Proving TV soaps change destinies

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Jeremy Sutcliffe talks to two of the TES Lucy Cavendish research fellows and finds out what research means for them

It is not every day that you hear someone say that The TES has changed her life. But Ruth Hawthorn swears it's true.

Two years ago, she became the first woman to win a TES Research Fellowship, giving her the chance to study for a year at Lucy Cavendish, the Cambridge college for mature women students. She now has a full-time job there.

Next year, The TES will be funding another fellowship and is inviting applications from suitably qualified women graduates wishing to research an education policy topic .

Ruth's project was to investigate how two groups of people - school leavers in their first jobs and adults who change jobs mid-career - make these crucial choices. Her particular interest was in exploring the role that television and radio play in the process.

Her conclusions, after a year spent interviewing broadcasters, careers advisers and others, make interesting reading. Most career choices, she found, are influenced (and often limited) by family expectations, or by the advice or example of an influential individual (often an aunt or a cousin).

Teachers, she discovered, were frequently a crucial influence. She believes that an awareness of their potential careers guidance role should be built into student teachers' training programmes.

Television and radio were not, among the groups she interviewed, a prime influence on career choices. Usually, ideas came from someone within the family or from a teacher. However, the media - in particular TV soaps like The Bill and Casualty - shaped decisions once an idea had germinated. The research points to the importance of using television role models, members of our "virtual family", to try to influence career choices.

The relationship between TV and the family also suggests a more subtle form of influence. One interviewee, a young laboratory technician, was influenced by her father's liking for nature programmes. "He had found it relaxing, and she associated the subject-area with moments of closeness with him."

Before she was awarded the fellowship, Ruth had worked in educational publishing and taught for two years in an Essex secondary school, prior to taking an eight-year break to bring up her two children. She returned to work in careers guidance in Cambridgeshire, and until taking up The TES fellowship worked for the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling.

The fellowship allowed her to attend one of the country's most prestigious adult education colleges which has enabled many women whose careers have been interrupted to find new opportunities.

"I got an enormous amount out of it intellectually. You might think that these days a college for women is an anachronism, but it's not at all. It's an extremely interesting institution, and particularly fascinating because it takes women from diverse communities and backgrounds from all over the world."

She was so happy that she didn't want to leave the college and her ambition was fulfilled when, at the end of her year, she was offered a job as part-time admissions officer. The rest of her time is spent as Harris Fellow in Education, doing research.

"I'm incredibly grateful to The TES. It has really changed my life," she says.

Who was Lucy Cavendish?

Born in 1841, she was an early advocate for the improvement of educational opportunities for women. She was the first woman to gain an honorary law degree from the University of Leeds in 1904.

The college which bears her name was founded in 1965 "for the specific advancement of women's education, recognising that there is still an imbalance between women and men in senior academic posts".

Although part of the University of Cambridge, it takes only mature women students, often without a traditional academic background. Currently, it has more than 200 undergraduate and postgraduate students, whose ages range between 21 and the mid-50s.

The TES fellowship is one of 13 privately-funded posts, several of which are dedicated to educational research.It is exactly 50 years ago since Cambridge University ordinances were changed to allow women to receive full BA degrees.

Application details Noticeboard page 37

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