Early School Leaving (ESL) Social Constructionist Evaluation

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Chapter 2. Literature review

This chapter reviews the theoretical foundations of my empirical research on the problems and issues related to early school leaving (ESL). The approach taken is reflective and critical, documenting an intellectual journey concerned with exploring relevant conceptual tools and theoretical frames that could potentially be used to organise and interpret the empirical material arising from my fieldwork.

ESL, educational inequality, comprehensive measures against ESL including lifelong/career guidance and second chance provisions have been approached from a number of angles within social science. In this chapter, I have categorised this broad field of research into four main strands. These are reviewed and discussed, showing how they have formed the background for the analysis and where knowledge gaps exist, which will be addressed in subsequent chapters. The first strand consists of research that takes its point of departure from social constructionism (Crotty, 2012; Leeds \& Hurwitz, 2009), which is used as an overarching theory. This was selected as it argues that knowledge is relative, which is relevant to an exploration of young people in different policy contexts. The second strand examines how the concept of ESL is constructed in different contexts (Blaug, 2001; Nelson \& O’Donnell, 2012. The third looks at how young people’s positions are constructed as a result of social interactions and networks using the concept of social representations (Breakwell, 1996, 2001; Howarth, 2002, 2006), McMahon’s Theory Systems Framework (McMahon, 1992) and peer social capital (Coleman, 1996; Putnam, 2004). Finally, the fourth strand integrates relevant concepts from career construction, focussing on Savickas’s (2013) career construction theory, and career adaptability (Bimrose et al., 2011).

2.1. Social constructionist thoughts and the research project

Since my research has focused on the voices of early school leavers and explores their perceptions of educational success and failure, which influenced their careers in the education system and in the labour market in three distinctive country contexts, social constructionism represents a relevant overarching theory. In particular, the constructionist paradigm, which is based on the understanding that ‘truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities of our world’ (Crotty, 2012, p. 8), provides the concepts of situated and relative knowledge that have shaped my doctoral research.

Social constructionism as a theoretical strand in social sciences developed a particular position in understanding our social reality. It acknowledges that understanding, significance, and meaning-making are developed inextricably within the individual and in the context of social interaction with other human beings (Leeds \& Hurwitz, 2009). Therefore, social constructionism emphasises discourse and language and how these function in relationships with others to introduce knowledge (Stead, 2013). At the centre of the theory lies the assumption that human beings rationalise their experience by creating a model of the social world and its operation (Leeds \& Hurwitz, 2009). According to Stead (2013) social constructionism is concerned with the narratives of people in context rather than providing grand narratives in a search for universals. In so doing, it is well positioned to provide useful knowledge to understand everyday circumstances of marginalised people and communities, such as the poor, the oppressed, the discriminated against, and those whose lifestyles are not indicative of the norm. It is an approach that challenges one to think differently and to imagine situations as they may become (Stead, 2013).

Social constructionism has many roots – for example, existential-phenomenological psychology, social history, hermeneutics and social psychology (Holstein \& Miller, 1993). Several of its major themes have emerged from seminal writings at different times and places, like Giambattista Vico, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Garfunkel (Billig, 1991). It is generally agreed that within the context of social theory, social constructionism emerged during the 1980s and further developed during the 1990s (Hacking, 2000). The disciplines of the history of ideas and the sociology of knowledge also have much in common with social constructionism.

Social constructionism, particularly the situated and relative theoretical strands, provide a point of reference in the description of diverse country-related contents such as different policy and institutional contexts, in addition to  terms related to ESL and career guidance that are used in the countries under investigation. As Bourdieu argued that ‘[t]o think in terms of field is to think relationally’ (Bourdieu \&Wacquant, 1992, p.96). In other words, we should take into account the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality. So, to examine country-related measures and strategies from different perspectives in order to tackle ESL is to think about the inter-relationships amongst the policy context, the education system, individual schools, the local institutional responses to drop-out issues, as well as the relations between individuals in the given local context. For instance, the three country contexts under investigation reflect different political philosophies.  English and Hungarian measures and practices of combating ESL are inspired – to various extents – by neo-liberal approaches, that is, the responsibility of individuals is implied. Ball (2008, p.25) calls this ‘responsibilisation’ of social issues, which means a reallocation of functions and responsibilities to the individual that formerly were considered the responsibility of institutions and collectives. Ball argues that policy neo-liberalises us: ‘… by making us enterprising and responsible, by offering us the opportunity to succeed, and by making us guilty if we do not’ (Ball, 2012, p.145). In contrast, Danish policies and measures related to ESL are inspired by the Nordic welfare model, which is based on an extensive prevalence of the state in the welfare arrangements. In this model, the principle of universal social rights is extended to the whole population, so therefore there are committed partnerships between individuals and institutions to share responsibilities (Alestalo et al., 2009).

