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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Education

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.