Complexities of school to work transitions

UNESCO’s call for an overarching global education goal aims to achieve just, inclusive, peaceful and sustainable societies in order to: “Ensure equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”. This is a goal that governments have responded to by developing specific strategies to help achieve global targets in support of quality Education for All by 2030. It also indicates a particular agenda for the global education community in terms of research, and the analysis of issues and challenges, associated with this agenda. Lifelong learning encompasses all learning activities undertaken by individuals throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competencies within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective (OECD 2004). The importance of lifelong learning has been on the rise worldwide since 1996 when “Lifelong Learning for All” was the name given by OECD Education Ministers to this policy goal (Lifelong Learning for All, OECD 1996).

Transitions from school to achieving a productive livelihood (often referred to as ‘school to work transition’) constitutes an important juncture in the lifelong process for all learners, as they move from more known, predictable environments, and more clearly defined pathways, into new open, less controlled and less certain and predictable terrain. Modern societies can present greater risks and a sense of insecurity and uncertainty for some people (Beck 1992) than was previously the case. This significant transitional change in students’ lives has been identified as a critical point for which students should be prepared.

Concerns about the relevance of education systems to effectively meeting the economic and social requirements of countries are growing internationally (OECD 2005). Uncertainty about whether skills for employment, and the other areas of expertise needed to navigate new complex social and political realities, have been addressed by traditional curricula in secondary schools (Pavlova 2009a, b) and are pivotal concerns. Policies adapted by governments to deal with these concerns include: an assurance concerning curriculum flexibility and quality across the different programs offered; the engagement of different, multiple stakeholders; career guidance; matching programs to adequately meet the needs of both students and the labour market; and attempts to guarantee equity. This involves an important set of policies adapted by governments to “promote development of skills required for post-secondary education or for entering the labor market” (OECD 2015, p. 57).

In preparing students with twenty-first century skills for work and life,the deliberate inclusion of elements of teaching and learning in schooling, which seek to prepare learners for post-school options, is referred to as the “vocationalisation” of learning. Vocationalisation can include such elements as the transparent vocational orientation of the school culture, the introduction and clear valuing of practical and/or vocational subjects, industry visits, vocational guidance, and applied ways of teaching general educational subjects to achieve a higher rate of successful transitions to work, training or higher education (Lauglo and Maclean 2005; Maclean and Pavlova 2011; Lee et al. 2016). In the case of secondary education, within an international context, vocationalised secondary education refers to a curriculum which remains overwhelmingly general or ‘academic’ in nature, but which includes vocational or practical subjects as a minor portion of the students’ timetable during the secondary school course (Lauglo and Maclean 2005).

Studies conducted in both developed (e.g., Coombe 1988) and developing (e.g., Lauglo 2005) countries have devoted attention to the process of adjusting schooling intentions, pathways and resources with some nations attempting to promote sustainability and economic goals. Although vocationalisation of secondary education is well underway in many parts of the world, a number of educational challenges remain. In Asia, for example, the Indian government has acknowledged the challenge of developing quality and relevant vocational education at the upper-secondary level that will adequately alert and prepare students to meet the requirements of the world of work (GoI 2010). Other challenges include uncertainty about how vocationalisation should be best delivered so that young people are best prepared for the world of work, in ways that are not narrowly vocational.

In recent years, more systematic ways of introducing vocational learning into schools has begun to inform the curriculum development processes by linking vocational imperatives and academic content at the level of upper-secondary studies. Governments consider the need to bring together vocational and academic education at the level of policy planning to be both significant and urgent (e.g., GoI 2010). For example, about half of the TVET instruction at the upper-secondary level in Indonesia is devoted to core academic fields, facilitating students’ adaptability as well as occupational mobility (ADB 2009).

A number of important socio-economic forces have been pushing towards a lifelong learning framework when considering the process of school to work transitions. The increasing importance of the knowledge-based economy, and frequent changes in technologies and consumer preferences, have resulted in a shorter lifespan for some jobs and the skills required for employees. Over a person’s working life they may change jobs more frequently. Many new jobs are fixed term and part-time (Carnoy 1999). On the one hand, a continuous and logically coherent working life may be currently less common, and the notion of a vocation being as a pathway to self-identity is now less likely (Bauman 1998). In addition, innovation that forms the backbone of modern economies, also requires the continuous renewal and updating of skills.

In terms of social considerations, the distribution of learning opportunities is often unequal. This raises the issue of access, for different groups of learners, that government, NGOs and other stakeholders should address. Educational background and gender could have a significant impact on access and motivation, as well as employment, in different types of enterprises or even with regard to unemployment. How can we ensure young people have the competencies required to adequately respond to demands of life and work?