As mentioned above, terms related to ESL and career guidance used in the countries participating in this research are situated and relative. The 2004 EU resolution determined how the guidance counsellor should lead young people to social integration where the active social participation is based on work and education. This way, from the perspective of social policy career guidance can be regarded as a soft governance mechanism, as through guidance people choose a field that meets their own and the society’s, – or more precisely, the labour market’s – interests. However, this mechanism provides little room for alternative options and clearly demonstrates the role of social control, that is present in legislative initiatives, such as in the Danish Youth Action Programme 2010 (see more details in Chapter 4) (Plant, 2010). For instance, the Danish term for counselling is ‘vejledning’, i.e. leading someone on the way. It covers both personal counselling, school counselling, educational and vocational guidance and counselling, career guidance and development and supervision of students during their college and university studies (Plant \&Thomsen, 2012).In the English context – unlike in many countries – there is a clear distinction between counselling and career counselling for young people. The first focusses on personal issues, whereas the second mainly concentrates on the world of work (Bimrose \& Hughes, 2013). So, ‘the primary purpose of career counselling is to support individual transitions related to the world of work throughout of the life course’ (p.184).

In the Hungarian context the term career counselling has never been clearly defined as there is neither a universal regulatory-legal framework, nor any universal nomenclature, nor any universal professional standards related to career counselling. Therefore, there is no agreed meaning with differences reflected by different settings (for example, institutes of public education, pedagogical advisory centres, job centres, non-profit organisations, higher education institutes, health system institutes, market players) (Borbély-Pecze, 2010).

In summary, social constructionism helps understand the dynamics of constructed social realities. More precisely it can highlight how distinctive policy contexts determine citizens’ lives and how identical terms are defined differently in the countries under consideration. Thus, the social constructionist paradigm could reflect on the rationale of this research, which is to compare and contrast substantially different support systems and national strategies to draw attention to policies and successful institutional answers (e.g. the role of career guidance and counselling, flexible routes in the given education system)- in Denmark, England and Hungary- to combating ESL. Thus, the social constructionist paradigm could reflect on the rationale of this research, which is to compare and contrast substantially different support systems and national strategies to draw attention to policies and successful institutional answers (e.g. the role of career guidance and counselling, flexible routes in the given education system) – in Denmark, England and Hungary – to combating ESL.

2.2. How ESL is constructed 

Social constructionism has important implications for the concept of ESL, which is a discursive construction, namely it can be shaped in parallel with the power games in play between public discourse and policy discourse. Thus, what ESL really means and its limit in a given context is defined by the struggle of political interest-groups (Resl, 2015). Specifically, from a constructivist perspective, drop-outs can be considered as social constructs and the three-country contexts (England, Denmark and Hungary) as social contexts that influence the terminology and understandings of ‘drop-out’ and ‘ESL’. This has substantial policy implications regarding for how the social issue of ESL is tackled. My research has explored the interface between these ‘social constructs’ and ‘social contexts’ so defined. This section will examine the different approaches to understanding and explaining ESL drawing on the main key stakeholders in the field.

The related literature suggests that there are three ways to understand and explain the causes of ESL. Firstly, the deficit model labels young people who leave the education system before or as soon as they are legally entitled to. The problem is seen to lie, therefore, with the individual young person: ‘the term drop-out clearly places the blame for non-completion on the student … the very use of either term already implies a difference in the remedies that will be adopted to tackle the problem of early school leavers’ (Blaug, 2001, p. 27). Factors that contribute to the decision to leave in this approach might include under-achievement, low academic performance and poor self-esteem (NESF, 2001). Secondly, the ‘push-out’ model criticises the institutional make-up of the school. In this approach, the main contributory factors include school type, curriculum, disciplinary procedures, and pupil-teacher interactions. In reality, both the first and second models combine so that school leavers both drop out and are pushed out in what might be called ‘a mutual process of rejection’ (Blaug, 2001, p. 29). This leads to chronic truancy and an inability of the school to engage with demotivated students. The institutional and the individual factors, when combined lead to an alienation from school. These can include drug and alcohol abuse and/or problems within the home (NESF, 2001). Thirdly, the ‘rational’ choice model relates to the costs and benefits associated with continued participation (Erikson \& Jonsson, 1996; Goldthorpe, 1996; Smyth, 1999). Students consider ESL a choice, which is made on the basis of the direct costs associated with schooling. In areas of high unemployment, young people and their parents may not see much benefit in staying on at school and may choose the immediacy of accessible, but low-paid employment (NESF, 2001).

These models emphasise the multi-causality and the multifaceted nature of ESL. Moreover, they emphasise how ESL as a concept is understood differently, depending on the documents or country contexts we consider.

