Low-achieving school leavers and young people at risk of dropping out from education at upper secondary level often need alternative and more flexible pathways to get a first VET qualification (OECD 2018b; Lamb 2011; Schmid 2020). Some countries have therefore developed low-level apprenticeship-based VET programmes, among them Denmark, Germany, Norway and Switzerland (Becker et al. 2017a; Di Maio et al. 2019; Schmid 2020). Norway and Switzerland offer two-year apprenticeships (at EQFFootnote 1 level 3) for young people for whom a more demanding VET programme (mostly at EQF level 4) is still out of reach but try to ensure permeability to the latter. This study compares these apprenticeships on the basis of qualitative interviews tracing their overall intention and the goals and principles underlying the design of their curricula.
Two-year apprenticeships in Norway and Switzerland are interesting to compare for several reasons. Both approaches are targeted at the same population as both countries aim at implementing short-track apprenticeships for youth with low academic achievement who do not (yet) have the prerequisites to follow a more demanding VET programme. Both countries put an emphasis on practical in-company training but the shorter duration of these apprenticeships and the learning needs of the students imply that they have to be adapted with regard to the scope and level of the goals pursued.
However, there are some fundamental differences between the two approaches, mainly concerning the embedding of the two-year apprenticeships in the VET system and their recognition. In Switzerland, two-year apprenticeships have the same structure as three- and four-year apprenticeships; they are all dual apprenticeships where the apprentices spend three to four days per week at the workplace and one to two days at school. Two-year apprenticeships are thus part of the regular VET system and the certificates are regarded as an upper secondary qualification (Wettstein et al. 2017). In Norway, the two-year apprenticeships are organised differently than the longer, more demanding VET programmes. The latter follow the 2 + 2 model combining two years of mainly school-based training with two years of apprenticeship training (Nyen et al. 2015) whereas in two-year apprenticeships the focus on in-company training is much stronger, with 4 days per week in a training company (Utdanningsdirektoratet 2017). Two-year apprenticeships are currently not recognised as an upper secondary qualification.
These differences raise questions about the intentions behind the introduction of two-year apprenticeships, their goals and underlying principles of curriculum design. Consequently, the article addresses the following research questions:
What are the main intentions for developing two-year apprenticeships in Norway and Switzerland?
Which criteria are used to define or select learning outcomes of two-year apprenticeships and to design the respective curricula?
These questions emphasise the interest in what is called the intended curriculum (Van den Akker 2003; Billett 2011) which relates to the vision, rationale or basic philosophy underlying the curriculum (Van den Akker 2003) and refers to what is planned and intended by developers and stakeholders (Billett 2011). The conception behind the design of a curriculum has a considerable impact on how it is enacted and what learners experience and learn (Billett 2006).
In the next two sections, the theoretical framework is outlined. First, theories are presented which understand the design of an apprenticeship curriculum as sequencing the learning path to guide novice learners on their way to become competent workers. Second, from the perspective of a holistic concept of vocation, perceived chances and risks of modularisation and partial qualification are presented. Then, the VET systems of Norway and Switzerland are described, with a focus on two-year apprenticeships, and important similarities and differences are pointed out. Subsequently, the method of our interview study is described before presenting the findings to answer the research questions. Finally, the findings and potential implications for the VET systems are discussed and limitations of the study are pointed out.
Designing an Apprenticeship Curriculum
Given the importance of VET for the economic development of a country, the design of apprenticeship curricula has become a key concern of national VET agencies. In many countries, representatives from industry play a central role in determining the occupation-specific learning outcomes (competences). They define the occupation-specific learning aims, goals (and often the objectives), i.e. what and how it is to be taught and assessed and to what standard (Billett 2011). In brief, they design the “path of learning” (Chan 2017, p. 329) or the “track to be run” (Billett 2006, p. 35) by sequencing the work activities and shaping the experiences that learners progress along. Curriculum developers are therefore confronted with the question how to best design this path to create learning opportunities and support the acquisition of competences at the workplace and at vocational school. The theoretical framework chosen considers workplace learning as a sequenced pathway of activities towards vocational expertise and is also referred to as learning curriculum (Lave 1990), situated curriculum (Gherardi et al. 1998) or workplace curriculum (Billett 2001). These concepts are rooted in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) conception of learning as participation in ‘communities of practice’. They describe learning as the gradual transition from a marginal to a core position in the work team, from legitimate peripheral participation to full participation in the community of practice. They argue that it is participation in workplace activities and social interactions which enable novices to learn from more experienced practitioners. In line with other work, they emphasise that learning a trade is more than acquiring and developing a set of occupational skills. Learning is conceptualised as a process of gradually being socialised by and into work communities and a process of social participation (Lave and Wenger 1991), a process of becoming (Colley et al. 2003; Hodkinson et al. 2008) and of identity formation (Wenger 1998).