The idea of having a special issue on school to work transitions arises from our participation as members of the Hong Kong research team in the International Study of City Youth (ISCY) project led by Stephen Lamb in Australia. The ISCY project examines 10th Grade students in cities of Norway, Finland, Spain, France, Belgium, Poland, Iceland, the United States, Canada, Chile, Australia and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China to understand how their school experiences and achievements influence their careers and life more broadly (Retrieved 22nd October 2016 from

This special issue of Educational Research for Policy and Practice examines different types of programs at the upper-secondary level to understand how they address the general and vocational education overlap, generic competencies and the inclusion of females and young people from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. What are the intended and actual developments of generic competencies? What commonalities and differences exist in students’ perceptions and attitudes towards skills and capabilities, learned at school across different programs? How do students assess learning in terms of post-school directories? What are the major pathways taken by students in their final year of school in relation to transitions into the world of work, further study and livelihoods? What are students’ and employers’ perceptions of students’ achievements?

This special issue focuses on learning and curricula that can support school students in transitions to further education and work. It identifies and analyses challenges that schools and governments are facing in supporting students. It also elucidates students’ views on their schools and students’ aspirations in terms of their plans after school, and examines different models proposed by various stakeholders to smooth transitions and the effects they have on students’ learning. The personal development of students, and their motivation to learn, is addressed from the perspectives of several countries. Both formal institutional arrangements for learning and learners are also explored. In other words, both the demand for, and supply of, learning opportunities are considered, as are economic, social and cultural influences on curriculum development. How schools prepare students to be engaged in work and for how long and to what level of intensity is considered. Are students engaged in interesting work so they can develop gratifying and meaningful identities in the current social conditions and/or can they achieve high levels of remuneration? What is the ‘objective’ measure of success? Some studies demonstrate that an individual agentic action and personal intentionality in actions are often not constrained by the social practices of the work in which they engaged (Fenwick 1998; Billet and Pavlova 2005). This factor can be partly related to the ideals of lifelong learning whereby individuals are well equipped to learn in the workplace (both formally and informally) and aspire to achieve results that differ from their current condition.

When the processes of school to further education, and work transitions, are analysed within the lifelong learning framework, at least four main features need to be examined in order to understand holistically the ways transitions are addressed:

  • A systematic view;

  • Centrality of the learner;

  • Motivation to learn; and

  • Multiple objectives of educational policy (OECD 2004).

The articles in this issue address all of these features.

Main matters examined in this issue

The first paper “School to work transitions in the OECD: do education systems make a difference?” by Tom Karmel (Australia) adopts a “comparativist” approach in analyzing first- and second order variables, which influence the school to work transition model among 32 countries’ data from the OECD. At the first stage, the characteristics of the education sector are condensed, through the principal component analysis, into three components of “academic enrolments”, “post-school enrolments” and “lower level enrolments”. Then the youth labour market is analyzed through the variables of “the employment to population ratio” and “the unemployment to population ratio” and “the change in the employment to population ratio between 2008 and 2013” as well as different age cohorts (15–19, 20–24 and 25–29 years). Other variables such as employment protection and population dynamics, in terms of the ratio of the population aged 15–24 relative to the rest of the working age population, economic structure and quality of schooling, are included in the regression analysis. Results reveal that countries such as Norway and Australia have effective school to work transitions, the former having a strong labor market while the latter has a large number of students in post-school study. Countries like France and Italy have a relatively weak average labor market and a small number of youth engaging in post-school study encounter challenges in school to work transitions. These results suggest that either a healthy labor market or the support for post-school study could help alleviate the tensions during school to work transitions.

The second paper “Education pays off! On transition to work for 25 year olds in Norway with upper secondary education or lower as their highest educational level” by Eifred Markussen (Norway) examines the impact and predictability of having completed upper secondary education or lower for persons aged 25 years on their labor market position (inside or outside) through multivariate logistic regression. Results indicate that having higher qualifications (as compared with those with only compulsory education) results in a higher probability of staying inside the labor market. In addition, working at age 25 is more likely for males, for those with lower absenteeism at Year 10 (aged 21), higher educational level and more full-time working experiences, as well as for those not receiving public welfare support. These findings suggest the need to reform the “gender-segregated vocational system”, encourage youth to have further education with a QHE qualification and mitigate the negative impact of absenteeism on school to work transitions in Norway.

The third paper “School to work transitions in Europe between choice and constraints” by Morena Cuconato (Italy) analyzes the decision-making of disadvantaged youth in Finland, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia. According to a typology using the dimensions of stratification and standardization, Italy is exemplified by low stratification and low standardization while France and Germany are characterized by high stratification and high standardization. Relatively speaking, Finland and Slovenia exhibit low stratification and high standardization. With regard to transition regimes, Finland reflects an “universalistic” orientation whereas the United Kingdom is a kind of “liberal” regime. On the other hand, France, Italy and Poland show “employment-centred”, “under-institutionalised” and “post-socialist countries” regimes, respectively. Through qualitative analysis, it is found that several themes emerge indicating possible influences on disadvantaged youth’s choices and constraints or structure and agency. Such influences on decision-making include “family as protection and constraint”, striking a “balancing interest and institutional logics” of their respective education system and facing the dilemma in “persisting in following own goals or cooling out”. All these narratives concerning the decision-making processes of youngsters at the end of lower secondary education reflect the dynamics between individuals’ interests and strategies and the nature and support of the educational system. Nonetheless, it seems to pinpoint the importance of a “generous welfare transition regime” with active staff intervention and external support as well as home–school co-operation in reducing the disparity between selective and comprehensive education systems.

