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Spoilt for Choice? Pupil perceptions of the options process at year 9

Matt Cochrane

Edge Hill University

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007

Introduction

For most individuals, the first significant occasion when young people have a say in their educational direction occurs at 14+, although one could perhaps argue that some have demonstrated agency in the way they have approached 11-plus or entrance exams at the younger age, and a few may be allowed to exercise a degree of choice. Vincent (2001) describes her own and others’ work into parental involvement at this stage, and this seems to suggest that pupil involvement is quite small. Much of this work describes the different approaches (and, therefore the different outcomes) from families across the social spectrum. Vincent (2001) studied the interventions of parents and discovered that the parents who intervened most were ‘largely white, overwhelmingly home-owners, most[ly] higher educated .. .’ Significantly,

The most obvious form of activated capital in this group is cultural.
Vincent (2001, 349)

Moore (2004) builds a description of various forms of capital through reference to economic capital, using terms such as ‘investment’ and ‘return’. These forms of capital include social, linguistic, and particularly in the context of this investigation, cultural.

Cultural capital is defined largely in terms of qualifications gained through formal education, but also in the duration and quality of that formal education.

But how much of this capital is evident in a young person when they start to make their own decisions? The concept of cultural capital is described by Bourdieu (1997) as invested in the family – therefore implying that it will be evident in young people at the age of 14. But to what extent are they able to make use of and take advantage of this cultural capital? Are they able to invest for themselves? Clearly the young people themselves will not be familiar with concepts such as these, but nonetheless when I carried out a pilot study of year 10 pupils, they had a clear idea of their own identity, or ‘subjectivity’ as Bourdieu would prefer.

However, I suspect that this self-knowledge disposed the pupils to reinforce their current position rather than to set a different path for their futures. In fact, the pupils are exercising a range of dispositions, or as Nash (2005) puts it ‘tendencies to act’. The combinations of dispositions are referred to by Bourdieu as habitus.

In describing the concept of habitus, Reay (2004a) implies that young people’s habitus is evident in their behaviour – that they are conscious of a set of learned behaviours that infer membership of their own cultural and social group.

The effect of habitus (however the individual may recognise the concept) to reinforce membership of a social and cultural group may well inhibit the investment of cultural capital in the individual.

Pupils are therefore faced with a dilemma at age 14 – do they invest in cultural capital, which will tend to modify their habitus and take them away from their fellows, or do they yield to their membership of the group and continue on a path which perhaps to them seems destined? If this is a conscious process, then the young people can be said to have an understanding of cultural capital and a knowledge of their own habitus even if they would not use the same words to describe them.

This is all well and good, and assumes that the individual has a certain degree of agency in the choices they can make at this stage. However, there are constraints laid on them from a number of directions. These constraints are the product of how the school as an institution perceives the subjectivity of individual pupils and of the habitus and cultural capital of the pupils’ families.

First, the choices are not without limitations – as I described above, very often the courses open to the individual are fixed by the school’s perception of what is best for the individual. Thus low-achievers will be directed towards vocational-type courses, and the high achievers will be encouraged in the opposite direction – the poor esteem in which vocational courses are held acts as a barrier to their adoption.

Second, and linked to the above, many families displaying a high level of cultural capital will seek to influence their children to take a course of action which invests further capital – in this case in the form of higher-level qualifications (and these qualifications will tend to be sought in certain preferred subjects – academic subjects carry more cultural capital).

Third, the school will be anxious to maintain its position in the league tables, and will be influenced to steer young people towards those courses which will give the best statistical return.

Add to this the well-documented effect (see below) of socio-economic status on the education of young people, and there is precious little for them to decide!

Hatcher (1998) refers to studies carried out in 13 industrialised countries in which the vast majority show a continued effect of educational attainment of social origin. Reay et al (2001) also explore the effect of race and social class on choices in higher education, and find that in spite of some encouraging progress, white middle class students occupy a privileged position in their ability to access courses.

This paper reviews the thinking behind the decision making process for a group of young people in year nine of a comprehensive school – to what extent does the policy and practice they encounter at school impact on their choice of subject and on their perceived choice of career. From the pupils’ points of view, what, and how effective are the interventions offered to them by the school and by other influences?

Discussion of available literature

There is a wide range of studies in this area, though they generally fall into four categories.

