14 SES 02 A, School-related Transitions - Secondary Education and Beyond
For several reasons, German boarding schools and their alumni represent a particularly interesting field of research. Many of the German boarding schools are medially associated (and advertised) with the term elite, which is associated with the claim of an exceptional or holistic pedagogy, academic excellence, a variety of extra-curricular activities and better opportunities in later life, including social networks with all graduates of the respective boarding school. In Germany, boarding school education is the exception rather than the rule and boarding schools are a minority among schools in general, but in the area of boarding schools the largest share is found within upper secondary-level leaving with the university entrance examinations, the so-called ‘Abitur’. The high costs of private boarding schools and the performance-based entrance examinations of state schools alone make them socially selective. At the same time, as a result of the abuse scandals at Catholic and country boarding schools, boarding schools are socially associated less with the elite and more with places outside of family care and protection. Despite this contradiction, the number of boarding schools remains constant and the schools' claim to educate an elite (in the sense stated above) also.
Apart from these discussions, however, nothing is systematically and empirically known about the further biographies and trajectories of former boarding school students of those elite schools in Germany. For the anglo- and francophone countries like the UK it is known that these alumni of boarding schools disproportionately run the country in politics, law, business, media (Bond, 2012; Steel et al., 2015; Wakeling & Savage, 2015). But even there, the question how school affects post-school biographies in a qualitative approach is not examined, yet (Kennedy & Power, 2010 for Ireland; Berg 2013 for Cuba; Madrid 2015 for Chile).
My scholarly interest is fed by two sources: first, given the debate in Germany that elite production does not take place through the education system, I wonder what contribution these boarding schools make to inequality. Second, I am interested in the socialisation experiences of alumni, since despite their privileged endowment, boarding schools are total institutions (Goffman 1961; Foucault 1979) that equate work, life, and leisure in one place, pacing them and permanently separating children and adolescents from their previous relationships.
Therefore, it is important to research alumni of German boarding schools because a) no previous research on this has been done before to figure out whether and how former boarding school students get into socially relevant positions in Germany, what role their experiences in boarding school play and how being a particular school alumni supports post-school careers. Because of the German Abitur, boarding school alumni initially seem to have no discernible advantages over other upper-secondary school graduates when they start studying, since for most limited study places only the Abitur grade is relevant. b) the study is important to shed light on out how alumni experienced their boarding school years and subsequently interpret them after leaving the school. This gives us hints on c) whether and how habitus aspects such as patterns of thought, perception and action (Bourdieu 1977) and the social and cultural capital incorporated in boarding schools are working in post-school trajectories.
The study addresses two key questions. First, it analyzes alumni's subjective perceptions and interpretations of their boarding school experience to gain insight into relevant socialization experiences. Second, it asks about the importance of these schools for the reproduction of social inequality and for the transition into high-status positions in society.
In order to investigate these questions a two-step sampling strategy was invented. First, two types of German boarding schools were addressed. 1. one is characterized by charging high fees and a new education in the country boarding school tradition (Landerziehungsheim), often combined with international curricula and an international student body; 2. the other is represented by state funded low-cost boarding schools with strict performance and personality-related entrance examinations for highly gifted students from Germany. Moreover, both types are not subject to exclusive specialisation (such as sport), but promote “talents”. In one case, however, “giftedness” is associated with strict admission procedures and cognitive resp. intelligence tests. In the other case the schools claim to foster “talents” in the broadest sense such as an exceptional pedagogy, excellent general conditions and equipment and a variety of extra-curricular activities. Hence, the field was opened by visits to all five (2 public, 3 private) schools, which included 2-3 expert interviews each with headmasters, school administrators, other school officials and representatives of the alumni associations, as well as ethnographic observations at schools and the collection of school documents such as annual and Abitur magazines. This also covers the special features of school culture and school organisation and reveals therefore information traces of socialisation in the biographies of the alumni. The second step of the qualitative sampling was to conduct autobiographical-narrative interviews with approximately 30-year-old graduates, 15 of them privately educated and 16 state educated with the help of the alumni associations and further sampling strategies. Using a biographical research method approach (e.g., Miller 2007; Rosenthal 2004), which allows “proximity to courses of action and to the experiences, and not only to the present interpretations of the investigated persons” (Rosenthal 2004: 50) the focus of the study lies on the alumni’s subjective interpretation of the boarding school years and the meaning for the later life. Therefore, experiences, courses of actions and the implicit knowledge related to the boarding school attendance are reconstructed. This allows both the analysis of the relationship between the subjective meaning and the objective life course as well as the analysis of implicit and explicit knowledge that allows conclusions about the habitus and use of capital.
The study reveals tendencies in pathways of privately educated alumni mainly into professions business, law and medicine and of state educated boarding alumni in academia as well as state-serving professions. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the boarding schools serve different class fractions (Helsper et al., 2009). The peer communities and the schools themselves in particular have a transformative power in the biographies of the small numbers of social climbers in our study that could not be found so far in other studies on the interplay between family, peers and school (Deppe, 2015; Kupfer, 2015). Beyond this, in the qualitative findings three main types of biographical meanings and trajectories in the alumni’s biographies could be singled out: 1. as a release of biographical opportunities; 2. as a part of adjustment trajectories; and 3. as a fulfillment of family biographical tasks and expectations. In terms of the production of social inequalities, the results show that alumni’s attitudes and habituses are particularly marked by an acquired attitude of entitlement which, not only because of their economic capital, but also because of their networks, enables them to pursue privileged paths. There are also cases that do not achieve a formal tertial qualification, but also gain access to occupational positions through social and oeconomic capital. At the same time, the cases are characterised by a general subjection to an all-inclusive excelling logic (Gaztambide-Fernández 2009), which is realised not only in the professional sphere, but also in the sphere of family reproduction.
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