Policy Futures in Education
Volume 6 Number 2 2008
Autonomy of (Vocational) Schools
as an Answer to Structural Changes
ITB – Institut Technik und Bildung,
University of Bremen, Germany
ABSTRACT In Europe a very intensive discussion is in full swing as to whether vocational
schools should in future be guided and monitored by the state or whether they should be
freed from state dependency. Within the framework of a number of pilot projects in
German-speaking countries, vocational school centres are currently testing their autonomy.
This article sketches out the discussion on a way forward.
Adopting a learner-centred perspective showed that formal education and training provide only a
small part of what is learned at work. Most of the learning described by the interviewees was non-
formal, neither clearly specified nor planned. It arose naturally out of the demands and challenges of
work, solving problems, improving quality and/or productivity, or coping with change – and out of
social interactions in the workplace. The outcome of such ‘learning from experience’ was the
development of knowledge, skills and understanding, although this was difficult to explain to others.
Effective learning was, however, dependent on confidence, motivation and capability – prerequisites
for employees’ self-management of much of their learning. (Michael Eraut et al, 1998, p. 10ff).
Daydreams or Soon Reality?
Schools, universities, vocational schools to the stock exchange! Is this imaginable? Could this be a
way? Is it possible that schools can earn the money necessary for their operation on the free market
– the funds necessary for the financing of the required top personnel and high-tech equipment?
Are schools and their students trying out trading their institution at the stock exchange confined to
a virtual world or could this also become reality? Could this be a way to accelerate the overdue
structural change in schools? Could this contribute to a new positioning of schools? Would it be a
way to put some dynamics into the rigid educational system? Could a competentent school
management deal with information and communications technology (ICT) be promoted, and use
it to make business to earn money for the school?
These are questions which will be discussed below.
What is the Current Position of the (Vocational)
Educational and Training (VET) System?
The current discussion of education and vocational education can be summarised by the following
• After the end of the Fordist era, schools no longer adequately fulfil their task as suppliers for the
national employment system.
• The insufficient organisation, equipment and quality of the vocational educational system
threaten the coherence of the system. This will have a considerable impact on social
Modern companies have only little in common with the structures relevant 20 years ago.
Customised solutions, goods and services for the specific requirements of the customers combined
with high quality have taken the place of mass production. These challenges call for the
qualification and motivation of employees, who should have – according to Reich – four basic
skills: system thinking, abstraction, experimenting, cooperation (cf. Reich 1993, p. 256). This,
however, cannot be achieved within an educational system which still functions and which is still
organised according to a Fordist mass production system where:
• teachers are working within strict standards; they have no or just a little room for their own
• schools are organised based on a division of labour and train their students for the traditional
• schools are still embedded in a centralised state hierarchy, they work according to decreed
curricula, they adhere to a strong atomisation of the subjects and they do not participate in
innovation processes (bureaucratic-centralistic organisation);
• there is a gap between the need for qualifications and the developed qualificational profiles.
At the moment we are in the midst of an industrial and social change leading to a new, tense
relationship between the educational and the employment system. The necessity to ease this
tension could be made use of by vocational schools to establish the development of a shaping
competency for professional life and society as a central dimension of vocational education.
The shaping of the workplace, of corporate structures, of cooperation, technology, a human-
centred society with an ecological orientation, of the use of ICT, of learning processes … are
dimensions which cannot be developed within a traditionally organised school system or frontal
instruction. The answer to these challenges cannot be found in the frequently stated demand for
‘individual flexibility’. The structural problems of the educational and employment systems cannot
be solved in this way.
Decentralisation towards more autonomy, towards a privatisation of the VET systems, has
been an ongoing discussion. Since the emergence of TVET (Technical Vocational Education and
Training) systems it is being discussed whether qualifications for the labour market within this
system should not rather be carried through under the auspices of industry, economy, and trade.
Hartmut von Hentig, who is convinced of the highest importance of school education,
published a most astonishing statement a year ago:
The state-run compulsory school should hand over what it cannot provide: the optimal
preparation for the labour market. Instead the economy could take over the part of the
schoolwork which is important for life and work practice. The personal and the political
education would then remain the prerogative of the school. (Hentig, 2004).
Hentig thus clearly contradicts the ‘precautional pedagogy’ presently predominant in Europe as it
cannot cater for the requirements of the economy. In short, this statement implies the following for
the TVET system:
• a goodbye from the pedagogy that regards the teacher as the only actor up to a pedagogy
motivating pupils and students for autonomous and self-shaping learning;
• the shifting of the responsibility for training to the economy;
• a remodelling of the school towards more responsibility.
Hentig underpins this visionary proposal with the fact that the school is as distant to the life reality
of its pupils as ever.