In workplaces, the sequencing of activities often follows the logic of increasing economic impact (Gherardi et al. 1998), with a movement from activities with low complexity, accountability and error costs to activities with higher accountability and complexity where errors have important consequences (Billett 2001; Gherardi et al. 1998; Lave 1990). Accordingly, the pathway from novice to expert participation may be structured from more routine to non-routine activities which require more complex and autonomous forms of problem-solving (Hatano and Inagaki 1986; Billett 2001).
To be responsible to execute tasks of increasing complexity it is essential for the learners’ progression towards independent practice. Moreover, trust and a gradual release of responsibility allow apprentices to become recognised members of the work community and develop a sense of belonging and commitment (Reegård 2015). In the beginning, novices learn through observation, imitation, guided participation and practice (e.g. Lave 2011; Chan 2017; Rogoff 1995). At this stage, guidance, instruction and support from experienced others are central for their learning (Lave and Wenger 1991; Billett 2001; Collins et al. 1989), and insufficient support and guidance may cause stagnation of learning and isolation (Reegård 2015). Guidance may be provided directly or indirectly and includes techniques and strategies to direct and support learning processes as well as to monitor knowledge acquisition of the learners (Billett 2000). Guidance by more experienced others, instruction and feedback are gradually reduced as learners progress towards smooth execution of the whole task (Collins et al. 1989). A learning path along work activities and experiences of growing complexity and accountability hinges on the learners’ ability and readiness to move on to more complex tasks or a more independent practice. It is part of a guide’s role to organise learning opportunities and to guide learners by monitoring their participation in the workplace activities and determining their readiness to engage in activities of increasing accountability and autonomy (Billett 2001). Depending on the potential or the readiness of the learners, the gradual release of guidance and the increase in complexity of the assigned work tasks therefore takes more or less time and may eventually also be constrained.
On the macro and meso level, the structure of VET systems and their formalised programmes shape the described pathway to vocational expertise by defining which competence levels have to be attained to be a qualified worker and how this is to be achieved (i.e. duration of the programmes, learning locations, curricular frames).
Concept of Vocation and Partial Qualification
The described characteristics which shape workplace curricula and the socialisation of apprentices into a working community are in line with dual VET systems and labour markets that adhere to a holistic concept of vocation, not to a narrow, functional understanding of qualification. Gonon (2014) refers to this concept as decisive not only on a systemic level, but also for schools and firms as it influences the didactical and methodical structure of VET teaching and learning. Pilz and Canning (2017, p. 723) point out that a “traditional holistic vocational training course typically comprises a linear sequence of learning pathways as part of a coherent, over-arching area of study. Learning processes are linked to learning outcomes, so assessment and certification depend on students’ participation in formal learning processes”. Consequently, learning outcomes are assessed and certified upon completion of the training and cover the whole course. The holistic concept of vocation is also considered as crucial for a modern, more dynamic view of occupations which expects competent professionals to find creative and flexible solutions to problems (Rauner 2012).
It usually takes three to four years of apprenticeship to develop the competences corresponding to a holistic notion of vocation and the related processes of teaching, learning and socialisation cannot be modularised (INAP Commission 2012). Going through an apprenticeship “is a recognised and formalised route to achieving the relevant occupational expertise […]” (Fuller 2016, p. 17) which implies that qualified workforce execute tasks in their whole process (Becker et al. 2017b). Competent professionals design, plan, perform and assess their own work activities, a performance level requiring metacognitive competences to cope with complex, unpredictable work situations (e.g. Rauner 2007). This type of adaptive expertise differs from only routine-based expertise (Hatano and Inagaki 1986). To become competent and responsible, situated learning in real work contexts as well as the need for self-directed and reflexive learning is considered as important (Dehnbostel and Schröder 2017).
The question arises if two-year apprenticeships for disadvantaged or weaker learners can meet the concept of vocation or if they have to be regarded as a partial qualification, a step on the way to a full qualification for the labour market. Di Maio et al. (2019) point to the tension between economic and social goals in shorter two-year apprenticeships that focus on theory-reduced applied training but should lead to standardised certificates. Their comparative analysis of the respective offers in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland shows that the institutionalisation of economic and social goals differ, depending on VET regulations, regional and sectoral standards, and legitimisation of the key actors.
