The following essay seeks to explore the various ways in which contemporary secondary schools prepare their students for life in the adult sphere – specifically how contemporary secondary schools prepare their students for work. This, in effect, represents one of the most important and complex transitions a young person has to go through with issues relating to social inclusion, welfare and individual responsibility all coming to the fore during this difficult time. Thus, we should note from the outset the significance of the issue we have chosen to explore as well as the vast potential for social change located within the transition from secondary school to work. Moreover, we should note the way in which the topic we have chosen to explore transcends the boundaries of education and childcare; rather, the topic of the transition from a school environment to the workplace is a key political issue with poor decision-making during the transition leading to a perpetuation of “the increasing polarisation between thriving communities on the one hand and deprived ones on the other.” (Stewart and Hills, 2005:12)
For the purpose of perspective, we will adopt an analytical approach to the subject matter at hand, using relevant theories of social change (most obviously theories relating to social exclusion) in order to highlight the theoretical problems of the transition from school to work in addition to exploring the ways in which schools attempt to tackle this problem at a grassroots level. Before we can begin, though, we need to undertake a brief literature review of the source material available for this broad, expansive topic in order to establish a conceptual framework for the remainder of the discussion.
There is a vast body of literature and source material available on the topic of the transition from secondary school to work with a plethora of books, journals and articles being published during the 1990s and during the opening decade of the twenty first century, reflecting the changing social and cultural realities of education in a post-welfare society (Gerwitz, 2001; Tomlinson, 2005). Ultimately, we have to acknowledge the changing landscape of secondary education in the contemporary era and, more importantly, the vocational aspect of the current curriculum. To think in outmoded terms of there being a separation between the educational system and the workplace can only hamper our attempts at attaining a more rounded understanding of the issue at hand. In addition, as Mary Jane Kehily observes in the introduction to her edited book on Understanding Youth, the concept of youth and the experience of young people is vastly different today than it was a mere two or three decades ago.
“In contemporary times, the transition from childhood to adulthood is increasingly protracted, commonly lasting much longer than adolescence or the ‘growing up’ years.” (Kehily, 2007:3)
It is for this reason that we can see such an increase in the body of literature published on the subject of youth, the long, drawn out transition from childhood to adulthood and the important part played by work in bridging this historical divide. Adopting a broad view, we can see that the literature published on the transition from secondary school to the workplace can be dissected into three discernible parts. Firstly, there is the generic literature published on the move from school to work where, for instance, Hoerner (1994) highlights the need for schools to have a connectedness to work so as to provide students with a realistic, productive future. In addition to this study, we should also note the relevance of David Neumark’s 2007 book entitled Improving School-to-Work Transitions, which is conceived of as an aid to educators teaching students who are nearing an age where compulsory education will soon end.
Secondly, the literature available on the transition from school to work can be seen to have adopted a biographical, empirical stance with academic studies taking place from the perspective of the student (as opposed to from the perspective of the teacher). Henderson et al’s 2006 publication is a fine example of just such a piece of work with the authors underscoring the inherent difficulties in ‘inventing’ adulthood via a series of difficult childhood transitions of which the transition from secondary school to work is interpreted as being amongst the cumbersome to successfully navigate. More importantly within the context of the discussion at hand, the authors dedicate a large section of the book to highlighting the way in which the transition from a school environment to a workplace setting has the potential to ‘remake inequality’ and, as a result, to perpetuate problems pertaining to social exclusion. Consequently, Henderson et al interpret this transition as being a particularly problematic ‘hotspot’ of young person’s life: an aspect of life at “the front line of the kind of identity work that can make a difference to processes of intergenerational social mobility and continuity.” (Henderson et al, 2006:99-100) This study has been augmented by a number of other recent publications dedicated to understanding the transitions of youth from the perspective of the young person, including Jeremy Roche et al’s edited account of Youth in Society with Stanley Tucker contributing a highly pertinent article whether, upon undergoing the transition from childhood to adulthood, young people have their working identities given to them or whether they choose their working identity. (Tucker, 2004:81-90)
