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"How do I cope with that?" The development of ‘schooling identities’ amongst trainee FE lecturers

Ann-Marie Bathmaker
University of Sheffield

James Avis
University of Huddersfield

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004


This paper explores the development of professional identity amongst lecturers training to teach in FE. It examines the process of adaptation that takes place during teaching placement in FE colleges, as trainees negotiate between their own anticipated professional identity and the identities they assume as they engage in their work with students. The paper focuses in particular on the identities that trainee lecturers develop in their work with disaffected 16-19 year old students. Using case studies of two trainee lecturers, the paper explores the way in which the trainees come to adopt what they see as a ‘pedagogic’ ‘teacherly’ identity, which they had previously associated with school teachers, in response to their work with such students. We suggest that this notion of a ‘schooling identity’, whilst contrasting with the vocational identities proposed in the work of Colley et al (2003), is constructed through similar processes of habitus construction and reconstruction.


Ann-Marie Bathmaker, University of Sheffield, Department of Educational Studies, 388 Glossop Road, Sheffield, S10 2JA

James Avis, University of Huddersfield, School of Education and Professional Development, Queensgate, Huddersfield, HD1 3DH


The FE context

Colleges in England can no longer be defined only as providers of ‘post-compulsory’ education and training. As part of the strengthening policy impetus of a 14-19 continuum (DfES, 2002; 2003; Working Group on 14-19 Reform, 2004), where young people are expected, if not quite required, to continue with education and/or training until the age of 19, colleges are seen as playing a key role in motivating young people who are disaffected at school. This includes young people from the age of 14, who may now spend one or two days a week in college rather than school. The development of such provision originates in a concern for the 10% of young people defined as socially excluded, who disappear from education and training between the ages of 14-19 (SEU, 1999). Whilst such provision is very recent, over the past 30 years, there has been an ever-changing spectrum of provision aimed at young people who fit into what might now be described as the ‘other 40%’. By this we mean young people who are not part of the 50% who now achieve 5 grades A*-C at GCSE, nor are they counted as part of the socially excluded 10%. They form part of the ‘other 40%’, who are considered to have been unsuccessful in their school education careers as measured against the GCSE grade C watershed.

For these young people, notions of college as a second chance, as different to school, and as where the relevance, or at least the need to complete further study is agreed between teachers and students, form part of a common sense understanding of what college represents. However, our work, as well as that of other researchers in FE (for example Bates and Riseborough, 1993, Bloomer and Hodkinson, 1997, 1999), suggests that college is not an automatic and miracle cure for all young people who are amongst the ‘other 40%’, despite the promise of a second chance to achieve educational success, and the access to ‘good jobs’ that this is supposed to open up. In this paper we explore the adaptations that trainee lecturers make in their work with such students, and how they come to develop ‘schooling identities’ in FE, despite their own and their students’ desire to escape what ‘schooling’ represents.

Structure of the paper

In the first part of the paper we identify a number of theoretical frames which are relevant to an understanding of the development of lecturers’ professional identity. We then present two case studies of trainee lecturers from a study carried out in the English Midlands in the academic year 2001-2002. We discuss a number of factors which are revealed in the two case studies, which appear to have an impact on the development of the trainees’ professional identity. We propose that the notion of a ‘schooling identity’ or habitus might be used to describe the identity which the trainees in this study come to adopt in relation to working with disaffected and unmotivated young people in FE.

The formation of professional identity

There are a number of ways of thinking about our data which provide insights into the development of professional identity. Recent research on teaching and learning cultures and on the formation of identity highlights the social nature of identity formation, that is, how meaning and identity are constructed in social contexts, and utilises a range of theoretical concepts.

The development of identity through engagement with a community of practice

The work of Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998) on apprenticeship and learning through communities of practice has been used by a number of researchers, including ourselves (Avis et al, 2002; Bathmaker and Avis, forthcoming). Lave and Wenger propose a conceptualisation of learning related to participation in communities of practice.

