05 SES 01, Supporting Vulnerable Individuals
Globally, curriculum policy has a new focus on competencies, capacities, attributes and core skills (Sinnema & Aitken, 2013). There is a trend towards emphasising students taking responsibility for self and their own learning, something that Davies (2006) terms ‘responsibilisation’ (Davies, 2006). This policy turn suggests that young people’s agency is important and that education has a key role to play in fostering their agency. However, ecological perspectives on agency (Biesta & Tedder, 2006) would suggest that this is problematic. Whilst education can certainly develop individual capacity, this is not the same as agency, which is also shaped by the conditions of educational contexts such as schools and colleges.
Research and statistics suggest that children and young people looked after by the state experience some of the poorest outcomes in terms of education (see O’Higgins et al., 2015 for further discussion) and mental health (see Ford et al., 2007; Meltzer et al, 2003). Scottish statistics show similar trends to other parts of the UK. A systematic review study by O’Higgins et al. (2015) considered the relationship between educational outcomes and being looked after, and provided more nuance to this generalisation. Their findings illustrated that, once other individual characteristics (for example ethnicity, gender and additional support needs) had been accounted for, the relationship between poor educational outcomes and being looked after was reduced. Furthermore, the growing recognition of the impact of children’s experiences, before they become part of the care system that may continue whilst children are in care (Ibid.), suggests a complex picture regarding the relationship between educational outcomes and being looked after. This may affect children and young people in different ways. The variation in children’s outcomes when in the care system denotes the many different factors, environmental, familial, material and cultural, that mediate their experiences. Children, themselves, also learn to navigate their lives, through both resistance and accommodation. Everyone has had a care experience, but for the majority it will have been mainly positive; however, children and young people who are, or have been cared for by the state, may have experienced some form(s) of adversity. Thus, when working with children and young people who are, or have been in care, professionals need to acknowledge that they are children and young people first and foremost, and work from there. It is argued that the state needs to be accountable for its actions towards the children and young people it cares for, including ensuring that their aspirations can be realised. The challenge lies in the ways in which this is made possible.
This paper will draw upon an ecological conception of agency (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998; Biesta and Tedder, 2006) as a heuristic to understand the impact for a small group of young people in Scotland, all with extensive care experience, who belong to a newly formed group, focused on bringing care experienced young people together regularly and supporting them to raise issues about the care system. The young people were, at the time, aged between 18 and 21.
The first part of this paper explores this temporal-relational understanding of agency as achievement, before using this as a tool to interrogate data relating to three young people’s previous educational experiences and their current pathways. Following this, consideration is given to factors that may promote the effectiveness of such interventions, for example belonging to a group with a specific purpose. Moreover, if the achievement of agency by children and young people is considered important, this tool provides possibilities for future directions.
The ‘ecological understanding of agency’ as ‘an understanding which always encompasses actor-in-transaction-with-context, actors acting by-means-of-an-environment rather than simply in an environment’ (Ibid.: 18, italics in original) provide a heuristic for analysing the data. This interpretation suggests that agency does not reside within an individual, but instead is achieved through an interplay of “individual efforts, available resources and contextual and structural factors as they come together in particular and, in a sense, always unique situations” (Biesta & Tedder, 2006: 137). This understanding of agency accounts for the young people’s past experiences (iterative) and future projections (projectivity), alongside their judgements about what is possible in the present situation (practical-evaluative). Furthermore, this understanding is about how young people ‘critically shape their responses to problematic situations’ (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998: 971), and the quality of engagement with contextual conditions. In this view, agency does not reside within the individual, but it is something that young people do. Thus agency is achieved and its achievement is entirely specific to the context at that time (see also Priestley et al., 2012). This understanding of agency is used here to explore the potential of participation in a particular social setting. The data were generated through recorded interviews. Initially simple coding or ‘descriptive’ coding was applied to the data (Miles and Huberman 1994: 55), and then thematic coding. The cross-case analysis of the interviews was undertaken. An iterative process of engagement with the research literature and re-reading of the data enabled further mapping of the codes (Ibid.: 71). At this point, the theoretical framework of Emirbayer and Mische (1998), was applied to further make sense of the data in an interative process.
The analysis of this data is ongoing and will be completed by March 2019. The research aims to explore two particular questions: 1. How can we better understand young people’s achievement of agency? 2. To what extent does belonging to a group impact the achievement of agency experienced by young people with a care experience? The expected outcomes would include the positive effects of group participation on young people’s agency, through enhancing their confidence and improving their access to relational/social resources through networking. The research will also provide different understandings, regarding the effectiveness of these interventions, and their effects on young people’s educational aspirations.
Biesta, G. and Tedder, M. (2006) How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as achievement. Working Paper 5, Learning Lives. Available from: www.learninglives.org/.../Working_paper_5_Exeter_Feb_06.pdf [Accessed: March 1st 2013]. Cremlin, H., Mason, C. and Busher, H. (2011) Problematising pupil voice using visual methods: findings from a study of engaged and disaffected pupils in an urban secondary school. British Educational Research Journal, 37 (4), 585-603. Davies, B. (2006) Subjectification: the relevance of Butler’s analysis for education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27 (4), pp. 425-438. Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998) What is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103 (4), 962-1023. Ford, T., Vostanis, P., Meltzer, H., & Goodman, R. (2007). Psychiatric disorder among British children looked after by local authorities: comparison with children living in private households. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 190(4), 319-325 Meltzer, H., Gatward, R., Corbin, T., Goodman, R., & Ford, T. (2003). The mental health of young people looked after by local authorities in England. London: The Stationery Office. O’Higgins, A., Sebba, J., & Luke, N. (2015). What is the relationship between being in care and the educational outcomes of children. An international systematic review. Priestley, M., Biesta, G., & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher agency: An ecological approach. Bloomsbury Publishing. Sinnema, C. and Aitken, G. (2013) Trends in international curriculum developments. In: Priestley, M. and Biesta, M. (eds.) Reinventing the curriculum: new trends in curriculum policy and practice. London: Bloomsbury.
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