23 SES 05 A, Public Debate and Education Policy
Parallel Paper Session
Over the last five years young people’s educational and occupational “aspirations” have been increasingly debated in UK. Policy and media outputs lament a “poverty of aspirations” particularly among young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This goes hand in hand with a new concern about stagnating social mobility in the United Kingdom. As a response, young people’s “aspirations” are researched and sought to be tackled through a number of initiatives and programmes. With the aim to improve educational "outcomes" and increase participation rates in Higher Education, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to “aim higher” in order to improve their chances on the labour market, avoid unemployment and reach more rewarding occupational positions.
A number of scholars have situated the “aspiration debate” in larger social, economic and educational policies, seeing it as an expression of a trend to make individuals responsible for their life outcomes (Raco, 2009; Archer, 2007) – a tendency that can be observed in other EU countries’ strategies to “activate” citizens and improve their "employability" (Spohrer, 2011). The promotion of the “aspirational” citizen has been critiqued for imposing middle class values and lifestyles on working class groups. Some scholars argue that in presenting Higher Education and professional destinations as the most prestigious destination, policy neglects the priorities of working class young people (Bright, 2011; Brown, 2011).
There is still little knowledge on how policies on "aspiration” impact on institutional practices and subjectivities of targeted groups (Raco, 2009). This paper aims to address this gap by illuminating how the rhetoric of official discourse “filters” down to a local setting and is interpreted and deployed by actors within it. It draws on the Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse as shaping the way we understand ourselves and the world around us (Foucault, 2002). Instead of adopting a deterministic understanding, it is assumed that “official” discourses are subject to negotiation and resistance when they enter local contexts (Bernstein, 1990; Bowe, Ball & Gewirtz, 1994). By exploring overlaps, tensions and appropriation of ideas at different discursive levels, the power effects of discourses can be explored.
The paper is based on a PhD project which set out to answer the following research questions: How do public debates problematise aspiration? How are official ideas interpreted and enacted by staff in a school context? How are young people invited to think and act about their futures and how do they respond to these demands? How do young people negotiate messages on aspiration which socially situated "discursive repertoires"?
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