Those which provide a voice for pupils in the age range 14-16 tend to bypass issues of cultural capital: Howieson and Semple (2000), relate children’s experiences of guidance and counselling in a number of Scottish secondary schools. They found that the children, in the age range from 14-18, were able to articulate their opinions of the guidance processes in their schools, and that these opinions were capable of contributing to the general debate on school evaluation. There was no attempt here to relate the pupils’ experiences to their background in any way. Adey & Biddulph (2001) carried out a survey into pupils’ motivations for choosing History and Geography at 14+. They discuss the influences of the subject (whether the subject itself was rewarding, or whether they liked the teachers) and of adults (parents and teachers), but again do not go into factors such as social background, cultural capital or habitus as setting the parameters of the social practice of subject selection.

Others which relate to the choices of children in this age group tend to focus on the parental aspect of choice, and are therefore implicitly influenced by cultural capital, though this is not always made explicit. Ball and Vincent (1998) for example study the choice of secondary school made by parents on behalf of their children. This is a useful study in that it refers to the concepts of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ knowledge used by families to inform their decisions. The ‘hot’ knowledge is that which is credible and has direct relevance to their situation, and relates to social and cultural issues. ‘Cold’ knowledge is supplied by schools and experts, consisting of data from league tables and examination results. This official knowledge needs to be backed up by personal recommendations.

Foskett et al (2003) studied post-16 choices in London, and although the study looked at a range of cultural issues in some detail, one factor relevant to this project which emerged was the influence of fashion, and the need for pupils to seem acceptable to their colleagues.

A third category focuses on the methodology and sociology of researching educational choices. These tend to refer to Higher Education as the goal of the compulsory education phase.

Reay (2001) provides an interesting perspective on the history of education, which is relevant here. She describes how the educational system was set up in the late nineteenth century by the middle classes to provide a system of control of the working classes, rather than of education. She goes on to argue that "We still have an educational system in which working-class education is made to serve middle-class interests"; that although in the immediate post-war years "working class histories were histories of plenitude rather than histories of lack", the right-wing educational revolution that began in the 1970s saw the end of this period by once again providing a system which empowered middle class children at the expense of the working class.

Reay (2001) seems to be suggesting that the contemporary working class consists of single parents, recipients of benefit, and low-paid service workers rather than the ‘outmoded traditional image of the male industrial labourer’. In a single generation, with the demise of manufacturing industry in the UK, the term ‘working class’ has come to mean something other than a white male working in industry. There is no reference here to working class involvement in HE – does attendance at university negate membership of the working class? The use of class as the basis for my study is therefore problematic, and the use of social and cultural capital become more helpful in describing the motivations and backgrounds of the participants.

Although this is not to say that class is not an issue: Reay et al (2001: 857) point out that the proportion of children from social classes III and IV achieving two A levels or the equivalent is roughly two-thirds of that from social classes I and II and go on to say

The inequalities arising from lack of information and general perplexity and confusion about post-compulsory education among … working class families of forty years ago have, in the new Labour era, been compounded by the introduction of fees and loans and the abolition of maintenance grants.

The final category of studies focuses on the work of Bourdieu in analysing situations such as these. For some there is too much structure to a Bourdieuan perspective, but in reality the young people in a typical school situation are bound closely to a number of structures which are beyond their control: the school, the family and the educational qualifications system and their own ‘socialised subjectivity’ (habitus). Seeing how they relate to and deal with these structures is the purpose of my study. Reay (2004b) draws on Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to analyse research projects which show how cultural capital is employed in the quasi-market place of the educational system to reinforce the advantaged position of middle-class families. In particular, middle-class mothers were demonstrated as having greater confidence than their working-class counterparts in dealing with professionals in the education system in order to advance their children’s progress further. This evidence is used to describe how the middle classes are able to use and invest cultural capital in their children, and to explain the persistence in the differential educational outcomes between working class and middle class children.

Not all studies favour this approach via Bourdieu, referring instead to Rational Action Theory: Hatcher’s (1998) critique describes the primary and secondary effects of social stratification – the primary effects are generated by family backgrounds and manifest themselves in differences in academic ability and the secondary effects concern the choices made at the various transition points in educational careers. Hatcher (1998) goes on to point out that the transition points offer a variety of points of departure; so that some pupils are able to make more of their careers if they have more cultural capital to invest by transferring to a school which they perceive as better. An assumption is made by policy makers that decisions about progression in education are made on the basis of a benefit analysis, and because people from different classes make different judgements about the benefits of a certain choice, there arise differences in pathways for people from different backgrounds. People from middle-class backgrounds have more to lose from a downward choice than those from working-class backgrounds who are able to maintain or even improve their social position simply by completing compulsory education. This argument contrasts with the position of Bourdieu in that these differences arise through choice rather than circumstance.