Countries like Switzerland with a strong tradition of apprenticeships based on the concept of vocation are rather reserved with regard to strict forms of partial qualification (i.e. shorter, highly standardised modules that are separately assessed and credited to a final qualification), at least in initial VET. However, chances and risks of modularisation were repeatedly debated (in Switzerland, e.g. by Gonon 2009; Ghisla 2005; Häfeli 2005). Current debates reappear within broader strategies of VET systems for addressing future challenges posed by megatrends which influence the labour market and require more differentiation between learners in terms of prior knowledge and performance (e.g. Cedefop 2015; Pilz and Canning 2017; Seufert 2018).
In practice, moderate forms of modularisation have become common in dual VET systems as they offer more flexibility, for training companies as well as for individuals (e.g. Seufert 2018; Li and Pilz 2017; Cedefop 2015; Pilz 2012). According to Pilz (2012), supplementary, differential or divided forms of modularisation can be distinguished. Supplementary forms allow learners to expand their competences with additional modules. Differential forms break VET programmes down into components (e.g. elective skills modules) but the overarching concept of vocation and the final examinations are preserved (Li and Pilz 2017). Divided forms imply discrete learning units that are separately assessed and certified to substitute the final examinations. They are difficult to establish in initial VET where the final examination and the overall qualification are perceived as relevant (e.g. Li and Pilz 2017).
Several countries initially developed modularised pre-VET or VET programmes for disadvantaged or weaker students to help them engage in apprenticeships by setting adapted learning goals and qualifying them step-by-step to enhance their learning motivation, reduce dropout and recognise prior learning and progression (Cedefop 2015; Canning 1998). However, modularisation does not play an important role in two-year apprenticeships in Norway and Switzerland but the respective understanding of their certification is different.
Two-Year Apprenticeships in Norway
The main VET model since the reform in 1994 is the so-called 2 + 2 model: two years of school-based education followed by two years of apprenticeship training. Young people in Norway are legally entitled to three years of upper secondary education and to a place in one of three alternative programmes for which they apply. They may choose from five general academic programmes (e.g. specialization in general studies, art design and architecture) and ten VET programmes (e.g. building and construction, restaurant and food processing, healthcare, childhood and youth development) offered at the same schools. About 98% of the young people start upper secondary education immediately after compulsory school, half of them enrol in vocational programmes. However, due to dropout from VET and to changes from VET to general education, the proportion of young people graduating from VET below the age of 25 is much lower (19,0%) than from general education (61,2%) (OECD 2018a). Dropout from upper secondary education, especially from VET, has therefore been an educational policy issue for a long time. As one of several measures, the Ministry of Education and Research suggested in 2006 to implement a new two-year apprenticeship scheme (praksisbrevordning) aiming at a low-level of vocational competence. It was supposed to be a further development of the little used training candidate scheme introduced in 2001 (lærekandidatordning). In contrast to the training candidate scheme, which usually comprises two years of school followed by two years of in-company training and which is based on individual training plans, the new two-year apprenticeship scheme was conceived as a short-track VET programme focusing on in-company training. The respective curricula were supposed to be standardised and lead to a standardised vocational competence (Kunnskapsdepartementet 2006). Between 2008 and 2011, three counties trialled two-year apprenticeships in different VET programmes which were evaluated as “a very successful measure to reduce dropout” (Høst 2016, p. 16). In 2016, the two-year apprenticeship scheme was nationally introduced as a certificate corresponding to a ‘documented partial competence’, one of three possible forms of qualification at upper secondary level (Section 3–3 of the Norwegian Education Act). ‘Documented partial competence’ is at a lower level (EQF level 3) than full vocational or university admission certification and does not correspond to a certification at upper secondary level. After completion of a two-year apprenticeship, apprentices may continue their training to obtain a full trade certificate (EQF level 4) (Utdanningsdirektoratet 2017).
Four days a week, apprentices in two-year apprenticeships are trained in a company, one day a week, they attend vocational school. During this weekly school day, they are taught in three of the common core subjects (i.e. Norwegian, mathematics, social sciences) where full goal achievement is required (equivalent to regular VET programmes). Unlike students in regular VET programmes, however, apprentices in two-year apprenticeships are not taught in the common core subjects English and natural sciences, nor are they taught in occupation-specific subjects at school (Utdanningsdirektoratet 2017).
