Level 1 Vocational Learning: Predestination disguised as opportunity?

Liz Atkins

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UK policy perception of young people undertaking low level (1 and 2) vocational programmes in Colleges of Further Education tends to characterise them within a deficit model of social exclusion, ‘disaffection’ and ‘disengagement’ (Colley, 2003:169). They are the focus of multiple initiatives in the context of the 14-19 agenda as attempts are made to solve a perceived problem by providing routes through a range of vocational ‘opportunities’ which will allegedly enable them to engage with the ‘knowledge’ society (Bathmaker, 2005). This paper attempts to problematise the notion of opportunity, arguing that the rhetoric of opportunity which permeates Government documents is merely a deception perpetrated on those young people whose positioning in education and society prevents them from questioning it. The paper discusses the ‘little stories’ (Griffiths, 2003:81) of Emma, Leonardo, Paris, Rea and Amir, five young people who participated in a recent empirical study exploring the lives and transitions of level 1 students. Whilst acknowledging that the young people discussed in this paper are a small sample, their stories are typical of the 31 young people who participated in the study, and are also reflective of both the exclusionary characteristics experienced by the wider group and of their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future. The paper uses their stories to illustrate the significant limitations of the ‘opportunities’ offered to young people, arguing that in many cases these are limited to an extended transition, moving from one low level vocational programme to the next. It finds that, whilst apparently ‘buying in’ to lifelong learning and notions of a knowledge society, the young people are rejecting such ‘opportunities,’ together with their perceived civic responsibility of engaging in lifelong learning, as they draw on whatever capital they have available to them in an attempt to make the transition from education to the world of work. Four of the young people in this study were, or had been, engaged in employment concurrent with their level 1 programme. Whilst this could all be described as low pay, low skill employment some, such as working with children, carried significant responsibility. Three of these young people made a decision to move from education into the world of work at or before the end of their level 1 programme. The paper argues that in context of a low level vocational programme a decision to move into low pay, low skill employment might be regarded as a rational choice since it exchanges immediate financial capital, albeit at a low level, for a vague, insubstantial promise of something better at the end of a much extended transition. The paper goes on to conclude that these young people, despite the high aspirations reflected in their stories, are structurally positioned, partly inevitably, to make choices that are not their own, and to be denied the kind of opportunity which might enable them to achieve their aspirations. Instead, they are predestined to be engaged in low level, ‘busy’ activities rather than learning in preparation for low pay, low skill employment. Finally, the paper raises questions about the morality of a Government education policy which creates and perpetuates institutional and societal structures and barriers which effectively deny opportunity to so many young people.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2008
EventBritish Education Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference - Edinburgh
Duration: 1 Sept 2008 → …


ConferenceBritish Education Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference
Period1/09/08 → …
Internet address


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