ERG SES D 03, Policies of Education
There seem to be major discrepancies in regards to educational aspirations as presented in the official policy discourse in the UK, and more widely, at a European level, and the findings of empirical research into young people’s aspirations and educational and labour market trajectories. While in national and European education policy, low achieving students are constructed as ‘lacking aspirations’ (Spohrer, 2011), empirical research does not confirm this deficit model.
This paper will attempt to analyse the concept of ‘aspiration’ as used in national and European policy discourse. Our objective is to determine how policy relates this concept to actual planning of future educational and labour market trajectory, and to access to financial and informational resources needed to realise high aspiartions.
Policy discourse emphasizing accountability, individual responsibility and choice is based on the assumption that lack of motivation and aspiration are the roots of educational underperformance (Gorard 2010; Keep and James 2012, Levin 2010); while ignoring key obstacles to educational attainment, such as the financial limitations of young people from low-income families and lack of adequate learning provision. In this way, attention is focussed entirely on the supply-side, individual ‘employability’ and drawn away from economic problems – socio-economic inequality and lack of employment opportunities (Biggart 2007, Hayward and Williams 2011) and a large percentage of insecure, low-paid jobs (Keep and James 2011). Unemployment is redefined as a ‘learning problem’ (Allais 2012) shifting responsibility from the state to the individual (Wright 2011).
However, opposed to official discourses of low aspirations, empirical studies found that young people from working-class background are seriously committed to (finding) work (Simons, Russell and Thompson 2013), albeit with different employment aspirations than their middle-class peers. Not low aspirations but lower expectations characterise this group. Traditional orientations towards work and education are still dominant (Shildrick and MacDonald 2007). Just as Bynner (2001:13) highlighted more than a decade ago: ‘A striking feature of British youth’s headlong rush towards the labour market is their positive evaluations of their own achievements and prospects.’
In addition, Roberts and Atherton (2011) argue that decades of successive reforms aimed at the vocational path has only created a ‘series of blind alleys’, training provisions that carry no value for employers and don’t lead to subsequent jobs. Our research findings also highlighted the tension between government policies which support the development of alternative learning arenas such as apprenticeships, and the overall perception that formal academic qualifications are still widely regarded in society as the gold standard that all young people should aspire to achieve.
An important issue brought up by most participants who work directly with young people was the steady decline in career advice provision due to government cuts. While previously this has been provided to students by local authorities and other independent agencies; the current government decided these services to be offered by the schools themselves. However, many schools, for financial reasons, try to supply this service internally, by their own staff members who are not qualified and, according to our participants, often lacked the appropriate knowledge and experience to do so.
Allais, Stephanie. 2010. “‘Economics Imperialism’, Education Policy and Educational Theory.” Journal of Education Policy 27(2):739–47. Biggart, Andy. 2007. “Dealing with Disadvantage: An Overview of the United Kingdom’s Policy Response to Early School Leaving, Low Attainment and the Labour Market.” Revista de Estudios de Juventud 77:139–53. Bynner, John. 2012. “Policy Reflections Guided by Longitudinal Study, Youth Training, Social Exclusion, and More Recently Neet.” British Journal of Educa-tional Studies 60(1):39–52. Gorard, Stephen. 2010. “Education Can Compensate for Society – a Bit.” British Journal of Educational Studies 58(1):47–65. Hayward, Geoff, and Richard Williams. 2011. “Joining the Big Society: Am I Bothered? - - Volume 9, Issue 2.” London Review of Education 9(2):175–89. Keep, Ewart, and Susan James. 2012. “A Bermuda Triangle of Policy? ‘Bad Jobs’, Skills Policy and Incentives to Learn at the Bottom End of the Labour Market.” Journal of Education Policy 27(2):211–30. Levin, Ben. 2010. “Governments and Education Reform: Some Lessons from the Last 50 Years.” Journal of Education Policy 25(6):739–47. Roberts Ken, and Atherton, Graeme (2011) Career development among young people in Britain today: poverty of aspiration or poverty of opportunity . International Journal of Education Administration and Policy Studies, 3 (5), pp 59-67. Shildrick, T. A. and MacDonald, R. (2007) 'Street corner society: leisure careers, youth (sub)culture and social exclusion', Leisure Studies, 26 (3), pp.399-355. Simmons, R., Russell, L. and Thompson, R. (2013) ‘Young people and labour market marginality: findings from a longitudinal ethnographic study’ Journal of Youth Studies, pp. 1-15, ISSN 1367-6261 Spohrer, Konstanze. (2011) Deconstructing 'Aspiration': UK policy debates and European policy trends, European Educational Research Journal, 10(1), 53-63. Wright, Adam. 2012. “Fantasies of Empowerment: Mapping Neoliberal Discourse in the Coalition Government’s Schools Policy - - Volume 27, Issue 3.” Journal of Education Policy 27(3):279–94.
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