In contrast to the longer VET programmes, in which the occupation-related goals are based on national curricula for the two years at school and for the two years of in-company training, the two-year apprenticeships are based on local curricula. The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training decreed that counties offer a two-year apprenticeship in at least one VET programme. The intention was to meet the local need for skills and to ensure that the apprentices build up competences needed in working life (Utdanningsdirektoratet 2017). Therefore, the county authorities, together with local businesses and industries, decide which programmes are offered. According to the regulations, the competence goals of the two-year apprenticeships must be selected from the national curricula of the corresponding VET programme and be kept identically but the counties are free to select goals they consider as adequate for regional implementation. This means that the competence goals chosen for two-year apprenticeships are always a subset of the occupation-specific goals that are defined in the school-based and work-based national curricula of the corresponding four-year VET programme.
The two-year apprenticeship schemes have not yet been evaluated since their national introduction and no overview of the developed curricula is available. In October 2018, 45 apprentices were enrolled, half of them in the retail sector (personal communication of Statistics Norway).
Two-Year Apprenticeships in Switzerland
With about two thirds of young people enrolling in VET programmes at upper secondary level, Switzerland has one of the highest proportions in initial VET across OECD countries and the EU (OECD 2018a). About 90% of the students in VET enrol in apprenticeship-based programmes in which education and training take place in three learning locations: training companies, vocational schools and branch training centres (Wettstein et al. 2017).
Standard VET programmes take two, three or four years and are offered in approximately 230 occupations. Graduates of three- or four-year VET programmes (EQF level 4 or 5) may continue their education and training in higher VET. The less demanding two-year apprenticeships (zweijährige berufliche Grundbildungen) lead to a Federal VET Certificate (EBA) at EQF level 3. These certificates are considered as a full but low-level occupational qualification at upper secondary level.
Originally, two-year VET programmes (Anlehren) for young people with low academic achievement were introduced in the Vocational Education and Training Act of 1978. They were not standardised and only recognised at county level but could be individually adapted. Their lack of standardisation was considered as a dead end, by the youth and their parents as well as by employers. They made up only 1 to 2.5% of all apprenticeship contracts (Kammermann 2017). Standardised and nationally recognised two-year apprenticeships for low-achieving or disadvantaged youth were introduced in the Vocational and Professional Education and Training Act (VPETA) of 2002 (Swiss Confederation 2002). If successful completion of these programmes is jeopardised, the VPETA foresees individual support measures.
Two-year apprenticeships should enhance the integration into the labour market by ensuring a comparable level of competence of the graduates through standardised training plans and final examinations. The intention is to train skilled workers for simple occupations not requiring complex decisions. At the same time, permeability is ensured by crediting one year at the most to the corresponding three- and four-year VET programmes, an option which is accorded to one-third of the apprentices who continue (Der Bundesrat 2019).
Professional organisations are responsible for developing the nationally standardised VET programmes. They determine the duration and requirement level of the programmes in their occupational field and define the occupation-specific learning outcomes. They also decide whether a two-year apprenticeship is developed and thereby ensure its acceptance in the labour market. Each of the 230 VET programmes is regulated in a respective ordinance and a training plan. The training plan is the curriculum specifying the occupational learning goals for all learning locations. Modular differentiations (i.e. functional specialisations (Fachrichtungen) or emphases (Schwerpunkte) and elective skills modules (Wahlmodule)) after a basic common trunk are common, mainly in three- or four-year apprenticeships. Also 20% of the two-year apprenticeships have functional specialisations or emphases but they are chosen from the start.
Apprentices in two-year VET programmes are four days per week in the company and one day at school. Half of the weekly school day is dedicated to occupational subject matters, the other half to general education. For the latter, the framework for general education in initial VET applies which relates to competences in language, communication and society that are taught in three weekly lessons (plus a lesson of sport).
The first two-year apprenticeships started in 2005 and since then, just under 60 programmes were developed (with few of them not offered anymore). The number of enrolments grew steadily and in 2018, two-year apprenticeships made up 6.5% of all initial VET programmes (BFS 2019). Considering all upper secondary certifications awarded (including general education) in 2015, the two-year apprenticeships made up 5.9% (BFS 2018).
The two-year apprenticeships have been evaluated and prove to be quite successful: two-thirds of the graduates enter the labour market and about one-third continue their education and training (e.g. Kammermann et al. 2011; Der Bundesrat 2019).
Main Similarities and Differences between the Two Countries
The following Table 1 summarises the main intentions and characteristics of two-year apprenticeships in Norway and Switzerland.