They define a community of practice as:

a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice. (Lave and Wenger, 2002, p.115)

They explain that the term community of practice implies:

participation in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their communities. (Lave and Wenger, 2002, p.115)

To explain how newcomers become participants in communities of practice, they put forward a reconceptualisation of apprenticeship. They argue that apprenticeship does not so much involve learning through formal instruction or processes of observation and imitation. Rather it involves learning through engagement with practice and involves absorbing a general idea of what being part of the community involves: how experienced members talk, walk, work, conduct their lives, how outsiders interact with it, how and when and about what old-timers collaborate, and what they enjoy, dislike and respect (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p.95).

They describe learning by novices as a process of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p.29). The term ‘legitimate’ is used to denote participation in the real and necessary activities of the community of practice, while ‘peripheral’ means that less demands on time, effort and responsibility are made than for full participants. Peripherality can be empowering as a place in which one moves towards more intensive participation, but can also be disempowering as a place in which one is kept from participating more fully (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p.36). The concept of legitimate peripheral participation means that access to a community of practice and to the artefacts and activities of that community are very important, if newcomers are to learn. This includes access to a range of ongoing activity, to experienced members of the community, and to information, resources, and opportunities for participation.

The work of Lave and Wenger is useful in exploring the relationship between trainees and experienced lecturers and how this contributes to the formation of professional identities. However, a major issue in relating their work to the context of teaching is defining how students are positioned within such a theoretical framework. Do students constitute part of the community of practice, to be worked with, or are they defined as ‘objects’, to be worked on by the ‘teaching’ community of practice?

At this point we simply want to use this question to draw attention to the importance of considering student identities, and relationships between students and lecturers, as a factor in the formation of lecturers’ professional identities, and turn to a second theoretical frame relevant to our data.

Development of professional identity through engagement with students: youth identities and responses to schooling

There is a considerable literature concerned with youth transitions which explores young people’s responses to schooling and initial post-compulsory education and training. Recent work by McFadden and Munns (2002) pinpoints the significance of such work for understanding teaching and learning cultures, using a quote from Bernstein. Bernstein observes:

If the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, then the culture of the child must first be in the consciousness of the teacher (Bernstein, 1970, cited in McFadden and Munns, 2002, p.357)

Although our data were gathered from trainee lecturers, and do not include data from the students they were working with, we nevertheless find insights from work on young people’s identities and responses to schooling and formal education useful for contextualising and interrogating the trainees’ conceptualisations of their 16-19 students.

There are a number of typologies of student responses to schooling (for example, Brown, 1988; Pollard and Filer, 2004) and post-compulsory education and training (for example, Bloomer and Hodkinson, 1997; Macrae, Maguire and Ball, 1997). These typologies offer a range of orientations to formal education, from full engagement, through compliance with what is required, to resistance and rejection. To explain these responses, particularly amongst those who are disaffected and disengaged from formal academic education, attention is drawn to how structures of class, race and gender are significant factors in the shaping of young people’s experience. At the same time, there is debate about the opportunities for individual agency. Whilst there has been a move away from theories which privilege structure and which stress the role schools play in social and cultural reproduction, there is nevertheless a great deal of caution about the opportunities for agency and the limits that structure places on such opportunities. The term ‘bounded agency’ has been used as a way of explaining this (Thomson et al, 2003, p.35).

The use of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus

Bourdieu’s work, particularly his concept of habitus, has been used increasingly to explore the tension between structure and agency in the formation of identity. Bourdieu’s ideas are used to bring together the range of factors suggested above in understanding the processes of negotiating and constructing identity.

Recent work by Colley et al (2003) uses Bourdieu, particularly the concepts of habitus and field, to develop the idea of ‘vocational habitus’. As Colley et al explain:

‘[habitus] incorporates both the subjective, personal dispositions and the collective structural pre-dispositions shaped by class, race and gender that are combined in each individual.’ (Colley et al, 2003, p.477)

Habitus is located in the context of a particular field (Bourdieu, 1998), which is where the value of different kinds of capital - economic, cultural and social - is defined. It is here that the sense of what counts as worthwhile and worth investing in is negotiated and determined.

