Tackling social exclusion and supporting at-risk groups (early school leavers, unskilled or low skilled workers, immigrants and unemployed) has been a high priority in the European Union (EU) policies during the last decade and more.

Our project will focus on young people at risk of social exclusion and the role of vocational education and training as part of the ecosystem supporting inclusion. On the one hand, the project is targeted at young people already at risk of social exclusion. On the other hand, our target is the system(s) of vocational education and training (VET) seeking for their part to prevent young people from becoming a risk group. Such a dual target necessitates a broad approach to social inclusion. As vocational and personal development of a (young) person are strongly interlinked and mutually dependent, the project aims at studying the possibilities of VET to enhance social inclusion of young people by promoting their inherent potential in vocational and personal development and developing key skills. Social exclusion/inclusion is commonly defined primarily in relation to education and work, but the concept is more multidimensional than that (Fangen, Hammaren, & Johansson, 2012). The potential of vocational education and training to deal with the problems of social exclusion, inequalities and polarization in the globalised and digitalised economies is recognised by many scholars and experts (Piketty, 2013, 2019; Tirole, 2016; Banerjee, Duflo, 2019).

Young people across Europe face labour market exclusion in terms of long unemployment periods and nonparticipation in employment, education or training (NEET youth) or being at risk of exclusion (high job turnover, precarious jobs etc.). Overall, in 2018 the rate of young people aged 16-29 years at risk of poverty or social exclusion in Europe was 26.3 %, corresponding to about 20.6 million young people (Eurostat), the risk being slightly higher for young women than men.

Education is a significant factor affecting the labour market prospects of young people (Kazjulja & Roosmaa, 2016). At the same time, initial VET may become the source of social exclusion, due to the mismatches of provided skills and competencies and changing labour market needs and other problems of the quality of VET provision. Recent comparative studies have found that especially young people with lower educational level (basic education) graduated up to five years are in most vulnerable labor market situation (Rokicka, Unt, Täht, & Nizalova, 2018) as well as those with immigrant backgrounds. School drop-out is a big problem in many countries in Europe. Eurostat shows that in 2018 one in ten of young people aged 18-24 years were early leavers from education and training, i.e. they had completed at most lower secondary education and were not in further education and training. In the countries involved in this study these rates were: 11,3% in Estonia, 8,3% in Latvia, 4,6% in Lithuania and 10% in Norway (EU’s ET2020 benchmark is 10%).

One indicator of social exclusion of youth has been considered to be the status of the young people, aged under 30 (15-29) years, who are not in education, employment, or training (NEET). However, the problems with the NEET indicator are widely recognized, including the fact that not all NEET youth are excluded, and that not all socially excluded young people are revealed by the indicator (Bacher et al., 2013). Nevertheless, the proportion of NEET is alarmingly high and has been increasing since 2008 (OECD, 2018). The Eurostat statistics (data from July 2018) shows that in Norway nearly one-in-ten (9.8%) and even more in Estonia (11%), Latvia (12.3%) or Lithuania (10.2%) of the young people are NEETs. In most countries, NEET youth are educationally disadvantaged and with lower level of basic skills than non-NEETs. Skills determine the status of NEET, which is alarming since early skills (at end of compulsory school) define later skills (Keute, 2018). Moreover, in Norway young migrants, often with lower levels of education than their native-born peers, are strongly overrepresented among NEETs: they are more than twice as likely to be NEETs as their Norwegian-born peers (16 vs 7.5%), clearly higher than the OECD average (1.5 times) (OECD, 2018, 40). The situation is corresponding in Estonia for Russian speaking population living in the North-East region of Estonia that is most highly represented among NEETs. In most countries, including in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, women are generally more prone to be NEETs (Eurostat, 2017). Norway is one of the few countries where young women are not more likely to be NEETs than young men (OECD, 2018).

VET providers have better potential than many other institutions to meet the youth at risk and support them in addressing their challenges, especially through activating measures and through bridging school and work. VET institutions support transfer from school to the labour market and prepare students for lifelong learning (LLL). Moreover, the schooling system in the wider sense is a major channel transmitting values, norms and codes of behavior or, in other words, socializing young people to be active citizens in the society (Nilsson, 2010). VET institutions and training companies have a relevant role in integrating youth into the labour market and providing second choice solutions for those with interrupted educational paths. In all partner countries good examples can be drawn of special training programs targeted to students without general education or retraining opportunities for the unemployed. In many Nordic countries special (pre-)vocational training programs have been introduced for students with immigrant backgrounds. Additionally, there is potential of local community level organisations, such as youth work and leisure activities/hobby education providers, to collaborate with VET schools and contribute into the development of skills and competences of youth at risk and integrate them into the local life.

