When my colleague Oliver Hartwich first tried explaining the German school system to me, he might as well have been speaking German. It seemed entirely foreign.

Germany’s vocational education system, like some others in Europe, combines on-the-job training with study for many teenagers who would be sitting their first year of NCEA in New Zealand.

In March, I travelled to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark to learn about their approaches to vocational training.

New Zealand has vocational training. But what happens in secondary school  before students start a vocational programme matters. The difference between our system and their systems was striking.

While New Zealand secondary schooling is generally comprehensive from age 13 onwards, the European counterparts are split into different types of secondary schools.

German ten-year-olds finishing primary school enrol in one of three types of high schools.

Gymnasiums are for students wishing to pursue a traditional academic curriculum over eight years in preparation for university study.

Realschules also offer an academic curriculum, but with fewer subjects. After five years, the students can either transfer into a Gymnasium or pursue vocational training.

Finally, the Hauptschules provide training in academic subjects similar to those at the Realschule, but at a slower pace. At the end of five years those students can also head to a vocational school.

This is by no means the end of their education though. Instead, it marks the point of transition from the compulsory school system into the ‘dual vocation education’ system.

The typical German fourteen-year-old who is not at a Gymnasium will be supported to choose a vocational profession and to find an apprenticeship to begin when they complete high school the following year.

So, while European youth have clear post-school pathways, their counterparts here learn about options, typically, in one of two ways. Either in a piecemeal fashion depending on the quality of the career advisors or when they suddenly realise they have no idea what to do next.

Likely as a result, the average age of an apprentice in New Zealand is 26 years-old compared to 19 years-old in the European countries.

An Education Ministry staff here said, ‘it is like a maze, it is a wonder how young people can navigate the smorgasbord.’

Martine Udahemuka is a Research Fellow at The New Zealand Initiative working on education policy. 

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