02 SES 05 C, Transitions: Apprenticeships, Learning and Sense of Self
Apprenticeship policy in Britain has long been marked by a curious and unresolved conflict. While successive governments have sought to ‘scoop up’ so-called low achievers so as to address low participation rates in education, a critical aim has been to produce intermediate skills for the purpose of economic competitiveness (Fuller and Unwin, 2003; Avis, 2007; Simmons, 2013).
The debate has been underpinned by the vocational-academic divide and assumptions of the ‘disaffected learner’ which have characterised vocational education and training (VET) in Britain (Simmons 2013; Roberts, 2012). It is based on the conception of VET as a form of learning that is separate and distinct from academic learning. The divide has been reinforced in much academic research depicting vocational learners as being ‘socialised’ into what are seen as low-skilled jobs, suggesting natural and abiding identities (e.g. Shildrick and MacDonald, 2007).
In recent years, commentators have increasingly challenged the variable quality of apprenticeships and, in particular, the scant attention afforded to theoretical knowledge on much provision, while the focus has been increasingly on measurable workplace skills (e.g. Bathmaker, 2012). Writers from the social realist tradition have argued that, in the interest of social justice, vocational education should provide both, disciplinary (‘powerful’) knowledge and workplace-specific knowledge and skills (e.g. Young, 2011; Wheelahan, 2010)
The paper is based on the author’s two ethnographic studies of apprentices in Britain and Germany, the aim of which was to gain an understanding of the construction of learner identities in ‘mainstream’ (motor mechanic) and ‘high-quality’ (engineering) apprenticeships. The first study (on motor mechanics) found that apprentices were not ‘naturally’ ‘practical learners’ but had been constituted as such through the discursive regimes of learning environments that privilege certain forms of knowledge. Apprentices performed the identity of the ‘practical learner’ which was crucially reinforced through the learning cultures of the various learning sites of the apprenticeship by, for example, privileging practical skills at the expense of theoretical knowledge, ultimately restricting young people’s life chances and raising questions about social justice. By contrast, in Germany, theoretical knowledge played a much more important role and identities were based on the integration of theory and practice.
The second study looked at engineering apprenticeships, commonly held up as examples of ‘high-quality’ provision in Britain, and explored the biographies and construction of learner identities of young people and of learning cultures within these programmes. In particular, the research questions were:
- How do young people construct their learner identities over time and within the different learning cultures of the workplace and the college?
- How do the experiences of apprentices differ in the two contrasting contexts of England and Germany?
- To what extent do the learner identities and learning cultures differ between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘high-quality’ apprenticeships?
The paper draws on Judith Butler’s (1990) work on performative identities. According to Butler, identities are discursively produced: rather than reflecting or expressing an enduring identity, it is the actions of individuals that constitute identity. As people strive for social acceptance by their peers, regulatory discursive regimes are upheld. The notion of performatively constituted identities emphasises that these are inherently unstable and subject to transformation. They appear to be enduring only insofar as they continue to be cited.
Michael Young’s (2008; 2011) concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ is applied to examine the nature of British VET, much of which is restricted to context-specific knowledge that cannot easily be applied elsewhere and ties apprentices to their workplace. By making comparisons with the German system, the paper will question common assumptions of apprentices as ‘naturally’ ‘practical learners’ and thereby challenge the very principles of VET in Britain.
Avis, J. (2007) Education, Policy and Social Justice, London: Continuum Bathmaker, A. (2013) ‘Defining ‘knowledge’ in vocational education qualifications in England: an analysis of key stakeholders and their constructions of knowledge, purposes and content’, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 65 (1): 87-107. Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2003) 'Creating a 'Modern Apprenticeship': a critique of the UK's multi-sector, social inclusion approach', Journal of Education and Work 16(1): 5-25. Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Routledge. Roberts, K. (2012) ‘Education to work transitions: How the old middle went missing and why the new middle remains elusive’, Sociological Review Online, 18 (1): http://www.socresonline.org.uk/18/1/3.html (accessed 5/1/15). Shildrick, T. and MacDonald, R. (2007) 'Biographies of exclusion: poor work and poor transitions', International Journal of Lifelong Education 26(5): 589-604. Simmons, R. (2013) ‘’Sorry to have kept you waiting so long, Mr Macfarlane’: Further education after the coalition, in: Education beyond the Coalition: reclaiming the agenda, M. Allen and P. Ainly (eds), London: Radicaled Books, 82-105. Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing. London: Sage Wheelahan, L. (2010) Why Knowledge Matters in the Curriculum, London and New York: Routledge. Young, M.F.D. (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education, London: Routledge. Young, M.F.D (2011) ‘The return of subjects: a sociological perspective on the UK Coalition government’s approach to the 14–19 curriculum’, Curriculum Journal, 22: 265–278
00. Central Events (Keynotes, EERA-Panel, EERJ Round Table, Invited Sessions)
Network 1. Continuing Professional Development: Learning for Individuals, Leaders, and Organisations
Network 2. Vocational Education and Training (VETNET)
Network 3. Curriculum Innovation
Network 4. Inclusive Education
Network 5. Children and Youth at Risk and Urban Education
Network 6. Open Learning: Media, Environments and Cultures
Network 7. Social Justice and Intercultural Education
Network 8. Research on Health Education
Network 9. Assessment, Evaluation, Testing and Measurement
Network 10. Teacher Education Research
Network 11. Educational Effectiveness and Quality Assurance
Network 12. LISnet - Library and Information Science Network
Network 13. Philosophy of Education
Network 14. Communities, Families and Schooling in Educational Research
Network 15. Research Partnerships in Education
Network 16. ICT in Education and Training
Network 17. Histories of Education
Network 18. Research in Sport Pedagogy
Network 19. Ethnography
Network 20. Research in Innovative Intercultural Learning Environments
Network 22. Research in Higher Education
Network 23. Policy Studies and Politics of Education
Network 24. Mathematics Education Research
Network 25. Research on Children's Rights in Education
Network 26. Educational Leadership
Network 27. Didactics – Learning and Teaching
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