Education (personal development, citizenship, participating in cultural life) is therefore a task
for the school as traditionally practised. The preparation for real life in the sense of an occupation,
however, is the responsibility of the economy. This position must be further discussed and
Autonomy of Vocational Schools
Germany reacted to the challenge of the economy with a number of pilot projects such as RBZ
(Regional Educational Centres), ProReKo (Regional Project Competency Centres), STEBS
(Strengthening the Autonomy of Vocational Schools), ReBIZ (Regional Vocational Education and
Training Centres), etc. in order to pave the way towards more autonomy, more responsibility of
the schools. The schools are thus granted an autonomous financial administration/management
and an autonomous recruitment of personnel and administration, as well as contract management,
supervising tasks, and decision-making on occupational training courses. In the sense of educational
politics this is regarded as a ‘change of paradigms’ which is appraised in different ways:
1. One group is convinced that this is a development towards streamlining the educational system
for the world market as required by the World Trade Organisation. They fear that this may
result in a ‘lean’ and rationalised school which is only assessed according to its economically set
‘output’ compared to the given ‘input’.
2. A second group supports this development because they wish to have more autonomy and
more self-determination, but also more co-shaping and no patronising by the state.
This is an unambiguous conflict which will not be easily neutralised.
More autonomy and more self-determination for schools is therefore a compromise. With a view
to the VET system, Hentig therefore postulates the separation of education and qualifications. The
response of the TVET system is to reach a high degree of self-determination, more autonomy, and
above all, legal capacity (cf. Holmes & Holmes, 2005, p. 3).
In order to abolish the classical, teacher-centred pedagogy, a work-oriented vocational education
must be the centre of interest. This results in the hypothesis:
The Vocational Educational and Training system must be oriented towards a work-oriented
education focusing on shaping competencies and supporting an ecological orientation of
This demand can be met by an education accounted for by educational institutions. The state as a
producer of education is no longer required – this was true for the nineteenth century.
With a view to school organisation, the process of decentralisation and privatisation in selected
countries can be identified in very different ways (cf. Bennet, 2003, p. 2ff):
Figure 1. Decentralised status of TVET systems in selected countries (design: Spöttl; data: Bennet. 2003, p. 12 ff)
Germany currently ranks in a medium position with a development towards a decentralised system
which is, however, not likely to be privatised. Decentralisation – and partly privatisation – plays a
more important role in the USA, in Sweden and in Russia, whereas France, Indonesia and South
Africa as rather located at the opposite side of the scheme, i.e. they have a high degree of
Innovations of the (Vocational) Educational System – a necessity
Vocational schools are currently faced with a double challenge:
• they must adapt to the swift social, cultural and technological changes; and
• they have to promote a broad range of competences in their students, i.e. cognitive and social
competences, shaping ability, ability to solve problems, learning ability, systematic thinking,
preparedness to experiment and to take risks, etc.
Both aspects can be achieved neither through existing didactic concepts nor with the aid of a
differentiation of subjects and knowledge.
In order to initiate innovations (a new balance between the educational and the employment
system, a change of the structures of the employment system and of learning) within the
educational system, the following fields have to be clarified:
1. The relationship between initial and continuing vocational training must be newly determined
and further developed.
2. The intelligent and conscientious use of new technologies as an instrument for an
improvement of teaching and learning processes must be encouraged wherever these
instruments offer advantages.
3. In spite of new learning technologies it must be ensured that learning processes are
accompanied by a high level of social interaction and that the ability to think in a context is
4. The relationship between public and private educational institutions as well as between
education, economy and administration must be newly defined.
5. Public (vocational) educational institutions should be assigned a higher grade of self-
• a detailed ‘top-down regularisation’ must be abandoned;
• state centrally-decreed curricula, the restricted regularisation by supervisory school authorities
and school regulations, and restricted timetables should be abandoned;
• schools should be made the crystallisation point of innovations.
• As a consequence:
• the authority structure in schools should be abandoned;
• a decentralised administration should be introduced;
• ‘entrepreneurial’ executive structures should be established;
• a differentiated balance between privatisation and state buffering should be realised.
This would result in a new educational landscape which is characterised by the following features.
The educational landscape 2020:
• Public (vocational) schools are partly centralised, some school forms are completely privatised.
• Public and private suppliers of education are striving for an influence on and a share of the
• The indicator for the success of the individual suppliers of education is the degree of shaping
competence – oriented towards a human-centred shaping of the society – the graduates are able
• Students will have to learn more than ever and the social integration (de-integration) will be
controlled by learning at an even higher degree.
• The forms of learning will have considerably changed. Advisory and media-aided learning will
reach a high level of importance; seminars will only play a minor role.
• Learning processes aiming just at an increase of knowledge will be run via electronic networks.
Here individualisation will be more and more important.
• Classrooms, and classic seminars will survive in order to train social behaviour unless new,
adequate forms of learning have been established.
