What roles do foundation skills support services have in VET?

This is the third of a three-part series that looks at three questions related to foundation skills support services in Australian VET. The aim of this series is to assist practitioners in their understanding of their roles, the complexity of issues at hand and the historical background of the field. This series uses past literature to investigate the three questions, although this should not be considered to be a literature review or encompass the entirety of literature on the subjects. Whilst these questions are posed, practitioners will realise that answers are not easily forthcoming (or even provided).


With questions over terminology of foundation skills and whether they should be considered as skills or practices (or both) unresolved, the environment for VET foundation skills support services is more complex than simply assisting students with literacy and numeracy. Here, the roles of these services are introduced with literature from three phases: 1994-1996, 2001-2009 and 2010-2018.


Unlike present-day Victoria, which has a contestable training model without a single, unifying organisation to administer public Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes, New South Wales has continued to have NSW TAFE as its statutory body since it was established in 1990. ‘Tutorial Support’ became a part of this NSW TAFE development in 1990, along with the Foundation Studies Training Division (FSTD), which oversaw the operations of foundation skills training in TAFE institutes across New South Wales. (Although Black (1996) explains that ‘Tutorial Support’ had been in existence long before that, known as remedial and refresher classes.) Between 1994 and 1996, a series of research literature was funded by FSTD that sheds light on aspects of foundation skills training within New South Wales VET during this period. It is noteworthy that not only was such research created, given the lack of other specific research related to foundation skills in VET up to and during this time, but that the word ‘foundation’ was used, two decades because it was included in the federal government’s 2012 National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults.

Between 1994 and 1996, a series of papers was produced for the FTSD that provide a snapshot of the foundation skills support practices within NSW TAFE at the time, which consisted of four models: team-teaching, small group work, one-to-one and the availability of Independent Learning Centres. This was the first concerted effort to document foundation skills support with Black (1996) noting, “To date, Tutorial Support is relatively unresearched, but with the current emphasis on ‘vocational’ education and training (VET), and the ‘integration’ of English language, literacy and numeracy with VET, Tutorial Support assume special significance” (p.1) and “there have been relatively few studies conducted into language, literacy or numeracy difficulties encountered by students in undertaking TAFE vocational courses” (p.6). Three of these FSTD papers largely focus on the implementation strategies and issues of integrating foundation skills teaching within the VET programs and team-teaching with VET teachers (Courtenay, 1994; Courtenay and Mawer, 1995; Black, 1996), two took a more generalised overview to look at wider practices, such as strategies for communication, one-to-one forms of support, learner needs, enrolment and administration (Janelle Moy and Associates, 1994; Salter & Allan, 1996), while Quirk (1994) investigated literacy and numeracy issues in competency-based assessment.  It is clear from these FSTD papers that the focus on supporting VET students with foundation skills at NSW TAFE at those times largely centred around three aspects: 1) assessment of student foundation skills abilities (primarily before or soon after commencement), 2) identifying and implementing appropriate support models and 3) teaching whole cohorts within their VET programs (that is, identifying foundation skills aspects embedded within course content and integrating teaching to team teach with VET teachers). Even though each of these papers was produced more than twenty years ago, they offer valuable insights for current management and practitioners as they discuss issues that are still relevant for foundation skills support in Australian VET today.

With respect to assessing a prospective learner’s foundation skills ability prior to or soon after commencement, Quirk notes that work from Nunan and Brindley indicate concerns for the use of a single standardised testing instrument to determine abilities and suitability for a program, as they provide little information on a particular learning objective and assume proficiency is a single, independent entity, instead of the general consensus that it is a multidimensional construct. Although, Quirt does acknowledge Mawer’s (1992, 1994) belief that global proficiency measures can provide an indication of the extent a prospective student will be able to cope with the language demands of a program, and, if used, should be supplemented with specific work-related tasks to assess communication abilities.

With respect to teaching cohorts within VET, Quirk offers what seems to be an explanation of the development of the integrated approach from the 1991 Workplace Language Literacy and Maths Policy of the government of New South Wales, which informs that the provision of ‘basic skills’ should be integrated and contextualised with other workplace training, based on evidence that skills improvement is more rapid than when addressed separately and outside of context due to a person’s ‘cognitive system’. Further, Quirk states that this theoretical perspective does not “support the traditional practice of providing instruction in basic skills before commencing occupational skills instruction” (p.9) and the FSTD supported “an integrated approach to curriculum development [that] would directly address language, literacy and numeracy skills” (p.9).

