History of Vocational Education and Training in Europe

Cases, Concepts and Challenges

by Esther Berner (Volume editor) Philipp Gonon (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 604 Pages


Understanding today’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) systems requires a comprehension of the rise and development, i.e. of the foundations of topical VET. This book provides a comparative view of its development in Europe. The contributions of renowned authors give insight into conceptual questions, cases and challenges in this field.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgement
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction to a History of Vocational Education and Training in Europe: Cases, Concepts and Challenges
  • Part One: Concepts
  • The Social Conventions of Guidance as a Major Component of Lifelong Learning Systems. A French-Danish-British Comparison
  • The Genesis of Vocational Education in Switzerland from the Perspective of Justification Theory: On the Development of a Dual Vocational Education Model in the Cantons of Geneva and Lucerne
  • The Political Economy of Educational and Vocational Training Reforms in Western Europe from a Historical Perspective
  • The Pathway to the Swiss Federal Vocational Baccalaureate
  • The Antagonism in Commercial Training: Vocational and Liberal Education. The Development of the Commercial School of the Trade Guild Hall in Gotha (1817–1902)
  • “Muddling Through” Once Again – The Long Term Development of the Dualistic Austrian VET System
  • Vocational School Policy in Germany in the Context of Securing State Legitimacy
  • Negotiating the Pedagogical Value of School and Work – A Historical Perspective on Pedagogical Development in Swedish VET
  • On the Genealogy of the Subject of Industrial Work: Training and Testing as Subjectification Practices (1900–1935)
  • Every Picture Tells a Story. Historical Research on Vocational Education and Training
  • Vocational Education: For Livelihood, Knowledge or Companionship?
  • Part Two: Cases
  • Policy for the Middle Classes vs. the Vichy Dictatorship. A Comparison of the Origins of State-Controlled Education for Workers in Germany and France
  • Seeking Models: Germany or France? Where the Paradise of Vocational Training was to be found in 1860–1940
  • Solving the Crisis. VET as an Economic Policy (France, from the Long Depression to the Second Oil Crisis)
  • Same, but different – The Emergence of VET in three Nordic Countries
  • Towards the Enhancement of School-Based VET in Finland
  • The Case of the Norwegian VET – Origins and Early Development 1860–1930
  • Modern Apprenticeship and Teknikcollege: Historical Roots of two Current Features of Swedish Vocational Education
  • The Development of Statistics in the VET Domain in Switzerland: Issues and Difficulties between 1880 and 1930
  • There Is No Outside to the System: Paternalism and Protest in Swiss Vocational Education and Training, 1950–1980
  • Schools for Workers? Industrial and Artistic Industrial Schools in Italy (1861–1913)
  • Part Three: Challenges
  • Educational Systems Research: Intention, Scope, Desiderata. A Vocational-Pedagogy and Historical Comment
  • The German VET System and Labour Market Segregation by Gender: A Historical Perspective
  • The Integration of Female-Dominated VET Programmes in Health and Social Care into the Common Collective Skills System in Norway
  • Comparison of Historical Development Pathways of Initial Vocational Education and Training in Lithuania and Germany: How Does History Matter for Policy Learning?
  • Explaining Diverging VET Systems and Approaches in the Post-War Construction Sector: The Examples of Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany
  • Evolution and Challenges of the Spanish VET System: From a School-Based to a Work-Based Approach
  • Permeability in Two-Year Training Occupations in Germany: From Basic Training to Promotion of Lifelong Learning – a View at Historical and Current Developments
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

← 10 | 11 →


Introduction to a History of Vocational Education and Training in Europe: Cases, Concepts and Challenges

Currently a growing education-political and scientific interest in vocational education may be stated. Increased by the recent economic crisis and the still urgent question of youth unemployment, on their search for solutions for the problem the responsible actors start looking beyond the borders at other, seemingly more successful systems of vocational education, at least when it comes to integration into the world of work. Accordingly, different systems of vocational education and their different success records attract interest in cross-country analyses.

