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Project 8.4. Collaborations Between Schools and Workplaces across two Centuries


Aim of the project

Since the abolition of the guilds around 1800, the system of Vocational Education and Training (VET) has gone through a series of reforms (Bruijn, Billett and Onstenk 2017). There are serious concerns about the current state and attractiveness of this crucial sector of the economy, in the Netherlands (SER 2013) as well as internationally (OECD 2014). One important cause of this concern is the fragility of the collaboration between schools and the workplace. The objective of the project is to chart the changing forms of collaboration between schools and workplaces, and analyse the impact of this collaboration on recruitment patterns and labour market success in different craft sectors within these various VET “regimes” since the early 19th century.

Theoretical background

VET is, numerically, the most important form of secondary education in the early decades of the 21stcentury, but also one of the most complex, and one of the most neglected in the academic literature. One of the major complexities of VET is the necessary collaboration between schools and employers. Manual skills can only be learned in the workplace. Before 1800 this was no problem, because guild masters trained their own apprentices. Since the abolition of the guilds around 1800, schools have been charged with VET, but they still need the workplace as the actual training environment. This is a particularly important issue for occupations that require high levels of manual skill (‘crafts’). 

It is estimated that currently almost 800,000 people work in the Dutch craft economy and that its value-added is over 100 billion euros (SER 2013, 14). Traditionally, craft workers were educated and subsequently organised in guilds. Around 1800 these were abolished in the Netherlands (under pressure of the occupying French revolutionaries who had done the same in France in 1791). This required the development of new institutional forms of training and organization. Craft employers’ organisations launched schools where their own successors and other workers could be trained. 

The great debate in the world of VET is about the balance between trade specific skills and general skills. General skills are assumed to stimulate flexibility in the workforce, specific skills promote high-quality occupational performance. Obviously, both are needed, but what does this imply for the design of the curriculum in order to make VET sustainable? Who gets to decide the design of the curriculum: schools or employers, anyway? And what does this balance between general and specific skills imply for the labour market outcomes of pupils: do qualifications in different VET regimes serve to indicate productive skills, or rather, serve as a positional good and as a means for social closure (van de Werfhorst, 2011)? The curriculum has gone through several major reforms, all concentrating on these particular aspects. These reforms are in themselves well-known from the literature. This study will begin with an assessment of current cross-national studies on the characteristics of effective VET design and practice and test whether such insights allow an identification for the success of skills education within distinct periods of practice.

Research design

The project combines survey and case-study investigations. The survey side of the project seeks to identify changes in the composition of the pupil population across VET regimes in the Netherlands during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the access to the labour market experienced by former pupils. This will be done with the help of statistics about VET schools and craft sectors of the economy. The case-studies focus on one or two specific trades to obtain an in-depth understanding of the interactions between curriculum, recruitment and labour markets. The study will include such aspects as curriculum content, prestige of the craft, as well as the maintenance of craft skills across the life-cycle. The study will benefit from engagement from the VET team at the OECD, which has published extensively on contemporary vocational education.


Bruijn, Elly de, Stephen Billett, Jeroen Onstenk (eds.) (2017), Enhancing Teaching and Learning in the Dutch Vocational Education System: Reforms Enacted Professional and Practice-based Learning, vol. 18 (Springer 2017)

OECD (2014), Skill Beyond School: Synthesis ReportOECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training (OECD 2014)

SER (2013), Handmade in Holland: Vakmanschap en ondernemerschap in de ambachtseconomie (SER 2013)

Werfhorst, H. G. van de (2011). Skills, positional good or social closure? The role of education across structural–institutional labour market settings. Journal of Education and Work, 24(5), 521-48

Project initiators

Maarten Prak, Tanja van der Lippe


Utrecht University, History Department, Section of Economic and Social History


Economic & Social History, with an interest in Sociology/Educational Sciences

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here (portal opens June 1).

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