Hidden Students: Former apprentices within higher education (HE) and the impact of occupational role models

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Over the past decade, apprenticeship policy has changed dramatically; with an increase in participation and an expansion in opportunities at Level 3 and above. There has also been a growing interest in whether apprenticeships offer progression to HE. Yet, despite around 35,000 former apprentices progressing to HE between 2006-07 and 2012-13, their voices are largely overlooked.

An innovative methodology? The role and influence of networks

This study explored the experiences of former apprentices who were studying in HE using narrative, longitudinal methods. The resulting case studies focused on former apprentices while drawing on multiple perspectives from their personal and work networks. The challenge was to balance a focus on the former apprentices with an interweaving of their networks to give an insight into complexities, tensions and contradictions. The networks comprised friends and family, alongside newer associates such as HE tutors or work managers. Thinking of networks in malleable forms, as people join and others exit, helps to appreciate their changing influence within someone’s life. This approach has furthered the understanding of the former apprentices’ lives through different viewpoints and broader insights.

One case study – Jamie Whitefield (all names are pseudonyms)

Diagram of Jamie’s most influential networks

 Jamie left school at 16 and bounced between unemployment and low skilled employment before he stumbled into a Bricklaying Apprenticeship which he then used to enter an Architectural Technician degree. Jamie is a first generation HE student, and his father is an electrician and his mother a teaching assistant. While there was a shared work ethic, education is viewed as a means to enter work.

One of his Apprenticeship placements was for an artisan builder whose progressive approach was highly influential. This work led to Jamie developing pride in his craftsmanship, with respect from his colleagues restoring his confidence. When the physical demands of the job took their toll Jamie began to contemplate a different future:

Some days it would be a rainy day, and you’d be in a trench, covered in mud and laying soggy concrete blocks and I would just think. When two people would walk past the site in their suit or whatever and I would just imagine myself in another life, you know.

While Jamie’s network was absent from his early decision-making his sister, along with others, were influential in his decision to progress to HE. Being at university also broadened his network, for example, he struck up a friendship with Shaun (a course technician) who was impressed by Jamie’s industry knowledge and hard work:

[Jamie] just worked, he never stopped working. He knew that this was his big shot at getting out of, you know, climbing the social strata, not being that guy anymore.


Jamie’s occupational identity underpinned his learning, and he was most engaged when his past experiences were utilised. Despite some difficult aspects he valued the opportunity to use his knowledge and was motivated by the high expectations of his tutors:

I don’t think I go unnoticed; I get like As in design projects… I think our tutors do recognise that I’ve got, that I’ve produced work that a builder could interpret and they expect that from me, knowing that I’ve got the experience that I’ve got.

Jamie’s previous fragmented learning and work experience made him acutely aware of where he may end up if he failed in his degree. This heightened sense of risk fuelled his motivation and led him to draw on the resources of those around him when he needed support. His account of HE reflects a transformation and a balance, between investing in a new improved identity and holding on to a cohesive self:

I used to be a different person; I’ve done a lot of growing up… I had some quite ignorant views… I wasn’t right, I wasn’t a positive person, but your eyes are opened as you learn more… I mean, I was that person who said I couldn’t do it, and part of me, until I did it, a lot of me wasn’t sure I could do it, whether I could come to uni.

Due to Jamie’s determination and his willingness to accept the support of his network he graduated with an Upper Second-Class Honours degree and several job offers.

What can we learn from this work?

The narratives explored here provide insight into the socially and occupationally embedded nature of educational participation which is rooted within family, friendship and peer networks. The networks draw into view the shared attitudes and dispositions about education and learning, such as the value placed on education and employment choices. For example, occupational role models encountered during the apprenticeships were powerful influencers on trajectories to HE. While some of this data can be unpicked from individual narratives, the richness of networks of data helps to set individual behaviour within a broader context. The case studies for the overall study were reflective of the diversity and complexity of apprenticeship progression to HE, both due to the variety of qualifications and the nature of provision. Furthermore, they draw attention to the pathologising of apprentices as deficient, without the ‘proper’ educational background, or lacking aspiration. The stories in this research, instead give insight into how they become effective HE students. The impact of role models was an important factor in this.

Author: Alison Rouncefield-Swales has recently finished her Phd at the Department of Education and Childhood, the University of the West of England. She worked with Dr Richard Waller and Dr Neil Harrison.

Email: Alison2.Rouncefield-Swales@live.uwe.ac.uk

Twitter: @alirouncefield


Book Launch: Evaluating Equity & Widening Participation in Higher Education

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Book Launch 

Evaluating Equity & Widening Participation in Higher Education

18 September 2018 from 4.30 – 6.00

University of Bath in London, 83 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ES

You are warmly invited to the launch of ‘Evaluating Equity & Widening Participation in Higher Education’ Edited by: Penny-Jane Burke, Annette Hayton and Jacqueline Stevenson. Published by: Trentham, London, 2018.