However, what is happening today has indeed historical predecessors. Already in the 19th century there happened similar surveys, for the purpose of establishing systems of vocational education which were supposed to provide answers to economic and social challenges. At the same time this was the period when, in the course of lengthy negotiation and law-making processes, institutions of vocational education developed in the modern industrial states. Comparative research deals with the thus-connected mutual observation and transfer of successful models and concepts under terms such as “policy learning” and “policy borrowing”. And precisely in this context one has come to the conviction that without an analysis of the contexts of the historical creation and development of systems and their institutions as well as the positions of individual actors little can be said about which measures are adequate and provide opportunities for envisaged learning and transfer processes. Thus, also the question about the achievements of systems of vocational education, but also about the attractiveness of specific programmes, brings us back to the foundations which – as is the thesis of quite a number of the here compiled contributions – were laid most of all in the 19th century. ← 11 | 12 →

When it comes to the different systems of vocational education, there are a number of relevant analyses of various countries or regions, however many other studies are less known or hardly accessible to an international audience. Whereas some of them are decidedly theory- related, others are of a more descriptive nature or only inform implicitly about their theoretical foundations. This again makes it difficult to take notice of them and most of all to bring them together in a comparative way. For the editors of the here presented volume this was the reason why they organised a conference titled “A History of Vocational Education and Training: Cases, Concepts and Challenges” at the University of Zurich in September, 2014. The idea was to take up and continue a tradition of earlier conferences on the history of vocational education organised by the section of vocational and economic education of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Erziehungswissenschaft in the 1990s and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) which in Florence in 2002 organised the first international conference on the history of vocational education in Europe from a comparative perspective.

To complete the picture of historical developments in Europe, some specific country reports were added to the here presented publication. This way, for the first time there exists a compilation of depictions of the formation of systems of vocational education in Europe. However, the focus is on the Western European states which, among others, is due to the existence of an appropriate state of research on these countries. According to the crucial times when modern vocational education developed, several contributions take the 19th century as the starting point for their analyses, others start with the more recent changes after World War II, in the course of the educational expansion, and yet others start with the current trends towards a Europeanisation of education policy. This implies the statement that modern systems of vocational education are firstly characterised by school-based learning arrangements or the appropriate components and that secondly they developed most of all in national state contexts and are publicly or state-regulated. This is not meant to deny that there may also be competing models within one state and that other actors resulting from earlier developments may be involved in various ways, and this is indeed discussed in some of the ← 12 | 13 → contributions to this publication (e.g. on Switzerland; cf. Berner, Gonon & Imdorf in this volume).

The here presented volume does not claim to systematically compare different systems of vocational education. Rather, it is about providing an overview of different theory- and case-related perspectives which is supposed to for the first time explore the field of historical and historical-comparative educational research. In this context, the texts are organised according to three topical foci:

1. Concepts, discussing theoretical approaches towards vocational education and training (VET), particularly with regard to the development of national systems,

2. cases, stressing specific developments or problems of VET in a certain country or region, and

3. current challenges of VET which are analysed and contextualised from a historical perspective.

Under “cases”, apart from analyses of individual cases the reader will also find a number of comparative analyses which again reach back to theories discussed in the “concepts” section. This holds most of all for approaches from the field of historical institutionalism. The latter again is representative of the fruitful insights historical educational research has gained from the recent inclusion of a variety of political science and sociology theories, but also from more recent cultural studies and historical science methods. All contributions have the assumption in common that the view at historical institutions and processes contributes essentially to the scientific understanding of current VET regimes as well as to formulating strategies of problem solving. Precisely by the latter frame of reference it becomes evident that current challenges are sometimes very persistent. Friedhelm Schütte in his contribution points out to such a continuity, by giving the example of the relation of general and vocational education. This refers to a question which is furthermore reflected by the different concepts of “work” and “education” and their mutual relation in the context of the organisation of vocational education. Both concepts or “figures of thought” (Broberg in this volume) are to the same extent crucial for the configuration of vocational education as well as for its analysis and reform. Usually these ← 13 | 14 → conceptual-ideological guidelines as well as the political regimes they provide with legitimation have been growing over long periods of time, they are deeply culturally rooted and belong to a stable, overarching constitutional setting. Accordingly, several contributions indicate the difficulties reforms towards a dual, more company-based model face in those countries where apprenticeship is traditionally little prestigious and has a reputation of being a second-best solution. Despite these strong assumptions of culturally rooted stability, however, systems of vocational education can be changed. This can be demonstrated in particular by the development of the dual system itself (Gonon on Switzerland in this volume).