In using a class analysis to explain why differentials related to class persist in the educational system, Goldthorpe (1996) also argues for the use of Rational Action Theory, and argues against the proposition by Bourdieu and others that ‘cultural reproduction is necessary to social structural reproduction, and dominant classes therefore use their power in order to ensure that schools operate in an essentially conservative way’. He explains that differentials persist, first because the costs and benefits of educational options prohibit those individuals for whom there is a greater requirement for success, and second, because of the imbalance in resources available when class is taken into account.

The contrast between the two approaches is in the degree of agency behind career decisions – Rational Action Theory suggests that conscious choices are made which reinforce the status quo: that young working-class people avoid the risk of failure at a higher education qualification because of ‘the risk of subsequent exclusion from vocational alternatives’ (Hatcher 1998, p11). From a Bourdieuan perspective, it is the lack of cultural capital and the habitus of certain pupils which inhibits progression into higher education, and the point is that for some of the pupils in the proposed study, some of their decisions will be beyond their control if membership of certain groups is closed to them for whatever reason (for example these may be educational: certain subject combinations are dependent on ability; gendered: there may be cultural pressure to avoid subjects in the ‘wrong’ gender). Thus the analysis of cultural capital and habitus will be more helpful than Rational Action Theory in explaining the social practice of choice-making amongst pupils.

Interestingly, Hodkinson (1995) found parental influence was often not in the form of specific advice, more that it was grounded in long-term family influence – young people tended to follow the career or educational path of other members of the family. He refers to ‘pragmatically rational decision making’. However this contrasts with the description of rational action theory above, in that the rational decisions are context-based pragmatic, rather than systematic, decisions – based on family connections and other chance contacts which he goes on to relate to habitus.

Vocational courses such as GNVQ carry the same status educationally (in terms of their standing on the National Qualifications Framework) as traditional GCSEs in the same subject. Yet parents in particular, and some tertiary colleges, reject these as suitable qualifications towards further studies and as a route towards Higher Education.

Qualifications form one part of investment in cultural capital, and some qualifications are clearly viewed as having greater value in terms of cultural capital than others. Does a person’s habitus lead them towards one qualification rather than another?

The studies referred to above pay little attention to gender influences. This is partly because Bourdieu’s work is often seen as a description of a patriarchal society in which masculine privilege is evident. However, as Dillabough (2004) points out, Bourdieu does indeed offer a framework in which ‘the recognition of social structure and social class as salient factors impinging upon gender categories within the configuration of educational and social inequality’ can be debated. Considerations of cultural capital will therefore need to take into account the participants’ gendered attitude to their options, and to their resulting choices.

Archer et al (2005) recognise influences relating to ethnicity whereby expectations in African Caribbean girls from working-class backgrounds were found to be particularly low. Senior staff at their school supposed that this was due to a lack of strategies for dealing with success – in other words they were missing the investment in cultural capital that other families would have provided.

While the studies mentioned have not focused specifically on gender and ethnicity, issues like those described above will inevitably emerge, and the methodological framework will need to take these into account, building considerations of gender and ethnicity into the observed cultural and social processes.

Methodological approach

Criticisms of the use of habitus as a contextual framework revolve around structure and determinacy, and as Reay (2004b) warns, there is ‘a danger in habitus becoming whatever the data reveal’. However, she further points out that habitus is ‘a means of viewing structure as occurring within small-scale interactions and activity within large-scale settings’. While Bourdieu tended to regard habitus as operating beneath the conscious, this implies that its use will enable the study to uncover aspects of habitus through the reflexivity of the participants. In fact, as Reay (2004b) says, habitus emerges into the conscious level when reflexivity is involved in interpreting the individual’s position within the field, especially where a change in field occurs, as for example, happens at a transition point such as the one I propose to study.

A social phenomenological approach is therefore suitable – May (2001) describes how phenomenology focuses on the way in which people make sense of their social environment and the terms they use to describe it. It is how young people use their cultural capital to cope with the change in field at this transition point, and the resultant effect on their perception of their situation within the field which forms the basis of this proposal.

