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The purpose of the study is to attempt to highlight a possible link between the educational progression of young people and the social class to which they are deemed to belong. The educational establishments chosen to be the focus of this study are colleges of further education in England and Wales (p30). Class groupings are discussed, with 'middle' and 'working' being the favoured descriptors used. Habitus and field, as understood by Bourdieu, are the conceptual tools used to discuss the findings. The research data is drawn from the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales - Cohort 11, sweep 1.
The introduction commences with a description stating that the UK Government is playing down the role of class in education and cites several authors to support or refute this view. Beck and Beck - Gurnsheim ………questions concerning equality …..are no longer class questions. (p29)
Avis (2006) calls for structural accounts of social inequality including accounts on race and gender.
These views are echoed by Reay (2006) who evaluates and argues for a reinvigouration of analysis based on class data. This argument is supported by Power et al. (2003) and Ball and Beck (2007) who conclude that analysis of class should include a focus on the educational experiences of both working and middle class students (p29)
The introduction commences with an evaluative description which depicts education from a perspective of the needy, linking free school meal data with social disadvantage and progression to educational level 3 courses. It restates the focus of the study i.e. to foreground class with reference young people's educational progression.
According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families 2007, 'social disadvantage is a major factor in the achievement and consequent life chances of young people' in England (p30)
The focus of the paper is on 'the structuring by social class of choices made at age 16 years in terms of whether to continue in full-time education - and, if so, at what type of institution' (p31)
Detailed information about the Youth Cohort Study and the data being used is provided. This is used to supply evidence supporting the claims outlined in the article
The paper focuses on the distribution, by social class, of young people, aged 16 to 17 years who have made the choice to continue their education in colleges of further education (FE).
Evaluations from Hyland (2002) and Raggatt and Williams (1999) support the view of the neglect of Further Education (FE) due to class issues and also due to FE being regarded as 'second best' educationally.
Further evaluations from Bathmaker (2005), Ball, Macrae and Maguire (1999) and from the author, label entry to FE as; a tacit acknowledgement of lower status (Bathmaker); a route that lower class students take because they know what they cannot do (Ball et al.), and that lower class students are unlikely to reflect the Government's view of FE as the 'learning society' (author p30).
It is claimed that FE colleges are generally seen, by government and the public, as being for (and attended by) working class students. In other words they are positioned in a hierarchy of educational institutions, such that they are attended by those who have failed to gain access to institutions higher up the hierarchy.
There follows a description of the Youth Cohort Study, the data from which has been used to inform this study. There are currently twelve cohorts of students being followed by the Youth Cohort Study. Cohort 11 'sweep1' (March - June 2002) has been used to produce the data for use here. Cohort 11 contains 16,707 young people aged 16/17 years, from different social classes and both genders. Social class analysis was carried out using the family (or household) as its point of reference and resultant figures compiled using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC). Several authors support the use of the family as the unit of class analysis (Rose, Pevalin and O'Reilly 2005). Theoretical inference is evident here when Rothon (2006) argues that using household as the class analysis unit is 'theoretically and practically superior' (p33).
The study finds that the representation of both middle and working class students is favourable in colleges of further education.
The study contains a description of the current status of education in England and Wales. It states that compulsory education ends at age 16 and contains an 'often used' definition of the term 'further education'. The study then goes on to identify and describe the selection of post 16 routes that young people can follow to further their education; these being school sixth form, sixth form colleges, colleges of further education and tertiary colleges. This section of the paper describes schools sixth form and sixth form colleges as offering an academic curriculum whose purpose is to secure entry into higher education. FE colleges (including tertiary colleges) offer a wider range of courses including some academic, vocational and also specific courses to provide lower achievers with the skills needed to enable progression to future higher value courses.
The analysis of data from the Youth Cohort Study is verbally descriptive with supporting numerical representations in the form of five tables of results.
Middle - class representation is often related to gaining lower grades in prior examinations. Lower - class students who are low achievers are more likely to leave education altogether than to enter FE.
