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Towards a Competence Approach to Skill Formation in Ireland

Dr Rory O’Sullivan
Chair of the FET Committee of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

This article argues for moving away from the narrow, instrumentalist employability approach to skill formation. It presents a competence model based on the three venues of learning: the classroom, the workplace, and online. The skill formation system, and its associated institutions and organisations, are crucial to ensuring that the skills of new and existing workers keep pace with the evolving needs of the economy.

Since the beginning of industrialisation, ensuring the availability of sufficiently skilled workers has been a concern in all political economies. The skill formation system, and the associated institutions and organisations in any political economy, are crucial to ensuring that the skills of new and existing workers keep pace with the evolving needs of the economy. Consequently, the skill formation system of the state is of key importance to the political economy of any advanced economies.

The skill formation system in any country consists of a vocational education and training (VET) system and higher education. VET (or FET, Further Education and Training, in Ireland) provides the intermediate-level skills for the economy, while higher education provides the high-level skills. In general, the skills at all levels in any economy can be categorised under three broad headings: general, industry-specific, and firm-specific. While all three can be found in every economy, each country will have a dominant skill type related to the particular skill bias of its economic activity.

The first FET Strategy (SOLAS, 2014) presented ‘a roadmap and implementation plan to realise the vision of a world-class integrated system of further education and training in Ireland’ (p. 3). Yet little time has been spent discussing the best approach to skill formation for the Irish labour market and economy. Different approaches can be identified in advanced economies around the world, but no two are the same – each country has developed an approach that best suits its own circumstances.

Historically, the approach in Ireland evolved in line with developments in the UK, but recent years have seen some divergence. In 1979, when Ireland joined the European Monetary Union, the historical link between the Irish and British currency was severed. This was soon followed by the emergence of the social partnership process in the 1980s, which was based on the European model. While continuing to maintain many similarities with the UK, Ireland has increasingly been moving away from its nearest neighbour towards the EU.

The reforms of the apprenticeship system in the 1990s, resulting in the standard-based apprenticeship, emerged from the social partnership process. Much of the certification in use at this time continued to be of UK origin (e.g., City & Guilds), which was the subject of criticism. The Culliton Report (1992) states that ‘the British approach has not served us well in this area’ (p. 54). More recently, a review of apprenticeship in Ireland (DES, 2013) has led to a new approach, a further signal of our convergence with European approaches.

Ireland is often compared to Germany with regard to the number of apprenticeships available, but there has been little discussion of why this is the case. Ireland’s predominant skill type has been general skills while in Germany it has been industry-specific, so the validity of the comparison between the two countries is questionable.

Vossiek (2018) states that ‘it is a central question for policymakers how to get employers involved in skill formation’ (p. 17). Indeed, employers in Ireland do not have a good track record in their engagement with skill formation. However, the development of the State’s labour market intelligence apparatus, including the National Skills Council, the nine Regional Skills Fora, and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, has led to a significant increase in employer engagement with skill formation in Ireland. The emergence of the new approach to apprenticeship has also involved greater collaboration with employers. But it is too early to determine if these developments have led to a more definite cultural shift regarding employers’ active participation in skill formation.

Despite these developments with apprenticeships, the dominant form of post-secondary skill formation in Ireland remains the single- and multi-year programmes based on the academic year. In FET, the most successful programme in Ireland has been the Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course. Based on a one- or two-year programme of study, it is primarily classroom-based, with a mandatory work experience placement.

Engagement with employers on this element of PLC courses has been the subject of some criticism. The recent Evaluation Report of the Post Leaving Certificate Programme (McGuiness et al., 2018) recommended that work experience placement should be relevant and structured. The criticism is primarily about the structure of the placement. However, there has been consistent failure over the years to state clearly the ultimate purpose of work experience as part of an educational programme.

The three venues of learning – a competence approach

The dominant public discourse in skill formation in Ireland today is what could be called transactional learning: where there is a skill gap, put on a course to fill it – a transaction. The ESRI research on FET in Ireland (McGuinness et al., 2014) quotes a contributor who describes the approach to skill development in Ireland as follows:

We are going to bestow these [skills] on you like a coat of paint. (p. 77)

This line, while glib, reflects the approach that views skills as something to be acquired rather than developed. This approach is narrow, short-term, and fundamentally unsound, focusing on employability rather than career or vocational development.