The fourth and fifth paper focuses on the experiences of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China derived from the ISCY-Hong Kong project, in the form of John Chi-Kin Lee’s paper “Curriculum reform and supporting structures at schools: challenges for life skills planning for secondary school students in China (with particular reference to Hong Kong)”. Under the impact of globalization, curriculum reforms and supporting structures in schools and the challenges of Vocational (Career) Development Education (VCDE) and Career and Life Planning Education (CLPE) for secondary school students in China and Hong Kong, respectively, are examined. The author uses the components of “guidance and counseling for individuals,” “enabling individual student planning,” “facilitating learning experiences about work,” “organizing school-wide career guidance activities,” “linking study opportunities and career choices,” and “formulating a career guidance curriculum” as dimensions of intervention advocated by Hong Kong Association of Career and Guidance Masters to analyze examples of life planning activities in schools in Hong Kong and China. The results of analysis show that while China and Hong Kong have some policy mandates or guidelines, the implementation of VCDE or CLPE varies and tends to become school-based curriculum programs or activities. It is suggested that more could be done to establish clear articulation between study opportunities and career choices, enrich learning experiences at work through activities such as job shadowing, and to design a curriculum for enhancing career and life planning across years.

Margarita Pavlova’s paper “Aspirations of and realities for Hong Kong students: is the ‘formal’ transition system effective? “ discusses the tensions between Hong Kong students’ aspirations for university education, especially those government-sponsored programs in local universities and the reality that some students did not perform well and were not willing to undertake vocational training for employment. Drawing upon data from various studies, including the ISCY project, the results highlight that the socio-economic status (SES) of students, regardless of their academic performance, as well as parental influence, has an impact on students’ educational and occupational aspirations. The paper examines the supply side in terms of studying a bachelor’s degree for the equation of school to work transitions and concludes that while there are diversified pathways or choices for further study depending on students’ public examination results, where some students do not prefer studying abroad or do not have a clear understanding of the landscape of higher education. The majority of students still aspire to study either the High Diploma or Associate Degree program with only a small proportion opting for employment. This suggests that more support and policy measures, ranging from empowering individual pursuit of pathways and reforming the delivery of TVET, to enhancing socio-economic conditions, and providing community-level support, should be targeted towards the disadvantaged group to facilitate their success in transitions.

The sixth paper, “Partnerships for effective training to work transitions: A case study of the Skillman Alliance” written by Giovanni Crisona (Italy), is a case study. Using the transport business as an example and emphasis on energy performance and advanced “green” manufactory, with ICT technologies as the backdrop in Europe, the paper highlights a non-government initiative, funded by the European Union (and known as the Skillman Alliance), which illustrates a cross-sectoral partnership approach involving certification bodies, industries and TVET providers, for effective training to job transitions and requirements. In addition to the development of learning outcomes and quality indicators to facilitate transnational learners’ mobility, the Alliance has supported the ‘Open Network of Associated Partners” and an Observatory. Nonetheless, this innovative, collaborative partnership encountered difficulties in setting up common language and TVET background references because of their varying interests and backgrounds as well as lacking an effective platform development for common educational resources because of financial constraints.

These six papers provide possible pointers for future strategies and approaches to enhancing school to work transitions such as:

  1. 1.

    Understanding the differential nature of education systems and transition regimes in different countries as highlighted in the six papers and the fact that there is not a straight-jacketed or a “one size fits all” approach.

  2. 2.

    Addressing individual needs requires paying attention to their decision-making processes and impact factors such as parental influence, their own agency or ability to balance personal interest and the realities of study and work (as highlighted in the Morena Cuconato and Margarita Pavlova papers).

  3. 3.

    Nurturing a healthy labor market or providing the support for post-school study as suggested in Tom Karmel’s paper.

  4. 4.

    Tackling structural constraints such as the “gender-segregated vocational system” in Norway and elsewhere, as shown in Eifred Markussen’s paper, and less than equal opportunity of access to a Bachelor’s degree for disadvantaged groups (as shown in Margarita Pavlova’s paper).

  5. 5.

    Exploring different ways of offering intervention and support measures (in Morena Cuconato’s paper), promoting Vocational (Career) Development Education (VCDE) and Career and Life Planning Education (CLPE) (in the John Chi-Kin paper), providing community-level support for transition (in Margarita Pavlova’s paper) and initiating cross-sectoral partnership such as Skillman Alliance (in Giovanni Crisona’s paper).


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The work described in two papers of this issue was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No. HKIEd 843212).

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Correspondence to Margarita Pavlova.

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Pavlova, M., Lee, J.CK. & Maclean, R. Complexities of school to work transitions. Educ Res Policy Prac 16, 1–7 (2017).

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