International Self-Assessment Tool for Centres of Vocational Excellence - ISATCOVE - is here!

The ETF's digital platform offering in-depth analysis to VET providers

The imminent launch of a new self-assessment tool for vocational and educational training centres will be a key focus of an ETF conference taking place this week gathering together representatives from centres of vocational excellence (CoVEs) and policy makers from the ETF partner countries and beyond.

The event aims to share and discuss with the participants the results of the EU-funded project 'The international dimension of centres of vocational excellence' implemented by the ETF and outcomes of the work of the ETF's Network for Excellence (ENE) thematic initiatives, with a focus on 'Entrepreneurial CoVEs' and the 'Digitalisation of teaching and learning'.

More information on the conference can be found here.

ISATCOVE - short for “International Self-Assessment Tool for CoVEs (“centres of vocational excellence”) – is the digital platform that offers an in-depth analysis to VET providers so that they can review their development, practises, progress and aspirations.

The tool has been designed by the ETF with the support of an inclusive Consultation Panel made up of representatives of international and national VET associations, national ministries, Erasmus+ projects, donors, EQAVET (the European Quality Assurance in Vocational Education and Training) and ETF’s Network for Excellence (ENE).

“The idea”, says Julian Stanley, ETF’s expert who has spear-headed the development of ISATCOVE, “is to get away from a crude comparison between the excellent and the rest, we want to help centres to interrogate what excellent practice consists of and set developmental targets.”

“Often,” he says, “the trap is that if you focus on excellence, it becomes divisive, it distinguishes an elite. Some people get money, for example, others don't. Our work is to transmit, multiply and sustain excellence for everyone.”

ISATCOVE uses a framework of 23 criteria, grouped under the three main headings of Teaching and Learning, Partnership and Cooperation and Governance and Funding.

“We've erred on the side of the comprehensive”, says Stanley, “expanding Erasmus+’s 20 key activities into 23 in consultation with schools. We’ve unpacked those indicators to show schools what they’re doing and what they have achieved.” Those headline criteria are then granulated into 577 descriptions of activities.

A key aspect of the platform is that, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach, it is flexible, with each user able to tailor it to their specific circumstances: VET centres can select the criteria and indicators most relevant to them, in order to isolate and evaluate specific aspects of their activities.

“It’s not always easy to capture practice in bare and skeletal descriptions”, says Stanley, “so we resisted the idea of generating a simple score. We wanted schools to think more deeply, so we’ve created a tool that helps centres gather and organise evidence – but we expect them to reflect and evaluate this evidence.”.

“If a centre feels it is weak on some aspect, it can select that criteria, look at the indicators, at all the good practices in the database and see how other people are doing things. It widens their horizons about what they could be doing”.

“They might set a target and come back in a couple of years. The tool encourages them to get different perspectives from people within the school, but also from stakeholders - employers, parents, local government people - to get their thoughts. That creates consensus.”

Adrijana Hodak, Head of Intercompany training centre at Šolski center in Nova Gorica (Slovenia), was one of those involved in the consultation process. The Šolski center is Slovenia’s third-largest VET centre, with 3,000 learners spread across almost all vocational areas: mechanical engineering, transport, wood processing, computer science, energetics, agriculture, catering, gardening, cooking, healthcare and so on.

“The ISATCOVE tool will be very important”, says Hodak, “because it gives us a kind of guidance as to what to improve. It helps a school be responsive and agile, taking the right actions for the various transitions and making the right impact in our communities, for people and for the planet.”

Hodak welcomes the way in which ISATCOVE offers a chance for detailed self-reflection: “It can develop the culture of data-driven decision-making. It can stimulate and develop the culture of constant feedback of all involved… it will help identify the gaps in the processes we manage and force us in more strategic, holistic decisions, giving us information on gaps regarding teachers’ and management’s professional development, on the stakeholder ecosystem. It will enable us to shape more learner-centred approach and provisions…”

Another organisation involved in the development of ISATCOVE was EVTA, the European Vocational Training Association. “It was natural for us to be involved”, says EVTA’s Director and Secretary-General Giulia Meschino, “because our overarching objective is to support the internationalisation of education and training, and to foster qualitative training connected to educational excellence.”

