Education

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.

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