Colley et al apply Bourdieu’s concept of field to the sets of social relations in particular learning sites. However, what Colley et al propose is that the field, as it applies to the learning sites they investigate in FE, derives not just from the sets of relations within institutions themselves. Field in this context embraces the broader set of social relations within particular occupations for which FE vocational courses are preparing learners, and the broader social relations within which those occupations are located, all of which influence and shape the nature of the teaching and learning relations they find in FE.

They use Bourdieu’s work to explore the idea of learning as a process of ‘becoming’, that is, a process of developing membership and identity. This process of becoming, they argue, does not involve a straightforward assimilation of a particular occupational identity, but more a process of orientation to and an interaction with existing forms of ‘vocational habitus’. They propose therefore that:

‘sets of dispositions [are] derived from both idealised and realised identities, and informed by the notions and guiding ideologies of the vocational culture.’ (p.493)

Thus vocational cultures are created partly by the cultures and practices of particular occupations, but they are also co-constructed by students and teachers, who interact with the dominant discourses of vocational education and training and the discourses of the occupational cultures for which they are supposed to prepare.

The notion of ‘vocational habitus’ is used by Colley et al to explore the processes of identity formation involved in vocational courses, which are clearly geared to preparation for particular occupations. In our research the concept does not apply in the same way to the work of teaching and learning that goes on in general and general vocational courses at lower levels (below level 3/advanced level) in the English national qualifications framework.

Vocational habitus as defined by Colley et al is influenced by the vocational cultures of the assumed occupational destinations of students. Lecturers draw on their own experience as practitioners in the relevant occupational area and use their knowledge of practice to help socialise and prepare students for future employment. In contrast, general and general vocational courses are a step removed from preparation for specific employment, so that teachers and learners do not necessarily share an occupational route in common. Instead what they do share in common is a mutual involvement in formal educational study, and we find that similar factors to those identified by Colley et al are relevant to understanding the development of professional identity, and the development of students’ learning identities in this context. This includes the lecturers’ personal dispositions, the dispositions and orientations to learning of their students, the cultures of the communities of practice within which lecturers are working, and structuring factors including qualifications systems and achievement targets. Rather than the influence of occupational cultures and expectations, we find a culture of ‘schooling’ as a predominant influence on the construction of interactions between teachers and learners, which leads to the development of what might be called a ‘schooling identity’ by the two trainee lecturers in our study.

While Colley et al use ‘field’ to refer to the sets of social relations in institutions, other researchers have begun to apply Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to educational institutions as well as to individuals (Reay et al, 2001; Smith, 2003). Here, it seems, habitus is used to move away from ‘field’ as a more enduring notion, and to suggest the dynamic nature of institutional cultures, which involve a mixture of past and present, of individual and collective, in a continuous process of constructing and re-constructing cultures of teaching and learning.

What we find particularly useful about these discussions is the ways in which they explore the complex interaction of structure and agency, and how these contribute to the formation of teacher and learner identity. They draw attention to the multiplicity of factors, which contribute to the construction of teaching and learning cultures in particular sites of learning. They suggest that institutional cultures as well as individual factors are not static, but interact with one another, and are re-formed through this process. Thus we find an emphasis on learning as participation, as ‘actively co-constructed by teachers and students’ (Colley et al, 2003, p.476), which involves ‘co-learning by students and teachers’ (Smith, 2003, p.468), in interaction with particular learning cultures and communities of practice.

We find the notion of ‘vocational habitus’ helpful in defining the processes of identity formation involved in vocational courses, which are clearly geared to preparation for particular occupations. However, in our research into the development of professional identity amongst trainee FE lecturers, this concept does not apply so readily to the work of teaching and learning that goes on in general and general vocational courses, particularly at lower levels (below level 3/advanced level) in the national qualifications framework. At the same time, we find that similar factors are relevant to understanding the development of professional identity. This includes the trainees’ personal dispositions, the dispositions and orientations to learning of their students, the cultures of the communities of practice within which they are working, and structuring factors including qualifications systems and achievement targets. But rather than the influence of occupational cultures and expectations, we find a culture of ‘schooling’ as a predominant influence on the construction of interactions between teachers and learners. The data from trainees in our research suggest that one of the professional identities that lecturers develop is what might be called a ‘schooling identity’, which we discuss further once we have presented data from two trainees in our study.