Autonomy of Vocational Schools
An Example for New School Structures – ‘for-profit schools’
America is trying them. Can private companies do a better job of educating children?
1. State-run and privately funded schools run by a private ‘for-profit’company are currently
spreading in the United States. Currently around 200 of such schools with approximately
100,000 students are operating, which means just a fraction of the 53 million US schoolchildren.
The school day has 2 hours more, the school year 20 days more than the state-run schools.
According to test results, the speed of learning in these schools is higher (reportedly by factor of
2) than in other schools. The students learn twice as fast. Another important feature is the
increase in income of these schools (e.g. Edison Schools Inc. have increased their income
within five years from $12 million to $217 million). The schools are predicted to have
considerable development opportunities. Up to the year 2020, for-profit schools (according to
forecasts) will have a share of 20-30 % of the American school system. There are, however,
critics who are relativising these development chances.
2. Various interest groups agree on the fact that new school concepts such as for-profit schools are
not adequate to cope with external problems faced by the schools.
3. Reasons for the success of ‘non-profit schools’ include the hope of future-oriented enterprises
to develop – with the help of dynamic educational and qualificational institutions – human
resources able to cope with the continuing changes; and to ‘Become a contributing member of
the community in every nation’ – a philosophy often pursued by ‘global players’ and focusing,
on the one hand, on local framework conditions. On the other hand, the local framework
should be changed by continuing development taking into consideration cultural facts. The
safeguarding of education, training and employment are very important aims.
Impulses for Structural Change Resulting from For-Profit Schools and Other Approaches
1. The rapid growth of the for-profit schools proves that continuing reforms within existing
structures do trigger a high level of development. It seems that only alternative approaches
have the potential to leave traditional paths and to encourage concepts that the public school
2. The concept of ‘for-profit education’ is regarded an alternative compared to traditional school
systems. It is able to safeguard high-quality education and training above all due to the
abandoning of public bureaucracy and private management.
3. The financing of for-profit schools is not based on a single way of thinking predominant in
many countries. Funds acquired from sponsors do not necessarily lead to a radical domination
of the school’s organisation and contents. A high quality education in the schools must be
safeguarded (which is not defined in detail by this article). This is promoted by sponsor money.
The money does not directly come from the sponsors but is assigned by foundations
supporting the schools in view of quality. The sponsors still may exert some influence,
however, but rather with regard to the objectives which have to be negotiated by all
participants. The most interesting feature of the concept is the fact that above all the success of
the schools will be assessed and represents a crucial factor for further financial support. The
flow of money, bureaucratic regulation mechanisms and state patronising are no longer a
unity. It is the ‘orientation towards performance’ which is dominating, with a view on the
results. This ensures a dynamic co-shaping of the schools along with social changes.
4. The disadvantage of for-profit schools is the fact that the sponsoring for individual schools is
subject to changes – depending on the financial contribution by the sponsors and the
assessment of the results – thus entailing an obstacle for long-term developments. This
problem could be solved by ensuring a basic financing taken from the acquired profits for
carefully defined periods of time. It is also possible that in these cases the state takes over a
certain ‘buffer’ function without insisting on bureaucratic regulation mechanisms.
5. The swift growth of ‘charter’ schools (independent schools) in the USA may be seen as an
indicator for the strong desire to overcome state regulation mechanisms and bureaucratic
obstacles. Nevertheless, this means a clear declaration of a human-oriented social development
and the wish for higher individuality. This development is another signal for the establishment
of schools which are no longer subject to state decrees, which are, however, prepared to adhere
to socially accepted standards.
6. The great opportunity of the ‘for-profit’ movement is the fact that school organisation and
curricula may be developed beyond state decrees. As for Europe, this area is normally occupied
by representatives of the state. It would be very easy to break it up and to involve other social
groups in the development process. This alone would represent a ‘historical’ step triggering
considerable innovative effects. With regard to central Europe this would mean a clear
reduction of bureaucratic regulations and the establishment of a new relationship between the
state and the schools. Parents, teachers, companies and sponsor companies should be assigned
Initiative for Decentralisation, Autonomy and Responsibility
Within the framework of vocational schools, the idea of ‘decentralisation and privatisation’ might
be tested in selected TVET units (e.g. specialised schools for technology). These institutions are
training students explicitly for the labour market. Companies are very interested in adequate
graduates and the students are keen on user-oriented training.
These factors help to form an organisational and financial basis for such institutions. Profit-
oriented training is promising because the schools would not only rely on sponsorship but could
also sell products realised during the training. As for other school forms this idea is yet to be
Private economic organisational forms should be initiated in schools as they:
• offer an innovation dialogue with prospective employers, other institutions and social groups;
• safeguard learning from customers (future employers of graduates, cooperation partners); and
• encourage the development of service competence.