Courtenay and Mawer (1995) focused their work on integrating LLN into VET and, whilst not mentioning any theoretical approaches specifically, demonstrated their belief that integration must incorporate social contexts and social processes, clearly referring to the social practices of the ideological approach presented in the second question of this three-part series. They write that 1) people learn most effectively when they can relate what they learn to wider work and social contexts, 2) LLN are social processes influenced by context, so programs should provide opportunities for LLN application in an immediate occupation context as well as wider work and social contexts and 3) evaluation should also document LLN application for these settings.


In the early part of the 21st century, a new initiative to research and document foundation skills within Australian VET was made possible by the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER), which produced a series of papers between 2001 and 2009 (most notably via the Adult Literacy Research Program 2002-2006). Four papers in particular are presented here: Falk and Millar (2001), McKenna and Fitzpatrick (2005) and Balatti, Black and Falk (2006, 2009).

By bringing together major insights from research since 1990, Falk and Millar (2001) made a number of important points and conclusions in relation to foundation skills in VET. Three of these are:

  • Basic skills (being separate and individualised) “are necessary but not sufficient for participation and mobility in VET” (p.53) with a “convincing set of research that show basic skills do not transfer easily to other tasks and contexts” (p.54). That is, once acquired, there is the assumption that basic skills can be easily transferred to various contexts unaided, however, contexts themselves have their own competencies, meaning literacy and numeracy must be integrated within.
  • Literacy and numeracy learning occurred in two forms: “the integrated or ‘built in’ approach as found in training packages, and in separate provision such as classes or one-to-one tutoring as a stand-alone or ‘bolted on’ literacy or numeracy learning activity” (p.53), citing reasons for the need of intensive provision for the existence of this second form.
  • Government policy in Australia has largely focused on human capital benefits of literacy and numerous provision, with little attention given to social capital benefits, such as social cohesion and lifelong learning.

McKenna and Fitzpatrick (2005) continue with the topic of ‘integrated’ teaching, via a case study in community services programs. Their work reiterates strategies documented by Salter and Allan (1996) and identify the following seven features for successful integration:

  • acknowledge learning is affected by the context in which it is taught, as well as by students’ beliefs and attitudes
  • develop an explicit model of language appropriate to the context of the industry
  • use a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching
  • provide a framework for describing language, literacy and numeracy
  • conduct an analysis of the specific training package and workplace context
  • ensure there is capacity to identify critical points of intervention
  • consider the needs of learners.

One study that can have a potentially large impact for foundation skills support services was that of Balatti, Black and Falk (2006), who took the social capital benefits aspect of Falk’s previous 2001 work and conducted research seeking to determine the social capital outcomes on 57 students enrolled in VET accredited adult literacy and numeracy courses. This study looked at the changes in both student connections with people and their socioeconomic wellbeing, as well as implications for educational practice and reporting outcomes. The findings, as presented by Balatti, Black and Falk, are (p.5):

  • Participation in accredited adult literacy and numeracy courses produced social capital outcomes for 80% of the students interviewed, even though improved literacy and numeracy skills were not necessarily present.
    • Students reported changes in the number and nature of attachments they had to existing and new social networks and spoke of changes in the way they interacted with people in their networks.
    • Students valued social capital outcomes highly because they contributed to their socioeconomic wellbeing.
    • There was evidence that social capital outcomes had a positive impact on students’ social environments, education and learning, employment and quality of working life.
  • Literacy and numeracy improvement often required the social capital outcomes noted above as a prerequisite or co-requisite. For example, students’ literacy skills improved when their membership of networks provided them with opportunities to learn, or to implement what they had learnt.
  • Social capital outcomes were realised as a result of specific teaching strategies, such as promoting interaction with peers, and through the new networks and relationships experienced in the course. Reframing adult literacy and numeracy teaching/learning to include the idea of the student as a member of networks would make the social capital-building function of the courses more explicit.
  • Current reporting frameworks, including the National Reporting System for language, literacy and numeracy, do not specifically account for social capital outcomes. Recognising the importance of those outcomes, and perhaps reporting them, is likely to result in a more accurate picture of the contribution that adult literacy and numeracy courses make to individuals and communities.

These results potentially force a re-evaluation of the practices and purposes of foundation skills support and on notions of effectiveness, since a direct one-to-one relationship between foundation skills provision and benefits is no longer one of simple cause and effect. Now, relationships in foundation skills provision intersect and interact in dynamic and possibly unpredictable fashions to produce benefits for individuals and groups of individuals, even in circumstances where no foundation skills improvements are observed.