The development of professional identity amongst trainee FE lecturers: our research study

The case studies of the two trainee lecturers presented in this paper form part of a wider research study undertaken with one year group of full-time students (totalling 120 students) training to teach in further education at a university in England. Data for the study were collected during the academic year 2001-2002 through focus groups, questionnaires and interviews. All students who were present on one day in February 2002, midway through their course, took part in a focus group discussion (the 55 students present were split into four groups) and all 55 students completed a questionnaire.

In addition, a request was made for volunteers willing to be interviewed individually about their perceptions and experience during their training year, and 17 students were subsequently interviewed in May, just before the end of their one year training course. Anna and Carole (both names are pseudonyms) were two of these students. Anna was training to teaching Business Studies, and Carole to teach English and Communications. Their interviews are used here, because they discuss in some detail working with younger students who are studying for lower level (below level 3/A-level equivalent) qualifications.

Below we use data from each interview, to present the stories which Anna and Carole tell of becoming a teacher of students, who appear to be disaffected from formal education.

"It wasn’t like I thought it was going to be at all."

Anna, trainee FE lecturer 2001-2002

Personal experience of formal education

Going to FE myself and doing my HND, everybody turned up, everybody was respectful of the tutor.

Working with disaffected 16-19 year olds

It would have probably been better or the same to have taught at school as it is to teach GNVQ intermediate. I don’t enjoy it at all. I don’t feel there is any reason for me to be there really, they’d be just as happy with an empty room and someone to sign their EMA papers at the end of the day, and actually it turns you into being quite demoralised really. You do want me to be honest don’t you?

The people that I’ve taught, these kids don’t care, they don’t care if they learn anything or not learn anything. They have no motivation to be there at all. Well, it’s a shame, but I don’t see that it is my problem and I know that sounds horrible.

I mean I turned up on Tuesday to listen to presentations - nobody came, nobody at all, and they’re not worried about it, they’ll jus’ go "we’ll get another chance, we’ll get another chance or they’ll jus’ scrap that bit an’ we’ll pass anyway".

A lot of the students that I’ve got in my group are from pretty poor backgrounds. A lot of them are having a lot of problems with parents and problems like that.

I have got four students on the GNVQ that are just, because they haven’t got the pieces of paper, they haven’t got the GCSEs for what ever reason, their only choice is the GNVQ but they are way way more intelligent than that. That implies that I think GNVQ students are thick, it’s not. There are a lot of them that have a lot of problems on the GNVQ - very very behind with any kind of key skills at all, but then you’ve got another load right the other end because they haven’t got the GCSEs, so have to go onto that, and I have looked at the assignments that they have put in and they’re brilliant, absolutely spectacular, and they haven’t come [to college classes], ‘cos they didn’t need to come. All they had to do was sit and write what they had to do. Those ones will have enough to go [to university] but that’s because they shouldn’t have been on that course, which goes back to the fact that I think those courses should be run at school so that when the kids get to sixteen/ seventeen and want to go to FE they actually want to go to FE, instead of having to go there because they won’t get any dole money.

Perceptions of the underlying issues

I think that retention in FE has meant that the quality of the student is just out the window and I think that they should run the GNVQ intermediate and foundation level at school. Because you’ve got to remember a lot of these students are sixteen, seventeen and have no qualifications at all, and are coming to FE to teachers who are not trained to teach them. I’m not trained to teach disaffected or problem kids which a majority of my classes are. My personal opinion is that they should have that at school from fourteen so that at least when they get to FE to do the advanced or the AVCE, by the time they’re twenty they might actually have some qualifications.