In the last twenty to thirty years, different terms have been used to define this phenomenon, as student drop-out has been regarded as one of the major problems in the educational systems (OECD, 2012). Drop-out was the first widely used term in literature and in policies which were associated with school failure and poor qualifications. Drop-out from education can occur at any time and can be experienced by different age groups (TWG, 2013). The term is still an important one, but it is less acknowledged by experts than ESL as its meaning is contextual, relative and does not describe individual or social effects (e.g. integration into the labour market or society). Therefore, drop-out indicators are neither easily measurable nor comparable; rather, they rather indicate trends and approximate proportions. In order to measure the phenomenon more accurately, new terms have come into use such as ESL, which are compatible with social integration (Mártonfi, 2014). The European Commission recently distinguished ESL/Early Leavers from Education and Training (ELET) from school drop-outs as these terms are defined slightly differently, they capture some related concepts of what the problem and possible solution might be. In this regard, early school leavers are those 18-24 year olds that attained lower secondary education or less (ISCED 0, 1, 2 or 3c short) and who did not take part in education or training during the four weeks preceding the survey (EC, 2013). This category is more exact, so it is widely used in comparative assessments conducted by supranational agencies (e.g. Eurostat) (TWG, 2013).

The other term – mostly used by the OECD – is Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET). This is more complex than the previous category as it indicates the failure to integrate into the labour market. This indicator estimates the rate of those young people whose transfer from education to the world of work shows difficulties or whose transfer would never happen (TWG, 2013). There is a large proportion of early school leavers in the NEET cohort, as well as young people with secondary or higher education qualifications represented, who are unemployed. Thus, this category is wider than ESL in terms of its target group and age-group as the OECD reports NEET indicators for the 15–19, 20–24 and 25–29 age-group (Mártonfi, 2014).

There are other indicators on young people’s lack of success in the labour market at play, which explore this phenomenon from different angles so that efficient policies can be developed that respond to the actual problems. One of them is the drop-out indicator, which considers students who enter an educational programme and then drop out at some point without gaining a qualification (Fehérvári, 2015). This is mostly country-context dependent as there are education systems where students can easily transfer from one flexible type of programme to another, so follows these multiple transitions can be challenging. To address this problem some countries (e.g. Hungary, Denmark) track their students’ educational career in a database where each student has an educational identifier (Mártonfi, 2014).

Apart from these educational failure indicators, the data on youth employment and unemployment provide policy makers with relevant information on the rate of young people who are at risk of being pushed to the periphery of society. The role of these indicators has been of major importance in estimating these young people’s chances to integrate into the labour market and society. Besides, societies should recognise that they have an interest in improving these indicators, because in countries such as Denmark where the rate of youth unemployment is relatively low (11.6\% in 2015) young people have more opportunities and better future perspectives in the labour market.

2.2.1. ESL as a relative concept in different country contexts 

As indicated above, even though each country under investigation deals with a similar target group, different terminology has been used to define this phenomenon.

In Denmark, a number of terms such as drop-outs, push-outs or more recently early school leavers are evident, but most commonly the national definition is used, whose meaning is closer to ‘push outs’ (Plant, 2012). The term ‘push-out’ has drawn attention to the growing recognition that cross-sectoral cooperation can play an important role in tackling ESL, implying that ESL is understood as a problem of the educational system, society and the school, rather than as a problem caused only by the young person and their family, background or peers (Nevala \& Hawley, 2011). In addition, this term also implies the philosophy of the Nordic welfare model, where responsibilities are shared between individuals and institutions, and welfare arrangements are broadly supported by the state. It is argued that subcategories can be identified in the Danish target group: the isolated, the repressed, the self-assured, the well-adjusted (Jensen, 2010). These are young people aged 15 – 24, in need of intensified careers guidance efforts (Plant, 2012).

In England, ESL is not discussed in English government policy. Instead, early leavers from education and training in England are classified as Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) and Not in Education or Training (NET). NEET / NET data is mostly collected for the age group 16-24. Various subcategories of NEETs are sometimes used such as ‘Open to learning’ NEETs, ‘Sustained’ NEETs, ‘Undecided’ NEETs. Other subcategories used are ‘Out of Scope’ NEETs ‘Identifiable Barrier’ NEETs and ‘No Identifiable Barrier’ NEETs (Nelson \& O’Donnell, 2012). As discussed above, this category covers a wider target group than ESL, and can be a source of confusion as it also includes those young people who voluntarily decide not to enter the labour market after gaining a secondary or higher education qualification.

In Hungary, different terms are used, such as drop-outs and ESL. Recently the target group under study has been classified early school leavers because the Eurostat definition has been adopted, which considers the percentage of 18-24-year-olds with only lower secondary education or less who are no longer in education and training (Resl, 2015).

The terms used in England and Hungary to describe early school leavers implicate the responsibility of individuals, the sub-text being that if you do not manage navigating your career in times of social difficulties, you as an individual are responsible (Sultana, 2012). However, problems relating to the individuals’ interactions with the labour market can equally be regarded as structural problems on the demand side, therefore requiring structural solutions (Watts, 1996).

