commission, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, Minister of Labour and Social Policy. The meeting was also attended by Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, Minister of National Education, as well as deputy ministers from the Ministries of Economy, Science and Higher Education, Finance, Infrastructure and Development, Administration and Digitalisation.

The Agreement states that:

The signatories of this Agreement express their willingness to work together for the sake of ensuring consistency of the direction and structure of education, improving the relevant skills and thus increasing the mobility of workers.

In addition, the parties express their willingness to cooperate, for instance, in developing legislative solutions and in creating a model of vocational education which will reflect the needs and challenges of the labour market.

A Task Force will also be formed, affiliated to the Minister of National Education, including both representatives of the government and the social partners. To enhance this cooperation, the signatories agreed to draw on the experience and expertise of the social partners, local government and academic institutions. The process of change in this area will be monitored by the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs at least every six months.

Cooperation between government ministries

On 21 January 2015, the Inter-Departmental Agreement on Cooperation for the Development of Vocational Education was signed (in Polish) by representatives of the Ministry of Economy, Ministry of National Education, Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, and the Ministry of State Treasury. The purpose of this cooperation is to:

  • ensure coherent, complementary actions for the development of vocational education, adapted to the needs of employers, local labour markets and a modern innovative economy;
  • promote and develop cooperation between schools and employers in vocational education and increase the involvement of employers in practical vocational training.

The cooperation between the government departments will include:

  • encouraging vocational schools to adapt the general and vocational education they offer to the needs of the modern economy;
  • encouraging employers to become involved in the process of vocational education in basic vocational schools, technical upper secondary schools and post-secondary schools.

This will include:

  • participating, within the boundaries of the law, in the preparation of core curricula for individual occupations;
  • preparing curriculum documentation in cooperation with schools;
  • accepting students for practical vocational training, especially for traineeships;
  • participating, within the terms of the law, in exams confirming qualifications for a given occupation and in the preparation of exam questions;
  • assisting students of vocational schools to acquire additional skills and qualifications not included in the school curriculum but useful in the workplace;
  • helping vocational school teachers to update and improve their professional competencies.

The ministries will also encourage voivodship and poviat authorities to engage in the area of vocational education, in line with the development trends of the national, regional and local labour markets: this will help to address the needs of employers and match the expectations of students. The role of the ministries will also include promoting vocational training and disseminating good practice. The Agreement also contains declarations of commitments from individual ministries.

Year of Vocational Schools

The Minister of National Education, Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, has declared the school year 2014–2015 as the 'Year of Vocational Schools', which will be marked by a programme of improvement of the quality of vocational education.

Career counsellors operating in lower secondary schools will be trained between October 2014 and June 2015 under the project 'Education for Work – Phase II'. The training will involve18,000 teachers (three people from each lower secondary school) and school directors. As part of the project, a guidebook – 'Educational and vocational guidance: sample solutions' – has been published and free copies sent to all lower secondary schools.

An online interactive map of vocational schools was published in February 2015, providing details of:

  • technical secondary schools and basic vocational schools for young people all over Poland;
  • occupations for which the schools offer training;
  • traineeship placements with employers;
  • the exam results achieved by the students attending the schools.

The catalogue of in-school and out-of-school forms of training will be extended from September 2015, including courses for students and graduates of general education upper secondary schools organised outside their normal school hours. The offer is being prepared on the basis of a questionnaire survey among students of such schools.

At central level, employers will be involved in:

  • a review and updating of the list of occupations taught within the vocational education system and the core curricula for individual occupations;
  • adapting these core curricula to the changes in the labour market and emerging new technologies. 

There will be more participation of employers in preparing exam questions and holding the exams. In addition, mechanisms will be developed at central level to involve employers in the process of vocational education and to foster close cooperation with vocational schools, particularly with regard to companies operating in special economic zones.

At regional level, there are plans to organise internships and traineeships with employers for students of vocational schools, primarily students of technical upper secondary schools. Employers who organise such internships or traineeships will be reimbursed for the costs they incur and the interns and trainees will receive scholarships covering the period of their training. At regional level, it is also planned to provide schools offering vocational training with equipment and educational aids which can also be used for vocational examinations.

Funding

It is planned that the activities provided for in both agreements and in the Year of Vocational Schools programme will be funded from the 16 Regional Operational Programmes (€916 million in total by 2020) and the Ministry of National Education's Operational Programme 'Knowledge, Education, Development' (€124 million in total by 2020).

Social partners’ reaction

Employer organisations view the policy initiatives as promising and necessary in order to fill the competence gap between the current educational offer and market demand. Employers of Poland (Pracodawcy RP) stressed that it had put forward recommendations for the reform of vocational education over many years. It recognised the Agreement on Cooperation for Vocational Education Development as a step in the right direction, but considered the document to still be 'general' in character. The Lewiatan Confederation (Konfederacja Lewiatan) and the Polish-German Chamber of Commerce (Polsko-Niemiecka Izba Przemysłowo-Handlowa) has prepared a questionnaire on the experiences and assessment of vocational education among Polish companies as the basis for a report that will be used in consultations on the reform. All four representative employer organisations are members of the Task Force that will consult on and monitor government actions.

The employees’ side was not active in the events surrounding the recent policy initiatives due to the suspension of trade unions’ participation in the Tripartite Commission and its thematic teams, and the continuing stalemate in social dialogue in Poland. Representative trade unions did not formulate any official statements about the initiatives. However, the National Section of Education of the trade union ‘Solidarity’ (NSZZ 'Solidarność') is a member of the Task Force.

Commentary

Vocational education in Poland has been given a chance to revitalise after two decades of neglect. The comprehensive package of policy initiatives will hopefully reform vocational education to make it more flexible, reflect the needs and challenges of the contemporary labour market, and increase the mobility and employability of workers. However, it will probably be only after several years of the educational cycle that the effect of the measures can be assessed. There is also a risk that some of this public investment in vocational education will benefit labour markets outside Poland because so many trained workers are migrating to western Europe.

The absence of union representatives from the signing of either of the two declarations on cooperation is worrying and it highlights the negative effects of the deadlock in Polish social dialogue. There is a concern that trade unions will play only a marginal role in shaping policies in this area and this will distance social dialogue in Poland from the model of fruitful social partnership.

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