The Learning Adult Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis

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 Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education at the Department of Education and Childhood,  has just published a co-edited book ‘The Learning Adult: Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis’ with Routledge. Peter has been one of the most influential figures in adult and lifelong education for several decades, and is a leading and original theorist of learning.

The book is a collection of sixteen chapters by authors from across the world, and explores the breadth and significance of Peter’s work in a number of contexts. The chapters explain and engage critically with his theorisation of learning, and with his extensive writings on the sociology, politics, ethics and history of adult education, and on professional education, lifelong learning and the learning society. The book is co-edited with Richard’s three other co-editors from the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Six factors supporting success for care leavers in higher education

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There has long been a social policy concern about groups of young people who do not have ready access to higher education (HE).  Among the lowest participation rates are those for care-experienced young people – i.e. those taken into the care of their local authority, usually due to abuse, neglect or other challenges within their birth family.  Within this group, those still in care at 16 (broadly designated as ‘care leavers’) are the least likely to enter HE.

The publication of the ‘Moving On Up’ report in late 2017 was designed to fill a gap in our understanding about the pathways that care leavers and other care-experienced students take into and through HE in England.  It draws on both national educational data and the accounts of 212 current students.

The report identifies six factors that appear to underpin successful participation in HE – not all of these will apply to all care leavers, but they provide a useful framework for examining their experiences and evaluating policy and practice:

 

  1. Strong attainment at 16

 By some way the strongest predictor for success was attainment at 16 in the shape of GCSEs or other qualifications.  Once this was taken into account, the participation rates for care leavers were only slightly lower than for young people as a whole.  However, the challenges experienced by care leavers meant that they were significantly less likely to achieve highly – around one quarter were not even entered for examination.

This finding reinforces the importance of supporting attainment for children in care, whilst recognising that many will not be in the position to achieve what they are capable of at their first attempt.  What remains unclear is whether it is the embedded knowledge/skills within GCSEs that propel care leavers towards success or whether our education system simply uses (and overuses) them to filter and redirect young people onto the pathway deemed most appropriate for them – see 6 below.

 

  1. A managed transition from care to HE

 For many, the process of transitioning from care into independent living as a student is a significant upheaval.  Financial support needs to be negotiated, appropriate accommodation secured and new friendships forged.  While this is true of all young people, those in care are likely to have more complexity and greater needs, at the same time as less family support on which to draw.

The best accounts of transition were marked by pre-entry collaboration between local authority, university/college and young person, enabling them to navigate changes as painlessly as possible.  Conversely, some ended up having to find their own way in the face of indifference or negativity.  Many reported not being able to attend open days, having difficulty getting forms signed or being forced to move into new housing on their own.

  

  1. Membership of the HE community

 Following on, rapid integration into the HE community was seen as a key element in becoming a successful student.  Those care leavers who had not integrated quickly reported loneliness, isolation and a disempowering feeling of being unsupported.  This not only impacted on their mental health, but also undermined their ability to focus on their studies.

The barriers to joining the HE community were varied.  Some found themselves living too far from the university – especially those who were parents or had remained with their foster family.  Another group reported feeling different to other students and unable to talk about their childhood as part of friendship formation.  Others found that HE staff were uninformed or unsympathetic.

 

 4. Strong disability and mental health support

 The study found that two-thirds of care leavers were deemed to have special educational needs.  Unsurprisingly, emotional and mental health issues were commonplace – many wrote about the continuing legacy of childhood trauma.  Others had specific learning difficulties or other impairments that had influenced their ability to achieve highly.

 Those self-identifying as ‘disabled’ were significantly more likely to have used HE support services and to have considered leaving.  For those with long-term mental health issues, the transition into HE posed new problems, including the end of child-focused therapeutic support.  Several reported that their university/college was unable to provide the form of ongoing support that they needed.

  

  1. Resilience and determination

 A key element in many stories was a strong sense of determination to succeed – as they saw it – against the odds.  They saw HE as a stepping stone to increase their life chances and enable them to transcend the struggles they had undergone, either with their birth families or their later experiences in care.  For some, they saw it is as their only chance to do so.

The other side of this coin was the despair that some expressed.  They were conscious of still struggling through HE, looking to an uncertain future.  It was rarely clear why one student would be resilient and another, ostensibly similar, would be fragile.

 

 6. Recognition for alternative educational pathways

 A distinctive feature of care leavers’ routes into HE was that they tended to start later (around a year, on average) and to take longer to complete than other young people, with changed courses, retakes and periods of dormancy being common.  They were significantly more likely to enter with qualifications that were not A Levels, including Access to HE and work-based learning courses.

Many care leavers are not in a position to attain highly at 16 and they are therefore ‘filtered’ into pathways that led them away from HE – at least initially – including lower-level further education courses or entry into the unskilled labour market.  It was a testament to their resolve that some found their way back into HE; local authorities and universities could do more to valorise these alternative pathways and make them easier to find and traverse.