Book contributors: Matt Lumb, Catherine Dilnot, Vikki Boliver, Claire Callender, Heidi Safia Mirza,

Nicola Ingram, Jessica Abrahams, Ann-Marie Bathmaker.

‘Thank goodness! A book that moves us beyond what works to what matters in evaluating equity in higher education.

— Trevor Gale, Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice, University of Glasgow

This rich collection shows it is possible to combine rigorous evaluation with critical research and also advocacy and progressive practice.’

— Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education


Rae Tooth, Head of Strategy and Change at the UK’s Office for Students

Dr Sarah O’Shea, Associate Professor in Adult, Vocational and Higher Education University of Wollongong, Australia

Dr Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education at the University of the West of England.


The launch is free to attend and open to all, and will be followed by a reception.

Our publishers,Trentham Books, IOE, will be at the book lauch and discounted copies of the book

will be available for sale or order.

To book please email: nerupi@bath.ac.uk

Speaker biographies

Dr Sarah O’Shea is an Associate Professor in Adult, Vocational and Higher Education in the School of Education, University of Wollongong, Australia. Sarah has over 20 years’ experience teaching in universities as well as the vocational and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity. In 2016, Sarah was awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery project exploring the persistence and retention of university students across Australia, UK and Ireland. Sarah works within a qualitative framework and has drawn upon narrative inquiry and grounded theory in her research activities.

Rae Tooth is Head of Strategy and Change at the UK’s Office for Students, and prior to that in the same role for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). In her role she collaborates with the sector to identify what research is needed to best enhance policy and guidance on good practice, and commissions research to support policy development and the broader understanding of widening participation and fair access. Rachael also worked on secondment for the University of Warwick in the Strategy and Change team over a five month period, and for the Higher Education Funding Council for England working directly with institutions before moving into more policy focused roles.

Dr Richard Waller is Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education at the University of the West of England. He has worked for the National Union of Students, the civil service, and, extensively, in both Further and Higher Education including undertaking widening participation work for the University of Bristol. His research focuses on WP, he was a founder member of the western WP research cluster, he is on the editorial board of four journals, and a trustee of the British Sociological Association, for whom he has previously been Education Study Group convenor and conference stream co-ordinator

International Family Violence and Child Victimization Research Conference

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International gender and sexual violence prevention researchers: Dr Helen Bovill, Professor Victoria Banyard, Dr Sarah McMahon, and Dr Katie Edwards will form a symposium to discuss violence prevention work from a Uk University (UWE), and United States Universities: University of New Hampshire (UNH) and Rutgers University of New Jersey. Please contact any of the authors below for further details regarding their research or this conference.

Helen Bovill is Associate Head of Department Research and Scholarship. Department of Education and Childhood, UWE. Dr Bovill’s research interests include understanding gender based violence and university initiatives and practices aimed at countering this culture. @education_uwe    @HelenBovill



Victoria Banyard is a Professor in the Department of Psychology (UNH) with an affiliation with the Justice Studies Program. She is a research and evaluation consultant with Prevention Innovations.

Professor Banyard’s research interests include resilience after and prevention of interpersonal violence especially promoting bystander action.





Sarah McMahon is Associate Professor and Associate Director, Center on Violence Against Women and Children. Rutgers School of Social Work.

Dr. McMahon’s research interests include violence against women and social work education.




Katie Edwards is Assistant Professor of psychology and women’s studies, and faculty affiliate of Prevention Innovations and the Carsey School of Public Policy.

Dr Edward’s research interests include causes, consequences, and prevention of interpersonal violence.




Symposium Abstract

Violence Prevention in a Global and Multi-cultural Context: An international symposium

Interpersonal violence knows no geographic boundaries. High rates of problems like dating and sexual violence are documented around the world, with youth and young adults a particularly at-risk age group. This panel includes four presentations about results of violence prevention work in a diverse array of communities, with a particular focus on bystander action. Two of the presentations describe international efforts to combat dating, sexual and domestic violence among young adults on university campuses in England and in Kenya with a UK focus on micro-aggressions. The other two papers describe research findings from prevention work in two different geographic regions of the United States: the western plains and the northeast corridor. Both of these studies draw from culturally diverse samples of middle, high school and college students. Discussion of the papers will center on lessons learned and ideas about the need to understand how violence prevention, including bystander intervention training, needs to be adapted to consider different contexts.




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