The contributions compiled in the first part of the volume provide insight into a number of current historical-reconstructive approaches of the international research on vocational education. Eric Verdier, who in a number of studies has made Luc Boltanski’s and Laurent Thévenot’s justification theory fruitful and has developed it further, presents a comparison of regimes of lifelong learning in France, Denmark and Great Britain. In this context he makes reference to the more recent past which has been influenced by supra-national policies, starting out from the EU or the OECD respectively. Thus there is the question of how the different states contextualise the model of lifelong learning driven on by the EU. To analyse these processes according to their national features, Verdier makes use of the concept of conventions as representations of the common good and basis for the legitimacy of rules. They prove to be crucial for the each specific configurations of institutions mediating between individuals, (vocational) educational system and labour market.

Marius Busemeyer develops his arguments by starting out from the observation that in the first half of the 20th century the structure and organisation of (vocational) educational systems in advanced industrial democracies show many common grounds. As it becomes obvious by the case examples of Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom, different development paths started accelerating most of all after World ← 14 | 15 → War II. The varieties of capitalism approach, which is emphasized by a particular focus on political parties and their influential role with policies of vocational education, proves to be guiding for an explanation of the differences of skills formation (education and training). Among others, the results demonstrate the specific role of the Christian Democrat parties. This holds not only for their ideology but also for their strategy of a policy of mediation which in Germany – in contrast to Great Britain – actively encouraged the formation of cross-class cooperation in the form of corporatist institutions and governance mechanisms.

Philipp Gonon’s explanations deal with a fundamental concept of path dependency starting out from the history of technology and economics and adopted by historical-political science as well as sociologic literature and in particular by historical institutionalism. This provides much more than just the insight that more recent developments are the result of historical events and (preliminary) decisions. Rather, the focus is on the phenomenon of a development path which proves to be stable even although the original claims which led to the foundation of a path are not those explaining the function of an institutional setting today. This, as it can be observed, is also true when it comes to the predominance of dual vocational education in Switzerland. Among the necessary adjustments resulting in continuous incremental change, the author underlines the significance of the introduction of the Swiss Federal Baccalaureate in 1993.

Mathias Götzl’s and Thilo Ketschau’s analysis of the development of the Commercial School of the Trade Hall in Gotha (Thuringia) between 1817 and 1902 is also a plea for more orienting the hermeneutics-based historical research of vocational education in the German-speaking countries at more recent social-sciences theories. Most of all they succeed with showing how the analytical use of theories and models of organizational sociology and neo-institutionalism may definitely be combined with a source-based bottom-up approach.

Austria in these days is characterised by a strong vocational education sector, with dual and all-day school-based vocational education coexisting, although these two approaches have historically developed from different contexts. Also reaching back to neo-institutionalist theories, Lorenz Lassnig analyses the development path towards this “dualist” VET system. Stating a long-term persistence of basic structures since ← 15 | 16 → the 19th century serves as the starting point. Thus, also this contribution is about the question of how change and stability can be grasped and explained in a conceptually appropriate way. In contrast to wide-spread narratives starting out from individual great reformers and their ideas, which sometimes pushed through and sometimes not, the lines of development he points out to indicate a “muddling through”, a policy of small steps and pragmatic decision-making. Starting out from this, his empirical analysis results in the question of in how far, in the concrete case, the delimitation between punctuated systematic change and critical junctures on the one hand and incremental change on the other, as it is frequent in historical institutionalism, is possible and reasonable e. g. by way of layering.

Eveline Wittmann refers to another tradition of social-sciences theories, by applying Max Weber’s concept of legitimacy to her analysis. Under the title “Vocational School Policy in the Context of Securing State Legitimacy” she analyses the consequences of the invasion of supra-national policies in the EU context into vocational education and thus into a sector whose structure was originally characterised by national ideas of legitimacy and was most of all supposed to contribute to nation building. The increasingly fragile shape of national state-based legitimacy, as is one important result, even affects the way in which actors at school level understand themselves and their everyday behaviour (e.g. new public management).

Referring to Swedish sociologist Johan Asplund, Asa Broberg makes the readers familiar with a, for the time being, little received “figures of thought” concept. Figures of thought – to be understood as mediators between the basic conditions of a society and its discourse – are underlying collective conceptions that provide meaning to the more pronounced statements or actions of a discourse. As a modification of the classic Marxist model, they represent figures of transition between base and superstructure. In the focus are the two figures of “work” and “school”. Referred to ideas and practices of Swedish vocational education between 1918 and 1971, the author shows shifts of the educational value attributed to learning in the work and the school context respectively. Instead of one-sidedly starting out from top-down processes, according to which institutional reforms change the educational practice, ← 16 | 17 → the example furthermore demonstrates that educational innovations are an important precondition for institutional change.

