The vocational education and training system in Australia has been rocked by continuous change for the past fifteen years. The three most radical changes have been the move to competency-based training, the privileging of industry as opposed to students as the most important stakeholder group, and the opening up of government funding to private providers as well as to TAFE, the public provider. In 1997 Training Packages became the basis for all future curriculum in the Australian VET system. Like any curriculum change, the introduction of Training Packages has aroused controversy but so far there has been only a limited amount of empirical research. This paper summarises the debates about Training Packages, using the existing body of research and comment, interviews with key national and State figures in Training Package development, and the author's experience as a Director of a State Industry Training Advisory Board involved in the development and review of several Training Packages. The paper identifies some of the basic underlying difficulties with Training Packages which, it is argued, stem from their being written for the workplace while their primary field of application is in educational institutions.
The enthusiastic commitment of the campaigner; the 'no choice' acceptance of the bureaucrat', the 'we can subvert this and get it to work educationally' argument of the educational policy adviser; the cries of pain from those seeing good education being replaced by jargonistic ritual; the exploration of research which suggests that at least part of the competencies agenda cannot work; and the arguments that the whole current discourse is dangerous because it shifts the balance of power in the wrong direction and threatens crucial educational purposes in a democratic society.
Collins could have written exactly the same paragraph in 2001 about the introduction of Training Packages, the early 21st century Australian manifestation of competency-based training. This paper uses Collins' statement as a framework for discussing reactions to Training Packages and the experiences of some of those working with them.
Finally and, perhaps most importantly, the arguments and findings from the literature were validated by the author's own experience in employment as the Executive Director of a State ITAB during the period late 2000-early 2002. In this role there was close involvement both with the development and review of seven Training Packages, and with more general developments relating to Training Package implementation at a State and Registered Training Organisation (RTO) level. The ITAB was the South Australian Wholesale, Retail and Personal Services (WRAPS) ITAB. Evidence from this source is referred to in this paper as 'field sources'. Events at which notes were taken included meetings with
This primary data gathering was not carried out solely for the purpose of research. While notes were taken of the meetings and other events, they were primarily for the purpose of normal working duties. However since the author was a researcher by profession, and intended to return to that role, events were interpreted in the light of the researcher's academic understanding of the issues being discussed. Some, but not all, of the participants in the events knew of the researcher's academic work.
The researcher's experiences in her working role were thus a form of participant observation; Wiersma (1986:235) describes the role of the participant observer as 'attempt(ing) to assume the role of the individuals under study and ... experience their thoughts, feelings and action.' According to Ellis (1994: 121) this form of field research provides 'the most realistic picture of the complexity and dynamics of the events being studied'. Those observers who are fully involved in the processes they observe are generally described as 'complete participants' (Babbie, 1999: 264). Advantages of participant observation over other methods such as interviewing include that 'volunteered statements' gathered in the normal course of events are less likely to 'reflect the observer's preoccupations and biases' (Becker & Geer, 1982), and that events can be interpreted in the context of the culture and language of participants (Jorgensen, 1989) and in their full 'complexity and dynamics' (Ellis,1994: 121). However it is also accepted that participant observation has its drawbacks such as possible ethical exploitation of participants (depending partly on whether the researcher has revealed his or her identity or not), the possibility of being judged a traitor or a spy (Jarvie, 1982), and the inevitable fact that the participant observer, as a participant, will actually affect events (Babbie, 1999).
The events recorded in this paper, however, were not gained during a conventional participant observation process. While it is not unknown, as Jorgensen (1989) points out, for a research project to grow from a researcher's previous and even concurrent experience, most participant observation events are deliberately entered into for the purpose of research. This was not so in this case. Field notes were used as research notes only after the period of employment was completed. In a sense, then, the process was closer to Ellis's (1994: 127) category of 'serendipitous observation' which is defined as 'evidence which falls into a researcher's lap ... rather than something he or she sets out to discover'. Whatever the most appropriate term for the data-gathering process, working for an ITAB, a pivotal organisation at State level in the Australian VET system, provided an excellent opportunity for understanding the processes and players involved in the implementation of Training Packages. It also enabled early and easy access to key documents which, because of the researcher's position, could be interpreted in the light of an understanding of issues of concern to participants (Altheide, 1987, in Jorgensen, 1989: 93).
The Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) determined, in late 1996, as a result of a decision by the Ministerial Council for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, to introduce Training Packages. National Industry Training Advisory Bodies (ITABs) were asked to produce lists of Training Packages which would cover their industry areas (Lewis, pers comm, 2001). The WRAPS (Wholesale, Retail and Personal Services) ITAB, for example, proposed seven Training Packages (Retail, Wholesale, Hairdressing, Beauty, Funerals, Floristry and Community Pharmacy) which have now all been developed. Some ITABs might have fewer Training Packages on their list; others, for example Business Services or Community Services, preferred a small number of Packages, each covering several related industry areas (Lewis, pers comm, 2001).
Each Training Package consists of a number of units of competence (competency standards), and instructions as to how they can be packaged to make qualifications. The Training Packages also include details on assessment and, in the support materials (formerly called 'non-endorsed components'), may include learner guides, resources for teachers and so on. Around eighty Training Packages are now in existence and may be viewed on the National Training Information Service web site (www.ntis.gov.au) which is managed by ANTA. Training Package qualifications are national qualifications, and training providers can no longer accredit courses in industry areas covered by a Training Package except under a restricted range of circumstances. Thus the number of available courses in the VET sector is rapidly being reduced.
The process of Training Package development is usually carried out in two phases. The first phase scopes the industry and makes general recommendations. The second phase develops the competency standards and eventually produces the complete Training Package. ANTA's National Training Quality Council is required to sign off on both phases. There are strict guidelines as to how the Package is developed and how it looks (Allen, pers comm, 2001); these guidelines are produced by ANTA and have changed over time (Lewis, pers comm, 2001). Both phases of development involve extensive consultation both nationally and in States and Territories. Usually State ITABs are asked to assist in identifying relevant people to contribute to consultations in each State. These will include people working in industry and teachers from VET Registered Training Organisations including TAFE (Allen, pers comm, 2001). Originally RTOs were not invited to be part of this process but are now involved; in addition State Training Authority input will often include an RTO, particularly a TAFE, perspective (field source 1) Extensive efforts are made to identify appropriate industry people to advise on development and subsequent implementation purposes, sometimes with some difficulty where an industry is not cohesive or where few employers are planning to use the Training Package (field source 2).
Training Packages are reviewed every three years, which means that the review process (which is similar to the development process) needs to start within eighteen months or so after the original package is endorsed (Misko, 2001; field source 3). Revisions to Training Packages may be very extensive, as is the case for the current review of the widely-criticised Training Package for Assessment and Workplace Training (field source 4). While constant review is meant to ensure that the Packages keep up to date with changes in industry, as well as meeting criticism from those who deliver them, the TAFE Directors Australia (2001) have argued that the three-year review period is too short, since it means that many students, for example apprentices whose courses may run for three years, will graduate with competencies which are already out-of-date.
The position held by many academics and by some curriculum staff within the VET sector is that the curriculum is seen to be based on Taylorist job descriptions, leaving little if any room for 'education' or the development of the adaptability needed in the so-called 'new world of work' (Billett et al., 1999). Turner (2001) recently presented a detailed discussion of Training Packages' similarities to scientific management principles. He maintains that in the drawing up of units of competence, jobs are broken down into tiny parts which are all too readily used for the basis of training programs. Turner (2001, p.7-8) warns,
If we continue headlong down the Training Package path, we may well end up with a workforce of automatons who are proficient in narrow, specific fields but unable to 'think for themselves', as the education system failed to emphasise the importance of the intrinsic value of learning, and the significance of the relationship between different bodies of skill/knowledge.In the ideal world of Training Packages students do not even go to a VET provider; they learn on the job and are issued with qualifications which are gained solely in the performance of their normal work routines. Training Packages are written with workplace delivery very much in mind, and the difficulties this presents are discussed later in this paper.
