Simmons, Robin, Thompson, Ron and Russell, Lisa (2013) Self-Esteem and Social Justice? Engaging Young People on the Margins of Education and Employment. In: Journal of Vocational Education and Training 10th International Conference, 5th-7th July 2013, Worcester College, Oxford. (Unpublished)

This paper is based on three years of ethnographic research with young people on the margins of work and learning. Drawing on data collected in two local authorities in the north of England with high proportions of young people categorised as NEET (not in education, employment or training), the research follows young people as they ‘churn’ between different forms of participation and non-participation, including training programmes which aim to promote ‘employability’ skills.

Whilst we recognise that vocational education can help build motivation and self-esteem, it is argued that such an approach, however committed tutors are to learners’ well-being, can limit the development of young people and the opportunities available to them. The paper draws on Bernstein’s work on pedagogic discourses and ‘trainability’ to analyse work-based learning for marginalised young people, and to offer an alternative vision of this provision – one which, we argue, offers increased possibilities both for student well-being and social justice more broadly. Our central point is that, if employability programmes are to equip participants for socially and economically fulfilled lives, marginalised learners require significantly different forms of education and training. This, we argue, needs to develop not only self-esteem and motivation, but expose young people to principled learning and traditional conceptions of skill rooted in a unity of knowledge and action.

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