Disaffected Young People and the Work-Related Curriculum at KS4 – Issues of Social Capital Development and Learning as a Form Cultural Practice

A paper by Raffo, C. and Hall, D., University of Manchester (presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, 7-10 September 2000)

This paper presents a sociological critique of the M-Power programme, part of the work-related curriculum aiming to re-engage ‘disaffected’ young people in education, and suggests that instead such programmes and their evaluation are based on developmental models of young peoples’ progression that ignore the diversity of young people and the power relations affecting their motivations, attitudes and achievements.

The M-Power programme ran in 66 schools located in the north west of England with approximately 500 Year 10 and 11 (Key Stage 4) pupils participating. It was aimed at young people it was felt would benefit from one day per week out of school and undertaking vocational training towards an NVQ Level 1 qualification. The geographical area is one of high truancy rates and relatively low attainment, where 12.35% of 16 year olds leave school with no qualifications (the national figure was 8.1%). The programme aims were couched in a youth development perspective, attempting to re-engage, re-motivate, and change behaviour patterns of young people from economically deprived backgrounds in order for them to achieve within the mainstream education system. The authors argue that such a perspective, which underpins government evaluation studies of such programmes, ignores the wider socio-cultural factors affecting young peoples’ agency and motivation, and how these factors differentially impact on their learning experiences.

The research undertaken aimed to examine young peoples’ lives holistically, using detailed focus groups and longitudinal shadowing and interviewing to examine young peoples’ networks and the life contexts shaping the meanings of their experience of M-Power and educational transitions. The narrative and analysis focuses on the case study of a single pupil, drawing on the concepts of social capital and ‘habitus’ to examine the interplay of rational choice and limiting structures that shape peoples’ experience, in particular their access to information and resources that help them turn ideas into reality. They consider young peoples’ experiences at the micro, meso and macro levels, focussing on the power relations influencing their interactions with others. The ‘weak non-redundant’ social ties they may create as part of the M-Power programme may have the potential to give them new information and social capital that shapes their progression, depending on their varying attitudes, motivations and the structural forces shaping their networks of relationships.

For case-study pupil Daniel, an M-Power work placement at ‘Millport’ Council and the relationships he formed with colleagues there provided an environment of shared values, respect and trust that he lacked at school and offering new non-redundant, weak ties which “provide the appropriate foundations on which Daniel can take risks and attempt to obtain valuable scarce resources – information, skills, work identity”. With general support from his parents and little influence from school peers, Daniel’s prospects appear to be raised. However, the authors set Daniel’s raised hopes for school-to-work transition in a wider context of economic realities and post-industrialisation in which the ‘social capital’ inherent in certain jobs such as council services may well be limited in future, such that the gains made as part of the M-Power programme may well not correspond to realistic future opportunities. The authors remind us that one specific case does not reflect the experiences of all, and that other pupils undergo very different M-Power trajectories, depending on whether placements are compatible with their values, their levels of social capital and networks: some pupils were motivated to re-engage with their school studies while others were further discouraged from both school and work.

The authors conclude: “What this evidence and our theorisations suggest is that schools need to be more reflective about how the wider socio-cultural lifeworlds of young people, and particularly the various networks that make up those lifeworlds, impact on the individual agency of young people. By understanding how and why informal practical knowledge, value introjections and social relations develop for young people and how these then enable levels of social capital to be enhanced, schools may be better placed to develop curricula and support systems, including careers, that really meet their needs as opposed to attempting to re-engage them in standardised mainstream provision which rarely reflects fully the socio-cultural diversity of these young people.”

Disaffected young people and the work-related curriculum at KS4 – Issues of social capital development and learning as a form cultural practice – full report