Imagining the Future on A-Level Results Day


In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present. In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of the future already well-forged through years of careful preparation for trajectories through university and beyond into careers. Others may experience the jarring uncertainty of plans unmade and undone, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. For many, the new regime of so-called ‘linear A-Levels’, with their ‘harder’ content and traditional format, offer yet further uncertainty because on one hand they may generate lower levels of attainment while also pushing universities to be more flexible in their negotiation of conditional offers for places.  Data out today suggests that male students have out-performed female students for the highest grades  – another shift and change that will, in some cases, have led to new reckonings of what the future may hold for young men and women.

All of this change is exacerbated by the brave new world of Clearing for universities, where evermore immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. While in the past clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you were hoping for, removing the limit on student recruitment numbers for UK universities means that that clearing now represents an opportunity for students to make a deal that will work for them. Universities are chasing student numbers and fees, and in their role as potential future customers for Higher Education, students are flexing financial as well as academic muscle to cast for brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.

This takes us back to our ethnographic fieldwork on A-Level results Day a year ago, when we observed the reactions, decisions, and occasional desperation of a results day at a local Oxfordshire school. On that day, imagined futures were changed literally minute to minute, as students called through to prospective universities and secured verbal agreements about changing a course or gaining a place. In these moments, futures are profoundly altered, and individuals must navigate the difficult process of re-orienting themselves to new visions of what their lives will be like post-school.

These issues speak to the broader themes that have emerged in this research project, notable among which is the increasingly rapacious uncertainty that characterises imagined futures of school-leavers, both in urban and rural settings across the UK. Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today will be even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in previous years. The future-orientation of everyday life at school and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes from employment and Higher Education suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate (in the latter, the clue is in the term ‘prospectus’). In the present, however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.



Imagining the Future: Youth Transitions in Urban and Rural School Contexts

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This post introduces a comparative study of transitions into early adulthood in the UK. Over the coming year, our research team will track the movements, imaginations and aspirations of young people as they complete compulsory secondary education and move on – whether to higher education, employment, un/under-employment, or elsewhere. The study begins with final year students in secondary schools in one urban (London) and one rural (Oxfordshire) setting. Through the summer and beyond, we will ethnographically pursue a range of these students’ geographical, institutional and experiential trajectories. Our aim is to grasp the potential role of space, place and schooling in shaping young people’s aspirations and to capture the changing social relations and cultural formations during this period of transition.

The research may be seen as part of a growing interest in “futures” within the humanities and social sciences, as epitomized by the ASA and EASA conferences this summer: Footprints and futures: The time of anthropology (Durham); Anthropological legacies and human futures (Milan). We are interested in the range of futures that are being reckoned, on what scale, with whom, and with what symbolic or emotional associations. Futures may be uncertain, clear, banal, severe, romanticized or feared. Yet as well as asking what futures, there is the broader question of what shapes aspiration, and what socializes young people into different temporal, as well as spatial, orientations.

The question of what facilitates or inhibits opportunity for young people is one that has been well explored. We will be drawing from the theory and the classic case studies, yet begin the fieldwork as inductively as possible. Primacy will be given to the experiences and articulations of the future that are bound within the everyday dynamics of young people’s lives, beginning with group and individual interviews and participant observation during the final months of Sixth Form life. This will, on the one hand, privilege the voices of young people, yet simultaneously, not detach them from the social, spatial and discursive context in which they are embedded and produced.

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We are aware that “the future” of young people can be of more concern to adults, such as parents, teachers, politicians and researchers, than it is to young people themselves. This is all a part of the complex array of symbolic relations between generation and temporal orientation. We will therefore reflexively assess the extent to which concerns about “the future”, and particular kinds of “future”, are being imposed upon school leavers at an institutional, familial and cultural level – as a well as a methodological one, through our presence and enquiries.

The research team is composed of Dr. Patrick Alexander, Prof. Graham Butt and myself, John Loewenthal. The project builds upon Patrick’s experience in school ethnography, in particular, his current study of aspiration and imagined futures in secondary school contexts in the US and UK (blog here: Graham’s expertise in the fields of geography and education propels our enquiry towards the interpretation of space, place and schooling and how these give meaning to young people’s lives. The project will also parallel my own doctoral research (under the supervision of Patrick and Graham), examining how university graduates in London and New York relate to “the future” during the lifestyle changes that follow the completion of their degree.