For lower class students an explanation is given for the increased likelihood of them entering FE. The reason put forward is that these young people may not have the educational qualifications of a sufficiently high grade to permit them entry onto higher status courses in other institutions. These students experience the 'closed doors' of Ball, Macrae, and Maguire (1999) and enter vocational or other courses in FE; or, as demonstrated by Table 3, would leave education completely rather than attend FE (p36)
The findings draw on the notions of habitus and field as conceptualised by Bourdieu.
The discussion section of this paper contains theoretical inferences from several writers and cites the conceptualisations of Bourdieu to inform its findings. Other contributors named are Bourdieu and Passeron (1990), Reay (2004), Power et al. (2003), Power and Whitty (2006) and Whitty (2001) (p37).
2. Evaluation of the validity of the article's main claims and conclusions.
For this study to be seen to be valid it would need to explicitly represent what it was set out to represent. Validity it this case means 'truth' (study guide) and refers to the manner in which variables influence 'truly', both the results of the research per se (internal validity) and also whether this research can be generalized 'truly' to the wider population (external validity).
Internal validity is based on causal relationships i.e. Does class really have an effect on a student's choice of whether to attend a college of further education, or do exam results matter? How plausible are these claims? In this study, Thompson was concerned with the extent to which the participation in further education courses was affected independently by social class, rather than being based solely on student's ability. He was looking to see if middle class students were more likely than working class students to enter courses in further education, over and above any differences in ability.
It is one thing to document the number of GCSEs obtained by each member of year 11 in a school in a particular year. It is quite another to document the proportion of year 11s from working class and from middle class homes. There are troublesome conceptual issues involved in identifying membership of social classes; and collecting accurate information on which to base assignment to social classes is much more difficult than finding out how many GCSEs were obtained. The threats to validity involved in the process of collecting data should not be ignored.
One set of problems arises from the fact that judging people as being of a certain class requires some standard definition of class. There are multiple mentions of the word 'class' in this study e.g. FE colleges are described by Thompson (2008) as being largely working class institutions, Richardson (2007) talks about ………FE in class conscious England and Colley et al. (2003) describes FE as being populated mainly by students from working class backgrounds.
Different definitions could be used with discrepant results: someone could be included in the group 'large employers and higher professionals' but have been raised according to Bourdieu's view of habitus, within a family as the prospective 'semi-routine', or 'routine' class.
Reay compares class directly with the rise of social deprivation in the UK. It is not clear from this report what Reay bases his definition of social deprivation on. The report talks about 'social disadvantage' (could this be the same as social deprivation?), and defines this as marked by how many of the cohort receive free school meals and these students' subsequent progression to Level - 3 qualifications. The author claims that social disadvantage has had a 'drastic effect' on progression to Level - 3, as children from lower social backgrounds (free school meals) are much less likely to be entered for them. This discussion about the effects of social disadvantage, or social deprivation, does not take into account other factors that might generate variation in educational achievement or life chances e.g. motivation, illness, family moving etc. Using data on numbers of students receiving free school meals as a measure of social disadvantage is very limited in the amount of information it can provide.
Youth Cohort Study data - Adequacy of the research data base.
The Youth Cohort Study provides the numerical data for this study. This data, in its raw source, consists of published tables (data-archive.ac.uk) which may not always be easy to use. They could contain too much information and the figures taken to provide the results for this study are selected to be included. The tables may not contain 'exactly' the details required and therefore the researchers own interpretation of the figures may be used.
Despite there being a large volume of data from the Youth Cohort Study, the actual evidence base that underpins the report is sketchy. Several particular weaknesses are apparent. There is little systematic information on when choices about post 16 pathways are made. The Youth Cohort Study concentrates on data from students already in post 16 education, or those who have exited education altogether.
The study analyses numbers without a regard for the original reason for the choice of educational establishment. The Youth Cohort Study contains data on parent's occupations but not on their attitudes and behaviour. It is assumed in the report that middle class, or lower class parents behave in particular ways when the choice of post 16 education is decided. Also the measurement of achievement at 16 is questionable as there is no subject breakdown for the qualifications gained. It could be that different GCSE combinations offer access to different post 16 educational establishments. Therefore it may not be A*- C grades in themselves that have the 'purchasing power' for the establishment of choice, but which actual subjects those GCSEs comprise.
