Author(s):Mattias Nylund (presenting), Kristina Ledman, Per-Åke Rosvall

Conference:ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers

Network:02. Vocational Education and Training (VETNET)


Session Information

02 SES 03 A, Analytical Lens on VET: Social Justice and Inequality

Paper Session


Room:Vet-Theatre 116

Chair:Margaret Eleanor Malloch


Class, Gender and Knowledge. Knowledge Discourses in Vocational Programmes.

This study aims to develop knowledge regarding the role of vocational subjects in the civic education of upper secondary schools, on a curriculum level. Most research on civic education and critical thinking is in the general subjects, often focusing on social science. Research in vocational education and training (VET) programmes in upper secondary school is no exception, especially in a Swedish research context (cf. Ledman 2014, Norlund 2011). However, vocational subjects dominate VET-programmes and the VET-policy in Sweden, and many other countries, moves in a direction towards more workplace-like education (Baynall 2000, Nylund 2013). Without knowledge about the potential role of work-oriented subjects in developing the students’ critical thinking, we have only partial understanding of civic education in upper secondary VET.

A consequence of the organisation of education in class societies is that subordinate social groups tend to encounter a curriculum where knowledge is more context-bound (Bernstein 2000). This characterization is relevant to Sweden’s (cf. Lundahl and Olofsson 2014), and most other countries (cf. Bol et al. 2014, Ho 2012), upper-secondary vocational programmes, which primarily attract working-class students and socialize them for working-class jobs (Lauglo 2010). Another general pattern is that vocational routes are segregated in terms of gender (cf. Hjelmér, Lappalainen, Rosvall 2014, Lappalainen, Mietola & Lahelma 2013). In this study we acknowledge the variables social background and gender through the empirical sample and choice of theory (see below). The study presents an analysis of three different vocational programmes representing three distinct vocational contexts; The Care programme (female dominated), The Vehicle programme (male dominated) and The Restaurant programme (neutral).

The ambition is to shed light on the position of the vocational subjects in the curriculum, in relation to civic education. Hence, the purpose of the paper is to identify knowledge discourses in vocational subjects and to discuss what this implies for the social distribution of knowledge in relation to class (Bernstein 2000) and gender (Connell 1987). The main research question is: how is knowledge contextualized and what does this imply for what type of knowledge the students are offered?

The empirical data consists of policy documents, national curriculum and syllabuses.

Questions such as the following are addressed:

* What is the relation between goals on different levels of the curricula (overarching goals, exam goals, subject goals, course goals) and the vocational subjects?

* What relation does vocational subjects have to goals relating to civic education?

* What is the relation between general/academic subjects and vocational subjects in regard to the goals stated in the curricula?

* In relation to which contexts (political, technical, ethical, instrumental, etc.), and in what way (e.g. how strong), is the content in the vocational subjects bound?

* What are the similarities and differences between the different vocational programmes in relation to questions such as those stated above?


It is of great importance to generate knowledge of the possible role of vocational subjects in the schools civic education and to make possible a deeper understanding of the possibilities for VET students to access and acquire critical thinking in the work-oriented content that has come to increasingly dominate the curriculum for VET. So far this is largely unexplored. Without knowing how critical thinking is distributed through work-oriented subjects and practices, we have only partial understanding of civic education in upper secondary VET. The question is of particular interest in a Swedish context, and for countries going through a similar policy and curricula development in which goals such as employability and employer influence over the curricula is put at the fore (eg. Germany and England, c.f. Brockmann 2012).


The empirical data consists of policy, national curriculum and syllabuses. Steering documents for various levels from the latest upper-secondary reform relating to vocational programmes will be included in the analysis because we are seeking general patterns, or organizing principles, relating to the conceptualization and contextualisation of knowledge (cf. Weelahan 2007, Young 2008). The analysis thus includes the green paper and the government bill that introduced the reform as well as the resulting curriculum document and the associated exam goals and course plans.

The key concept for analysing these documents is knowledge discourses, specifically in terms of horizontal and vertical discourses (cf. Bernstein 1999; Shay 2012). These concepts were designed to make possible an analysis of what kind of knowing and thinking is made possible through different contextualisations of knowledge. The theory was developed to investigate the strong tendency of an uneven access to ”critical knowledge” at a societal level between different social groups (cf. Bernstein 2000, Young 2008). In this process the working class tends to encounter a curriculum dominated by horizontal discourses with little access to critical thinking, i.e. with little access to a type of knowledge central to the schools civic education.

The study could thus be described as employing a ‘critical policy methodology’ in the context of curriculum analysis (cf. Rata 2014). We use a theoretical framework that places the question of how educational knowledge is organized in the context of political economy (class and gender), and present integrated analyses of data from policy and curriculum documents.

This study represents the first part of a larger study financed by the Swedish research council 2016-2019. In later stages, ethnographic data from the practice in different programmes will be included in the analysis (thus fulfilling more criteria of a study employing a ‘critical policy methodology’), but this presentation will only deal with policy and curricula.

Expected Outcomes

We will shed light on the structure of the curricula for students taking the vocational track and show how goals and content on different levels of the curriculum are related with a particular focus on the vocational subjects. We will present findings on how gender effects knowledge discourses in vocational subjects and show how these programmes are a part of a social distribution of knowledge, both in terms of gender (between the programmes) and in terms of class (how knowledge is organized in the vocational subjects in the context of the curriculum more broadly). These findings, in turn, are expected to shed light on the broader question of what role the vocational subjects could have as a part of the schools civic education.


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Author Information

Mattias Nylund (presenting)
Gothenburg University
Department of Education and Special Education
Kristina Ledman
Umeå universitet
Department of historical, philosophical and religious studies
Per-Åke Rosvall
Umeå University, Sweden