Regardless of the policy priority in the EU (ET2020) and by the national governments of combatting school drop-out and potential inclusive role of VET institutions here, the dropout rate from vocational schools remains high and has been increasing. The main reasons for high dropout rate tend to be the wrong career choice and low quality of career guidance provided (Õpingute katkestamise põhjused kutseõppes, 2012), but also low level of general skills and non-motivating teaching methods used in VET. It has been argued that the apprenticeship system in VET has been more effective in socializing students with the labour market realities than the school-based system (Nilsson, 2010). In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as in many other school-based VET systems, vocational track tends to be the second chance solution (Loogma, Ümarik, Sirk, Liivik, 2019) and VET institutions tend to attract students with lower general skills and learning motivation. In Estonia, the drop-out from VET is especially high during the first study year and higher among male students; almost one out of five male students drop their studies (Valk, 2016). In Norway, the dropout from VET is higher compared to the other OECD countries: only 63% graduate within two years at the end of the regular programme, while the rate is 72% in Sweden and 80% in Austria. In Norway, the first two years of VET are mostly school-based and many students struggle to find an apprenticeship place with a firm for the next two years. (OECD, 2018).

Against the above backdrop, in this study we have chosen the context of VET to investigate the situation of the at-risk young people as they experience it and understand themselves in it, and to explore innovative solutions to address their challenges in collaboration between themselves, their teachers and other community actors and stakeholders. Students of VET institutions are increasingly diverse, including students with immigrant backgrounds and those with special needs. This calls for flexible solutions, new approaches, models and methods to ensure students´ wellbeing, development of basic skills, autonomy and self-regulation skills relevant for successful life careers. Overall, it has been proposed that faced with the socio-economic transformation in society, what young people need from education is guidance, including choices for methodology and life strategies (‘education for choice’ or ‘career choice education’), rather than just information (Edwards, Mure & Robb, 2013). Consequently, new demands are being posed on the competence and work performance of vocational teachers and workplace instructors (Cort & Rolls, 2010; Sirk, Ümarik, Loogma, & Niglas, 2017). Our previous studies (Sirk, Liivik & Loogma, 2016; Sirk, Liivik, Ümarik & Loogma, forthcoming) on vocational teachers´ professionalism and professionality have indicated that vocational teachers consider students with weak motivation and general skills, and students with special needs, as a major concern, that, consequently, have added new work roles and challenged their didactic and social-pedagogical competence. The proposed study aims to understand how VET institutions and the actors involved (vocational teachers, trainers, youth workers) can enhance social inclusion of young people at risk, and what are effective, successful approaches, methods and tools to support inclusion, along with building of proactive motivation and engagement in their vocation and personal development and future orientation. This concerns both the prevention of social exclusion by implementing holistic educational and social policy interventions (work-based learning and training, career guidance and employment support, provision of digital skills, etc.), as well as the measures directed to improve the situation of socially excluded youth (e.g., propaedeutic measures to enable and enhance the return of dropouts and NEETs to the VET programmes).

The proposed study is guided by two main theoretical frameworks: socio-ecological approach (Evans, Waite, Kersh, 2010) and the resiliency or protective process approach (Zimmermann, 2013). Moreover, the Educational Learning Lab model (Ley et al., 2018) will be applied to guide the phase of intervention. The project uses the “social ecology“ approach as umbrella for theoretical framework applied in the project. Generally, the social ecology approach stresses that individuals are learning, developing and acting in a complex system of various (social)environments and structures, actors and interrelationships (Jacobson, Wilensky, 2006; Evans et al, 2011). More specifically, for a student these environments or “learning framework” may comprise actors, such as parents, teachers, peers, various communities, and digital spaces (OECD 2018) and their interactions. Systems, described in terms of social ecology, tend to be self-regulating and self-sustaining because of the interdependencies and interactions between the parts of a social ecological system. (Evans et al, 2011) The more institutionally oriented social ecology framework is complemented by Brofenbrenner’s (1979, cited in Evans et al., 2011) individual perspective on development and learning, as well as human agency. The latter is considered as a person’s capacity to change his or her situation (ibid) in his/her personal “social ecology“. Furthermore, agency implies a sense of responsibility to influence people, events and circumstances for the better. It requires the ability to frame a guiding purpose and identify actions to achieve the goal (Giddens, 1984; Biesta & Tedder, 2007). The social ecology approach will be the basis for socio- ecological analysis of young people at risk. It enables understanding of the role (e.g restrictive and enabling) of various social environments that young people at risk have been involved in, their learning and development paths, as well as identifying the factors enabling the development of their competences and exercising of their agency.

