02 SES 17 A, Pathways to Higher Education
In European context there has long been a discussion on the problem of parity of esteem between vocational education and learning (VET) and general academic upper secondary education (see for example Cedefop, 2014; Lasonen & Young, 1998; Parkes, 1993), where VET education does not enjoy the same status as general academic upper secondary education which usually provides a pathway to higher education. The disparity of esteem between these two educational pathways reveals itself for example in differences in social standing, content taught, and the ability of students entering the programs. This in turn has consequences for social justice and future prospects of students (Nylund, Rosvall, Eiríksdóttir, Holm, Isopahkala-Bouret, Niemi, & Ragnarsdóttir, 2018).
The disparity of esteem has been debated in Iceland for the better part of a century (Jónasson, 1949). Despite declarations of the need to strengthen VET and increase enrolment from various stakeholders in the education system, little has changed over the years. Jónasson (1998) identified the diverse forces working against VET at the upper secondary level in Iceland, some including the very stakeholders vowing support. The social structures promoted by these actors are incorporated in the freedom within the education system, a strong focus on academic success in society, wage differences, finances, and an ever-changing society that stimulates students to keep all options open. He also describes how these structures lead to stagnation within vocational studies.
There have been several attempts to address the apparent parity divide, e.g. by an overarching law in 1946 (with two equivalent tracks at age 13), with strengthening the vocational level as school level in 1955 and 1966, with the enabling of the introduction of comprehensive schools in 1973 and laws on upper secondary school in 1988 and 1996 (see e.g. Guðmundson, 1993; Guttormsson, 2008; Jónasson & Óskarsdóttir, 2016). The content and underpinning of these laws show very clearly a variety of very deliberate attempts to de-institutionalize the divide between vocational and academic tracks. The educational reform in Iceland in 2008 and curriculum overhaul in 2011 further aimed at reducing the distinction between VET and general academic education pathways at the upper secondary level by various means (Ministry of education, science and culture, 2012; Upper Secondary Education Act No. 92/2008). A white paper on education reform (Ministry of education, science and culture, 2014), also presented a clear policy directive to enhance the status of vocational education. Despite these concerted and relentless efforts, a disparity in esteem between vocational and general academic pathways seems evident and the resilience of the issue begs further investigation at different levels of the educational system.
The aim of this study is therefore to explore the disparity between the vocational and academic study pathways in contemporary upper secondary education in Iceland. We will mainly look at three levels: 1) The policy level, by investigating the status of the two pathways in relevant public documents, 2) the school level, by studying the selection processes and flow of students between school levels, and c) the class-room level, by looking at teaching practices, classroom work, and teacher attitudes as compared across these two pathways. Considering these three different levels provides us with a cross-sectional view of how the disparity potentially reveals itself.
We use three sources to examine the three levels. For the policy level we analyse the content of various public documents, including the act for the upper secondary school level (Upper Secondary Education Act No. 92/2008) and the National Curriculum Guide (Ministry of education, science and culture, 2012). We also go through the public information from upper secondary school websites to gauge different admission requirement between the two different study pathways. For the school level we draw upon data from Statistics Iceland (2017) combined with data from Blöndal, Jónasson, and Sigvaldadóttir (2016) in order to understand the influx of students between the compulsory school level and the upper secondary school level to identify enrolment patterns. For the classroom level the findings are based on interviews with teachers and school leaders as well as classroom observation from a comprehensive study conducted in nine upper secondary schools in Iceland between 2013 and 2014 (Óskarsdóttir, 2016). The nine upper secondary schools were selected on the basis of stratified sampling. In the schools we followed randomly selected students for a whole school day and conducted classroom observations in the lessons they attended without knowing exactly which student we were following. We collected classroom observations from 130 lessons of varying length and content. The teachers were selected for interviewing on the basis of the classroom observations. The school leaders were, however, selected on the basis of stratified sampling with regard to the hierarchical structure within the selected schools. In this paper, we used data from 115 classroom observations, interviews with 21 school leaders and 20 teachers to compare teaching practices and analyse participants’ perception on the impact of different social structures and stakeholders on these two educational pathways.