Therefore they are highly eligible as partners within the private economy. During a successful
cooperation, for example, specialised schools for technology might become innovation partners for
companies and might at the same time initiate considerable learning processes through practical
As a first step into this direction, concepts/scenarios for a realisation of this idea must be
developed in cooperation with all participating parties. Some of the most important issues include:
• new organisational models for schools;
• teaching, learning and work concepts;
• forms of cooperation with companies;
• service offers by the schools;
• ensuring the school’s income/financial models (sponsoring, production, ‘buffering’);
• creation of business fields; and
• standards for cost and quality conscious acting.
Consequences of Decentralisation
Decentralised autonomous VET systems with a tendency towards privatisation have some
• School supervision must be newly defined and organised. It is no longer responsible for control
of the schools but must safeguard quality.
• The processes of vocational training are not left to the market mechanisms. Moreover, work-
oriented education takes into consideration the interests of the labour market and at the same
time the shaping competency (the competency which allows students to participate in the design
of the society, to contribute their own ideas, to influence the development of technology,
Autonomy of Vocational Schools
• Schools take over the responsibility for the financial management, the organisation and the
structural development, the recruitment of personnel, the contact management and the further
training of the teachers.
• Teachers take over the tasks shown in Figure 2. (cf. Becker et al, 2007, p. 39).
Figure 2. Variety of teachers’ work.
Further issues to be clarified are:
• cooperation models between enterprises and schools;
• the relationship between schools and the market;
• concepts for the marketing by schools of the programmes offered to the community;
• standards for quality-oriented learning and use of quality-based learning methods within the
• the status of teachers and the school management;
• the school management structures;
• the involvement of companies, social partners, communities, ministries into the funding of
Memorandum for a New Orientation of Vocational
Education and Training Institutions (at the Operational Level)
1. To provide services to the industry like limited production, provision of information,
laboratory support and consultancy provided they are conducive to the training of highly
2. To collect and disseminate information on technical training and technology transfer in
industry, processes and techniques to individuals and organisations interested in the objects of
the institute as well as to print and publish materials for the dissemination of knowledge in all
its aspects and of information on activities of the institutes.
3. To hold seminars, conferences and meetings and to deliver lectures, as well as the acquisition
and dissemination by other means of information connected with training and technology
transfer and matters relating to the institute.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
Qualitiy of lessons
Shaping of locatio
Further teacher training
Cost and budget
4. To solicit, receive and accept funds, aids, grants, services and contributions from individual
companies, foundations, government departments and agencies, other agencies and sources in
furtherance of the objects of the institute.
5. To acquire, purchase or otherwise own, to take on lease or hire, to requisition or to accept as a
gift, grant or otherwise any movable or immovable properties necessary or convenient for the
furtherance of the objects of the institute.
6. To construct, repair, maintain, remodel or alter any building on such immovable property on
such terms and conditions and for such consideration as may be convenient for the object of
7. To sell, mortgage, lease, exchange or otherwise transfer or dispose of or charge any of the
movable or immovable properties of the institute for the furtherance of any of its objectives,
provided that the institute shall not buy, sell, mortgage, or acquire any immovable properties
without the consent in writing of the Minister charged with the responsibilities for companies.
8. To raise and borrow money on such security as may be deemed appropriate.
9. To open and operate bank accounts, draw, accept, endorse, discount and negotiate cheques,
bills of exchange and other negotiable instruments.
 cf. Business Week, 14 February 2000.
Becker, M., Spöttl, G. & Dreher, R. (2007) Berufsbildende Schulen als eigenständig agierende lernende Organisation.
Bennet, J. (2003) Recent Trends in the Organisation of Vocational Education and Training. Cologne;
University of Cologne (Manuscript).
Hentig, H. (2004) Die überschätzte Schule, Frankfurter Rundschau, 11 May, Nr. 109.
Holms, I.H. & Holms, K. (2005) Managing Autonomy for Social Transformation: Public Further Education and
Training (FET) Colleges in South Africa. Eschborn: GTZ.
Eraut, M., Germain, J., James, J., Cole, Y., Bowring, S. & Pearson, J. (1998) Evaluation of Vocational Training of
Science Graduates in the NHS, Project EVETSIN. Final Report. University of Sussex, Institute of Education:
Research Report 8.
Reich, R. (19930 Die neue Weltwirtschaft. Das Ende der nationalen Ökonomie. Frankfurt a. M.: Ullstein.
GEORG SPÖTTL is Director and Head of the Institute of Technology and Education (ITB) at the
University of Bremen. His expertise ranges from curriculum development and vocational research
to qualification research, research in high-tech training, vocational education planning and
didactics. Correspondence: Professor Dr Georg Spöttl, ITB – Institut Technik und Bildung, University
of Bremen, Am Fallturm 1, D-28359 Bremen, Germany (email@example.com).