Race, Vocational Education and Training, Learner Experience
In the European Union, and indeed globally, the route to economic competitiveness is said to arise from the development of a knowledge economy. Education policies frequently emphasise the need to prepare young people for the putative fourth industrial revolution, so that they will be able to fully mobilise their talents, contribute to wider society and avoid social exclusion (Brynjolfson and McAfee, 2014). Such notions have become a hegemonic feature of international policy debates (see OECD, 2014). In this context Vocational Education and Training (VET) has been depicted as integral both to economic and social justice agendas. A significant body of education research has addressed the way in which European VET systems aim to develop in young people the competences, skills and dispositions required at work (Mulder and Winterton, 2016).
Insofar as the research has addressed social inequalities, it has focused mainly on the reproduction of classed and/or gendered relations, and on disengagement and unemployment, with limited recognition of ethnicity (see Atkins and Avis, 2017; Beck et al, 2006; Colley et al, 2003; Hughes, et al, 2006). Issues of race and racism – race as a social relationship - have often been covered only in passing, couched, for instance, in terms of articulations between class, gender and ethnicity (see for example Cedefop 2011) Sustained examination of race and VET has been rare. In addition, in European discussions the term ‘migrant’ is often used as a gloss for race/ethnicity. (See also in current concerns surrounding refugees and asylum seekers fleeing from conflict in the Middle East, in Chadderton and Edmonds, 2015). It is, however, important to recognise that divisions and stratifications in education are mediated by the specific social formations in which they are located. Virolainen (2015) and Jørgensen (2014) have noted different VET strategies in Nordic countries, and the relationship of these to class and gendered processes. In Germany a number of writers have noted the relationship of VET to class (Deissinger, 2015; Müller, 2014; Schmidt, 2010; Schneider and Tieben, 2011; Brown, Lauder and Ashton, 2011).
In a previous paper Avis, Orr and Warmington (2017) examined the English research on relationships between race, ethnicity and VET, much of which has lain dormant since the structural accounts of the 1970s and 80s. A number of significant questions emerged from the literature: the marginalisation of black youth in VET, their allocation to low level courses, and ‘warehousing’. The latter concept, first developed in the 1970s and 80s, refers to the way in which particular fractions of working class youth were effectively ‘parked’ on youth training schemes and low level VET. They were, to use Blacker’s (2013) current term, effectively ‘eliminated’ from the labour market. This process is particularly applicable to black male youth (Roberts 2009, 51; Finn 1987, 149. 187-8; and see Marsh, 2011). This paper addresses an under-researched area, the lived experience of male and female black Caribbean and mixed heritage youth in VET. The study is an exploratory case study of an opportunistic sample of ten young people (16-25) from the north of England. Utilising Leonardo’s (2005) research our position is one of race ambivalence. Thus, whilst race may be ‘unreal’ in the sense that it is not a coherent scientific category, its effects or ‘modes of existence’ are nevertheless real, having innumerable consequences (Leonardo, 2005: 409).
This preliminary case study explores the VET experiences of an opportunistic sample of black Caribbean and mixed heritage young people (male and female) in the north of England. Its focus derives from an analysis of the available national statistics relating to the participation of ethnic minorities in VET in England. This background statistical analysis suggested that patterns of participation are changing with young people from certain ethnic minorities now less likely than their white counterparts to be on VET courses. This is a change to the situation hitherto. The statistics, nevertheless, show a persistent achievement gap between white and, especially, black Caribbean young people. In the light of those national statistics, this case study seeks to explore the experiences of individual black Caribbean and mixed heritage young people. The study is set within a specific socio-economic context and relates this to broader European conditions. It does this by analysing the relevant socio-economic literature and considers the salience of its empirical findings for discussions of race/ethnicity, not only in the UK but also more widely within Europe. It interrogates notions of marginalisation, warehousing and the placement of disadvantaged minority ethnic youth on low level VET courses. The case study draws on data collected through semi-structured narrative interviews with 10 young people (5 male 5 female). The interviews explore these young people’s lived experience of VET. The interviews enable an examination of their routes into VET, pedagogic experience, their orientation towards the vocational and their specific experiences of Further Education colleges (the main provider of VET in England). By utilising semi-structured interviews, we are able to pursue particular lines of inquiry that arise during the interview. This allows us to develop a fuller, in-depth understanding of interviewees’ interpretations of the VET experience. The interviews will be coded and thematically analysed. Whilst this is as yet a small scale exploratory study for which we make no claims for generalisability or representativeness, nevertheless it offers some illumination and relatability to the experiences of black youth who face similar circumstances elsewhere in Europe.
The study develops our understanding of the experiences of black students in VET. It relates these findings to empirical work not only in the UK but also in continental Europe (see for example Colding 2006 and Szalai et al 2009). It allows us to consider the significance of theoretical analyses of the VET experience of black youth to other minoritised ethnic groups in Europe, enabling an examination of both specificity and continuity. Importantly, we will be able to examine the salience of analyses that prioritise notions of exclusion, marginalisation and warehousing in current socio-economic conditions. The study also enables a consideration of the salience of gender and class in these processes – the manner in which racialisation is mediated by gender. Such a focus does not preclude a consideration of class. The study anticipates further qualitative and quantitative work in both the UK and Europe, building upon this and earlier research.
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