Yet another theory offer, i.e. Michel Foucault’s contribution to a theory of subjectivation, is made fruitful by Esther Berner in her contribution. It focusses on two essential practices in the context of vocational education, that is “training” and “testing”. In both fields there happens a cross-over of certain knowledge orders and kinds of power which here, with a focus on the early 20th century and while referring to concrete techniques and scientific discourses, are analysed from a genealogic perspective.

Manfred Wahle in his essay supports taking images into consideration as sources and suggests appropriate analysis methods. As a matter of fact, their previous neglect by the historical research of vocational education leaves a gap, as indeed the early public debate on vocational education happens precisely at the time of the appearance of photography and mass communication by way of posters, leaflets etc. Often the ideological components of historical discourses find clear expression by them. The author connects his plea for an assessment of the rich material to presenting the change and the current state of topics and questions as well as existing desiderata of the historical research of vocational education.

Also the contribution by Anja Heikkinen is based on a critical intention. She votes for overcoming hegemonial patterns of interpretation with their universalist claim of explanation in favour of a cross-cultural understanding building on historical contingencies and local demands. From a materialist point of view, the distinctiveness of vocational education in Finland, Britain and Germany might go back to wider struggles about aims and functions of education, which were vital in their geo-economic position.


If the contributions listed in the concepts chapter were characterised by a conceptual focus which, each according to the case, was related to countries or comparisons of countries or moved explicit theoretical concepts to the fore when it comes to the historical development ← 17 | 18 → of systems of vocational education, the foci on countries (France, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, Italy) rather represent national paths of education which move certain vocation education-political ideas and reform attempts to the fore.

The first three contributions, by Elisabeth Flitner, Gérard Bodé and Antoine Vernet, deal with the case of France. The low social recognition of dual vocational education – l’apprentissage – in France, even after a number of reform attempts, provides a common background. According to Flitner, both parents and young people consider it a refuge for underachievers and a political measure for unemployed youths. It may be supposed that also the attempts by the Vichy regime under German occupation of establishing this kind of vocational education or of enforcing it on the French educational system contributed to this reputation. Thus a consequential event comes into view which has been ignored by historiography, as from a long dureé perspective it seemed to be negligible. According to the contributor, there is accordingly a great need of research which beyond this also requires a combined study of sources of both German and French origin.

Bodé’s essay again demonstrates the pitfalls of “policy borrowing” when it comes to earlier attempts in France to establish a dualisation of vocational education according to the model of the German Fortbildungsschule (school of further education). In the focus are two exploration trips (1864/65, 1909) which, as Bodé assumes, served most of all for legitimating the reforms intended by the government. However, in the context of the French national and economic policies, in particular after the abandonment of corporatist structures in the course of the French Revolution, the introduction of obligatory training-accompanying courses of vocational education according to the Loi Astier (1919), which was passed for this purpose, was doomed to failure.

Vernet on the other hand focusses on the connection between educational support and crisis management in France’s more recent history, i.e. the use of vocational education as a tool of state intervention in favour of economic promotion. The policy of supplying certain sectors of the economy with workforce during the Great Depression or the integration of young people at risk into the labour market during the Oil Crisis may also be given as examples of the low prestige of this kind ← 18 | 19 → of education in France. Furthermore, based on archive research in the District of Saint-Etienne, it can also be shown how in all analysed crisis situations political action was characterised by the necessity to coordinate national politics with local resources and changing actors.

Christian Helms Jørgensen, Svein Michelsen, Jonas Olofsson, Jonas and Daniel Persson Thunqvist present a comparison of the countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden in the period of establishing their different systems of vocational education between ca. 1850 and 1945. All three countries made attempts to re-regulate apprenticeship following the deregulations caused by the dissolution of the guilds. Today Denmark may be characterised by way of the strong position of dual vocational education, Sweden by way of the almost complete disappearance of this kind of education, and finally Norway by way of the complete integration of vocational training courses into higher secondary education. The authors point out to national differences, firstly when it comes to the organisation of the labour markets and secondly when it comes to the role of the then established vocational schools either as a completion of work-based learning or independent of or competing with the traditional apprenticeship system as the crucial factors for these different development paths. Concerning the organisation of the labour markets, it seems to be of great significance whether, at an early stage, alliances around vocational education and training were formed between the organisations of manufacturing industry and crafts associations.