The main thing, the main concerns there seem to be are over retention, to get these students through the course by whatever means. And you know we give the assessment, the assignment out right at the beginning of the course and every lesson is geared to that assignment. I’m teaching business GNVQ intermediate and every lesson I’ve done is, there is no teaching round the subject, no interest in anything else beside getting them through that assignment and I might as well have written it for them basically because they’re not interested in what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

I would say that it [the curriculum] was so, well it is so rigid. The Business GNVQ is so aimed to get these kids into either a shop or a manufacturing factory or production of some kind. There was no way there was any motivation for them to go higher than that. It was almost like "will you be happy to be in retail, that is what we are going to teach you, to be a good shop keeper, and that is your lot." And I found that quite disturbing because there is no aspiration for them to go higher than that. You couldn’t even imagine anyone who was going to be a business manager or manage their own store or manage their own shop there was just no mention of that at all. You are going to be in retail, customer service or production.

They’re bored, bored they don’t need to come. The assignment is set out for them in such a way that they can do it from home, they could do it from a book, it is so detailed you know, construct an organisational structure. They can do that at home they don’t need me to tell them the different structures and everything else, there is no need for us to be there.

The GNVQ just have to write in their own words what is already there, they are given so much of it that I think for them to get to HE they are going to really struggle because HE you are not given, you are taught to criticise things and analyse whereas at GNVQ level right the way up, even the AVCE, you are given all of those things you need to have. I don’t even think that they’ve thought that is where they are going to go.

The external assessment that’s done, Edexcel I’ll use as an example, is expecting to find certain bits of paper, certain things have been done from certain passages. So I think it leaves the FE teachers in a position where they have to adjust if they’re lucky enough to get the kids come to the lesson to get that bit of information that comes from that certain book at that certain time. Because otherwise you know you’ve got to get that bit done because Edexcel are expecting that bit of paper so that it’s kind of "Oh! We better do that bit today because they’ll be looking for that."

College communities of practice

They’re the miserablest bunch of people I’ve ever met. I sit in the staff room and I don’t speak I just sit there you know and you’ll get the big groups of them an’ they’ll just, they are so miserable, they are really so miserable and you know if I wasn’t unmotivated before I certainly am now.

There’s things like the Christmas dinner, for example. The catering just decided to put it in the same room, the staff as well as the students, and half the staff were horrified. They were literally going to have to share their Christmas dinner next to students. You know there seems to be this terrible need for this them and us, for them to feel something special about themselves. But because at the end of the day the college are bending over backwards to deal with the customers, the students, which is just the way business is, the staff are feeling they are the ones having to take second best now because everyone is trying to please the students.

I have thought of jacking it in really seriously jacking it in because I can’t imagine working in an atmosphere like that where no body cares from one group to the other what you are doing or what you are not doing. You don’t see anybody going to anybody for help or advice or any of that. Everybody is all isolated to do their own little groups and you just go an’ do it, and moan about the fact that they haven’t turned up.

I am in an office with people that are very middle class or want to be, whatever they are. They think because they’ve gone into teaching now they are middle class people and they only shop at Marks and Spencer. They have a total different perspective on what is actually going on in the world than me. I’ve listened to conversations about the problems they have in buying this house for £200,000 and the problems they are having with "Josh is at private school …." I am sorry but for the majority of the students that goes to this college where I am, just the normal run of the mill working class place - the things that they need to know about are the things that are actually going to affect them. That’s not to say that one day they won’t be classed as middle class or whatever but in the meantime, I feel they need to know about everyday normal life. This is ASDA this is this and I don’t think that they would get that kind of reasoning from someone who only shops at Marks and Spencer.

I’m still the same working class person, I’m just me, and I’d like to tell other people about what I’ve learned.

Preferred teacher identity

It would be nice to be able to teach them a subject and make it more fun, make it more interesting. I have tried but then you get to the students and you think they don’t really care. It’s kind of a vicious circle really. I think I could make it as interesting as ever and they still wouldn’t come. I don’t know that’s a bit of a double edged sword on that one I think, I’m not really sure how to make it better.

My ideal would be that I could use my own resources not the book that’s the core text that I have to take it from, to actually open their minds up to different books, different ideas and criticise it.

I just want to put it into terms that they understand and can relate to rather than telling them about a place that they will probably never think about again and then won’t relate it to what was taught.

"How do I cope with that?"

