Vocational Education Trainers need vaccination priority – economic recovery may depend on it

Jan 28, 2021

Face-to-face teaching is vital for VET students, who are often from a lower socio-economic background and are most affected by the digital divide. As getting them back into the classrooms is a priority, their trainers should also be considered a priority group for the Covid-19 vaccine. 

The Australian Government has produced a clear set of guidelines on the country’s vaccination priorities, but teachers and trainers do not appear on the list as a separate occupational group.

“Should we re-think who gets the vaccine first,” asks ABC’s Dr Norman Swan in an RN Coronacast episode (22 January 2021), adding the possibility of teachers, supermarket staff and other frontline workers.

Last week, the ACT Australian Education Union (AEU) called on the ACT Government to negotiate prioritised vaccine rollout for its membership: “We’re not looking to kick anyone else back down the queue – but we are an essential service, we proved that in 2020,” said AEU ACT secretary Glenn Fowler, given that teachers work “face-to-face with the community” in the same way as frontline workers.

Evidence is piling up. In December, UNICEF called “for teachers to be prioritised to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, once frontline health personnel and high-risk populations are vaccinated”. The British education union also advocated for the inclusion of teachers because “teachers and education staff are unable to practise social distancing from their pupils and few are provided with essential PPE”. Most US states are now giving teachers some priority.

Despite Australia’s blessedly low rate of infection and the beginnings of a strong economic recovery, we still have an unemployment rate just below 7%, with only two thirds of full-time jobs lost in the recession yet restored.

The Federal Government has made a strong commitment to training, investing heavily through its JobTrainer program; the coming weeks will see a major increase in training as the states and territories roll out 2021 training with a target of 320,000 new places – a major strategy to achieve national economic recovery.

Can it be achieved? “Most VET study has a practical, hands-on or workplace component to the learning. The ability to complete the practical component of VET units/awards has been affected by Covid-19 and associated requirements for social distancing,” writes Professor Natalie Brown.

Unlike Australian universities – almost all of which had ready-made online systems prior to the arrival of the epidemic – most training providers have had to “make do” with a mixture of blended, online and socially distanced face-to-face learning.

Australian VET has long had an over-representation of students from lower socio-economic background, in part driven by higher participation from regional and rural students. People from low socio-economic backgrounds also tend to undertake lower-level qualifications, and are exactly the students who miss out most from a move to remote and online learning, in part from the “digital divide” and reduction in the high level learning engagement available in classroom environments. If vaccinating aged care and disability workers is a high priority, so is training them at Certificate III (in which Australia’s community education providers excel), so let’s maintain that capacity with healthy trainers.

This is also important for adult basic education, or “foundation skills” (Certificate levels I and II). The Productivity Commission’s recently released National Workforce Agreement report places foundation skills as a high national priority, noting that it requires “well designed outreach” to vulnerable, unconfident and disengaged learners. That’s not achieved through online learning.

Up to three million Australians – one in five adults – lack literacy and numeracy skills for the basic needs of modern life. Reaching these Australians – incorporating them into modern economic, social and civic life – cannot be done online: real people in real places need to teach them. Let’s give these adult learners the start they need and ensure that foundation skills and other essential workforce trainers will remain healthy and capable to sustain Australia’s future.

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