My research approach to ESL differs slightly from the official EUROSTAT definition of the concept, as I was interested in analysing the phenomenon of young people’s non-participation at various extents in schooling, who can always re-enrol in the education system after a while in three different country contexts. The young people under consideration belonged to different age groups when they dropped out of school, for instance a number of Hungarian students dropped out first at the age of 14 after enrolling secondary education. Therefore, the scope of this research goes beyond ESL according to a standard definition (e.g.18 to 24-year-olds), broadening its meaning to include school dropout. In any case, ESL and dropout are related, but the main difference between the two phenomena is that someone who dropped out of school is not necessarily an early school leaver. In addition, the term at-risk student is also applied in my research in order to describe those Danish students who were at risk of dropping out of comprehensive school, but due to the preventative approach of the Danish system, they were supported by a guidance counsellor to a second chance provision instead of dropping out altogether.

Overall, leaving school early has been defined differently, which can be influenced by policy and public discourse in the given context. It is essential to consider how ESL has been defined by experts or policy makers as this has a significant impact on the degree of efficiency of the intervention applied to combat the phenomenon and on grasping its extent. To develop effective policies for supporting education systems and the labour market, ESL indicators should be carefully considered. Effective policy contexts should provide a number of structural solutions for young people in order to keep them engaged, which is more cost-effective for societies in the long run rather than abandoning young people in uncertainty.

2.2.2. Causes of, and comprehensive solutions to, ESL 

The causes of ESL vary, depending on one’s perception of whether it happens as a result of individual or system failure. Young people who drop out of school come from diverse backgrounds. ESL is typically caused by a cumulative process of disengagement as a result of personal, social, economic, geographical, education and family-related reasons. Such reasons might be external or internal to school processes and experiences and they are highly specific to the individual. According to Audas and Willms (2001) there are five characteristics of ESL:

Individual effects can be identified in each person’s specific characteristics, for instance, academic performance, health, engagement in academic and school activities. A number of studies (Audas \& Willms, 2001; Traag \&Van Der Velden, 2006; TWG, 2013) have indicated that there is a high risk of ESL among boys. This might refer to the different type of socialisation and development of certain gender-specific traits. Additionally, these studies confirm that children who tend to be aggressive in the early school years are at greater risk of early leaving.

Another important factor is cognitive ability, which depends on individual features, the family environment, parents’ ability, as well as the quality of preschool education (Bowles et al. 2001; Esping-Andersen \& Mestres, 2004; Esping-Andersen, 2004; Heckman, 1999)

Family effects include variables such as socio-economic status of parents, parenting style, household composition and parents’ participation in school and social capital (Audas \&Willms, 2001). Family has an influential role in avoiding ESL, as family characteristics are essential in determining the student’s success in school and, in a wider sense, in society. According to a number of research findings (Coleman, 1988; Esping-Andersen \& Mestres, 2004; Traag \&Van Der Velden, 2006;), family capital can take three distinct forms: financial capital, human capital and social-cultural capital. The financial capital factors that may lead to increased risk of ESL are low socioeconomic status (SES) and precarious family structures (divorce, single parent families or large families). This is often associated with the level of education among family members as a significant factor in the student’s school career (Audas \& Willms, 2001). However, it should be emphasised that the relationship between parents’ status and school performance varies between countries. For instance, it is very likely that a child from a family with low SES can have a more promising career in the education system in the equality-based Danish welfare-state than in Hungary with its selective society.

Peer effects refer to environment, the role of young people’s friends and the effects of rejection. For adolescents their network of friends plays a significant point of reference in building up their self-esteem to adjust their behaviour to suit those (Audas \& Willms, 2001). Studies have shown that students who have an early school leaver friend have a higher risk of ending up in the same situation (Ellenbogen \& Chamberland, 1997; Smyth \& Hattam, 1998).

School effects have been mentioned in a number of comparative studies (OECD, 2012; TWG, 2013; Resl, 2015) which also examine the quality of teaching including the characteristics of teachers, applied methods and resources, school size, effectiveness and equity of school policies and practices, school climate and engagement of teachers.

Community effects are the broader effects of the social, economic and historical features of students’ neighbourhoods and communities. The role of the local labour market conditions should be taken into consideration as they may encourage ESL (Audas \& Willms, 2001).

