Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Leeds, England
This paper revisits the theme of ‘learning to labour’ from a feminist perspective. It is specifically concerned with how women learn to do emotional labour in caring occupations, and explores the learning experiences of a group of trainee nursery nurses – almost all of them teenage girls – during the first year of their course. (A fuller case study can be found in Colley, 2002a.) The course is one of 16 learning sites in the project Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education (TLC), which forms part of the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme. The analysis and interpretation offered here draw on feminist readings of Foucault, Marx, and Bourdieu1.
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 disruptive counter-school culture. 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 masked a distinctive cultural pattern that reproduced particular working class trajectories.
However, young people’s transitions have changed a great deal since then. The youth labour market has collapsed, post-16 transitions have become extended, and post-compulsory education and training (PCET) now structures these extended transitions for the large majority of young people. Much of this growth has been in vocational education and training (VET), whether entirely or partially work-based. Moreover, Willis’s study focused exclusively on young men, and a wealth of feminist research shows that the combined impact of class and gender in learning to labour may be quite different for girls (reviewed in Francis, 2002). Throughout primary school (Steedman, 1982) and secondary school (Gaskell, 1992) domestic identities dominate girls’ career aspirations, and lead them into caring jobs that are considered ‘feminine’.