Our findings show that a disparity between vocational and general academic upper secondary education still exists in Iceland. The parity of esteem issue reveals itself in various ways across the three different levels considered: the public policy level, the school level, and the classroom level. The status of the subjects belonging to vocational education on one hand and general academic education on the other hand also differs when looking into the National Curriculum Guide (Ministry of education, science and culture, 2012) and the Upper Secondary Education Act No. 92/2008. The Guide and the Act are silent about individual vocational subjects while the core subjects English, mathematic, and Icelandic is almost exclusively discussed in both public papers. The disparity is inter alia constructed in the admission requirement in upper secondary schools. Students enrolling in VET pathways are not required to have as high grades in compulsory schools as students enrolling in general academic pathways. In addition, entry requirements are almost exclusively based on academic competences and traditions. The teaching practices and classroom work varied between the observed VET classes and the more general academic classes in important ways. Individualized teaching practices were more common within the VET classes and group work and discussions were more common in the general academic classes. The VET classes were also longer and tended to be more male-dominated. The interviews with teachers revealed deep-seated differences in the status of VET and general academic pathways. Hence the results overall show that academic trends dominate the system of upper secondary education in Iceland, undermining the status of vocational education. The findings give rise to complex question on social justice in education, the need to discuss the aim of education, and how controlling conservative attitude impact the educational system even though public policy is preaching the opposite.
Blöndal, K. S., Jónasson, J. T., & Sigvaldadóttir, S. (2016). Sérkenni námsferils starfsnámsnemenda í framhaldsskóla. Afstaða og skuldbinding til náms, líðan og stuðningur foreldra og skóla [Characteristics of pupils in vocational education. Attitude, commitment, well-being and parental support]. Reykjavík: Menntavísindastofnun [Educational Research Institute] Cedefop. (2014). Attractiveness of initial vocational education and training: Identifying what matters. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Guðmundsson, G. (1993). Sögulegt samhengi starfsmenntunar – helstu umbætur og umræður síðustu áratuga [Historical perspective of vocational education – Main reforms and discussions over the last decades]. In G. Guðmundsson (Ed.), Þróun starfsmenntunar á framhaldsskólastigi (p. 11). Reykjavík: Menntamálaráðuneytið. Guttormsson, L. (2008). Alþýðufræðsla á Íslandi 1880–2007, fyrra bindi [Public Education in Iceland 1880–2007, first part]. Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan. Jónasson, J. T. (1998). The foes of Icelandic vocational education at the upper secondary level. In A.Tjeldvoll (Ed.), Education and the Scandinavian welfare state in the year 2000: Equality, policy, and reform (pp. 267–302). New York: Garland. Jónasson, J. T., & Óskarsdóttir, G. (2016). Iceland: Educational structure and development. In T. Sprague (Ed.), Education in non-EU countries in Western and Southern Europe (pp. 11-36): Bloomsbury. Jónasson, M. (1949). Verknámsdeild: nokkrar athugasemdir og tillögur. Menntamál: Tímarit um uppeldis- og skólamál, 22, 1-44. Lasonen, J. & Young, M. (Eds.). (1998). Strategies for achieving parity of esteem in European upper secondary education. Jyvaskyla: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyvaskyla. Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. (2012). The Icelandic national curriculum guide for upper secondary schools. General section. Reykjavík: Author. Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (2014). White paper on education reform. Reykjavik: Author. Nylund, M., Rosvall, P.-Å., Eiríksdóttir, E., Holm, A.-S., Isopahkala-Bouret, U., Niemi A.-M., and Ragnarsdóttir, G. (2018) The Academic-vocational divide in three Nordic countries: Implications for social class and gender. Education Inquiry, 1–25, DOI: 10.1080/20004508.2018.1424490. Óskarsdóttir, G. G. (2016). Upper secondary school practices in Iceland. Aims and methods. Research project 2012–2018. Reykjavik. Parkes, D. (1993). Editorial: Parity of esteem for vocational education? European Journal of Education, 28(2), 131-134. Statistics Iceland. (2017). Education – Upper secondary education. Retrieved from http://www.statice.is/statistics/society/education/ Upper Secondary Education Act No. 92/2008.
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