When the data is split via social class the credibility of the main claim comes into question. How likely is it that the way of assessing the social class is correct? NS-SEC data on social class is based on the occupations of parents. This disregards independently wealthy (e.g. inheritance) who choose not to work, or one or other parent who chooses not to work, or to work part time; thus effectively electing to be a 'lower class'. Also lone parents could be automatically placed in the lower class if single income is used. Weightings were used to account for non returned questionnaires, effectively inflating the 'lower class' category. This is because the weighting assumed that non returned questionnaires would have come from participants of a lower level of educational achievement.
The data was analysed showing the educational achievement of the young people of cohort 11 as they left compulsory education. This data is depicted in table 3 and supported by a verbal description of the resulting analysis. This concludes that there is a greater likelihood of low achieving students from higher social classes entering FE than from these classes in total. For the purposes of this study the author has defined colleges of further education and tertiary colleges as similar structures and therefore combined their results as though they were one entity. Tertiary colleges offer a choice of both academic and vocational courses and are therefore seen to fulfill the role of both a further education college and a sixth form college. The reasoning behind having a tertiary educational structure is that instead of attending sixth form at school, students can attend a tertiary college instead. Tertiary colleges usually operate in an area where schools do not run sixth forms. Colleges of further education provide facilities for varied educational routes including adult basic skills, vocational levels 1-3 and academic qualifications. Thompson identifies that there may be instances where further education colleges and tertiary colleges may not be viewed as similar establishments. He justifies his combination of the two types of college citing the actual small number of tertiary colleges in the country and stating that this 'should' not affect the 'overall nature of the findings' (p41).
The availability of educational establishments varies between different areas of the country. This different mix of choices might make attempts at generalization less valid. There may also be a different mix of social classes (depending upon how social class is measured) between different parts of the country. For example in former mining or industrial areas where unemployment is high.
Data from the Youth Cohort Study appears sound in a numerical sense. I am unsure whether the results of this study however, could be generalized over the 16/17 year olds population as a whole. The age group selected for each cohort remains constant at 16 to 17 years. The size of each cohort, however, cannot be constant as year on year the number of children born is not the same. This could distort results with regards to there being more, or less, of any particular social class; also, with regard to the gender mix of each cohort and the corresponding difference in subject choices between girls and boys. This could mean that particular course choices could have a greater or lesser uptake that would be attributable to something other than social class. Thompson highlights an area in his study that he deems to be a limitation to the generalizability of his findings across the country as a whole (p40). He talks about the difference in class composition between different regions in England and Wales. His study used data for the whole of the country and therefore his findings are in effect 'generalized'. They may not however reflect the actual position as local areas may contain larger concentrations of 'middle class - wealthy' or 'working class - less wealthy' students.
The data from the Youth Cohort Study is analysed using Bourdieu's conceptualisations of habitus and field.
Bourdieu describes family habitus i.e. how the family act normally will determine how future family members will act (e.g. children will tend to follow in their parents footsteps). Definition of habitus - aspects of a groups culture that become apparent in the way that they act, the habits they have, the daily practices they carry out etc. Bourdieu calls this a 'practice generating grammar'. As Reay points out conceptualizing habitus in this way makes choice available, but at the same time, the way habitus is viewed actively limits choices to those that would be 'acceptable' to the group. Therefore if the social group is large employer and higher professional class then they will choose their educational path towards the gain of capital or theoretical knowledge.
The increasing level of participation in post 16 education with increasing class level; and a greater uptake of FE courses, or exit from education with lower class students, is seen to support Bourdieu's conceptualisation of habitus. There are however other reasons to be taken into account when referring to uptake of further education. The current political stance on, for example tuition fees for higher education courses, may determine how many students opt for higher status entry qualifications that may only be available at school sixth form or sixth form college. So, if tuition fees are reduced, or removed, then students may be more likely to try harder and subsequently gain higher qualifications at GCSE, thus ensuring them a greater choice of post 16 educational establishment to suit their future path. On the other hand, government funding for post 16 education generally my provide a 'cap' for the possible number of level 3 courses available.