05 SES 13, Beginning Vocational Education and Extending Schools
The concept of academic futility was firstly proposed by Brookover and Schneider (1975) to identify some factors that might explain the differences in achievement levels among schools. They generated four student factors, including ‘student-reported sense of futility’. The most important elements of this factor encompass a similar dimension to Coleman’s (Coleman et al., 1966) ‘sense of control’ variable, but explicitly address the school. As such, this measure reflects the students’ feelings about the possibility of functioning adequately in the school system. A high sense of futility indicates a feeling of having no control over success or failure in the school system.
According to Van Houtte (2016), this concept is very well suited to capturing the barriers to lower-track students making an effort, as it (1) pertains to education and schooling, (2) refers explicitly to the future, and (3) demands that respondents see themselves as part of a certain group. This explicit focus on education and the reference to group-based beliefs make this concept an accurate and pertinent tool to grasp what is happening in lower tracks.
Academic futility reflects a high degree of hopelessness in the school situation. High futility means that students experience strong feelings that the school system is working against them, as part of a particular group, and that they have to be lucky to succeed. This makes a sense of futility a promising concept in tracking research (Van Houtte, 2016). Research in Flanders showed that technical and vocational students display higher feelings of futility than academic students do (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2008, 2010), leading to less involvement in study (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2010) and higher levels of misconduct at school (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2008). A sense of futility is more prevalent in schools with a student body with a lower mean socioeconomic status composition (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2008, 2010).
The Czech Republic (as several other countries of continental Europe) has highly stratified upper secondary education. Students can choose a school in one of three tracks: academic, technical and vocational. Graduation in the vocational track does not enable a student to study at university; they need to pass the maturita exam after an additional two years of study. Students in the vocational track are characterised by lower socio-economic status and worse academic achievement in comparison with students from the technical and academic tracks (Blažek & Příhodová, 2016). They exhibit worse attitudes towards participation in politics and minority rights (Simonová & Straková, 2013) and lack the skills they need for transition to the labour market (Straková, 2015). Generally, graduates of the vocational track have lower chances to get a good job and salary than their peers in the academic track, especially in the long-term (e.g. Hanushek et al. 2017; Golsteyn & Stenberg 2017; Dockx & De Fraine, 2018) which is relevant particularly for people with lower vocational education (Brunello & Rocco, 2017). Students in the vocational track are not taught theoretical knowledge needed for participation in broad social, political, and professional discourse (Wheelahan, 2015). These circumstances put them in a highly risky position in regard to their future.
Our main aim is to explore how an individual student’s sense of futility develops over the course of their study in the vocational track. This paper focuses on the case studies’ results after the first year of study.
In 2018, 29 students in the ninth grade were recruited for the case studies, 16 students heading to the vocational track, 10 to the technical track and 3 to the general track. In this paper, we analysed data from the first wave of the prospective qualitative longitudinal study. While we were not trying to select a representative sample, the participants were chosen on the basis of the following criteria: the students, both boys and girls, were heading to different tracks and subgroups of them shared similar achievement characteristics (grade average or results in tests) when being admitted to different types of schools. They live in different parts of Bohemia (the western part of the Czech Republic). In the first wave, we investigated the students’ past school experience, the reasons for their choice of track/school, and their expectations of their new school. The in-depth interviews took place before the students entered their new school. The data were analysed on an individual level and case-oriented narrative approach with the main goal being to describe the way their sense of futility evolves. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. In the first stage, we read the transcripts and coded them with initial codes that were later refined. In the second phase, we proceeded to the processes of categorization and conceptualization in order to identify patterns and themes (Saldaña, 2009).
The sense of academic futility is intertwined with students’ aspirations. If students do not want to have excellent results or to study at university and so they do not study hard, they cannot face the sense of futility. The students at the end of compulsory education who headed for the vocational track believed that their outcomes mirrored their abilities and effort and therefore those of them who had weak educational outcomes did not blame the school, they blamed themselves. They chose the vocational track because it was a safe choice since it provides them with a qualification for the labour market. The families that did not have experience from higher education supported the choice of the lowest track because the academic track seemed to be an irrationally risky choice – it provides no qualification, only makes study in tertiary education possible (after successful admission tests). The academic track seems to be literally worthless for students coming from those families. Moreover, the students’ choice was approved by the lower secondary school. The school recommended them that they should begin with vocational education, and only after its completion to possibly proceed to secondary education that enables them to access tertiary education. At the end of lower secondary education, they were ready to start at the new school with no resentments towards their previous school and the education system generally. We expect that the longitudinal design and the further waves of interviews with the youngsters will provide deeper and more nuanced interpretative insights into these findings.
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