In summary, ESL is a multifaceted phenomenon with multiple causes, which can be influenced by the aforementioned variables in different combinations and to various extents. In my research I examined how different effects, which raised the risk of ESL, occur in three distinctive country contexts, by analysing the narrative accounts of former students. Identifying significant effects is essential for informing effective policies, institutional responses and policies to ESL. In the last 20 years, ESL has been a growing policy concern because of the negative social consequences of young people leaving school without qualifications, such as youth unemployment and the growing levels of criminal activity (TWG, 2013). Owing to the fact that ESL is multifaceted, there can be no single response to this issue. Different strategic level responses can be identified in Europe. Firstly, there is an explicit framework on ESL, which brings together key stakeholders and programmes under one overarching policy. Secondly, ESL is part of a broad policy framework, i.e. the lifelong learning policy. Thirdly, ESL is identified through several different policies and programmes, or without any explicit policy or objectives (OECD, 2012). According to EU policies comprehensive strategies should be introduced and implemented to reduce ESL, which must address the entire education spectrum and include prevention, intervention and compensation measures (OECD, 2012). Figure 1, below, summarises these comprehensive measures:

Figure 2.1 Aspects of comprehensive strategies in ESL
(Commission Staff Working Paper, 2011, p. 13)

As can be seen, prevention relates to processes that help avoid ESL, and requires systemic initiatives. These system level responses focus on different characteristics of the education system, which support the at-risk population to complete upper secondary education. For instance: access to good quality early childhood education and care (ECEC); flexible educational pathways; initial and continuous in service training for education staff; whole school approaches (TWG, 2013). Intervention explores significant difficulties at an early stage and tries to prevent them from leading to ESL. Many intervention measures apply to all students and are mostly student-focussed, but are especially relevant to the at-risk population. Some of these measures are: Early Warning Systems (EWS), which include various methods to identify and react to early signs of ESL; extra-curricular and out-of-school activities. Compensation measures provide students who dropped out/interrupted their education with flexible educational pathways to re-engage them. For example, individually tailored vocational education programmes or second chance provisions that focus on a holistic and person-centred approach, though provisions can vary in their emphasis and orientation (TWG, 2013).

The literature suggests, therefore, that while ESL and its causes are not purely educational, the quality of school education has a strong impact on its incidence. It follows that the quality of education should be improved at institutional and system levels in order to reduce the risk of dropping-out. It would be advisable to implement education and training policies that create conditions for successful learning for all.

2.2.3. Youth at-risk and/or ESL

Reviewing the research into ESL, a number of gaps have been identified, which will be explored and addressed in the following sections.

Firstly, previous studies have often emphasised the role of education as crucial to socio-economic well-being and empowerment (Coleman et al., 1995; Dronkers et al., 2008; Leonard, 2005; NESSE, 2011; OECD, 2005, 2012) and highlighted the continuous relation between low socio-economic background and students at risk of educational failure and reduced access to good quality services. Therefore, cross-country research has the potential to explore these complexities, but there is a gap in the existing literature. Most comparative studies about youth at risk take a quantitative approach and focus almost exclusively on the statistical relationships between achievement, attainment, background and unemployment (e.g. Dale, 2013; OECD, 2012; PISA, 2009, 2012, 2015). Secondly, there are national longitudinal studies (Fleck \& Rughiniş, 2008; Mártonfi, 2014; Rumberger, 1983) that examined school truancy based on collected representative data. These studies can identify the number of at-risk students and the number of those ones who already left the system. There are some other quantitative studies on ESL (Bryk \& Thum, 1989; Rumberger \& Thomas, 2000), which developed multilevel statistical models to identify different effects at individual and school levels.

Thirdly, qualitative research conducted on ESL (Fine, 1986; Katznelson et al., 2015; Tanner et al., 1995;) use in-depth interviews or focus groups to shed light on student’s participation, motivations and values. Even though a number of studies (CEDEFOP, 2015; OECD, 2012; NESSE, 2011; TWG, 2013) highlights the importance of the voices of early school leavers/ young people, there is a scarcity of publications where early school leavers’ voices are expressed. One of the most significant books – in my view, the most inspiring on this topic – is the book by Smyth et al. titled ‘Dropping out’, drifting off, being excluded: Becoming somebody without school (Smyth et al., 2004). This work reports and analyses interviews undertaken with 200 young people who left school early or were ‘at risk’ of doing so in South Australia. Attention is drawn to a minority of innovative teachers who make the process of teaching and learning meaningful for young people ignoring the old fashioned curriculum, because they realised that conservative schooling practices cannot help especially young people at-risk to become independent and go into the world of work. The study reveals how young people interact with popular culture, labour market processes, credentialing, peers and families as they progress to upper-secondary education. Lastly, they suggest constructive ways of dealing with young people in order to overcome passivity and alienation to make students feel appreciated, and above all to make them autonomous and well-prepared for the adult world.

So while qualitative research has been undertaken, there is a lack of comparative qualitative research and the question of how young people from different contexts experience their careers in education and/or the labour market. Moreover, their opinions about the potential for improvement are rarely addressed. My research focuses on former students’ accounts in order to map the dynamic among the dropouts and their relationships, expectations, opportunities and obstacles encountered in three country settings. A key aim of my research is to contribute to the qualitative literature about early school leavers by introducing young people’s voices from three different countries.