There have been many critics of Training Packages' perceived narrowness. Wheelahan (2001) for example, suggests that students not only need to know about different ways of doing things but also need to know how to critique ways of doing things. Thus not only are Training Packages likely to be quickly outdated, because they describe current ways of working, they do not offer the chance for people to learn about how things might improve or how workplaces might be arranged differently. By contrast, earlier forms of VET curriculum taught off the job offered a more obvious opportunity for examining different ways of carrying out particular workplace tasks and asking students to compare them.
Some commentators, however, see Training Packages as an opportunity to validate and valorise what working class people do in workplaces. The following statement, from a process industry manager, is typical.
The training program has brought benefits to our employees in the form of the increased self-esteem and confidence which comes with gaining a national qualification. Australian Training, 6(4), p.25Silverman (2001) presses Paolo Friere (whose writings are concerned with adult education in and for social action) into service, saying that Training Packages give the opportunity for 'praxis' which he describes as learning through reflection upon action. Such writers consider that the opportunities to learn within their workplaces might enable workers, assisted by teachers, to effect social or political change. For example, Kell (1999) suggests
The move away from institutionalised learning and the pressure to generate curriculum might release teachers to take up quite different interventions in workplaces to change the lives of workers.Training Packages can be delivered in the workplace, either by the enterprise itself, if it is a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), or by workplace staff under the supervision of an external RTO such as a TAFE college, enabling workers to learn without leaving their work stations. Moreover, workers who have previously not had their skills acknowledged can be assessed against a qualification without learning anything new. This is regarded as a desirable outcome by ANTA despite the fact that there is no 'added value' (ie no additional skills learned) to the system (field source 5) . The workplace focus of Training Packages can make it easy for employers to believe that it is apppropriate to train their workers only in what is needed in their own workplace and yet still award a national qualification signifying competence in a field of practice (field source 6).
There is much to be said for the extension of qualification frameworks into areas of work which were previously unrecognised as skilled. In the past, too many occupations have been regarded as skilled only because of the actions of the associated trade unions in these (usually male) occupations in defining their work as skilled (Shields 1995). However the notion that learning takes place best in workplaces flies in the face of the reality that workplaces are at best busy and focused on production rather than on learning, and at worst exploitative, oppressive and dangerous. Many authors including Billett (2001), Butler (1996) and Casey (1993) have pointed out the disadvantages of learning in workplaces, despite their authenticity as environments for practicing tasks and understanding work in context.
The old system of Training Providers loading up students with great quantities of theory, because this is a Provider's only chance to equip a person for the future, has been replaced by the opportunity for them to tailor learning to the immediate needs of students. (Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References (EWRSBE) Committee 2000a, p.159).As is commonplace when teachers resist educational change (Smith 2000b) teachers and trainers' concerns have mostly been dismissed as the reaction of 'dinosaurs' unwilling to change. They are depicted as being 'wedded to traditional means of training delivery' (Senate EWRSBE Committee 2000a, p.149). Such comments prevent reasoned discussion of the challenges associated with Training Package delivery.
The concerns of ACPET (2000) include the following.
Some writers such as Waterhouse (2000) see the need for teachers to develop curriculum from Training Packages as an 'opportunity'; in Waterhouse's opinion, 'creating space for innovative educators to explore and colonise'. Moira Scollay, the Chief Executive Office of ANTA, has said,
The concept of Training Packages was developed upon the premise that teachers and trainers can recognise what learners know, what more they need to know and how they might learn best. The key to the successful application of Training Packages in any learning environment is the ability of the teacher/trainer to develop customised learning strategies within the framework of competencies and assessment that the Packages provide (ANTA 2000a, p.3).Others see this reliance upon individual teachers' or trainers' expertise as a possible route to disaster, with smaller and/or less scrupulous providers perhaps leaving it to under-qualified teachers to struggle as best they can to teach to units of competence. These units, moreover, are written in language which has been described as 'incomprehensible to all but the select club of competency standards developers and workplace assessors' (field source 9). The Senate Inquiry into the Quality of VET reported receiving submissions that many teachers ' need more assistance than is currently available ... to carry out these tasks effectively, particularly in relation to identifying and/or developing learning strategies and teaching programs' (Senate EWRSBE Committee 2000a, p.150).