The contribution by Marja-Leena Stenström and Maarit Virolainen provides an overview of the development of the Finnish system of vocational education as far as to the current school-based model. The authors focus on the most recent efforts of connecting school-based education more closely with the world of work. Due to the academic drift of the 1990s, these efforts prove to be increasingly necessary. This trend, resulting in more emphasis on general education contents, results from the need to establish a possibility to connect to higher education (universities of applied sciences). Considering the growing influx into VET programmes in Finland in recent years, one may speak of a success. However, there is still the problem of high drop-out rates. Obviously additional efforts are required when it comes to dealing with the heterogeneous student populations attracted by these programmes. ← 19 | 20 →

Svein Michelsen deals intensively with the beginnings and the early development of vocational education in Norway. Compared to its neighbouring countries of Sweden and Denmark, Norway is some-what in between. The Norwegian trajectory combines traits from the two other systems (Sweden, which developed an alternative full-time, school-based VET-system with close links to the system of general education, and Denmark’s apprenticeship-system with close links to the labour market) (see Jorgensen et al. in this volume). Decisive was a strong laissez-faire orientation based on liberal principles during the early phase of industrialisation and the tensions between the crafts sector, domestic industry and the emerging export industries. Also there it proves to be relevant most of all if at an early stage alliances around vocational education and training were formed between the organisations of manufacturing industry and crafts associations. This was not the case, and growing collective action problems could not be overcome by the liberal state. Thus, VET policies were somehow disconnected from welfare policies. Education policies were more attuned to nation building and general education than to vocational training. VET remained a double periphery, subjected to marginalisation processes both of the industrial relations system and the educational system – a hallmark which, in the language of the varieties of capitalism theory, is often associated with liberal skills formation systems.

The contribution by Tobias Karlsson, Fay Lundh and Anders Nilsson deals with two innovative models of vocational education which have recently appeared in Sweden: “modern apprenticeship” (2008) and “Teknikcollege” (2004) While the former has met considerable difficulties, the latter is successful. Both result from more recent initiatives to increase the participation of companies in a state-characterised skills formation system. In the course of their analysis of the reasons for the different degree of success of the two models the authors refer to earlier forms of VET, traditional apprenticeship and industrial schools respectively, which were also based on the involvement of companies. The traditionally low prestige of apprenticeship proves to be a historical constant, thus also influencing the model of “modern apprenticeship”. Furthermore the construct this model is based on, with apprentices being students, not employees, and education and training ← 20 | 21 → being controlled by school authorities, does not encourage companies and trade unions to participate actively. This is in stark contrast to the concept of the Teknikcollege which is based on regional networks and was initiated by an employers’ association and the metal workers’ union. There is an emphasis on the learning environment, with a strong connection between reality and “down-to-earth” learning. However, the Teknikcollege is relatively marginal and it remains an open question if it could be scaled up to challenge the state system.

By the example of Switzerland, the contribution by Lorenzo Bonoli deals with a previously rather neglected research topic, that is the conditions under which the statistics on vocational education developed – today a crucial tool for steering economic and education policies. The federal structure of Switzerland contributed to the process of establishing national statistics in this field being extremely lengthy – it took until 1935. But not only Swiss federalism or technical difficulties can be made responsible for this, in particular the ambiguity of the crucial category of the apprentice must be mentioned here. The problems of defining the apprentice as a learner or a worker, which occurred also at the level of law-making since the end of the 19th century until the first federal law on vocational education, made the categorisation and thus the recording of the “species” of the apprentice a difficult task.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 604 pp., 16 b/w ill., 6 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Esther Berner (Volume editor) Philipp Gonon (Volume editor)

Esther Berner is a reasearch associate at the University of Zurich, Chair of of Vocational Education and Training. In 2010 she received her PhD from the University of Zurich with a thesis in the field of 18th-century school history. From 2012 to 2015 she held an interim professorship for Education Theory and Research at the University of Potsdam. Her research interests focus on the history of education, including VET, discourse history of pedagogical theories, knowledge and practices. Philipp Gonon is Professor of Vocational Education and Training at Zurich University, where he teaches vocational pedagogy, history and theory of (vocational) education, quality assurance and program evaluation at graduate and undergraduate level. From 1986 until 1992 he was research assistant and lecturer at the Institute of Pedagogy of the University of Bern. From 1999 until 2004 he served as a Full University Professor of Vocational Further Education at the University of Trier in Germany.


Title: History of Vocational Education and Training in Europe