Thirdly, and finally, we should make a note of the way in which a great deal of the academic literature published on the transition from secondary school to the workplace takes on a decidedly international perspective, comparing and contrasting the experience of the transition on a trans-national basis. Stern and Wagner (1997), for instance, highlight – through analysing thirteen different countries – how, while being a wholly unique experience, there are certain trends emerging that suggests a form of consensus about the transition from school to the workplace, especially in the developed western world. Muller and Gangl, on the other hand, offer a solely European perspective on the issue of transition from school to the workplace with the authors making a point of connecting the vast enlargement of the European Union in recent years (with the EU having exploded from a community of thirteen member states at the beginning of the 1990s to its current number of twenty seven member states) with the issue of transition to the workplace. Ultimately, Muller and Gangl observe that the sheer number of processes of transition that occur between leaving secondary school and entering the workplace (including economic and cultural processes) renders the issue critical to policy making in the twenty first century EU because transition serves to shape “the social stratification of modern societies.” (Muller and Gangl, 2003:1)
Therefore, in the final analysis, it is clear from offering only this brief overview of the literature available on the topic that the issue of the transition from the state-sponsored education to the privately operated sphere of the workplace is one which is rapidly growing in academic significance which, itself, is a direct result of the realisation that social inequalities are perpetuated at this crucial stage of development. With this essential background in mind we should now turn our attention towards analysing how secondary schools in the UK seek to prepare their students for life beyond compulsory education.
Preparing secondary school students for the transition to the workplace
While we have been correct to note within the literature review the way in which the transition from secondary school to the workplace is a transition that is increasingly significant in the contemporary era, we should not presume that the issue has not been addressed in the past. Rather, the idea of secondary schools preparing their students for life after the completion of compulsory education has long been one of the major remits of the public school experience. When, for instance, we examine the nature of secondary schools in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century we can see that the role of the Careers Adviser or the Careers Counsellor is one which became a central feature of the educational landscape, especially for those students in the sixth form approaching the end of their time in secondary school. Indeed, the role of the Careers Adviser was conceived of precisely to act as a conduit through which the pupils were able to discover the realities of life in the workplace or in post-compulsory education such as university or college.
However, in most cases, the presence of the Careers Adviser was far from accentuated within the school itself and visits to his or her office were optional rather than mandatory. As a consequence, only those pupils with an inherently proactive approach to learning and life would have made use of the in-house facilities provided by the secondary school concerning the imminent transition to the workplace or further education. Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that the presence of a Careers Adviser on secondary schools premises serves not to demolish the foundations of social exclusion but, rather, to maintain the divide between separate socio-economic classes with children being able to ‘opt out’ of the transition to the workplace in the same way that many children are able to opt out of academic achievement. Ultimately, important life choices – of which the transition from secondary school to the workplace is one of the most important – cannot be taken by adopting an optional approach. As a result, recourse solely to the intermediary role of a Careers Adviser is not sufficient in itself either as a means of assisting students in the complex transition from school to the workplace or as a means of addressing the devastating social, economic and cultural effects of social inequality. This is an important point to note and one that ought to be borne in mind throughout the remainder of the discussion.
It is also worth noting that the curriculum that was championed in Britain prior to the advent of New Labour to political power in 1997 was one that also served to perpetuate inequality and social exclusion by placing far too much emphasis upon the ‘core’ subjects of English, maths and science as well as ‘foundation’ subjects (such as history and geography) over and above vocational subjects aimed at assisting the student in the difficult transition from the classroom to the workplace. As a result, those children who performed badly at the core and foundation subjects were given little by way of opportunity to learn key skills of trade vital for employment in the adult sphere. Thus, we should acknowledge that the reform of the national curriculum overseen after 1997 that involved a radical overhaul of the concept of vocational training within the secondary school has at least served to address the limitations of academic achievement and the scope for careers that exists in vocational subjects. In this way, there has been a greater sense of convergence between ability, intelligence and attainment in the contemporary British secondary school (Moon and Bourne, 2002:25-31).
