Vocational education: between schools and companies, a complex story


What part should the company take in the vocational training of young people? The question is not new, nor are the demands for a match between the courses offered and the needs of companies.

There are many relationships between schools and companies. Putting it into perspective makes it possible to identify the great diversity of experiences over time. And this story is a source of reflection as yet another and contested reform of vocational education is underway in France.

If the creation of schools in certain factories can already be identified in the 18th century , the second half of the 19th century saw attempts intensify to introduce the workshop into the school, develop schools for apprentices or question the limits on-the-job learning.

We cannot claim to give an exhaustive account of all the situations, given the great variety of companies, their sectors of activity or the resources they can and want to devote to the vocational training of young people. However, since the beginning of the 20th century , three configurations can be discerned in their relationship with the school. These reflect a sedimentation and interweaving of conceptions and practices in which different actors assert themselves unequally.

The persistence of on-the-job learning

On the threshold of the 20th century , many actors and observers are worried about a “learning crisis” linked to technical changes, the expansion of new economic sectors, transformations in the organization of companies .

The law of July 25, 1919, known as the Astier law , generally seen as the founding act of technical education in France, introduced a training obligation for companies and their workforce. Young girls and boys under the age of 18 employed in commerce and industry must take courses organized by companies, municipalities, chambers of commerce, chambers of trade or professional associations.

Although this provision is unequally respected, it lays the foundations for an alternation inspired by what is practiced in certain German Länder. It also identifies the issue of a qualitative improvement of the apprenticeship practiced in many companies. The creation of the apprenticeship tax, in 1925, and the development of the professional aptitude certificate (CAP) created in 1911 and consolidated in the law of 1919, provide levers for regulating apprenticeship by the administration of technical education.

Vocational schools

From the beginning of the 20th century , preparation for the trade, whether general or specialized, took other forms than this apprenticeship in the field. Thus, the introduction of manual work in the primary school of the Third Republic is done without direct link with the companies, with the exception of donations of material allowing to equip the classes, possibly of visits. Schools of arts and trades, practical schools of commerce and industry or even national professional schools , which welcome students after the end of compulsory education set at 13 years, and even 16 years for some, dedicate a sometimes preponderant part of the work in the workshop.

The links between companies and these schools are often close: financial support, participation of company representatives in establishment improvement committees or examination boards (CAP in particular), school visits to companies, placement at the end of the training. The achievements are multiple and sometimes ambitious, anxious to testify to the interest of the Republic for the working class.

The birth of a mass professional education is located especially during and after the Second World War, through the centers of apprenticeship. It is time for the “education of apprenticeships” , to use Antoine Prost’s expression, even if many young girls and boys enter the labor market at the end of compulsory schooling.

With the extension of schooling up to 16 years, decided in 1959, many companies, including large firms such as Schneider, the SNCF or Renault, outsourced the training of young people, and relied on technical education colleges in closing their own schools. The affirmation of the school standard tends to relegate the students most in difficulty to vocational education – whereas previously they left school at 13, then 14 from 1936 –, with a prospect of entry fast in working life.

To define the programs, the advisory professional commissions constitute, sector by sector, a place of construction and definition of the diplomas where employers and employees are represented under the crook, most often, of civil servants of the National Education.

The rise of a pedagogy of alternation

The trend towards bringing together apprenticeship courses, under contract, and vocational high school courses, under school status, can be measured by the growing share of time spent in apprentice training centers (CFA) for the former, in business for the seconds.

Created in 1966 and reinforced by the 1971 law on apprenticeship, the CFAs are a place for experimenting with work-study training, despite varying rhythms given the diversity of their managing bodies, the human and financial resources available and the variations in the economic dynamism of the sectors of activity for which they train young people.

The implementation of a work-study program in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the development of shared reference systems between schools and companies, the development of the inspection function of apprenticeship as well as by the function of head of works in vocational high schools. From the 1970s and especially from the 1980s, the will expressed by the National Council of French Employers (CNPF, ancestor of the Medef), to set up the company as a real place of training. At the same time, decentralization transfers part of the competence for vocational education and learning to the regional level.

Local authorities have long played a major role. From now on, companies and their representatives, regional executives and State administrations as well as training establishments and their staff, must seek, at different levels (local, regional, national), ways of working together.

It is impossible to explain the recent history of vocational high schools without integrating apprenticeship: the law of September 5, 2018 for the freedom to choose one’s professional future , and the strong political voluntarism for the increase in the number of apprentices thanks to public aid, are part of the same logic as the reform of the vocational high school initiated in 2022. In both cases, the highlighting of the needs of companies sometimes tends to eclipse the logic of training: the center of gravity of this system is fragile, likely to shift with reforms whose implications are unevenly anticipated.

The revision of the training map, the increase in the place of training periods in the professional environment and the introduction of a “business office” within the framework of the current reform are part of a long history of relations between business and school. Should this be seen as the end of a “school parenthesis” that began a little over a century ago? The entanglement of achievements and failures of learning had motivated increased state involvement at the beginning of the 20th century  . Against the backdrop of political and financial choices, the succession of reforms and “relaunch” of vocational education over the past 40 yearsgives the measure of the constant difficulty in reconciling – and prioritizing – educational, social and economic goals.

Author Bio: Stephane Lambre is Lecturer in contemporary history, INSPE at the University of Lille