All by myself? The misrecognition of success as an individual endeavour


In one symposia at BERA conference 2014, there was an interesting comment from the floor that in one village a colleague lived in, there were three millionaires and two were hairdressers. This comment was interesting as after all, not all hairdressers are millionaires . I would argue in fact that those that are often exist as exceptions to the rule. This suggests that there must be other issues in play. Repeatedly at primary age there seems to be a convergence of aspiration around particular careers such as being a vet, a doctor, a lawyer (the mechanism for which I have talked about here) yet rarely do these become realities for these children. I propose therefore that whilst there is a commonality of aspiration, there is a uncommonality in the realities of the existences of these young people.

The recently reported statistic that 71% of judges come from 7% of schools begins to illuminate the issue but I would argue that it is less superficial that a simple financial or educational privilege. The age-old mantra of success breeding success might begin to get to the heart of the issue. In Distinction, Bourdieu talks about different capitals and the importance of certain forms of cultural capital to get on in life. Many of these capitals relate to the ability to network, to form common bonds with others and to fit in, yet the neoliberal agenda and the emphasis on individualised education and meritocracy does not help build this collectivist approach to success but instead keeps returning consistently to one of individualism.

High levels of graduate unemployment often relate to the inability to break into a desired field due to a lack of a route in. In some cases this is due to a lack of financial capital. It is well documented how the media industry often relies on a period of poorly paid or unpaid internships to gain entry to higher level jobs. Other reasons include an absence of jobs within that field in the locality in which they live or simply because many opportunities come not from what is formally advertised but through contacts within the industry and where they are formally advertised, employers often have candidates who are previously known to them earmarked for the job. All three reasons contrast starkly with the discourse that individuals are not trying hard enough to find work or that their degrees are ‘useless’

An emphasis on hard work and striving to make it into a particular career can therefore be seen to be at odds with the structural realities of the employment market and the discourse of striving; success for those who work hard. This individualistic approach is not entirely the model that successful people will follow. There is an element to success that is by its nature collaborative. Be it being seen at the right time by an influential person in the field or knowing someone who can act as a gatekeeper to an employer or a potential business contact, or even just as a mentor for moral support when success takes time so that individual doesn’t abandon their aspiration when faced with obstacles. 

I would argue, therefore that if we are to begin to tackle issues of aspiration, one area of the curriculum in schools that needs to address is that around how to develop these skills, not just in discreet careers education but as a central part of every subject. The use of project based working not just within one classrooms but between classrooms and across geographical boundaries. Helping young people to develop the skills and knowledge that it is ok to work with others to achieve a common goals and that often you need to move outside of their immediate peer group to find the collaboration that will be the most useful in any given circumstance.

Common dreams for an uncommon reality


Throughout the papers during the first day of BERA conference 2014, researchers repeatedly told of young people in their studies who consistently talked of being aspirational in their future career plans and dreams for the future, something which is consistent with my own experience and the blog Kim Allen and myself wrote on this topic recently. Like so many of the young people I work with, there are classed, gendered and ethnocentric elements to this. White working class boys often talk of wanting to be in the armed forces whilst Asian young people often talk of careers with prestige such as in Medicine.

There is, however a discord between these aspirations, the qualifications gained by these young people and the realities of the job market. Through the lens of Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, I would argue what is happening is a creation of legitimacy of certain occupations and a devaluation of others framed by the beliefs and values of those in the upper classes. More often than not this is brought into not just consciously but subconsciously by individuals and communities through their educational practices.

I would argue that current educational policies have served to reinforce this devaluation of more technical occupations and increasing legitimisation of others. For example the introduction of the EBacc measure of GCSE success gives weight to those young people who possess certain levels of academic knowledge in a specific range of subjects and devalues those whose strengths lie within vocational qualifications. Moreover, the reduction in weight in league tables of BTEC qualifications also reinforces this devaluation.

The issue is wider than the policies of secondary schooling; from the differentiated funding streams for STEM subjects in universities and the initiatives to the numerous initiatives to encourage  young people to choose STEM careers over others all work together to legitimise this discourse. By creating this perceived hierarchy of value, is it any surprise that parents who want their children to succeed buy into the discourse of certain careers and subjects being better than others, regardless of the talents or interests of their children?

To break this cycle of devaluation of careers and pathways that may create happier, more successful young people, those who understand the mechanisms at work need to begin to challenge them. By entering into a dialogue with those who perpetuate these myths of ‘better’ careers, more ‘valuable’ degrees or more ‘useful’ subject choices, we can begin to help young people find careers that they want to do and that they will be successful in instead of those which they are led to believe are superior.

Why Emma Watson has finally solved my feminist angst


I’ve wanted to write this blog for a long time, but I’ve been scared. Scared of the reaction and scared to come out of the closet as a feminist. This seems strange to say but there are feminists out there who aren’t comfortable with men identifying as feminists.

In her speech at the UN, Emma Watson eloquently addressed the reasons I have been struggling to resolve my relationship with feminism since I first properly encountered it. I was studying a course in Critical Social Psychology with the Open University and began to realise that many of the feminist ideals resonated with my beliefs of what was right and how society should be. The problem for me came down to the fact I am male. I read many articles and blog suggesting I could be a ‘feminist ally’ but not a feminist and I lacked the necessary characteristic that defined them; being female.

Fighting for women’s rights has too often been synonymous with man hating.. This has to stop

– Emma Watson

As time has progressed, I have been to many conferences and met many feminists who seem to move along the spectrum from having the opinion that Men can and should be feminists to the other extreme, the vilifiers of all men. Luckily, the later have been in the minority. This minority can, in many ways be the noticeable voice of feminism and what can create tension with the ideals feminism purports.

At a conference I attended, one particularly vocal individual was talking about advantage and inequality and gestured to me as she referred to the problem being ‘you white middle class men’. This positioning of me into a category based on my gender, ethnicity and presumed class took me aback. I am not about the deny being any of these, I have a stable income, a house, am certainly white and last time I checked I was also male. What I will contest is that this approach to inequality is the wrong one and I think Emma has  hit the nail on the head.

Addressing inequality is not about an us versus them approach who a battle of who has the most or least privilege but should be seen as an alliance to invoke change. Yes, a patriarchal system has caused many of the challenges women face on a daily basis but addressing these is about changing the mindset of those in power and winning them over to the side of equality, not about simply telling them they are wrong.

I sincerely home that the he for she campaign launched with Emma’s speech begins to get people to think in this way and that men in my position in future won’t be afraid to come out as a feminist for fear of being vilified or ridiculed by those who believe. Maybe men will never truly understand what it is like to be in the position of some women, nor might they really understand how much privilege they do hold by luck of a genetic draw but a desire for equality is not genetically linked to gender. Embrace the men that want to fight for equality, don’t fight against them if they are men, fight against them only if they believe that inequality is just and the status quo should remain.