‘The impact of financial and cultural capital on FE students’ education and employment progression’

Emma Norris & Becky Francis

In Understanding Employer Engagement in Education: Theories and Evidence, Mann, A., Stanley, J. & Archer, L. (eds), London: Routledge (2014), pp.127-139.

The book is available here.

This chapter draws upon notions of social (in)equality and economic (dis)advantage to discuss how the career outcomes of young people are shaped by cultural capital accumulation. Social segregation within UK society pertains that more economically advantaged youths have greater cultural capital gains and are thus more likely to achieve their goals within the labour market. On the other side of the spectrum, more disadvantaged children witness fractured progression through education and into the workplace.

The authors here focus on the Further Education (FE) sector, which served 1 million learners in the 2008/9 school year, more than independent and state school sixth form colleges combined. The majority of these students are known to belong to the bottom three socio-economic groups, which can create difficulties in engaging these learners. Following a review of relevant literature, 8 focus groups were conducted with staff (n=30) and students (n=32), across 4 FE colleges in London, Nottingham and Leicester.

Results revealed barriers that prevent students from progressing smoothly from education into the workplace. Firstly, it was revealed that many students were reluctant to approach their parents for career advice or direction. Gaining access trusted advice is seen as a hugely beneficial resource for the progression of young people. FE students were unlikely to seek parental support due to their parent’s negative experiences of education and their parent’s lack of experience of post-16 education, reducing their knowledge base. This generates a need for parents to be provided with better access to information, so that they can better advise their children.

Discussions also highlighted that students did not have access to professional contacts and networks. Social capital has been praised as a resource that helps young people meet and interact with potential employers, and possibly gain work experience opportunities. Without mixing with professionals or experiencing professional environments, students reported a lack of confidence and were more likely to be risk adverse in competitive situations. FE students not only have limited access to networks but they expressed aspirations of wanting to ‘make it on my own’ – suggesting that they wouldn’t want to use contacts even if they did have access to them.

Furthermore, the focus groups uncovered economic barriers faced by FE students. Some students reported being unable to afford bus fare for each day of the week and others stated they need to work and so could not always attend college. To combat this, some FE colleges have taken the decision to redesign curriculum to fit into 2 days rather than spreading over 5. While suiting some students, this may not be the most effective method of learning. Particularly concerning progression into Higher Education many feel restricted by money, fearing university debt and unwilling to move away from home yet unable to meet entry requirements for universities located close by. For many, the attraction of the workplace is more attractive, even when additional education qualifications are necessary to meet their long-term career aspirations.

Highlighting these barriers to education within FE colleges leads to areas where they can improve upon. Firstly, an improvement in information, advice and guidance (IAG) and work experience. Teachers must provide informed, specific and detailed advice that is specific to the needs and aspirations of individual students. Where students cannot make use of parental advice they rely upon teachers for honest guidance and direction for success. Similarly, without appropriate contacts and connections, students turn to teachers and FE colleges to provide work experiences appropriate to their desired career. Secondly, employer engagement activities within FE colleges could provide valuable resources and experiences for students, helping to raise their levels of cultural capital and plug the gaps in social inequality. Furthermore, collaboration between the two sectors could provide a more targeted education that meets the demands of the labour market – supporting local economies. The authors recognise that financial support for students is a necessary requirement for their success and later progression.