This will be a case study of a cohort of year 9 pupils in a single secondary school, and while the project focuses around the inequalities introduced into the options system due to different levels of investment in cultural capital, this will not be an evaluation of the options system, and it should be noted that the inequalities mentioned do not relate to strategies employed by the school. In a strong critique against the use of case studies as a form of evaluation, Foster, Gomm & Hammersley (2000) warn that it is all too easy to use a case study to form inappropriate valuative conclusions about inequalities, for example that ‘the existence of outcome inequalities is … taken to indicate that processes of discrimination are operating’. But the purpose of the proposed study is to identify social, cultural and institutional influences in choice of career path, and while this information may be useful to educationalists in preparing future options programmes, it is not intended to imply a value judgement on existing school processes. For these reasons again, a social phenomenology is again indicated, since it focuses on the participants’ interpretations of their situation rather than an evaluation of the school’s outcomes.

Specific Research Questions

The research questions are in the context of the cohort of pupils at age 14 who are making choices towards future career trajectories.

1. How do individual pupils understand the process of career decision-making, and what meaning and values do they assign to particular career paths?

2. How do social class, gender and ethnicity underpin the pupil’s decision making process, and to what extent are pupils able to understand and articulate this underpinning?

3. What are pupils’ perceptions of the institutional strategies to recognise and value differently their:

a) academic dispositions and prior academic achievement; and

b) social dispositions.

Methods

Reay et al (2001), in studying choice of destination in higher education of a number of students who would until recently have been unlikely to have applied for university, analysed a number of questionnaires and interviews in the context of habitus and cultural capital, as described above. They related the statements they extracted to Bourdieu’s description of the anticipation of objective limits: the participants excluded themselves from those situations they felt excluded from – in other words they either failed to, or chose not to, challenge the position that certain colleges or pathways were ‘not for them’, and consequently chose destinations which more closely matched their habitus.

So in analysing the data from questionnaires and interviews I had a similar aim – to identify the position of the participants as they are able to articulate it, and to describe how they perceive their options from that point – do they wish to challenge the status quo and attempt to use the changing field to modify their habitus, or will they look on this as a challenge to their habitus and a betrayal of their upbringing unless they maintain their current situation. Much of this argument relies on the cultural and social at the expense of ethnicity or gender – a criticism of some of Bourdieu’s analysis. Yet if participants are yielding to race or gender stereotypes, then this will emerge in the analysis too.

Six focus groups of pupils were interviewed at two stages in the year – the first early in year 9 (September) before the school had organised any information for the pupils concerning the options they would be invited to choose in March. The second interviews were with the same groups, in June, after the process was completed.

Ball et al’s (2002) study used focus groups for interviews because they felt it gave the participants a greater opportunity to air their views.

These interviews will be used to identify cultural and social background, the levels of parental involvement in education (their own and that of their offspring) and employment, and to discuss career aspirations the children have, as well as more general aspirations for the future. Since, as Reay (2004c) points out, cultural capital is transmitted through the family, these questions will be very important in establishing the level of cultural capital present, and whether the participants are able to articulate their position in any way.

The interviews also served to identify the pupils’ expected involvement in the process along with their perceptions of how the school intends to serve them in this aspect.

Summary of findings

(See table 1 in appendix)

It is hardly surprising that young people of this age have often little or no idea of their future careers. Only six of the eighteen were able to identify a single career intention with any degree of consistency, choosing the same one in both interviews. The other twelve took positions which varied from complete ignorance:

"I really haven’t a clue"
Frank

to a vague choice between two unrelated professions such as pharmacy and accounting.

There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the time period – the participants tended to regard the next seven years as a considerable time span, and only one expressed any concern about the future, worrying that she might not be able to cope with providing for herself.

This is not to say that the pupils lacked ambition: 17 expressed an intention to enter university (there being no apparent distinction in their minds between HE and university). They saw this as a key opportunity to earn more money – particularly the seven who were a little less certain: a degree would be "something to fall back on". The one interviewee who did not intend to enter higher education had already decided to become a flight attendant with an airline, and was expecting to enter the profession direct from school.

The most striking trend to emerge from the interview data concerned the source of careers information. Almost exclusively this came from within the wider family network, and especially this was the case where the career aspirations were more firmly considered.

For each of the six mentioned above who had a fairly consistent career intention, there was a member (or friend) of the family who was already in the profession and in a position to offer advice and guidance. This is a clear example of the cultural and social capital already invested in the family being used to the advantage of the individual.