2.3. How are young people’s positions constructed?


This research focusses on the relevance and importance of personal support, with special regard to positive relationships, such as adult-student, peer support and friendship, as a motivator to attend school. Hence, the aim in this section is to gain a deeper insight into social relations, how social relations construct the person’s position and identity in their environment, moreover, how social relations are shaped by social context in order to point out how social constructionism relates to this context.

The impact of social relations between people, and of how people position themselves and how they are positioned by others in different networks have led to notable work in social research (Breakwell,1996, 2001; Goffman, 1959, 1963; Howarth, 2002, 2006; Moscovici,1972, 1984). The theory of social representation draws attention to contemporary social problems, for instance, gender identities (Duveen, 2001), racialised differences in the context of school exclusion (Howarth, 2002a; Howarth, 2004). The theory derives from social constructionism and symbolic interactionism. The term was originated by Moscovici (1961), in his study on the reception and circulation of psychoanalysis in France. It is understood as the collective elaboration ‘of a social object by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicating’ (Moscivici, 1984, p. 12). Applying social representation theory to research might help understand the structures and processes that maintain uneven social patterns and inequalities (Howarth, 2006). Social representations are interpreted as both the process and the result of social construction. For instance, Howarth’s research on school exclusion (Howarth, 2004) pointed out that young black pupils were labelled as ‘troublesome black youth’ that restricted their potential at school. In this study, it was recognised and described how these representations are institutionalised within the real and hidden curricula. That is, the ways in which particular knowledge systems were legitimised in education were identified. They described how representations informed the realities they experience. Hence representations can be considered alive and dynamic – existing only in the relational encounter we create in dialogue and negotiation with others (Howarth, 2006). Therefore, it can be argued that a representation can be ‘used for acting in the world and on others’ (Jodelet, 1989, p. 44) as well as for re-acting, rejecting or re-forming a presentation of the world that conflicts with one’s position and so self-identity (Howarth, 2006).

Social representation theory was applied by Breakwell, too, in order to understand identity processes that could be brought together with our understanding of social representational processes (Breakwell, 2010). In her Identity Process Theory (IPT), she introduces the idea that ‘the individual’s identity is a dynamic social product of the interaction of the capacities for memory, consciousness and organised construal with the physical and societal structures and influence processes which constitute the social context’ (Breakwell, 2010, p. 3). According to IPT, identity exists in psychological processes but is manifested through thought, action and affect. Identity can be described in terms of both its structure and its processes. Breakwell (1983) states that a key to understanding the processes that drive identity development and expression lies in understanding how individuals respond when their identity is threatened. A threat to identity occurs when the processes of assimilation/accommodation are not able, for some reason, to comply with the principles of continuity, distinctiveness, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Threats are aversive and the individual will seek to renew the principled operation of the identity processes (Breakwell, 1983, 2010). Breakwell’s theory can help investigate, therefore, how young people’s processes of assimilation/accommodation have been influenced in different contexts, and how they have been able or unable to accommodate to new circumstances.

Regarding the fact that social constructionism has important implications for the interpretation of our social reality, multiple factors should be considered to map young people’s social relations with their environment. As social constructionism acknowledges, understanding, significance and meaning-making are developed inextricably within the individual and in the context of social interaction with other human beings (Leeds \& Hurwitz, 2009). Therefore, it emphasises discourse and language and how these function in relationships with others to introduce knowledge (Stead, 2013). A number of constructivist approaches have been applied to display the complexity of the communication and interaction within the individual and with her/his environment. One that is particularly relevant to my research is the Systems Theory Framework (STF). The STF was introduced as a potential overarching framework in order to deal with complex, multiple issues in human behaviour. Applying the STF means viewing individuals in the context of their lives (McMahon, 2007). Since its first publication as a contextual framework to analyse adolescents’ career decision-making (McMahon, 1992) the practical utility of the STF has been clearly evident. McMahon (1992) argues that many factors affect vocational development, which are interdependent and interactive. She also argues that the STF provides a map to explore the complex web of relationships and interactions, and to highlight crucial influences and tensions in the lives of individuals. The STF emphasises  the importance of a range of intrapersonal influences on career development, such as personality, ability, gender, and sexual orientation. Moreover it claims that the individual system is connected with the individual’s social system as well as the broader environmental/societal system. Other factors, such as geographic location and political decisions, are identified which might influence career development significantly (Patton \& McMahon, 1999). The STF presents career development as a dynamic process, represented through its process influences, recursiveness, change over time and chance (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development
(from Patton \& McMahon, 1999)

In the STF each system is an open system, which is subject to influence from outside and may also influence that which is beyond its boundaries. Such interaction is termed recursiveness, which in diagrammatic form is illustrated by broken lines that represent the permeability of the boundaries of each system. It is well acknowledged that influences on an individual may change over time. The final process influence, chance, is illustrated on the STF diagram as lightning flashes, reflecting on the part chance might play in career development. All of the systems of influence are located within the context of time – past, present and future – which are inextricably linked; past influences the present, and together past and present influence the future. Considering how ESL is a complex and multi-faceted phenomena, applying the STF with its holistic approach as a point of reference it relevant for illuminating different internal and external factors that make an impact on at-risk students`/dropouts` careers.