Carole, trainee FE lecturer 2001-2002

Personal experience of formal education

I loved primary school but hated secondary. I went to a huge comprehensive. It didn’t work, it was just such a vast system. I did really well, but I was just incredibly unhappy there, the whole anonymous environment, you know, people don’t really know your name, you were a number really. I actually sometimes have nightmares about it, the corridors and assembly rooms, it’s just very negative.

FE was really good. I had very supportive lecturers. I had one very supportive lecturer who really encouraged me, noticed I was bright and able, but also encouraged me to go to university which I wanted to do anyway. And this lecturer in FE, she was just really really fabulous, a great teacher. Perhaps good because she wanted you to do well and get the grades, but also really inspiring, really really skilled and very kind of able to see people’s stories, what might be going on and what kind of support they might need.

Everyone always said "you’d be a really good teacher" but I didn’t like the idea of working in schools, I don’t like the rigid environment of schools and I didn’t have a very good experience myself.

Working with disaffected 16-19 year olds

My one constant this year has been my GCSE group, and I think I was really shocked at the ability level. It was really really shocking at first. I was actually also really angry for them, that they’d come through the education system with like basic literacy problems and thinking how can a sixteen, seventeen year old be in this position? And you know, I mean it’s also, I felt, "How do I cope with that?" I mean I know there’s learning support, but I know that they’re a little bit overburdened as well. It’s difficult ’cos I’m teaching them things and also thinking they’ve got real basic underlying problems here which are difficult to actually address, especially the boys, the lads, some of them have got really profound problems.

I actually had this really weird experience the first few weeks of teaching I actually felt like, I realised that they didn’t think I could hear them when they were chatting and I was really thinking about this. I’d say "come on, come on, pay attention". But I actually thought that they were actually treating me like I was some kind of visual thing, the TV or something, and they could just kind of ….. And I think it’s because they’re so used to this TV, kind of passive, you don’t interact, there’s no dialogue, you just watch this thing move around, and when you’re not interested you chat to your friend. They just didn’t think I could hear them. I really felt like that at the front of the class I really felt, absolutely, completely passive. I think the whole kind of being really passive, computer games, TV kind of culture I think it’s really tangible in those kind of lower ability groups.

I had a class yesterday afternoon and they were just so lethargic and I was trying to get them inspired because they’ve got the exam next Thursday.

I feel like in a weird position because I feel like they’re looking to me to teach them and they think they’re going to get a ‘C’ because I’m teaching them and they’re trying to do what I say, but I know that when they come to the exam and their grammar and their spelling is looked at there’s no way on earth they’re going to get a ‘C’. So I feel in a bit of a weird kind of contradictory position. They may well think "she’s let us down", but some of them have actually been offered learning support but they look on it as something they don’t want to do, that isn’t cool. I don’t know what their thinking is but they’ve rejected it as well. So I’m not sure what the solution is, I think they seem to maybe do the GCSE a few times while they’re here and maybe just the sheer exposure of just going over and over writing essays they might move up, I don’t know.

I also think they’re quite old now and this really should be something that should have been addressed many many years ago. I mean it says quite a lot about the education system, it’s like my old comprehensive, they had top sets to bottom sets and the top sets did really well and the kids in the bottom sets did have problems and if they just end up in this you know position where because schools are worried about their league tables they just want to make sure that a significant percentage gets C or above in their GCSEs and they don’t really put the energy into those who’ve got real problems. You know real time and real money to try and jump them up to a C. So that might be a wider thing about the whole league table issue.

Perceptions of the underlying issues

All the assessment is so strict it’s going to be this exam and this piece of coursework and they don’t actually encourage anything different. I mean there’s no reward as a teacher, there’s not going to be any reward visibly for the students to actually do something completely different necessarily and even if they have these incredible personal responses it’s not going to be rewarded when they write it down in the exam and if they bring that in. Just by the fact of the assessment being really strictly basically an exam that’s where everything becomes, that’s what inevitably drives teaching.

College communities of practice

I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s got a sixth form feel which I think is good as a new teacher because it’s a bit more kind of structure and there’s a bit more of that slightly schoolish kind of feel which I don’t really like but it’s probably good in a small setting and I have really enjoyed it.

