Simmons, Robin and Thompson, Ron (2012) Well-being and Social Justice? Engaging Young Adults on the Margins of Education and Employment. In: 42nd Annual SCUTREA Conference 2012, 3rd - 5th July 2012, Leicester, UK. (Unpublished)

This paper is based on findings from a one year ethnographic study of young people taking part in work-based learning programmes. The research took place across two neighbouring local authorities in the north of England during 2008-9, and was conducted in five learning sites offering training programmes for young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), or at risk of becoming NEET. Such training aims to promote the ‘employability’ of young people through emphasising the acquisition of certain attitudes, abilities and dispositions deemed necessary for the workplace. These ambitions are not without value and it is recognised that vocational education can be used to help build the self-esteem of learners, and develop the moral and spiritual well-being of young people (Hyland 2011).

However, we believe that such an approach, however committed tutors are to the well-being of learners, limits the development of young people and the opportunities available to them. The central argument of the paper is that, if employability programmes and the practitioners responsible for their delivery are to equip learners for socially and economically fulfilled lives, NEET young people and other marginalised learners require access to significantly different forms of education and training. Such provision, we argue, needs to develop not only the self-esteem and motivation of learners, but should also to expose them to principled conceptual learning and traditional conceptions of skill rooted in a unity of knowledge and action (Simmons 2009). We draw on Bernstein’s (2000) work on pedagogic discourses and his concept of ‘trainability’ to analyse and problematise work-based learning for marginalised young people, and to offer an alternative vision of this provision – a vision which it is argued offers increased possibilities not only for student well-being but for social justice more broadly.

The paper begins by placing contemporary discourses surrounding NEET young people in their social and historical context, and by discussing the nature and make-up of this complex categorisation. It then provides an overview of the research project upon which this paper is based, summarising its key findings and highlighting some of the tensions and contradictions apparent in these programmes. Whilst we acknowledge that tutors are often enthusiastic and committed to the well-being of young people engaged in such training, it is argued that structural, material and cultural factors strongly bound their practice (Thompson 2010). We argue that various factors acting in synergy and including the funding regime, the nature of the curriculum, and certain forms of pedagogy associated with particular assumptions about NEET young people limit not only the scope of learning on employability programmes, but have far-reaching consequences for participants thereafter.

The paper concludes by offering an alternative conception of education and training for young people on the margins of participation. Whilst we acknowledge this would entail significant challenges for policymakers, training providers and practitioners we argue that learners require programmes that both support and challenge them – intellectually and socially. Drawing on Bernstein (2000), it is argued that the acquisition of ‘soft skills’ and personal effectiveness need to be embedded in learning which provides access to more traditional modes of knowledge found in established forms of academic and professional training. Such an approach, in combination with coherent and sustained action to stimulate the demand for labour and for skill is, we argue, necessary if we are to shift from individualised and ultimately limited discourses of well-being to a more holistic model rooted in broader social and economic conceptions of social justice.

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