Outside View I

Recognition of Informal Learning in Germany and the UK

by Graham Attwell, Wales

There is increasing recognition in most European countries of the importance of informal learning. Informal learning can provide a bridge between formal subject based learning and occupational practice. Furthermore, informal learning may be important as a tool for the continuing or lifelong learning seen as economically important in a period of rapid economic and technological change. And informal learning is viewed as a way of assisting socially excluded and under-qualified individuals to re-enter formal education and training or gain access to the labour market.

Integration of informal learning
But if there is increasing recognition of the importance of informal learning, there is less convergence in terms of how informal learning is integrated in vocational education and training practice. The differences may be ascribed to the different histories of vocational education and training, to different cultural practices and to different institutional and systemic structures within different countries. This short article will look at activities in Germany and the UK to illustrate different possible approaches to recognising and valuing informal learning.

How can we recognise that learning has taken place? The most general measure is taken to be a change in behaviour. In vocational education and training that change in behaviour or acquisition of new abilities is usually expressed in terms of competences. Competences refer to the practical ability to perform an occupational task or tasks. Whilst the word competence exists in most European languages, our understanding of the meaning of competence differs widely.

Different understandings of competence
So, whilst in Germany, competence is generally linked to beruf (a word untranslatable in English) and refers to the internal, holistic ability to act as part of as profession or occupation, in the UK competence refers to the ability to perform externally prescribed and more atomistic tasks.

This, in turn, affects the recognition and perceived role of informal learning. In Germany informal learning is seen as an intrinsic part of formal vocational education and training, especially through the Dual System which brings together school and work based learning. In the UK, informal learning is regarded as an external adjunct to formal training. This might be seen as a somewhat abstract description. But these differences take stark structural forms.

In Germany apprenticeship is generally age bound, being undertaken as part of the transition from school to work. Although in the UK some young people do undertake vocational courses, (including apprenticeships) on completion of compulsory schooling, vocational courses are open to students of any age and it is quite common for older students to pursue a vocational training programme. For those students who may have failed to gain initial qualifications or those who have some substantial work experience despite lack of formal qualifications, the UK has evolved formal measures for recognising informal learning. This is known as the Accreditation of Prior Learning.

The labour market
There are also important differences in terms of the relation of vocational education and training to the labour market. Germany has a relatively highly regulated labour market. This means for many occupations formal vocational qualifications are required as the basis for employment. There are far fewer regulated occupations in the UK and the role of the trade unions in enforcing regulation is much weaker. Academic qualifications have usually a higher prestige than vocational qualifications and the numbers of those possessing formal vocational qualifications is less. Thus employers are more inclined to look at academic qualifications plus proof of informal learning as the basis for employment.
In both the UK and Germany, as in other European countries, there has been increased interest in informal learning as a means of reintegrating socially excluded and unemployed people in the labour market, although once more this tends to take different directions and forms in the different countries. Indeed, both Germany and the UK are characterised by a considerable number of projects, programmes and experiments, making it difficult to provide more than a general overview of trends.

Recognition of informal learning in Germany and the UK
In Germany, there is little room for formal recognition of informal learning, because of the strength of the regulatory system. On the other hand, the very strength of this system has mitigated against the development of a formal careers guidance system.

This has become problematic with high levels of employment and rapid structural economic change. Thus, the identification and recognition of informal learning is increasingly being used as a means for career and occupational guidance, as a mechanism for recognising aptitude for further vocational training or work experience. This is especially seen in the so called one euro job schemes. Recognition of informal learning may also be used as a way of promoting social and civic integration, regardless of employment opportunities, for instance with long term unemployed or ethnic minorities.

In the UK, with a well developed, albeit structurally somewhat incoherent and under-resourced, careers advisory service, there has been more focus on the direct recognition and certification of informal learning. This has taken the form of both supplemental qualifications, often as a precursor to entry to more advanced education or training, or as direct recognition of informal learning for part certification of a formal training course, or rarely, even for a complete qualification.