In order to identify potential aspects which might affect at-risk students`/dropouts` careers, social capital theory (Coleman, 1988) should also be taken into consideration. In this respect, we should consider the parent-child relationship. Children’s development is sometimes poorly supported by the family. More precisely, the human capital of a family might have less influence on the child’s development if it is not supported by social capital (Coleman, 1988). It can even be assumed that a child whose parents possess a lower human capital could be more advantaged, compared to a child whose parents posses higher human capital if in the latter case parents are too busy to devote their time and attention to the education of their child.

One other important aspect related to education is the acknowledgement of social relations and social capital. According to Putnam (Putnam, 2004) social capital is the effect of social networks and their associated norms of reciprocity and trust. He argues that both social networks within schools and social networks linking schools to the broader community are important to the educational process (Putnam, 2004). He acknowledges both positive and negative aspects of social capital and argues that while networks are generally good for those inside the community, they may have rather negative consequences for those outside. Therefore, he asks the important question ‘how the positive consequences of social capital – mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness – can be maximised and the negative manifestations – sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption – minimised?’ (Putnam, 2001, p. 22).

Childhood and youth researchers have pointed out that within social capital theory in general there is a lack of understanding of children and young people’s networks and agency (Bassani, 2007; Holland et al., 2007; Leonard, 2005; Schaefer, 2004). They have called for a more active conceptualisation of young people, which explores how they themselves create social capital (Morrow, 1999; Weller, 2010). Indeed, an increasing number of research studies have begun to examine the role of peers and peer social capital. This is an important issue, which I will return to in my analysis to describe the role of peer support in student retention. Peer social capital is usually analysed by scrutinizing peer groups with certain norms, expectations, values, and achievement and school related behaviour (Carbonaro, 2004; Ream \& Rumberger, 2008; Ryabov, 2009). The main assumption underpinning this concept is that young people’s school attitudes and performance, to a large extent, are influenced by the peers with whom they associate. An example of this approach is Carbonaro’s work (2004), in which he argues that the way peers value schooling has an impact on the effort that students make in school. In addition, peers provide a model for action. Parents are not the only influential actors and, furthermore, young people’s active engagement with peers is important for their educational success in education. Finally, educational research into peer social capital and social capital has tended to focus quite narrowly on achievement or attainment as the outcome of social relationships (Bassani, 2007). In my research I explore how peer social capital might create psychological well-being and might contribute to social inclusion. Friendship networks are also influential actors in young people’s active engagement with peers, enabling them to find their position in their community and get motivated about learning. Moreover, peer support might be helpful when young people feel lost in different contexts and try to position themselves in relationships so that they get acknowledged, feel confident and find belief in themselves and in their future.

In summary, constructivist themes, like how social relations construct the person’s position and identity in the given environment and culture have been considered. Additionally, the Systems Theory Framework (STF), illuminates how individuals operate holistically within multiple contextual systems, throughout their lives (McMahon, 2007). Moreover, social capital and peer social capital are important to consider. Cumulatively, these theories increase understanding of how young people position themselves and how they are positioned by others in different networks.

2.4.  How to construct careers?

Career in the modern global economy requires individuals to negotiate flexibility and uncertainty in the labour market, as well as constant job changes, without losing their sense of self and social identity. A number of related challenges have been identified by constructionist career theories such as career construction theory/Life Design (Savickas, 2013; Savickas et al., 2003), Narrative career counselling (Cochran, 1997), Psychodynamic counselling (Peavy, 1998), Action theory (Young et al., 2012) and the STF/Story telling approach (Patton \& McMahon, 1999; McMahon, 2006), all of which aim to help people acquire career-related skills (e.g. self-efficacy, career adaptability) to better able to handle changes. These theories share some common features, for instance, they are holistic, the individual makes sense of their experiences through dialogue, and the narrative ‘is built from history, culture, society, relationships and language, and it embodies context’ (Collin \& Young, 1992, p. 8). According to Savickas (2005) vocational development is affected by multiple factors, which are interdependent and interactive, therefore the means of assessment should be not as limited as the use of few tests or an interview, rather narrative approaches should be applied to get a balanced picture of the person`s prospects.

