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What does it mean in Curriculum Terms for Education to Prepare People for Work? By Stephanie Allais and Yael Shalem

By Stephanie Allais and Yael Shalem, Centre for Researching Education and Labour, University of the Witwatersrand.

boardIt is widely believed that at all levels education should prepare individuals for work, and this belief seems to grow proportionately with rising levels of youth unemployment. And yet there is no consensus about what knowledge is required at work, or about the best ways of developing such knowledge, and the role of formal education in this regard.

If social justice is important, and where occupational qualifications (vocational or professional) are offered, there must be some basis for thinking that the curricula of such qualifications empower those enrolled for them. It seems self-evident that some curricula—the knowledge selected and sequenced in any programme of learning—seem better able than others at preparing for work—helping people to access work, doing well at work, doing work well, and doing work which does good.

But research within the field of curriculum does not offer simple solutions—there is no agreement about the extent to which it should be based on bodies of disciplinary knowledge or subjects, and, particularly where practical skills are involved, the best ways in which these should be taught. Within educational debates there is a strong position that education institutions can best prepare people for work (or indeed just for the ‘real world’) by mimicking the workplace as far as possible, by ensuring that education is focused on ‘real life’ situations and problems. This is somewhat ironic as it seems to undermine what could have been the value of education in the first place—presumably the reason education is specifically valued, and that there is increasing demand for education from people around the world, is that it offers something different than simply learning from experience.

One approach is to look at professional knowledge, because professions offer forms of decent employment; professionals do good work; they are reliable to a reasonable extent. They improve society (at least some of them). They are not based purely on narrow self-interest. The employment relationship is not a purely commodified one. There is an intrinsic sense of value and worth. But we then become trapped in a circular problem: something is only a profession to the extent that it has a strong knowledge base. It only has a strong knowledge base to the extent that it is a profession.

Further, there are many forms of work today which are knowledge-based in various ways, but which do not enjoy the autonomy, status, and high salaries traditionally enjoyed by the professions, perhaps partly due to lack of control over the knowledge-base of their work but also due to power relations in labour markets and workplaces. There are also many forms of work which are high status and which enjoy high forms of social rewards, and enable high degrees of autonomy, but which are not based on powerful bodies of knowledge.

Part of the reason for the lack of clarity is that we are looking in the wrong place: relationships between curriculum, qualifications, labour markets, and work, are complex, and more contingent than is often assumed. So what has worked well in the past may not work well in the present. Also, when one aspect of a system which has ostensibly good education/labour market relationships is transplanted from one context to another, it may fail because what appeared to be a key ingredient is in fact a secondary one.

The difficulty with this area of investigation is that in the process of thinking about occupational curricula and occupational knowledge, whether vocational or professional, we are likely to, and I think often do, fall into the trap of not knowing enough about the various different factors which influence the relationships between education and work, specifically in relation to the labour market and in relation to economic and social development. It is widely accepted that many occupational qualifications don’t help workers. And there is a general discourse of dissatisfaction about graduates, whether of vocational or professional qualifications, even where they do gain employment. This is at least in part a curriculum problem, but if we are going to design curricula which are able to contribute to solving it, we must be able to separate out the ways in which, and the extent to which, it is a curriculum problem.

A key conceptual question in this regard is: what needs to be theorized in order to examine relationships between education and work? I suggest that at a very broad-brush stroke level there are three key areas of theoretical debate, all of which are complex and contested in their own right:

  1. Knowledge and work (debates about the role of theoretical knowledge, powerful knowledge, professional knowledge, generic skills, learning at work and from experience, skills and competence)
  2. Education and development (debates about the political economy of skill formation systems, the role of skill formation systems in social and economic development and vice versa)
  3. Labour market (debates about divisions of labour within and between occupations, about how people access labour markets and how they are rewarded in labour markets).

None are static, and all affect each other. Attempting to investigate these relationships, and find meta-tools to bring the different areas together within coherent analyses, is the subject of a research project currently underway at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour, and a symposium taking place in February 2016 at the University of the Witwatersrand which will bring together political economists, labour theorists, and educationalists, to share ideas and research findings.


Stephanie Allais is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The research on which this piece draws was conducted with Carmel Marock and Siphelo Ngcwangu from the REAL Centre. Email:  

Yael Shalem is an Associate Professor of Education at the Division of Curriculum in the Wits School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand. Currently she is co-leading a professional knowledge project, based at the REAL Centre at Wits. Email:

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,300 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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4 Responses

  1. I think this discussion is a little narrow. The quote “It is widely believed that at all levels education should prepare individuals for work’ is not supported by any evidence. Surely education should prepare young people for life – where paid work may be a component. They will need a range of life skills and the 21 st century skills of communication, cooperation and collaboration. Lets not be shackled by education models of the past – young people learn a lot through social media and less through formal education. There needs to be a real revolution in thinking what education is for, what education needs to provide and how this can be managed, given a more digital future.

  2. Kate Kenny

    Interesting blog which links to a forthcoming research project from the Centre for Researching Education and Labour. Might be something for us to keep an eye on.

  3. Mike Douse

    If education should prepare people for work then maybe work should prepare them for retirement which, in turn, should prepare them for death.

    No. Education is an end of itself. It is for being rather than becoming, for the certain ‘now’ rather than the hypothetical ‘when’. Please refer to ‘Education for Enjoyment’ by

    Mike Douse

    1. Ray Ryan

      Mr. Douse, The notion that “education is an end in itself” is wrong, it is a wonderful and hopefully exciting means to many ends.

      It is a dynamic lifelong process that occurs within each persons entire life, sometimes formal and sometimes informal.

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