I found the staff room quite strange, I’ve got a few friends who are teachers and I think staff rooms are funny places. I felt like all the student teachers were there but we kind of didn’t really know what our place was. But overall, I think with the departments I’ve had contact with, really really supportive, really friendly. But I don’t really feel like I actually know that many people in the wider college because it does seem to be like little groupings, I don’t know English, comms, media in one place, and maybe other subjects in other places.

Preferred teacher identity

I like the idea of the equality and the sense that they are young adults and the lack of the hierarchy in FE compared to schools.

I hate the whole ‘miss’, ‘can I do this miss?’ ‘can I go to the toilet miss?’.

I think I’ve got different sides to my personality in terms of my teaching, I think I can be, I think my GCSE experience has made me in some ways quite strict because they are very difficult. And in some ways I don’t really like that. You can get into the habit of being quite strict and you have to control what’s going on and be very on the ball which I can find quite tiring actually and I wouldn’t like to do that every day. I imagine it’s a bit like secondary school teaching. So I’ve got that and I think it’s good to know that I can do that and know that I can deal with difficult groups, but I enjoy more the equality and humour and open discussion and I enjoy that more.

I’d like to be a really creative teacher, at the moment I don’t think I am. My ideal session would be something really different, really quite dynamic, something that really encourages the students to have a personal response, to really open up and feel comfortable and confident I think especially with the plays and the poetry. I think it’s something where you could maybe not every session, I think that quite conventional sessions are good but maybe to have occasions when you really do read poetry and do your own interpretation of it.

Discussion: the development of ‘schooling identities’

Idealised professional identities: the trainees’ expectations of teaching in further education

Both Anna and Carole have expectations of what teaching in FE should look like. Based on their own experience of studying in FE, they anticipate that students will be working towards higher level (level 3/advanced level and above) qualifications, that they will be motivated, and that relationships between teachers and students will involve respect and support.

They expect and want FE to be different to what Carole describes as the ‘rigid’ environment of school. They believe that schools should deal with ‘disaffected and problem kids’ (Anna), and make sure students have achieved basic key skills (Carole). For both of them, working with disengaged, unmotivated 16-19 year olds is not what they had expected. Carole was ‘shocked’ at the ability level, and Anna says that ‘It wasn’t like I thought it was going to be at all.’

Realised professional identities: working with disaffected 16-19 year olds

Working with disaffected students requires a rethinking of the trainees’ idealised professional identities. They encounter students whose orientation to studying is one of rejection. The stories they tell suggest that students maintain the dispositions to learning that they have developed in school, and continue to reject learning by absenting themselves from it, including when they are in class. For while in Anna’s experience students fail to attend, Carole describes how her students absent themselves by treating her as though she were an artefact of the classroom, instead of a person to be engaged with. Students’ interaction is with each other, rather than with the teacher and studying.

There is a sense that for both the trainees and their students, the work they are involved in does not involve moving forwards, but looks backwards or treads water. It represents a continuation of ‘schooling’, where the right attitudes and behaviours, as well as the achievement of basic key skills, should be completed. Carole and Anna talk about this in two ways; firstly, in terms of how students should have achieved in school the skills that they are now working towards in college; secondly, in terms of students learning that they have already been assigned their lot in the occupational hierarchy.

While students attempt to disengage from these constructions of their identities by absenting themselves, within as well as without the classroom, the trainees fight against their assigned role by maintaining idealised and preferred teaching identities, even though they find these impossible to enact with such students.

Working within the dominant discourses of the FE context and the college community of practice

At the same time, both interviews reveal the struggles and contradictions that trainees face in working within the dominant discourses of FE, particularly what they see as the all-pervasive culture of preparation for external assessment. They suggest that an assessment culture forces students to work their way through what they are required to learn rather than encouraging students to engage with learning. Yet they feel obliged to push students through the assessment system, because as Anna explains, the main concern of the college is seen a retention and achievement.

