ERG SES G 13, Youth and Education
Over the last decade, education policy in the United kingdom – and more widely, at a European level - has been increasingly dominated by a discourse based on the assumption that a lack of aspirations is at the root of educational underperformance (Gorard 2010; Keep and James 2012, Levin 2010). However, academic research has been persistently demonstrating that the majority of young people have high aspirations (Sinclair, Kendrick and Scott 2010) regardless of their socio-economic background (St Clair and Benjamin 2011). It seems that policy discourses on education overlook key obstacles to academic attainment, such as the financial limitations of young people from low-income families; lack of adequate learning provision and employment opportunities later on (Biggart 2007, Hayward and Williams 2011).
Youth researchers draw attention to growing inequalities and diminishing social mobility in today’s British society (Schoon et al. 2004; Thompson, Henderson and Holland 2003). Instead of being a vehicle of social mobility, the education system seems to reinforce and reproduce social class differences (Reay 2006). In spite of this, young people tend to interpret social inequalities in individualised terms of personal failure (Furlong and Cartmel 1997), aligning with the official discourse on personal choice and responsibility. As Roberts pointed out (2009), working-class young people in fact are more ambitious than their more advantaged counterparts, taking into account their economically, socially and culturally disadvantaged position. From this starting point, fulfilling higher aspirations requires higher and riskier investment, as their ‘choices’ are bounded by structural inequalities (Ball et al. 1996; Reay 2001). Analysing critical moments in young people’s transition to adulthood, Thompson and colleagues (2002) reach the conclusion that “a ‘can do’ approach to life” is not enough to overcome structural constraints.
This paper presents the results of the first phase of a longitudinal qualitative study exploring young people’s educational and occupational aspirations and their strategies for implementation, employing Bourdieu’s concept of social, cultural and economic capital as an explanatory framework (Bourdieu 1986). This research seems especially timely: if young people do aspire for good qualifications and jobs – contrary to the official discourse, than the barriers to fulfilling those dreams lie somewhere else, and these barriers must be clearly identified. Therefore the study investigates the necessary resources – informational, emotional and financial assets – that young people need in order to achieve their aspirations. The first phase of the study – on which this paper is based - explores how young people construct their future aspirations, and what type of external resources they utilise in this process. With career education being a compulsory part of the curriculum, young people taking part in this research had already met career advisors prior to our research; and had to think through what they want to do after finishing school. Therefore, we seek to understand the extent to which young people develop emotional commitment to their stated aspirations, as opposed to only giving the ‘right’ answer and a well-rehearsed narrative expected from them to the questions regarding their future aspirations.
The questions addressed in this paper include:
- To what extent do the present political discourse, school environment, media and parents influence young people’s educational and occupational aspirations?
- To what extent do young people and their families’ socio-economic situation influence the social place and occupation they consider desirable and achievable?
- What type of resources (informational, financial, emotional) do young people need in order to develop effective educational strategies and successfully implement their ‘aspirations’?
Our objective is to:
- explore how educational and occupational aspirations are understood, constructed and implemented by young people;
- analyse what makes some educational and/ or occupational strategies more successful than others.
Ball, Stephen J., Richard Bowe, and Sharon Gewirtz. 1996. “School Choice, Social Class and Distinction: The Realization of Social Advantage in Education.” Journal of Education Policy 11(1):89–112. 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. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241–58 in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Furlong, Andy, and Fred Cartmel. 1997. Young People and Social Change. Mc Graw Hill Education, Open University Press. 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?” 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. Reay, Diane. 2001. “Finding or Losing Yourself? Working-Class Relationships to Education.” Journal of Education Policy 16(4):333–46. Reay, Diane. 2006. “The Zombie Stalking English Schools: Social Class and Educational Inequality.” British Journal of Educational Studies 54(3):288–307. Roberts, Ken. 2009. “Opportunity Structures Then and Now.” Journal of Education and Work 22(5):355–68. Schoon, Ingrid, Samantha Parsons, and Amanda Sacker. 2004. “Socioeconomic Adversity, Educational Resilience, and Subsequent Levels of Adult Adaptation.” Journal of Adolescent Research 19(4):383–404. Sinclair, Stephen, John McKendrick, and Gill Scott. 2010. “Failing Young People? Education and Aspirations in a Deprived Community.” St Clair, Ralf, and Amanda Benjamin. 2011. “Performing Desires: The Dilemma of Aspirations and Educational Attainment.” British Educational Research Journal 37(3):501–17. Thompson, Rachel et al. 2002. “Critical Moments: Choice, Chance and Opportunity in Young People’s Narratives of Transition.” Sociology 36(2):335–54. Thomson, Rachel, Sheila Henderson, and Janet Holland. 2003. “Making the Most of What You’ve Got: Resources, Values and Inequalities in Young People’s Transitions to Adulthood’.” Educational Review 55(1):33–46.
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