Further NCVER research by Balatti, Black and Falk (2009) give insights into how RTOs can incorporate social capital development and outcomes into a broader purpose, beyond Training Packages for employment. Of particular value here is the finding that RTOs can have an integral partnership with local organisations to build foundation skills across social and community areas of importance, such as financial and health literacy. Here, characteristics for effectiveness are also presented, which not only provide an avenue for delivery, but also enable RTOs to broaden their perspectives on why and how they operate within communities. Furthermore, Balatti, Black and Falk (2009) offer detailed information on how foundation skills support practitioners can integrate within VET teaching programs in order to produce social capital outcomes, details of which are largely missing from previous research.


Literature related to foundation skills support in Australian VET in this third time period focuses on two aspects primarily. The first is the continuation of the discussions on integration and social capital outcomes, however now, these aspects begin to merge into more holistic approaches that see the needs of learners as practices increase the value of professional partnerships, whereby foundation skills support service are not just integrated into VET programs, but are also integrated into student services in general as well as community organisations. The other aspect is a series of literature reviews under NCVER’s Foundation Skills Literature Review Project that bring together much of what has been presented in this paper, as well as other topics, such as policy and the international context.

Roberts and Wignall (2010) note that even though it has been a requirement since the establishment of Training Packages to embed LLN within them (and now employability skills to form foundation skills), delivery has not been effective because RTOs have found it difficult to implement approaches in integrating them and VET practitioners have often found it difficult to unpack or interpret them within a Training Package. Roberts and Wignall offer a number of recommendations for the development of Training Packages to be improved, and also, importantly here, comment on the challenges and options RTOs have in training their students. They explain that some students will only need to develop the foundation skills specifically identified in competency standards, achievable if they already posses certain underlying foundation skills, but for students enrolling in a program who do not have adequate foundation skills to begin with, they cannot be expected to achieve competency in that unit with a standard delivery of nominal hours and a vocational trainer who is not experienced in delivering specific foundation skill concepts. Here Roberts and Wignall identify three components within these scenarios: 1) a foundation skills trainer to teach the foundation skills within units, 2) a foundation skills trainer to provide additional support, such as specialist assistance in class, out of class or enrolment in specific foundation skill units beforehand, alongside or packaged within their VET program and 3) a mechanism to identify which students may need additional support. Note that enrolling students in specific units beforehand is at odds with Quirk (1994) above, who believed that a pre-VET training foundation skills program was against the integration approach, however, Quirk was possibly considering students that already possessed adequate skills to begin a VET program, whereas Roberts and Wignall suggest it may be an appropriate option for those students who do not.

Robertson (2010) begins to move the discussion beyond the practice of support integrated into VET products and approaches support from the perspective of students being encouraged to become self-directed and autonomous learners, capable of utilising various resources. Rather than isolated literacy and numeracy support, Robertson views ‘learning support’ and resources as expanding beyond a traditional foundation skills specialist and encompassing mentoring, IT support, networking and counseling, amongst others. Here, the approach of support in isolated areas in no longer adequate in a modern environment where information technology and the metacognitive skills of learning are more necessary in today’s highly technical world, and require support alongside traditional literacy and numeracy. Robertson takes aspects of constructivist learning theories where learners construct what information means to them for their own realities, which ties in with the concepts of New Literacies and social practices discussed in the second question of this three-part series, whereby students use modes of learning appropriate to them, interact with peers in ways suitable for them and apply learning in contexts that make meaning for them. Taking this perspective, foundation skills support services become one of an integrated approach to support within a broader RTO support framework. Along with this, support is not solely for students deemed initially to have a deficit of literacy and numeracy skills for their chosen program, but for all students that require assistance with any foundation skill at any particular point in time.

Although this ‘integration of support services’ is not a new concept, with Roe, Foster, Moses, Sanker and Storey (1984) and Haigh and Brunner (1990) detailing how literacy and numeracy support has been but one student service in a wider set of services well before recent times (alongside counseling, financial, accommodation, disability, etc.), Robertson, as well as a report by Ithaca Group (2012) for The Queensland VET Development Centre, highlight the conscious need to more closely integrate various support services to match student needs. The Ithaca report, in particular, provides a detailed vision for how such services can provide a ‘more seemless experience’ by various support services having a shared intent, a range of approaches to meet the diverse student needs and a set of outcomes that demonstrate and recognise the benefits of services. Unfortunately, the Ithaca report does not provide assistance or guidance on how outcomes can be developed or reported, saying that it is an area “in which there is considerable room for action and improvement” (p.26).