 

Dr Neil Harrison  , Associate Professor of Education Policy

Twitter: @DrNeilHarrison 

 

A Working-Class Feminist’s Perspective of Navigating the ‘Classed’ Higher Education System

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After being invited to contribute to the Think Human Festival, organised by Professor Simon Kövesi, Laura Baldock and their colleagues at Oxford Brookes University, a familiar resurgence of anxiety momentarily flooded me.

Not only did I face the usual worries over whether I’d pronounce words ‘correctly’ or whether I’d be perceived as a ‘caricature’ (as I have heard other working-class female academics being described), I was instantly reminded of the previous time I spoke on a similar theme to that which I was invited to speak on at Brookes.

In 2017, I was invited to speak at the University of Cambridge. The majority of the audience members appeared welcoming of the research that I was there to disseminate from the Paired Peers project and my reflections on how I have navigated the higher education system as a working-class student and academic. Though, as I spoke, I noticed two audience members who were struggling to contain their laughter.

At first, I thought that perhaps I had something on my face or stuck between my teeth. What I soon noticed was that their laughter, which they failed to hide behind their tissues, coincided with some of the words that I was using. As I do in all environments, academic or not, I spoke with my Barnsley accent and dialect. The way in which I pronounced words such as ‘reyt’, made the two audience members widen their eyes while looking towards one another and silently chuckle. I also noticed that they laughed at one of the key suggestions that I proposed: that there should be a working-class association at every UK university, with a particular need for such an association at ‘older’ universities. They found my idea- that students and academics should have space within middle-class dominated university fields to recreate a microcosm based on their own community- laughable.

With this experience nagging at me, I felt doubly anxious to speak about similar matters at Oxford Brookes. However, when I started to present on this occasion, I found myself standing in front of a wholly engaged audience. As I looked around me there was no half-hidden silent laughter, only intrigued faces. As a result, I felt confident to introduce my position that there are three risks faced by working-class students who access higher education, these being: (i) economic, (ii) cultural, and (iii) social risks.

First, I demonstrated the rationale for this position through using data from the Paired Peers research project. I showed that there are class distinctions within university fields between working-class students and their middle-class peers and academic staff. I demonstrated this by showing how working-class and middle-class agents have different social, cultural and economic capital accessible to them and spoke about how these hold different cachets within the university field. Drawing on a variety of student narratives, I was able to explore how different forms of capital were mobilised to mold culture consumption practices which, in turn, differentiated the experiences and graduate outcomes of working-class and middle-class university students.

Second, through reflecting on my own trajectory as a working-class student and academic at university, I explored how I navigated these three risks. I spoke about how I, as an eighteen-year-old undergraduate student, tried to assimilate with the other students that I lived with and the university culture at large. Though, besides meeting three other young working-class women who I studied alongside, I, a working-class girl from ‘Barnslehhhhhhh’, wasn’t successful in assimilating with the hegemonic student population.

I explored how my experiences of social and cultural exclusion were exemplified as I transferred from undergraduate to PhD study. I explained how in response to my lack of ‘fit’ and my observations of those who were proving to be a ‘success’, who were indeed middle-class, I began to question aspects of my identity. I detailed how, as a result of this incessant questioning, I was left with very little: the dominant middle-class culture had pulverised into submission any working-class character that I had. The girl who was known as ‘gob on legs’ throughout her earlier contact with education had become overanalytical of every aspect of herself and, as a result, became subdued. My experiences, and how I embodied these, were misvalued by agents who operated within higher education and thus I jarred with the social and cultural practices which thrived there.

To conclude the talk, I spoke of how I work to find some solutions for these issues for myself and others:

First, I began to observe and read the work published by other working-class women in academia. I watched, listened and drew on their experiences until I was confident enough to share the richness of my own culture: my accent, dialect, sense of humour and style, all of which are considered ‘garish’ when positioned against the backdrop of most universities;

Second, I learned to adore the ‘third space’ that I reside in. I exist here because on the one hand I no longer wholly fit in at home in Barnsley (I am now often perceived as ‘too posh’), and on the other, I do not fit in with academia, not that I have the desire to assimilate with dominant academic culture anyway. Yes, it can be lonely, but I am in the perfect position to achieve my ambitions to teach and work alongside other working-class people who engage with the structures of higher education;

Third, as other academics have done before me, I aim to continue to bring social class- an often-undiscussed or hidden facet of the university experience- to the table, while utilising the tools provided by intersectionality theory. I work to show those who are unrepresented by the prevailing cultures of higher education that they do not have to change to be considered a ‘success’, the definition of which is too often set by a middle-class, white, ableist, male bias.

I will continue to talk about how institutional practices dismiss and ostracize working-class culture and hold up middle-class culture as the archetype of what is deemed successful. I hope that unpicking these via an intersectional approach will help unrepresented students and academics see that it isn’t their fault that they sit on the periphery of these fields. That in fact, our position on the outskirts affords us a unique perspective, one that academia would be foolish to continue to ignore.

Laura Bentley, PhD student, the Paired Peers project 

Twitter: @LauraBentleyPhD