The socio-ecological approach is aligned with resiliency or protective process approach. While research often tends to focus on mapping the risk and problems, the resiliency approach emphasizes positive factors in young people’s lives as the basis for positive change strategies (Zimmermann, 2013). Resilience theory “focuses attention on positive contextual, social, and individual variables that interfere or disrupt developmental trajectories from risk to problem behaviors, mental distress, and poor health outcomes” (ibid: 381). These positive factors, also considered as “promotive factors”, help to overcome the negative effects of the factors usually related to high risk exposure (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). There are two categories of promotive factors: assets and resources. While assets are related to individual level factors as self-esteem or self-efficacy, the resources present external factors, such as specific programs or other initiatives providing support for youth (Zimmermann, 2013, 381). Thus, this approach is close to the Activation of Vocational and Personal Development (AVPD) model and innovative methodology applied correspondingly in secondary schools in many countries under programme ‘education for choice’(Edwards, Mure & Robb, 2013; Longo, 2015). In our study the focus is on identifying and promoting the positive personal strategies and factors supporting the strengths of young people. Our aim is to provide better understanding on the transitions between different levels of schooling as presenting possibilities for change and transformation in terms of young people’s self-understanding regarding educational trajectories.

In relation to the above, learner identities is an important concept. Erstad et al. (2016) and Roth (2017) define learners and their learning broadly, encompassing their social practices in everyday life and educational settings that have implications for learners’ identity formation (Hull & Zacher, 2007) and future trajectories (Ludvigsen, Lund, Rasmussen, & Säljö, 2011). Indeed, the connection between learning and identity specify how learners engage in learning activities across formal and informal settings (Barron, 2006; Barron, Wise, & Martin, 2013; Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013; Hull & Greeno, 2006; Roth & Stuedahl, 2017; Thomson, 2009). Holland et al. (1998) argue that individuals inhabit many incoherent self-understandings and changeable identities, positional or figured, embedded in specific social contexts called ‘figured worlds’. These worlds are ‘socially produced, culturally constituted activities’ where people come to produce new self-understandings (identities) both conceptually (cognitively) and materially/procedurally. Furthermore, identity is not bound by prescribed categories such as gender or ethnicity; it is negotiated and socially produced in situ (Holland, Lachicotte Jr., Skinner, & Cain, 1998, 40-41). Correspondingly, Urrieta (2007) suggests that figured worlds are ‘socially organised and performed [;] they are dependent on interaction and people’s inter-subjectivity for perpetuation: people figure how to relate to one another and across time/place/space contexts’ (Urrieta, 2007, 109). Therefore, in figured worlds people ‘figure who they are’ and produce personal and social identities through negotiation of ‘positional identities’. Positioning is an analytically separable counterpart to figuration; when positioned, people engage less in self-making, instead focusing on accepting, rejecting or negotiating the provided identities (Urrieta 2007, 111). In our study we focus on the personal strategies of young people, but also on the broader ecosystem, including vocational institutions as part of it.

The main research goal is to investigate the ways in which vocational education and training (VET) can enhance social inclusion of young people at-risk, both in terms of combating school dropout and promoting transitions between various (social) learning contexts, such as school-work transition. Our focus is on the four countries participating in the project – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Norway – while in some of our analyses we adopt a European and wider international scope. The main goal is further defined by the following three sub-goals:

1) To explore how at-risk young people themselves experience and understand their opportunities, prospects and limitations in the context of VET, and what and how are the institutional factors affecting their prospects;

2) To analyse existing best practices, particularly those, which involve innovative approaches, methods, tools for supporting social inclusion and preventing dropout, in VET institution, workplace contexts and by local institutions providing learning opportunities;

3) To conduct “Educational Learning Lab intervention” in all partner countries, in order to pilot and evaluate innovative approaches, methods and technology-based tools for supporting both at-risk youth to develop their key skills (vocational and personal) and teachers in VET to advance their instructional approach and practices.

To address the complex and multifaceted research goals of the study, the project is designed as a mixed-method study, comprising three sub-studies, which will be strongly interlinked and where both qualitative and quantitative methods will be applied. The design is chosen for the purposes of development and progressive complementarity, so that methodological decisions during later stages of the study could be informed by the results from the earlier stages, but also to allow the results of the earlier stages to be explained and enriched by the analysis in the later stages (Greene, 2007). Moreover, triangulation of different datasets (narrative interview data to be collected and use of the OECD data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, PIAAC) and different stakeholder perspectives (those of youth, teachers, community actors etc.) are expected to provide comprehensive results.
The work in the three sub-studies are structured into three separate work-packages (WP2, WP3 and WP4), but they are interlinked and will partially run in parallel. All partners will participate in all these three sub-studies, although the emphasis varies between the partners. In the following, we shall present the three sub-studies by describing the three corresponding Work Packages.