Students' Experiences and Perspectives on Secondary Education
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Students' Experiences and Perspectives on Secondary Education

Institutions, Transitions and Policy

Emer Smyth

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eBook - ePub

Students' Experiences and Perspectives on Secondary Education

Institutions, Transitions and Policy

Emer Smyth

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About This Book

This book explores the experiences of young people as they move through the Irish secondary educational system. Drawing on a rich study which combines survey data with in-depth interviews with students, it addresses the key facets of schooling which influence young people's experiences. With chapters organised thematically, including ability grouping, school climate and the impact of high stakes examinations, the central dimensions of school structure and process is explored. Placing young people's voices centre stage, it explores how they respond to the school context and make decisions that will profoundly affect their future. This book contrasts different types of school settings and examines how gender and social class play out at the school level.

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© The Author(s) 2016
Emer SmythStudents' Experiences and Perspectives on Secondary Education10.1057/978-1-137-49385-9_1
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Emer Smyth1
Social Research Division, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, Ireland
End Abstract
This book explores the experiences of young people as they move through the Irish secondary educational system. Drawing on a rich study which combines survey data with in-depth interviews with students, it addresses the key facets of schooling which influence young people’s experiences. The book is organised thematically, providing an exploration of central dimensions of school structure and process, including ability grouping, school climate and the impact of high-stakes examinations. Placing young people’s voice centre stage, it explores how they respond to the school context and make decisions that will profoundly affect their future. Contrasting different types of school settings, the book examines the way in which gender and social class play out at the school level. The book emphasises both features which are common to other educational systems (such as ability grouping and high-stakes examinations) and those which are specific to the Irish context.
This chapter places the current study in the context of previous research on school experiences, particularly work that has emphasised the value of student voice and studies that have explored social inequalities in educational processes and outcomes. The chapter then goes on to provide an overview of the study methodology before outlining the content of the book.

Locating the Study

There is a large body of research literature on school experiences from the perspectives of principals, teachers, parents and students. While this research provides an important backdrop for the current research, the study is primarily located within two strands of work: that emphasising student voice and that exploring educational inequality.

Student Voice

In educational discourse, there has been an increasing focus on the value of taking account of ‘student voice’, that is, in regarding young people as key informants whose perspectives can contribute to improving the way in which school organisation and teaching are organised. This focus has its roots in a broader concern with the notion of children’s rights (Archard, 2014) but is also located within a research tradition on student perspectives on school which dates from the 1960s onwards (see e.g. Hargreaves, 1967; Lacey, 1970; Mortimore et al., 1988; Rutter et al., 1979). These latter studies have yielded important insights into variation in student engagement with learning as well as the social dynamics of the school. The attention to student voice has been given further impetus by two parallel developments—the emergence of the school improvement movement (Rudduck and Flutter, 2000; Rudduck and McIntyre, 2007) and work from critical theorists who have highlighted the way in which young people’s voices have been ‘silenced’ in the context of unequal power relations within schools as well as society more generally (Fine and Weis, 2003). Researchers within the school improvement tradition have emphasised the way in which student views of teaching and learning can be harnessed, through student councils and/or consultative processes at the classroom level, in order to bring about changes that enhance young people’s commitment to learning (Rudduck and Flutter, 2000). Levin (2000) points to normative and pragmatic reasons for paying attention to student voice. Normative reasons relate to the importance of recognising the rights of children and young people to be heard, while pragmatic reasons centre on the importance of student buy-in, their possession of unique knowledge of the conditions for learning and the factors which trigger their disengagement, and their role as ‘producers’ of educational outcomes. At the same time, even among commentators who emphasise student voice, there can be differences in the extent to which young people’s accounts are privileged over those of teachers and school principals. Some researchers have suggested, for example, that young people may not contribute as much to discussions of the curriculum as to other aspects of teaching and learning; students, it is argued, can comment on ‘bits and pieces’ of curriculum content rather than taking a holistic view of what kinds of knowledge are or should be valued (Rudduck and Flutter, 2000).
There have been a number of qualitative studies in which researchers have sought to utilise student perspectives in order to bring about change within the school (Robinson and Taylor, 2007, 2012; Pomar and Pinya, 2015; Zion, 2009). These studies have shown that young people are rarely consulted about reform efforts in their school and generally feel that they have little or no input into decision-making (Zion, 2009). They highlight a number of common features which children and young people see as enhancing their learning, including challenge, relevance, variety, support, respect, fairness and autonomy (Kershner, 1996; Levin, 2000; Rudduck et al., 1996).
While a number of researchers writing about student voice acknowledge the presence of unequal power relations between teachers and students and even among students from different social backgrounds (see e.g. Robinson and Taylor, 2007), commentators do not always acknowledge the way in which young people’s contribution to school improvement is fundamentally constrained by this inequality (Arnot and Reay, 2007). In consultative initiatives, ‘good’ students tend to be chosen for participation by staff, and these young people may not feel able to voice concerns which are directly challenging to the status quo in the school (Noyles, 2005; Robinson and Taylor, 2012). Thus, some young people may be listened to more than others, and student voice may be permitted only within certain comfort zones. This book seeks to privilege young people’s own accounts of their school experiences and the aspects of teaching and learning which they wish to change. While doing so, the analyses recognise, and indeed seek to unpack, the way in which students’ ability to have a say in aspects of schooling that affect them are constrained by unequal power relations between teachers and students.