Thus, Savickas’s career construction theory focusses on the processes through which ‘individuals construct themselves, impose direction on their vocational behaviour, and make meaning of their careers’ (Savickas, 2013, p. 1). He considers careers boundary-less, which require subjective construction by the individual and adaptation to changes. Savickas’s theory ‘views career as a story that individuals tell about their working life, not progress down a path or up a ladder’ (Savickas, 2013, p. 6). The theory expands Super’s ‘life-span, life-space’ theory, which emphasises that vocational development is a process of decision making in vocational choices led by one’s self-concept. It also sheds light on developmental contextualism and social context, as well as an acknowledgement of differences among individuals and among occupations (Hall \& Mirvis, 2013). Savickas’s career construction theory describes a model to understand vocational behaviour across the life-cycle.

The primary concept is self-construction, which begins during childhood as individuals are first actors and then become agents, and later authors, of their own lives and careers (Hall \& Mirvis, 2013). The theory uses social constructionism as a meta-theory with which to reconceptualise vocational personality types and vocational development tasks as processes that have possibilities. From a constructionist viewpoint, career is a continual process involving one’s past memories, present experiences, and future aspirations by constructing them into a pattern that portrays a life theme (Savickas, 2005). According to this theory adaptation to transitions (from school to work, from job to job, and from occupation to occupation) is fostered by five principal types of behaviour: orientation, exploration, establishment, management and disengagement (Savickas, 2013).

In considering adaptability, career construction theory highlights a set of specific attitudes, beliefs, and competencies – ‘the four Cs’ – which shape the actual problem-solving strategies and coping behaviours that individuals use to synthesise their vocational self-concepts with work roles. The ‘four Cs’ of career construction are: career concern, control, curiosity, and confidence (Savickas, 2013). Career concern refers to a future orientation and recognition of the importance of planning for tomorrow, which is characterised by planning and optimism. Career control entails the ability to have control over one’s own choices. Career curiosity follows self-control, as an individual becomes inquisitive about her/his interests and occupational alternatives. The important role of curiosity is reflected in the attention paid to exploration in other theories of career development (Savickas, 2013). Career confidence reflects self-efficacy or anticipating success regarding education and career (Savickas, 2013).

Career construction theory is strongly related to the concept of career adapt-ability (Bimrose et al., 2011; Figerio et al., 2014; Savickas \& Porfeli, 2012).

Career adaptability is, therefore, a multidimensional construct (including control, curiosity, cooperation, confidence and concern) that refers to how individuals negotiate transitions in different contexts. From a skills supply perspective, career adaptability can be considered as a psychosocial competence in order to adapt to disequilibrium caused by occupational traumas and transitions related to employment, or to explore new challenges in the labour market (Savickas, 2013). The definition of career adaptability is ‘the capability of an individual to make a series of successful transitions where the labour market, organisation of work and underlying occupational and organisational knowledge bases may be subject to considerable change’ (Bimrose et al., 2011, p.2), will be used in this research since it reinforces the idea that for young adults career adaptability is a developmental task.

According to the related litarature there has been just a few qualitative investigations of caeer adaptability using in-depth interviews to explore psychological factors, individual networks and support, opportunities and career orientation related to an individual’s career adaptibility (McMahon, Watson, \& Bimrose, 2012).  This approach would be beneficial for understanding how career adaptability can positively impact on skills young people’s careers and future perspectives. For that reason,  the last chapter presenting the findings of this doctoral research (see Chapter 8) aims to contribute to the understanding of how second chance programmes have developed at-risk students’/dropouts’ career adapt-ability by analysing qualtative interviews using Savickas’s career adaptability framework. Understanding career adapt-ability in different social/societal contexts would be strategically important because it could provide a real purchase on the readiness of young people to engage in different employment, education and training contexts. This knowledge could be considered an important contribution because new technology, globalisation, and the challenges of the volatile labour market require workers to construct their careers more actively.

2.5. Conclusion


This review of the literature has explicated the theoretical foundations of this empirical doctoral research on the problems and issues related to ESL. The intellectual journey has been concerned with exploring relevant conceptual tools and theoretical frames. It has revealed contextual debates and issues about ESL, educational inequality, measures against ESL including career development and guidance counselling. Four main theoretical frameworks have been reviewed and discussed, showing how they have formed the background for the analysis. The first theoretical strand consists of research that takes its point of departure from social constructivism, which acts as an overarching theory throughout the literature review. The second theoretical strand examines how the concept of ESL is constructed in different contexts. The third theoretical strand looks at how young people’s positions are constructed as a result of social interactions and networks using the concept of social representations, social capital and related concepts. Finally, the fourth strand includes issues of career construction focusing on Savickas’s career construction theory, and career adaptability.

In conclusion, social constructionism as an overarching theory is relevant for interpreting terms and concepts related to ESL, together with different measures for combating ESL applied in the three countries under investigation. Regarding the comparative angle of this research which considers how at-risk students’ / dropouts’ careers are constructed, social constructivism and its associated strands provides an adaptable framework for analysis of the voices and perspectives of young people living in substantially different policy contexts.

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