Becoming Vocational: insights from two different vocational courses in a further education college
by Jennie Davies (University of Exeter) and Michael Tedder (St Austell College)
Abstract The paper is based on work undertaken for the project Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education which forms part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme. It draws on ongoing longitudinal case studies of two learning sites in the project, both Level 3 two-year vocational courses in the same further education college. It illuminates the nature of the formation and transformation of young people’s vocational aspirations in these sites – a BTEC National Diploma in Health Studies, and an Advanced Vocational Certificate in Education in Travel and Tourism. Initial impressions of two strongly contrasted sites regarding students’ vocational aspirations are compared with the more complex picture of similarities that emerges. Specific attention is given to the nature of the relationship between students’ learning on these courses and their shifting vocational aspirations. Issues of identity formation and the role and status of vocational courses for young people are raised, with implications for FE policy and practice.
Introduction The Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC)1 project involves close working partnerships between researchers based in universities and in further education colleges and includes a teacher from each of the learning sites2, the participating tutor. Together they explore the recent learning experiences of tutors and students, so that the project can ‘examine learning processes, dispositions and cultures over time and in relation to a wide range of personal experiences and other factors’ (Bloomer & James, 2003). Our data are drawn from two learning sites at a further education (FE) college in the south west of England: a BTEC National Diploma in Health Studies and an Advanced Vocational Certificate (AVCE) in Travel and Tourism. Our case studies (Davies, 2003; Tedder, 2003)
focus on data derived from the first cohort of students during the academic years 2001/02 and 2002/03.
We have conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with a sample of students towards the beginning and at the end of each year of their course. Other data that inform this study derive from repeated interviews with the participating tutor in each learning site, entries from their reflective journals, researcher observations and a questionnaire survey administered to all students in the learning site at the start of each academic year and at the end of their course.
The paper begins by describing the research context and then focuses on the shifting vocational aspirations of students in our two sites, with a short student case study from each. The case studies were not chosen as a conventionally representative sample, but for the insights they provide into the relationships between students’ learning, their vocational aspirations and their developing identities. The ensuing discussion draws out similarities between the two sites which have implications both for those teaching and managing vocational courses in FE and for policy makers.
Our findings here have links with other research into young people’s lives, in particular with research that focuses on the formation of identities and on the decisions young people make as they move from education into employment. Our findings show how students’ vocational aspirations are inextricably bound up with other aspects of their lives, with issues of identity, with becoming a person.
It is acknowledged that young people today are growing up in a world characterised by rapid change, increased complexities and uncertainties (Beck, 1992; Furlong and Cartmel, 1997).
This is a world where many of the old certainties have gone, where lives are multi-dimensional (Dwyer and Wyn, 2001) and where adulthood is often deferred (the ‘post-adolescence’ described by Wyn and Dwyer, 1999). It is a world which includes an unprecedentedly wide range of possibilities in employment and further and higher education, a range which can appear to individuals at its extremes as either bewildering or incomprehensible. Giddens (1991) claimed that, for the ‘reflexive project of the self’:
Modernity confronts the individual with a complex diversity of choices and…
at the same time offers little help as to which options should be selected (p 80).
We are interested in the way young people confront such diversity and try to select options.
The recognition of ‘choice biographies’ (du Bois Reymond, 1998) does not imply a discounting of long-standing structural constraints like class, gender and ethnicity on many young people’s choices. As Furlong and Cartmel (1997) have explained:
Young people can struggle to establish adult identities and maintain coherent
biographies, they may develop strategies to overcome various obstacles, but their
life chances remain highly structured, with social class and gender being crucial to
an understanding of experiences in a range of life contexts (p109).
Frequently, however, these constraints are unrecognised: ‘The young people see themselves as individuals in a meritocratic setting, not as classed or gendered members of an unequal society’ (Ball et al 2000).
As part of the discourse on the transition from school to work, Hodkinson and Sparkes (1997) put forward the theory of ‘careership’, which discounts both structural determinism and individual agency alone. This theory provides a more complex awareness of career decisions than the traditional concept of career trajectory with its inherent emphasis on the feasibility of technically rational decision-making. As they explain:
In this theory, three artificially-separated parts are completely inter-related. They
and choices within a life course consisting of inter-linked routines and turning-points. We coined the term ‘careership’ as a shorthand title for the whole (p32).
Indeed, young people will always make their career decisions within ‘horizons for action’: ‘By horizon for action we mean the arena within which actions can be taken and decisions made’ (Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1997, p34). Such ideas help to make sense of the unfolding stories of our students during a different time of transition, from school to a vocational course in college.
The complexities of the relationships between young people’s decisions about their education and other aspects of their lives have been explored in a number of recent longitudinal studies (for example, Ball et al, 2000; Bloomer and Hodkinson, 1997, 1999; Dwyer and Wyn, 2001). The concept of ‘learning career’ (Bloomer, 1997; Bloomer and Hodkinson, 2000) is helpful in understanding some of these complexities. Bloomer (1997) challenges the assumption that learning careers are susceptible to prediction and rational planning:
Learning careers describe transformations in habitus, dispositions and studentship, over time. They cannot be planned in any technical or rational sense; they happen
or ‘unfold’. Their futures are unpredictable to the extent that there is much that
is unpredictable about the conditions under which unfoldment or happenstance
takes place (p 153).
This paper focuses on students’ learning careers in two specific vocational courses and explores the relationship between those learning careers and the students’ vocational aspirations and decision-making. From our interview data we can provide an account of the ways in which the learning careers of some vocational students are ‘unfolding’.
The learning sites
Our initial impression of the two learning sites, which are both Level 3 two-year courses - BTEC National Diploma in Health Studies (HS) and AVCE in Travel and Tourism (TT) - was one of superficial similarities but an essential difference. Of the similarities, one was the overwhelmingly female nature of both groups (there was just one TT male student and none in HS). In addition, all students were aged 16 or17 at the start of their course, apart from one TT student aged 25. They looked similar in that they dressed in conventional rather than conspicuous youth fashion, and sported no visible tattoos or flamboyant piercings. Of the less visible aspects, all had met the entry requirements of their course (4 subjects at grade C or above for the AVCE and the BTEC, with the option also of BTEC First Diploma award for the HS course). The majority in both TT and HS had gained nine or ten GCSE passes with at least a grade C. Another similarity was the fact that they all had either already acquired part-time jobs by the start of their course in 2001 or else acquired them soon afterwards, and for many the number of hours at work increased considerably during our two years’ relationship with them. This aspect of their lives was to prove increasingly significant in relation to their studies, as we discuss later.
The main difference seemed to concern vocational aspirations. At the start of the autumn term 2001, most HS students were aiming for a career in the health service, the majority wanting to be nurses and aware that this would involve an HE course after their BTEC. One student had her sights set on HE, but not on a specifically health-related course. Perhaps as a result of this reasonably strong vocational bonding, the classroom dynamics of this group initially appeared to be more cohesive than those in TT. The TT students, in contrast, appeared to be bound together more by a shared commitment not to go to university than by any firm vocational aspirations to work in TT. Such aspirations as they expressed appeared to be vague, sometimes founded on ideas of cabin crew or overseas representatives gained from the media or holidays abroad, sometimes simply on a general wish to travel. Sometimes they were avowedly non-existent. Subsequent interview sweeps, however, revealed a more complex picture of aspiration-setting in both HS and TT, with more profound similarities rather than differences emerging as significant.