A more holistic skills-development or competence-development approach is based on the active learner participating in constructing knowledge. Here, the learner or employee is seen as bringing all the resources at their disposal to deal with complex situations in the workplace. This holistic view includes all aspects of the person: personal, professional, and social. In other words, the learning is context-dependent and situated in the context of the relevant occupation.

Adler (2004) argues that a skill consists of two key components:

Mastery of the complexity of the tasks required of workers by their jobs, and mastery of the relations that coordinate activity across these tasks. (p. 246)

These components can be viewed as the technical dimension of the skill and the social dimension necessary for it to be effective in a given context. From an occupational perspective, the totality of skills required for a particular employment will consist of technical and social components. Deissinger (2004), referring to the German VET system, writes that ‘social and personal behaviour patterns are taught along with the relevant technical and practical job skills’ (p. 29).

A discussion about skills in isolation from their corresponding occupation or field of employment would be incomplete. Indeed, some commentators consider skill formation to be inseparable from identity formation for the individual (Streeck, 1989). Rauner (2007) goes further:

It has been commonly accepted in pedagogical science that competence development is inseparably linked to the formation of vocational identity. (p. 117)

When a young person leaves school, or an older person is considering a change of career, they seek to acquire the skills for a particular occupation or area of employment. For example, the young person becomes an apprentice and trains to be a carpenter. Equally, they could go to medical school to train to be a doctor.

An FET student brings with them a wealth of experience, both positive and negative, from previous education, employment, unemployment, personal interests, and circumstances. This experience has contributed to their course choice and subsequent career path or progression path to further study. Work is a central part of life for most people. As well as the tangible benefits of an income to pay for life’s necessities, for many it also brings a sense of purpose and meaning. Equally, people who are unemployed can feel alienated and a loss of self-esteem and occupational identity. Work has a significant influence on people’s identity, both as individuals and as members of social groups.

Education and training are widely seen as providing the key to work. Consequently, in preparing people to enter or re-enter the world of work, any discussion of skill formation must consider both development of technical skills and socialisation into the occupational community. This has been the traditional approach to apprenticeship for hundreds of years. Work-based learning is a central part of skill formation.

Mulder (2015) writes that ‘the meaning of competence is situation- or context-specific’ (p. 4). As has been the case with apprenticeships for generations, learning to be part of an occupational ‘community of practice’ requires not only technical knowledge and skills but also the social skills and the development of situational or contextual knowledge of how to apply the knowledge and skills in the workplace. The learner constructs meaning for themselves by placing their learning in the appropriate occupational context. Mulder continues, ‘there are certain relationships between personality and ability factors, and competence and on-the-job performance ratings’ (ibid.).

Mulder refers to the most recent approach to conceptualising competence as ‘situated professionalism’:

A major constituent of this approach is the appreciation that a certain competence representation can mean something totally different for one job holder or job situation to another. Furthermore, important notions are that the agency of a person and the affordances of a job context enable the development of competence […], the idea that the work context takes shape as a community of practice in which players interact and share and negotiate meaning, and that personal epistemologies have a stronger influence on professional development than mere skills training. Finally, it also acknowledges that desired competence is defined by what key stakeholders in a professional context expect in terms of professional action. (2015, p. 1)

It is worth emphasising, as Mulder points out, that a learner’s previous experience of learning, both in education and in work, has a stronger influence on their skill formation than actual skills training. Taking a more holistic, developmental, and transformative view of FET programmes, in a competence approach to assessment of/for/as learning, would give the learner a richer learning experience that would prepare them for the job opportunities of today and also give them the capacity to respond to future occupational changes through lifelong learning opportunities.

The increased engagement with employers and the changing nature of the labour market will demand a more flexible approach to all skill formation provision, in both FET and higher education. Requiring attendance in a classroom for a course in the medium to long term as the only form of provision will not be sustainable. The increasing acceptance of the value of work-based learning, with its implications for assessment, will also need to be part of the vision for the future.