This topic of outcomes advanced somewhat in this post-2009 period, primarily with the research of Black and Yasukawa (Black and Yasukawa, 2010; Black and Yasukawa, 2011; Yasukawa, 2011 and Black and Bee, 2018). In these works, any question of whether human capital or social capital outcomes should prevail in VET foundation skills provision settled into an acknowledgement of the importance of both human capital and social capital outcomes, with Black and Yasukawa (2010) stating “The purpose of this paper is not to undermine the primacy of the human capital underpinnings of the new National Foundation Skills Strategy” (p.43) (which was yet to be released), but that “in the development of a new national strategy, there is more than one perspective on the rationale for investing in adult literacy and numeracy” (p.44) and “we draw on recent work on social capitalwhich has direct implications for social inclusion, but also for complementing the human capital rationale for adult literacy and numeracy” (p.44).

Like Balatti, Back and Falk (2009) above, the line of research during this period features opportunities for partnerships with community organisations outside the RTO (called ‘cross-sectional partnerships’). Here, a useful discussion is presented on not just human capital outcomes via theory components of units of competency, but also social capital outcomes via communities of practice and networking, with all of the aspects of communication integral for them to succeed. Like previous ‘integrated’ discussions, theory related to social practices, context and individual meaning-making justify the role of an integrated approach that works closely with relationships, however here, this concept of integration exists not just within a VET program, but also in conjunction with external organisations, such as community health organisations that run health education programs for the general public.

Moving to the NCVER Foundation Skills Literature Review Project, this series published in 2016 provides a valuable summary of issues related to foundation skills in Australia over the past few decades, and has been useful in the writing of this paper to assist in understanding the variety and complexity of topics. Cameron (2016), Mayer (2016) and Newton (2016) also discuss broader issues in this series, such as policy and the international context, but these have not been presented here because they pertain to foundation skills more broadly and not specifically to foundation skills support services. This point highlights a matter for managers and practitioners of such services: there is a distinct lack of research and literature on the specific details for operating these services and engaging with students. Broad theory, issues and benefits are presented, but not specifics, and how a manager or practitioner is to function in their workplace is largely absent.


As can be seen, the topic of foundation skills support services in a VET environment is a complex one. It is clear that these support services are to serve both human capital and social outcomes, requiring the ability to pinpoint specific areas of need for individual students as well as to generate and facilitate relationships. Literature has provided justification for VET foundation skills support services to integrate with VET teaching departments and other student services and work beyond the training package by developing relationships and programs with external organisations (community or even corporate organisations), which is likely to be an exciting area to explore.

As to the roles these support services have in VET, generalised answers are provided in past literature, but details on what specific roles they can have as well as how to function in the roles are limited. They do not provide managers with how to operate the services on a day-to-day or even semester-to-semester basis, such as how to inform students of the services, specific roles in identifying or assisting departments to identify students, when, where and how to support a student inside and outside of a VET class and how to gauge and report effectiveness. Whilst these may be issues for RTOs at an individual level, a framework, a series of options for best practice or even a reporting of current practices would be beneficial for all RTOs and their services. Research into the specific ways VET foundation skills support services can consistently and effectively benefit student, community and industry needs will provide important instruction for managers and practitioners that work in the field.


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Balatti, J. Black, S. and Falk, I. (2009). A new social capital paradigm for adult literacy: Partnerships, policy and pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/file/0024/10896/a-new-social-capital-paradigm-for-adult-literacy-2170.pdf

Black, S. (1996). Literacy/numeracy support and team teaching in VET. TAFE teachers reflect on their practice. NSW: Foundation Studies Training Division

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Newton, J. (2016). Foundation skills policy contexts and measures of impact. Retrieved from https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/83151/Foundation-skills-policy-contexts-and-measures-of-impact.pdf

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Robertson, L. (2010). The changing face of VET learner support. In Berthelsen, D. & Vogel, L. of Transforming Queensland VET: Challenges and Opportunities (Volume 3) (pp. 42-51). Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology.

Roe, E., Foster, G., Moses, I., Sanker, M. & Storey, P. (1984). A report on Student Services in Tertiary Education in Australia. Queensland: Tertiary Education Institute. University of Queensland

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