Susanne Nielsen

GRETA: The peer learning network helping vocational education go green!

There can be no green transition without skills - lots of skills! Some of those skills we have, but many of them we don’t have in the quantities we need. Promoting the development of such skills is one of the main objectives of the European Training Foundation (ETF), the EU agency that helps countries in the EU’s neighbouring regions to develop human capital through innovation in education, training and work. GRETA[1] is the ETF’s initiative helping vocational education and training (VET) respond to the challenges that are arising as the green and digital transition gathers momentum.

The first phase of GRETA started in 2021. A core group of 17 institutions from Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey and Ukraine conducted self-assessments to evaluate their own progress with the greening of VET. At the same time, they learned from and with peers in small groups. Some went on to develop green action plans. In the current, second phase of GRETA, good practice is shared among the active participants of GRETA and the wider ETF Network for Excellence (ENE). 

In a very short period, GRETA has become a recognised global development partnership, with strategic partners in the form of the European Commission (through DG Employment) and UNESCO (through UNEVOC). During the European Vocational Skills Week in May 2022, GRETA received a special mention as part of the Vocational Excellence Award.

A tough start

Coordinating the GRETA programme is ETF’s Susanne Nielsen, the green skills expert in the Policy and Programming Unit and also country liaison for Ukraine.  As she introduces herself, Nielsen underscores her commitment to the dynamic green network, pointing out, ‘I’m very passionate about what we do in GRETA.’

GRETA didn’t exactly get off to a flying start, considering that at the launch in October 2021, eight of the 17 participating institutions were in Ukraine – by far the largest group among the eight different countries.  ‘On the very day the war broke out, we had our last peer review session planned,’ Nielsen says.

‘One of the VET providers called in and said: “Sorry, we cannot participate. Our country is at war." Already then, after the initial peer reviews and action plans had been drawn up, we decided to slightly change our approach.’

‘Moving into the next phase of six thematic sessions, we opened up GRETA to the entire ENE network of more than 270 VET providers and training centres from some 40 different countries.' That proved to be an advantage both to GRETA and the ENE network as a whole, and huge admiration was extended to the Ukrainian partners who, in spite of all the challenges, managed to join most of the sessions.

‘With the core group, we had developed a sound methodology for peer reviewing. It was hugely motivating to exchange solutions with colleagues who were facing the same problems, even though they were working out of different frameworks. Learning from peers works so much better than having an expert drop by to tell you what to do. And this, despite the fact that everything happened online, including the visits.’

The urgency of the need for green skills also means that institutions west and east, north and south, can cooperate on a much more equal footing than we normally see in international VET cooperation. This also shows in the lists of participants of the big GRETA meetings, which feature many EU institutions.

‘There is so much eagerness to learn from each other. It still blows me away. This, for me, has been the greatest encouragement coming out of GRETA.’


GRETA is not just a programme promoting green curriculum development. It applies a whole institutional approach to the greening of VET.  ‘We need to include all dimensions of skills delivery,’ says Nielsen. ‘In GRETA, we look at five interlinked elements.’

‘The first is the management. It is crucial that the school, walks the talk. There needs to be a clean strategy for the school as a whole. The second is the greening of curricula and the training programmes. This is the most obvious, but we think of it as only one of the five basic elements.'

‘The third element is teachers’ continuous professional development. At the moment, this seems to be a fundamental barrier hampering progress. The fourth is stakeholder engagement. VET providers need to engage in new ways with what we call green skills eco-systems - with universities, research institutions, but also with enterprises for apprenticeships, with NGOs and indeed with civil society. The last dimension is funding. When we have national and regional strategies that embrace the green transition, it is crucial that skills development is budgeted for. This may sound obvious, but it not always the case.’

GRETA has been extremely well received at the participating VET centres, but the will to change at training institutions has proven to not always be a guarantee for success.

‘We can see that the VET system itself is often the toughest barrier for skills development for the green transition. Systemic changes need to be made for the VET system to be able to respond swiftly to changing skills needs.’

One crucial requirement for an agile response to rapidly changing training demands is a certain level of autonomy in course and programme development. Often national VET systems are eternally playing catch-up, simply because the speed of change is too fast. In such cases, autonomy allowing schools to adapt fast to local needs is imperative. Defining the level of autonomy of schools, however, is typically the prerogative of the authorities. Therefore, GRETA uses lessons learnt to address policymakers.

‘GRETA covers analysis, peer reviews and capacity building, but we also use all the new knowledge and best practice that we gather to develop policy advice in the hope that we can also change the frameworks in which these schools operate.’

‘In fact, while we’re on the topic of the broader impact of GRETA, our methodology is now being looked at by donor organisations as a foundation for much broader VET reform programmes. GRETA will also be represented at the DG Employment stand of the Green Week in Brussels in June. Here we will focus on skills for the green transition. Eventually we hope to be present at the Skills Pavilion of COP 28 too. There is a lot of excitement and interest for what we do in GRETA among experienced partner organisations. This is great.’

‘GRETA shows unequivocally that peer learning works. We have participants from all over the world, and I can see that they all have the same questions. The framework is different, but the basic issues are the same. This is what makes it so interesting to work with such a global network.’

Looking forward

GRETA is an ongoing initiative under the ETF Network for Excellence. A lot of activities have been lined up for the near future.

‘On 26 April, we have our next GRETA thematic session. Here we will be looking into the green future. We will virtually visit a top-notch research centre, the Danish Technological Institute, visit their labs and look at their green technologies.’

‘From there, GRETA will zoom in on some critical sectors, such as energy efficiency and construction. Linking these to the digital transition, we will also look into smart cities. We will unwrap the skill needs that we see and then together with the ENE network look into challenges and good practice. So again, we will work with our partners and together co-design sessions for the future.’

‘Then of course in May we will have the launch of the European Year of Skills and GRETA activities are going to tie into that, beginning with our presence during the Green Week in Brussels.’

‘While we will continue our work with the institutions, we will separately extend the group of partners in the policy direction because, as we said earlier, if we want to move forward, we will also need systemic changes too.’

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More information

European Vocational Skills Week 2022 - Highlights