In short, education and training will occur in three principal venues: the classroom, the workplace, and online (see figure). The blend of these three will depend on a variety of factors, but their accommodation in assessment, with all of the governance implications, must be seen as an increasing part of our provision.

In this model, knowledge and skills will be developed primarily in the classroom and online, while the workplace is where they are given an occupational context. It is the integration of the learning in these three venues, in a situated professionalism approach to competence development, that will be key to the quality of an FET programme. This approach would be further enhanced by a holistic approach to assessment across the entire programme. Mulder and Winterton (2017) write:

A main problem of many educational programmes is that they are containerships stacked with course units or modules which are inserted by departments or faculty members under the umbrella of a programme name, but which are really incoherent sets of overloaded and overspecialised introductions into disciplinary knowledge domains. (p. 5)

In many ways this statement describes, to an ever-increasing degree, the experience of many FET programmes. Assessment is often based on each module, with little evidence of a more coherent approach. Indeed, the recent consultation on QQI’s Green Paper on Assessment (QQI, 2018) highlighted the issue of over-assessment in programmes. Taking a competence approach to skill formation therefore necessarily has implications for programme assessment strategy. A holistic approach to assessment would involve calibrating all assessments to ensure they are based on, or in, the work placement.


This article argues for moving away from the narrow, instrumentalist, and flawed employability approach to skill formation. It highlights the divergences with the UK and the convergences with the EU, illustrated by the emergence of the new approach to apprenticeships. It presents a competence model based on the three venues of learning. Learning and assessment in the three venues must be integrated. Indeed, the greater the quality of this integration, the greater the quality of learning. The consequences for assessment strategies were also discussed. Mulder (2015) argued that taking a competence approach to skill formation not only improves the student’s preparedness for a new career, it also increases the likelihood of their future engagement with lifelong learning.


Adler, P.S. (2004) ‘Skills and trends under capitalism and the socialisation of production’, in C. Warhust, I. Grugulis, and E. Keep (eds.) The Skills that Matter, pp. 242–260. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Culliton Report (1992) A Time for Change: Industrial Policy for the 1990s. Report of the Industrial Policy Review Group. Dublin: Department of Industry and Commerce.

Deissinger, T. (2004) ‘Apprenticeship systems in England and Germany: Decline and survival’, in European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), Towards a history of vocational 352 education and training (VET) in Europe in a comparative perspective: Volume I: The rise of national VET systems in a comparative perspective, pp. 28–45. Proceedings of the first international conference, October 2002, Florence. Luxembourg: CEDEFOP.

Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2013) Review of Apprenticeship Training in Ireland. Retrieved from

McGuinness, S., Bergin, A., Kelly, E., McCoy, S., Smyth, E., Watson, D., and Whelan, A. (2018) Evaluation of PLC Programme Provision. Research Series Number 35. Dublin: ESRI.

McGuinness, S., Bergin, A., Kelly, E., McCoy, S., Smyth, E., Whelan, A., and Banks, J. (2014) Further Education and Training in Ireland: Past, Present and Future. Research Series Number 61. Dublin: ESRI.

Mulder, M. (2015) ‘Professional competence in context: A conceptual study’. Unpublished paper at: AERA 2015, Chicago, USA, 19 April.

Mulder, M. and Winterton, J. (2017) ‘Introduction’, in M. Mulder (ed.) Competence-Based Vocational and Professional Education: Bridging the Worlds of Work and Education, pp. 1–43. Basel: Springer.

Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) (2018) Green Paper on Assessment of Learners and Learning. Retrieved from

Rauner, F. (2007) ‘Vocational education and training: A European perspective’, in A. Brown, S. Kirpal, and F. Rauner (eds.) Identities at Work, pp. 115–144. Dordrecht: Springer.

SOLAS (2014) Further Education and Training Strategy 2014–2019. Dublin: SOLAS.

SOLAS (2017) SOLAS Response to the Findings of the Evaluation of The National Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) Programme. Dublin: SOLAS.

Streeck, W. (1989) ‘Skills and the limits of neo-liberalism: The enterprise of the future as a place of learning’, Work, Employment and Society, 3(1), 89–104.

Vossiek, J. (2018) Collective Skill Formation in Liberal Market Economies? The Politics of Training Reforms in Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Bern: Peter Lang.

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