Imagining the Future in the Same Place as Always: School Leavers Not at Uni


This has been an exciting week for the project as original research aims have come to fruition in differing ways. Whereas last month’s post reflected on the educational intensity of adapting to university, this week our research team caught up with school leavers who have not made the leap into tertiary education. When we last spoke with them over the summer, not much differentiated them from their university-bound peers. However, there has subsequently been an exodus and social media portrayal of what university is ‘like’. For those remaining in the same homes and environments as they grew up, perceptions of their own futures have now shifted, destabilised and been forced into comparison. These felt changes are in need of close qualitative attention, as they are less ostensible than the student ‘transitions’ being paraded on ‘Snapchat’. Drawing from this week’s interviews, this post touches on how those not (yet) at university critically reflect upon school, work and the future.

One of our interviews, with three girls, was in the same town in rural Oxfordshire which they had previously commuted into for school. Reflections on schooling were a big topic of our conversations, brought up by participants themselves. Whilst they admitted having mixed feelings and even nostalgia for some aspects, all were unanimous in agreeing that school was a generally unpleasant experience:

A: “I don’t miss school at all, school was exhausting for me”

B: “I hated school so much. I hated school”

C: “Yeah, so did I”

Of the three, one is on a gap year, on her way to a university on the south coast next year; another left school after AS and has done both work and an apprenticeship since; the other left school in June and has only recently been offered a job. The latter two both admit that it was the stressful experiences and power structures in education that shaped their decision to not continue for what they feared would be more of the same. This stigmatisation of education through its coercive associations is not just sad, but also oxymoronic – instilling the very opposite dispositions to “openness” and “aspiration” that school’s allegedly set out to provide. This point is also articulated in a commissioned report from the US on school leavers not bound for college, concluding that ‘educational institutions can inadvertently contribute to [young people’s] disadvantage’ (2015: 1).

Often described as the “forgotten half”, those who leave school without proceeding to university are frequently neglected from the mindset of policy and research. As noted above, many are put-off from the prospects of education having been alienated by “learning” in school (cf. Lave and McDermott, 2002). A closer examination of the role of schooling in shaping young people’s pathways to adulthood is therefore rightly proliferating as a topic of public attention. From a social and cultural perspective, the BBC’s documentary series ‘American High School‘ that began this week, demonstrates just how fascinating, as well as tragic, everyday life in an ‘ordinary’ school can be. The cultural production of the future via state/public schooling in the UK and US is indeed the focus of Patrick’s current research; much of this looks at the ways in which the final years of schooling give both structure and meaning to the lives of young adults.

With school now behind them, our participants are experiencing new structures – or the lack of them – which invoke new imaginings of what the future might hold. Of the school leavers not applying to university, there were mixed responses to experiences of work. One remarked how nice it felt to be treated like an adult, something that has boosted her confidence enormously. She sees this treatment as a sign of respect which she had previously felt denied by teachers in school. This was an uplifting story to hear; yet starkly different from another, that reported rather bleakly:

“Now I feel like I I’ve realised what a routine actually is. Like, I get up at 6. I go to work for 8. I get home at 5. I eat my dinner, and I don’t have any time for anything else. I hate it. […] It’s so dull. The thought of this for the rest of my life depresses me so much. Almost like, you don’t want a future if this is the future.”

Up against the chronological institutions of school and then work that sap her time, enjoyment and energy, one does have to wonder – as Margaret Mead did and like this participant does – why society must structure people’s lives in such a way. As we start sharpening our data into arguments and articles, one of the many emergent findings is the extent to which young people have been analysing their transitions like sociologists, critically evaluating the changing situations and fluctuating futures around them. The above participant’s reflection on the recent impacts of Brexit epitomise this analytical correlation of ‘public issues’ with ‘private troubles’ (C. Wright Mills, 2000 [1959]):

“You’re sat here, and you’re watching the pound drop and drop and drop and drop, and you’re like, oh my god, this is the pound that I have to grow up with, buy a house with, raise a family with”.

As data collection continues, and analysis steps up, we hope to capture the vitality and variety of these youth perspectives in motion, as they are affected by their political and historical epoch. The US presidential election has already emerged as a recurrent topic of conversation; and with that just weeks away, there is sure to be much to discuss.