As a result, Carole talks of how:

You can get into the habit of being quite strict and you have to control what’s going on and be very on the ball which I can find quite tiring actually and I wouldn’t like to do that every day. I imagine it’s a bit like secondary school teaching.

and Anna says:

It would have probably been better or the same to have taught at school as it is to teach GNVQ intermediate.

Both associate the adaptations they feel obliged to make with the adoption of characteristics they associate with schooling.

Anna graphically describes a further contradiction she faces in her college in relation to the collegial cultures she encounters. Although she herself shows negative responses to her work with disaffected 16-19 year olds, she nevertheless feels completely alienated from her colleagues who demonstrate similar responses. Referring to other lecturers as ‘the miserablest bunch of people I’ve ever met’, she talks of a ‘them and us’ culture between students and lecturers, and sees her colleagues as dissociating themselves from the working class cultures of the students, and showing no desire to engage with them.

The co-construction of teaching and learning cultures

The terms ‘co-learning’ and ‘co-construction’ are employed deliberately in the literature to indicate how teachers’ and students’ interactions and individual agency contribute to the overall development of teaching and learning cultures. However, as Colley et al (2003) argue in their work, this may not lead to more productive, empowering, or enabling learning cultures, but may act to re-inscribe existing structural constraints within teaching contexts. In our study, lecturers and students contributed to the construction of the teaching and learning culture through their attempts to reject work which they identified with schooling. However, both students and trainee lecturers responded to each other’s attempts to escape ‘schooling’ by re-insribing schooling practices and behaviours onto teaching and learning cultures in FE.


In this paper we have suggested that one of the identities that trainee lecturers develop in further education is a ‘schooling identity’. We mean by this a role which Anna and Carole, the two trainee lecturers discussed in this paper, associate with schooling. It involves controlling and disciplining young people who are reluctant to study and who show little motivation. The focus is as much, if not more, on the difficulties associated with managing and inculcating approved student behaviour, as on the role of teaching and developing subject or vocational knowledge and skills. It is reminiscent of the teacher identities discussed in the literature on the new vocationalism in the 1980s, where it was argued that ‘schooling’ was used as a substitute for employment, at a time when youth unemployment increased considerably (Bates et al, 1984; Chitty, 1991; Dale, 1985). We do not use the term ‘schooling identity’ to suggest that it equates with the professional identity of school teachers, but we do suggest, based on our data, that the work of teaching and learning in FE with disaffected young people, in a context of credential acquisition and performativity (Ball, 2003) appears to push both teachers and students towards relationships and identities which they associate with the negative sides of schooling. The process of ‘becoming’ involving anticipation of future occupational identity, which Colley et al (2003) speak of, appears here to be a process which refers backwards rather than forwards, and leaves teachers and students at best standing still.

Even though the two trainees discussed in this paper initially reject a schooling identity, they ultimately come to re-inscribe such an identity in the work that they do with disaffected 16-19 year olds. Whilst they and their students expect and wish to move away from the teaching and learning relations that they associate with school, the trainee lecturers describe how such relations become recreated in their work with these young people in FE. This ‘schooling identity’ does not match their anticipated teacher identity, which they hold onto as something separate, to be used with other, more motivated, more ‘adult’ students.

Why concern ourselves with unpicking the identities adopted by lecturers in FE? In a context where colleges as well as other locations for learning are seen as the solution for re-engaging disaffected young people, we need to remain aware that relocating teaching and learning may not address the wider structures of opportunity and constraint, which can mean that new opportunities are as unequal as the old ones. Furthermore, such relocation does not automatically change the dispositions, values, the habitus which teachers and learners bring to the learning context. We conclude with a quote from Martin Bloomer, who reminds us that in order to effect change, it is imperative that we engage with teachers’ and students’ beliefs and values and identities in constructing ways forward:

Teachers and students do not merely receive and ‘act out’ externally imposed prescriptions of their tasks, they ‘act upon’ those prescriptions in the construction of their own practices. They are actors, acting in accordance with their own understandings and constructions and it is precisely for this reason that programmes for change, if they are to have any effect, must be directed to those understandings and constructions. (Bloomer, 1997, pp.186-187)


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 06 January 2005