We can't all go 'soft'

1st June 2012 at 01:00

Boosting the number of apprenticeships will create more opportunities for working-class young people than those lost as obstacles to university attendance increase. University is becoming more competitive and more expensive. Even though children from working-class backgrounds may be exempt from fees, the fact that they tend to be debt averse is still likely to reduce applications.

But university is not a universally desired goal, so the government's proposed increase to the number of apprenticeships - by 75,000 to 430,000 - is very welcome. And the aim of having more working-class students at university seems, to me, misguided. Does it have at its heart the age-old desire to make working-class children more like those from the middle classes?

Often, working-class children - especially boys, who typically lack the "soft" skills that employers supposedly value - want a different path through life. For many of them, no amount of discussion about options or even an army of careers officers will have a massive impact.

Why? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced the notion of "habitus". The concept reflects the way we are socialised into class-based behaviour. And those behaviours and dispositions not only affect us now; they mould the way we see our futures.

Although it looks both backwards and forwards, habitus explains that these behaviours are not fixed for all time. So, undergraduates from modest backgrounds in previous centuries were able to move to highly respected jobs after graduation. Similarly, working-class boys within grammar schools were able to change their expectations of the future in ways that today's working-class boys and girls in comprehensive schools find far more difficult.

Bourdieu also indicates why working-class boys are likely to find it more difficult to adapt to the demands of a market that values "soft" skills. The working class may believe they have little to offer the job market but their labour power. This, in turn, emphasises traditional views of masculinity that become a central feature in the identity of working-class boys.

If we are to take working-class options seriously, we should not seek to impose a desired future upon them. As educators often say, we should work from where they are. Apprenticeships in the wide range of subjects now available - and with at least an emerging sense of progression that may even lead, ultimately, to university - relate to current circumstances in ways that focusing merely on academic study does not.

Graham Fowler is a researcher, writer and consultant.

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