‘Children can wind you up!’

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Learning to labour

In his book Learning to Labour, Willis famously asked: ‘how do working class kids get working class jobs?’ (1977: title page). His ethnographic study of disaffected boys – ‘the lads’ – showed how class and gender combined as they expressed their resistance to schooling through an aggressive masculinity and a disruptive counter-school culture. They endured their final year of compulsory education by ‘dossing’, ‘blagging’, ‘wagging’, and ‘having a laff’. This very resistance, however, led them straight from school into low-paid, low-skilled, low-status jobs that even unsuccessful middle class kids would not do. The appearance of choice on their part did not reflect naïve, meritocratic notions of ‘ability’, nor the free-market, consumerist view of choice that has come to dominate policy understandings of career decision-making. Willis argued instead that it expressed a distinctive cultural pattern that partially ‘penetrated’ (or understood), but also reproduced, the social structuring of particular working class trajectories.
However, young people’s school-to work transitions have changed a great deal since then. While a majority of school-leavers entered full-time employment thirty years ago, the youth labour market has since collapsed, so that only a small minority do so today (Rikowski, 2001). Post-16 transitions have become extended, fragmented and far less certain (Ball et al, 2000, Furlong and Cartmel, 1997), and around three quarters of all young people now continue in full-time post-compulsory education and training (PCET). An important element of this massive growth in PCET has been the expansion of vocational education and training (VET), both in FE and in work-based youth training. Yet this is an under-researched field, where academic inquiry has predominantly pursued instrumental questions of economics rather than investigate the social and cultural processes of VET (Bates, 1991).
Learning to Labour has also been criticised for its exclusive focus on boys’ transitions to work. A wealth of feminist studies of young people’s transitions (reviewed in Francis, 2002) reveal girls’ tendency to enter strongly gender-stereotyped occupations in the personal service and care of others. Steedman (1982) and Francis (1996) have shown that in primary school, little girls’ future aspirations are already shaped by gendered and classed identities learned in the home and family. Arnot describes the overwhelming emphasis on women’s domesticity in school texts as nothing less than an ‘ideological bombardment’ (2002: 69). According to Gaskell (1992), domestic identities also dominate girls’ career choices at secondary school. Using more recent evidence, both Hodkinson et al (1996) and Francis (2002) show that such identities are now less likely to result in full-time unpaid work in the home, since many young women now expect to enter the labour market for the longer term. Nevertheless, this evidence still confirms their effect in the continued gender-stereotyping of career choice. Girls expect to get jobs that are constructed as ‘feminine’ – often caring for others – and avoid more technical jobs regarded as ‘masculine’. The opposite is true for boys. Consequently, we need to differentiate Willis’s category of ‘working class kids’ along gender lines at least.

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