ISATCOVE, she enthuses, offers “a framework of reference to understand strengths but, more importantly, the weaknesses, allowing each training centre to see where they can improve, what they can aspire to.”

It’s an initiative that builds and improves on similar projects in the past: UNESCO’s Unevoc (International Centre for Technical and Vocational and Educational Training) piloted a self-reflection tool, the BILT project (Bridging Innovation and Learning in TVET). And SOLITY was a VET social utility tool launched in January 2018 with funding from Erasmus+.

All of these tools looked not only at educational provision but also at its wider repercussions: the social impact of training centres, their effect on inclusion, equality, sustainability and employability.

Meschino admits that there are challenges to the acceptance of another assessment tool. “Nowadays we all receive so many surveys every day. Many of us are bored of being asked to provide feedback. What’s the motive for educational centres to get involved? With ISATCOVE there’s a real benefit that VET providers can receive, which is improving their training delivery and being recognised as a centres of vocational excellence. They can become leaders, earn recognition and inspire people around them.”

Adrijana Hodak particularly admires the way in which ISATCOVE has “a multi-dimensional approach”: “the situation of VET providers is quite chaotic at the moment. There are so many challenges and everything is happening so fast.” There are many moving parts, she suggests, and each change affects all the other areas of educational provision.

“It’s a kind of waterfall”, she says. “If you introduce new skills and competences, you not only influence the new programme, but also influence how you teach and how you learn… and if you change the way of teaching and learning, you’ll need to adapt the partnership collaboration, the governance and so on. Now, for the first time we now have a tool that measures the processes within an holistic approach.”

The speed at which change and transitions are currently occurring makes analytical tools all the more important. “Just look how much has changed in the last few months”, says Hodak. “Then there are the green and digital transitions. It’s very difficult to talk about priorities because everything is a priority.”

But that’s precisely why she believes ISATCOVE is coming at a vital time. “It’s a kind of guidance”, she says. “You start seeing that everything is connected. It’s not only about the tool, but about the process, and about establishing a resilient community that is eager to learn how to learn.”

An integral part of that process is “accepting the critical and establishing the healthy culture of feedback”. That openness to self-reflection, and a desire to improve constantly, is what creates exemplary education. “A Centre of Vocational Excellence needs to be responsive”, says Hodak, “it needs to be adaptable, to think about solutions, problem solving and so on.”

Another aspect of the ISATCOVE initiative is the development of a formal benchmarking system. “We’ve developed a proposal”, says Stanley, “for two formal recognitions of excellence. Schools who seek to improve would get a label (“Committed to Excellence”), whilst those who have reached certain heights, through an external validation, would get another label (“Achieving Excellence”).

“We’re very happy with this development”, says Meschino. “This is something that has been strongly advocated by VET providers, a bottom-up demand for a label that helps them be recognised for excellence. It is, for sure, a matter of prestige, but not only. It’s something that they can display to demonstrate that they comply with certain types of standards.”

Meschino predicts that such recognitions will enable VET providers to become “pioneers in their local communities. They are likely to become drivers not only towards vocational excellence but also of social and economic growth.”

“When you get that kind of label”, says Hodak, “it’s always good promotion for you. It opens doors.” But Hodak is keen that any benchmarking system gains recognition from member states. “This label needs to be promoted at all levels. It can’t only be bottom-up, it needs to be top-down. It doesn’t matter if there’s a new recognition at grass-roots and European levels, if it isn’t endorsed in between, at the national level also.”

Benchmark initiatives often foster competition between applicants, but it’s noticeable that ISATCOVE deliberately attempts to nurture collaboration and a collegiate approach to improvement. “There’s a lot of evidence”, says Stanley, “that it's easier to do this work together, that it’s more productive to work with other centres and collectively self-assess in a collaborative way. We’ve built a tool that permits you to do that”.

“It’s a gift to peer-activity”, says Meschino, “a unique framework to inspire and improve.”

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