The ICOVET Project
The European Commission Leonardo and Vinci programme funded ICOVET project has been examining these issues. The original project design was based on research undertaken by the Deutsches Jugendinstitut on the vocational integration of disadvantaged young people which has shown that integration can be successful if the funding and support network is matched to the requirements and background of the young people in question.

The project application recognised that lack of information on attainment and skills acquisition through voluntary work and work placements was an obstacle for disadvantaged young people. Even more problematic was that socially disadvantaged young people lack the self esteem and skills to recognise their own learning and achievement.

One of the major tasks for the project has been to design a validation instrument that can feed back into the design of pre-vocational education and vocational qualifications for disadvantaged young people. Such an instrument should help teaching and training staff to transfer informal and non-formal learning experiences into the institutional learning context. This was an ambitious undertaking, especially as the project involves partners from six different European countries.

The major problem was that existing instruments usually start from the viewpoint of formal competences and qualifications. Essentially, they ask participants to identify those elements of formal achievement that have been gained in informal learning contexts. But many socially disadvantaged young people lack the confidence and ability to recognise their own learning in this way. They are not able to link their own concrete experiences with a description of competences, abstracted from the context in which they are acquired. Undertaking such an exercise can reinforce a negative self image, through seemingly emphasising what the participant does not know. Furthermore, attempts to identify informal learning achievement, based on formal competence descriptions, often ignore both the social nature of learning and the contexts in which learning takes place.

New approach
The ICOVET project partners have attempted to develop a new approach, based on recognising that learning may occur in the everyday life situation of young people. Rather than intended as a checklist, the questionnaire is intended as the basis for constructing a focused narrative of the participants experience. In so doing, it is recognised that learning may occur from negative life experiences or from coping in difficult situations.

Participants are encouraged to reflect on such a narrative, on what they have learnt and on what their achievements might be. Such a narrative is of course, only a first stage. To be useful for advancement to further training or to possible employment, the narrative requires some process of verification of claimed achievement, even if this is just a supporting letter from an ex-employer.

Furthermore it requires translation or transfer into some recognised form of statement of achievement. For this purpose, the project has decided to use a modified form of the EuroPass. The EU recognised Europass is designed to provide a standardised extended Curriculum Vitae, recognised throughout Europe, and critically from the perspective of the project, including informal learning as well as formal and certificated achievement.

New forms require training and infrastructural support
The instrument is still being trialled, but initial results show some promise. This is not to deny there are problems. This is a very intensive process and requires a considerable degree of disclosure on the part of the participant.

It is doubtful whether present funding allows sufficient time to be spent building trust relations and supporting disadvantaged people in using the instrument for identifying informal learning achievement. Furthermore, this support should be on-going. It is not enough just to undertake the initial process and then withdraw support. Trainers themselves require training in how to use the instrument. Our belief is that it is best undertaken in youth work and project settings, rather than as part of the formal education or employment services. However, this is a new role for youth workers.

And of course there are requirements for confidentiality which may require the establishment of new practices and procedures, as well as the facility to refer clients to other agencies and supports structures if so necessary.

It is not within the resources of a European pilot project to develop the infrastructure needed to support the recognition of informal learning. But within innovative and well organised pilot projects, it is possible to trial new ideas as proof of concept and to show the way for future development and implementation. The recognition of informal learning could proof a major advance in helping socially disadvantaged young people to develop their abilities and progress further in their lives. the instrument offers great potential to those organisations working with socially disadvantaged young people to help them recognise their own learning but more importantly to recognise their own self-worth and potential.

Graham Attwell is a researcher working for the Wales based indepedent research institute, Pontydysgu. He has many research interests including informal learning, knowledge development and sharing, the training of teachers and trainers and the use of Information and Communication Technologies for learning. He has participated in many European projects and has written and published extensively. More recently, he has been developing multi media and story telling approaches to knowledge sharing.

His weblog, the Wales Wide Web - can be found at http://www.knownet.com/writing/weblogs/Graham_Attwell

DJI Online / Stand: 1. August 2006