Educational Inequality

Inequality in the participation and achievement levels of different social classes has been a dominant theme within the sociology of education (see e.g. Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993; Shavit et al., 2007). Explanations for the patterns found can broadly be characterised as those which emphasise rational choice and those which emphasise social (or socio-cultural) reproduction. From a rational choice perspective, educational choices (such as how long to remain in full-time education or which pathways to take) are seen as reflecting an assessment of the relative costs and benefits attached to different options (such as higher education [HE] or labour market entry), costs and benefits which differ by social class (Breen and Goldthorpe, 1997; Erikson and Jonsson, 1996). Thus, middle-class young people seek to maintain the class position of their parents and stay on in education to achieve this goal while their working-class peers tend to pursue shorter vocational routes which are seen as less risky options in terms of the potential of failure. The assumption made in this theoretical framework is that the decisions taken are rational but little attention has been given to the kind of information used by young people in evaluating competing options. The theme of how young people weigh up different educational choices and the kinds of advice and support they utilise in this process forms a central facet of the current study.
Social reproduction theorists (such as Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990) focus, in contrast, on the way in which different economic, cultural and social capitals are possessed by different social classes and the resulting formation of different dispositions (habituses) to learning. Social class differences in resources result in a greater mismatch between the cultures of home and school for working-class children while the educational achievement of middle-class children is enhanced by their family’s engagement in high cultural activities and use of the modes of expression valued in school (see e.g. Lareau, 2003). Neither theoretical framework devotes much attention to the potential impact of school experience on these processes. Rational choice theorists tend to view the school as a ‘black box’, focusing instead on the weighing of options and decisions made by parents and children rather than examining whether schools influence this decision-making process. In contrast, a central focus of the current study is the way in which schools can influence the kinds of pathways open to young people and the kinds of information they are provided with in making educational choices. Bourdieu’s theory has been extended to allow for the effects of ‘institutional habitus’, for example, the academic climate of the school as embedded in school practices, on post-school choices (McDonough, 1997; Reay et al., 2001, 2005). The concept of institutional habitus is drawn on in the current study, particularly in looking at young people’s intentions to go on to HE. However, other aspects of school organisation and process are found to impact on student experiences and outcomes, and these are not reducible to the way in which class is expressed in the school habitus. Thus, the analyses point to the complexity of policy implementation at the school level (see Ball et al., 2012).
A further potential difficulty with these two frameworks relates to the role of young people’s agency, that is, the extent to which they are ‘free’ to make decisions about and pursue their own pathways. Rational choice theorists tend to emphasise the family as a coherent unit and do not always recognise that parents and young people may have divergent views about, for example, early school leaving (see e.g. Byrne and Smyth, 2010). Furthermore, while recognising that decisions are made within a certain social context, the extent to which this context constrains goals and actions is not always evident. On the other hand, social reproduction theorists, especially Bourdieu, have been criticised for being overly deterministic (Jenkins, 2002), for assuming that young people’s destinations follow more or less automatically from their social class of origin, although Reay (2004) argues that Bourdieu’s perspective allows for the r...

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