differently about peers; and thinking differently about communities.
Thinking differently about families Current approaches and policies in widening participation are focused on a particular world view which still largely operates with a deficit model of families from lower socio- economic backgrounds. For example, if we say that children from lower SES (socio- economic status) backgrounds need their aspirations raised, somehow we are saying their background experiences are deficient. The solutions we currently offer focus on the activities of professionals, teachers, careers advisors, HE staff and those working in the professions themselves to raise these aspirations. As I say, I want to defend these activities as I think a range of approaches are useful. However, it seems to me that we need to look at the question slightly differently. Is it about aspiration-raising or is it more about imagining a different life?
If one of the successes of the middle and upper classes is that their children slip comfortably through education into professional careers can it not be said that they too are simply not imagining anything different to their parents’ lives? However, when we ‘think’ about working-class parents and their children we think of them as having no aspiration. I would argue that, like middle- and upper-class children, they simply cannot imagine difference, rather than having ‘low aspirations’. This suggests to me that working with parents and working in communities, rather than just focusing on schooling, may well be an additional useful strategy.
Some widening participation projects
already do this and some schools seek to work with their parents, but unless we see this as a vital part of our strategy it will not achieve full success. In other words, a more holistic approach to these issues, which recognises that families are part of the solution, rather than what is creating the deficiency, is necessary.
Thinking differently about peers Another area that it would be useful to reflect on in thinking forward to address inequality is to understand what influences young people apart from their families. While good school-teachers are obviously important, the role of peers cannot be underestimated. Research indicates that peers are vital to student success and can help to overcome many social disadvantages. People learn informally from each other and learn outside the classroom. They pick up on perceptions of what is valued within their peer group, which may or may not be educational success. One of the greatest successes of current widening participation programmes is the work that young university students do with young people in schools. This success can be understood when one realises that teachers are authority figures and that for many young people authority is problematic. If learning is only associated with authority, people do not learn successfully. Paul Willis recognised this back in the 1970s in his seminal work on
working-class pupils in education. He argued that working-class kids actively and skilfully resisted the identity of being ‘good’ at school and therefore resisted being ‘an earhole’ or clever. Their decision to deliberately act stupid was based on a calculation that this would give them greater respect from their peers. Unless greater effort is invested in recognising that many of these tactics are intelligent and creative we will not make the progress we wish to.
Thinking differently about communities Young people grow up in environments, not just home or school environments but in neighbourhoods, and they play and live within these environments. They encounter different members of their community who re-enforce the values and practices of that community. If young people are being presented with a value-set in one environment different to that presented in another, this creates a conflict which they need to resolve. If, however, their living environments concur this makes progress through life smoother. For a middle-class child, the family and the school environments concur but it is also the case that their community environment will re-enforce the values of home and school. This point is worth reflecting on in the work being undertaken to provide equity in education for all students from different backgrounds. Coleman, in his work in American communities, highlighted this point by suggesting that if there are strong positive role models in communities who favour education they can affect the success rate of students in that community. Equally, success rates in schooling vary across the UK with Northern Ireland having higher success rates than many other parts of the country. John Field noted that this is an example of social capital at work where networks reinforce and encourage behaviour within the whole community. Taken together, these approaches may well affect the success of young people as well as develop and build success for families and communities, but these solutions take time and are unlikely to succeed in large numbers in one generation. There are also other issues to take into account in looking at social mobility. Enabling different routes through to professional occupations, such as apprenticeships, is vital. In the Milburn report, the profession which has seen the most change toward elitism between the two birth cohorts is journalism. Since the 1960s, opportunities to train through the regional press, where cub reporters established themselves learning ‘on the job’ without qualifications, have largely dried up. In HE there are now a number of specific journalism courses with a hierarchy of where best to study. Hence, the alternative route through has been closed off, producing a profession that is increasingly elitist. Revitalising a society which is more open to different possibilities is important.
A final thought. One of the concerns I had with the report was that its idea of ‘the professions’ suggested a static view of success
and employment. In the ever-changing world of work, however, new ‘professions’ are emerging at a faster pace. Take the world of computing and games, for example. Equally, entrepreneurs and business start-ups are not really dealt with in the report and many of our current, and most successful, entrepreneurs did not follow conventional routes to success. In many of the world’s most dynamic communities it is these areas which are beginning to drive the economy and it may well be that these are the areas which provide different opportunities for social mobility.
Mary Stuart is Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln. She is a professor of higher education and before working in universities worked in adult education and community theatre.
Association of Commonwealth Universities, 2001, Engagement as a Core Value for the University, London: ACU
Christie, H., Munro M. and Fisher T., 2004, ‘Leaving university early: exploring the differences between continuing and non- continuing students’, Studies in Higher Education, 29 (5), 617-631
Coleman J.S., 1994, Foundations of Social Theory, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
Delors J., 1997, International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, Paris, UNESCO
Field J., 2005, Social Capital and Lifelong Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press
Mandelson P., 2009, ‘Individual and national success demands one path to higher skills’, Times Higher Education, 15 October 2009
Milburn, A., 2009, Unleashing Aspiration: The final report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions (www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/
Osborne M., 2003, ‘Policy and practice in widening participation: a six country comparative study of access as flexibility’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22 (1), 43-59
Stuart, M., 2006, ‘My Friends made all the difference: Getting into and succeeding at university for first-generation entrants’, Journal of Access Policy and Practice, 3 (2), 162-184
Tinto, V., 1998, ‘Learning Communities: Building Gateways to Student Success’, accessed at http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/
Willis, P., 1977, Learning to Labour: Why working class kids get working class jobs, Columbia: Columbia University Press
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NOVEMBER 2009 ADULTS LEARNING 11
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