Thus, from the moment that children enter the contemporary secondary school, they are confronted with the realities of the transition that each of them will have to make with regards to leaving school and entering an increasingly global, multinational workforce. When, for instance, we pause to consider the implications of the incorporation of citizenship studies in the modern secondary school, we can understand the extent to which the contemporary curriculum is geared at an ideological level towards giving the pupils “the knowledge, skills and understanding to play an effective role in society at local, national and international levels.” (Kerr, 2003:5) This, in turn, has served to reduce the pressure placed upon the intermediary role of the Careers Adviser. The reform of the national curriculum should consequently be seen as a fundamentally important building block in the edification of a discernibly more egalitarian educational landscape where, in theory, fewer students are permitted to simply ‘slip through the net.’
In addition, the role of the secondary school teacher in the UK has been inexorably altered over the course of the past two decades with contemporary secondary school teachers expected to engage in a wide range of personal, social, cultural and moral capacities designed to better equip the students for life in the adult world (as opposed to simply teaching the students with a view to passing examinations). A report commissioned by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) at the turn of the millennium called The Framework clearly sets out the new, multi-faceted role of the secondary school teacher within the context of the constantly shifting edifice of twenty first century education.
“A carefully structured and co-ordinated guidance programme, which includes health education and careers education and guidance, ensures that pupils are well-informed and are counselled wisely, particularly at points of transition. Teachers have skills appropriate to their responsibilities for guidance and have access to, and make use of, professional support both from within the school and from specialist services.” (Bourdillon and Storey, 2002:233)
This represents a ‘pastoral system’ of secondary education, consisting of a convergence of social services, support systems, educational counsellors and teachers aimed at instilling the student with the requisite life skills required to succeed in an increasingly challenging adult sphere. In this way, the contemporary secondary school seeks to address the problems raised by transition to the workplace by adopting a discernibly holistic approach to teaching.
However, we should be careful of assuming that, in reforming the national curriculum, revamping secondary education and redefining the role of the contemporary secondary school teacher, the government has in any way solved the historical problem of the transition to the workplace acting as a vehicle through which social exclusion can continue to keep certain socio-economic classes mired in underachievement and poverty. Rather, in many ways, we can see that the change in focus of secondary schools – and of the entire educational landscape – has directly contributed to an increase in social exclusion as the realities of providing state-funded education in a post-welfare society means that the role of the parents in guiding the student has necessarily increased. As a result, social inequalities are able to be perpetuated on a generational level as those students with parents who are disinterested in their children’s transition to the workplace offer no form of guidance or support with regards to the key decisions made by young people at this time. As Byrne (2005:10) notes in his critique of social exclusion in the contemporary era, “the recasting in the UK of the form state education away from egalitarianism and towards family-mediated individual achievement is constitutive for the differentiating processes shaping personal trajectory towards adult life.” Consequently, we should note that, while secondary schools are clearly making increased provisions to assist their pupils through the difficult transition from a school environment to the workplace, the initiative rests in the final analysis upon the student and, more importantly, the parents. For this reason, social exclusion cannot be tackled by recourse to transition tactics alone.
We have seen how the secondary educational landscape in twenty first century Britain is barely recognisable from its twentieth century counterpart, reflecting the vast, unprecedented changes that have occurred at an economic, social, cultural and political level. We have also seen how poorly managed transitions can result in a perpetuation of social inequalities that are then passed down through successive generations keeping the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups mired in exclusion, ill-education, welfare and poverty.
Ultimately, the transition from youth to adulthood is today a much longer and more complex experience that has to be addressed by a convergence of schools, parents and educational counsellors – all of whom play important roles in guiding and advising children over the transition to the workplace. Yet while schools have adjusted to the new demands of creating a sustainable workforce for a multicultural society, there are inherent limits placed upon educational institutions with regards to preparing children for the transition from secondary school to the workplace and, as a result, with regards to tackling social exclusion at a broader societal level. In the final analysis, the part to be played by the parents in assisting this transition is, arguably, the most important part within the entire pastoral process. As a result, inequalities will continue to be reflected in the manner in which parents guide their children through the transition from adolescence to the adult sphere.