The next group, while vague about their intentions, were nevertheless clear about the nature of the work they expected to do – whether office work, fashion designing, or running their own business. Once again, they were generally able to refer to members of the family network who worked in similar professions, for example running their own business. These young people expected to do the same, though the doubt was in the fact that they were unsure what sort of business to run.

The final group had little or no idea of what they would like to do, but more worryingly, this group, and the group with vague ambitions tended to harbour unrealistic or inconsistent aspirations:

"I like to be a hairdresser as a back up, but if I can get the grades I’ll be a vet"
Natalie

"My English grades were worse than I expected this year and I wanted to be a journalist. Now I might try medicine"
Beckie

All interviewees were positive about the advice and guidance given by the school insofar as it helped them in their subject choices, but with one exception (see below) they denied having received any direct careers guidance, either through a school programme or through subject study.

Only one of the interviewees (Sarah) had received an intervention from the Connexions service, and members of the focus group were unaware of why this might have been. In this case the intervention had been successful, as Sarah, who hoped to become an actress, now had an agent and was active in local dramatics.

All interviewees were adamant that their friends had not influenced their decisions:

"one of my friends wants to do the same thing, but that’s because she wants to do the same thing"
Kate

As mentioned above, cultural capital can be said to exist partly in the qualifications obtained by members of the family. For each interviewee, I have identified where one or more than one member already holds a degree. There is no obvious link between career aspiration and cultural capital, though those young people with capital tend to be more certain that they will go to university. More than half of these have no clear idea of their career, but are more confident in that fact that they will gain qualifications which will be of use to them whatever they do.

Conclusions

All the young people in this survey had thought about their futures in some way. Most felt that the age of 13 is too early to think about their careers, but all were giving careful thought to the direction of their future education and expected it to continue beyond the age of 18. Where they had an idea of what they would like to do for a career, this was invariably based on some experience they had shared with a member of the wider family network – sometimes an elder sibling, but more often a cousin or friend of the family. They had seen this person in the career, and could picture themselves on the same path

It is not clear from this what schools should do about the shortage of information which is reaching children before the age of 13. McCone et al (2005), in a literature review of studies concerning pupil choices, report evidence that

the timing of careers advice is very important to the success of such interventions, and that, significantly, interventions were most effective when made some time in advance of when young people have to make subject choices (p30).

It is clear then that schools need to provide advice and guidance from a much earlier date than year 9, and that this guidance will have to be carefully given, because young people take more heed of advice which seems credible to them. One way of achieving this is by inviting exemplars from a variety of careers and professions to talk to the pupils, though Gemma warns:

so you’d have to bring like loads and loads of people that do all different things, and I’d only be interested in a couple. Gemma

The advice they need is therefore difficult to give – every young person in the survey had a different way of interpreting the signals they have been receiving. Those whose families had a high level of cultural capital were assured and confident about a future involving progression from secondary education and onto Higher Education and a career. Those without the capital had far less idea about the implications of their current actions and how they might inhibit or promote future progress. Their voice needs to be heard early so they can make the right decisions.

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Appendix

Table 1: Summary of interview data

Name*

Future career

Capital

Exemplar

University

Annie

Vague

Low

Yes

Firm

Becky

Vague

Low

None

Firm

Chris

Vague

Medium

Yes

Not sure

Diane

Clear

Low

Yes

Not sure

Emma

Clear

High

Yes

Firm

Frank

None

Low

Yes

Firm

Gemma

None

Low

None

Not sure

Hazel

Vague

Medium

Maybe

Firm

Ian

Clear

Low

Yes

Firm

Jasmina

None

High

Maybe

Firm

Kate

Clear

Low

Yes

No

Liam

None

Low

None

Not sure

Mike

Clear

High

Yes

Firm

Natalie

None

Low

Maybe

Not sure

Oliver

Vague

Low

Maybe

Not Sure

Paul

None

Low

None

Firm

Richard

None

Low

None

Firm

Sarah

Clear

Low

Yes

Not sure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Future career:
Clear – one career identified
Vague – more than one career identified
None – no career identified (or several)
Capital
Low: no family members in HE
Medium: one family member in HE
High: at least two family members in HE
Exemplar
(member of the wider family network already in the suggested career)
Yes – someone has been followed
Maybe – someone could be followed
None – none mentioned
University
Whether the interviewee expects to go

*all names have been changed.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 18 September 2007