The shift from nominal hours of attendance to competency-based assessment had apparently also created a window of opportunity or possibility for costs to be cut further by substituting face-to-face tuition with self-directed 'home study', with potentially negative implications for the quality of learning.Moreover some providers confine their learning resources to those issued as part of Training Package resource materials. For example, it was difficult to find an RTO in South Australia willing to offer a particular Certificate II traineeship until the learners' guides (self-paced materials relating to specific units of competence) became available two years after the Training Package was endorsed. A conclusion that could be drawn from this is that the RTOs did not have staff able, willing, or with sufficient time to devise a curriculum or teaching program (field source 13).
Many concerns about quality in relation to Training Package delivery were raised in submissions to the Senate Inquiry into the Quality of VET in Australia. These included the following.
Misko (2001, p.5-9), based on available research, summarises the advantages and disadvantages of Training Packages as follows.
Down (2002) has recently completed the most comprehensive research project to date on the effects of Training Package implementation on groups of stakeholders. Her study involved interviews and focus groups with staff from STAs, RTOs, ITABs and enterprises as well as twenty students. This research according to Down (2002) revealed a more positive attitude to Training Packages than a previous research project (Down & Stewart, 2001) eighteen months previously. Down's (2002) research indicated that Training Package implementation has resulted in a number of shifts in practice and in attitude, including closer links between VET providers and workplaces and wider use of competency standards within enterprises. She found evidence that a greater proportion of VET students were drawn from workers rather than from those seeking work. Down also identified a number of areas of concern (2002: 11-12) including poor assessment practices, equity issues and lack of direction for teachers and trainers.
In spite of the undeniable responsibility for vocational and adult education to provide efficient and relevant training, based on the needs of the employment market, most TAFE educationists would find it difficult to surrender the principle, inherited from a long and rich tradition of educational philosophy, psychology and practice, of educating the student as a whole person.Secondly, it is a problem in relation to access & equity, because the way in which Training Packages are written make it difficult for people not currently in work to be trained using them. Thirdly, there is a practical level, because this same issue means that teachers in educational institutions have to 'fudge' in order to 'pretend' that their students are in workplaces. In other words, a national curriculum system has been introduced to the VET sector whose nature makes life difficult for the vast majority of those delivering the curriculum and those studying. This may derive from an initial policy view that Packages were primarily for apprenticeships and traineeships (Lewis, pers comm, 2001). Although this view has now softened, it has left the sector with the problem of a curriculum system written for delivery in the workplace but actually delivered to a large extent in training institutions.
Moreover, the VET system is full of actors with the best intentions trying to produce quality curriculum which avoids the traps of Taylorism, potential poor quality delivery, and the management of students who are not employed. Nor has the system shown itself unwilling to change. Initial reactions of many senior VET players to criticism of Training Packages in the Senate Inquiry into the Quality of VET were defensive (field source 14), despite the fact that the Inquiry had declared in favour of the concept of Training Packages (Senate EWSRBE Committee 2000a, p.144) if not in favour of aspects of their use. But changes were brought in rapidly by ANTA to address many of the problems uncovered, including the new AQTF, as well as a series of changes in the requirements for those developing Training Packages.
While Training Packages offer many opportunities for a wide range of students and workers to access training in a wider variety of vocations (and locations) than ever before in Australia, their emphasis upon workplace delivery has led many to view them as narrow, static, unlikely to develop higher-order skills, and of little relevance to the learner's personal development. The challenge now is for the Training Package concept to continue to evolve so that it can meet these more fundamental criticisms as well as the criticisms of quality in delivery which are already being addressed. Such development in Training Packages needs to be underpinned by a strong research base which provides rigorous empirical evidence to add to the current debate which consists primarily of opinion, anecdote and 'best practice' stories published by government agencies such as ANTA. The recent work by Down (2002) needs to be continued with a broader and deeper range of research projects.
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|Author: Dr Erica Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Vocational Education and Training at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga campus. Her primary research interests are VET policy and curriculum, entry-level training and the school to work transition. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Smith, E. (2002). Training Packages: Debates around a new curriculum system. Issues In Educational Research, 12(1), 64-84. http://www.iier.org.au/iier12/smith.html