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Bruin, Moen, Ohna & Tikkanen (2022). “That is when I felt acknowledged” – Young people’s narratives on their opportunities, prospects, and limitations in the context of Vocational Education and Training in upper secondary education. Nordic Education Research Association NERA Conference, Reykjavik Iceland, June 1st–3rd 2022.

Research topic and purpose: This study explores the narratives of young people at risk for social exclusion about their experiences concerning Vocational Education and Training (VET) in upper-secondary education in Norway. The Nordic commitment to the notion of a School for All has long lasting origins and is at the core of the Norwegian comprehensive school, emphasising inclusion as a fundamental concept; students have equal rights to 13 years of equitable education. However, in the Western world, many young people leave upper-secondary school with no worthwhile qualifications (Ainscow, 2020), leading to long-term unemployment and social exclusion. Counteracting upper-secondary dropouts is therefore high on Western political agendas. Norwegian statistics, after a long-time decrease, indicate a clear increase of people under the age of 30 who are not in education, employment, or training, concerning primarily former students in VET. The paper explores students’ and former students’ narratives on how they understand factors that support and/or hinder completion and qualification in VET. Within the context of inclusive education, the purpose of the paper is to develop knowledge about how school cultures, including institutional and systemic factors, may become more responsive toward diverse student populations, thus sustaining completion and qualification in VET, preventing social exclusion. 

Methods and theoretical framework: The paper is drawn from a 3-year EEA-funded international research project Vocational education and workplace training enhancing social inclusion of at-risk young people (EmpowerVET), 2021-23. The paper reports from the Norwegian interview data, consisting of individual interviews with 17 current and previous VET students, age range 16-29 years. The analysis follows a narrative approach (Riessman, 2008) and is based on a hermeneutical, data-driven approach, guided by a socio-ecological framework (Evans et al., 2011). With reference to Allan (2009), the young people’s narratives embody an expertise that from an inclusive perspective requires to be acknowledged as such. Drawing on a narrative analytical approach enables viewing the young people’s statements as an account of how they understand and negotiate their opportunities, prospects, and limitations in the context of VET, and the contextual factors influencing these issues. 

Findings and discussion: Preliminary findings indicate, in line with Ainscow (2020), that supporting students’ learning trajectories in VET in ways that enable qualification, requires new thinking that focusses on the barriers experienced by young people and how these barriers induce marginalisation due to contextual factors. Factors in VET experienced as supportive at school, indicate the teacher as a significant factor. Further supportive factors are positive experiences with social participation, often supported by the teacher who facilitates a positive social environment, encouraging peer relations, facilitating social and academic participation. Because of the ways in which teachers managed to provide support, students decided to continue their studies. Similarly, factors experienced as supportive at the workplace, concern the supervisor, acknowledging the students’ background, recognizing their needs, providing emotional support. Factors in VET experienced as barriers, involve feelings of abandonment and loneliness, and this concerns both school and workplace: “I dropped out of upper secondary because I did not feel I could succeed. I did not think it fun, or something I was capable of. So, I didn’t see the point of being there, and there was nobody to hold me back”. The transition from school into the workplace is challenging: the institutional support many students experience at school, seems to lack in the workplace – in some cases, not all: Students working in a pedagogical environment (school/kindergarten) experience the support they need, whilst students working in non-pedagogical environments report on getting too much responsibility, little or no consideration for their needs as a learner, as well as too high expectations of their independence, leading to stress and feelings of failure and not being able to cope. It seems that the supervisors working in school/kindergarten have pedagogical competences inherent in their profession that supervisors in other professional contexts may lack.

The experiences of the young people may be understood within a social capital framework (Allan & Persson, 2020; Field, 2017). The notion of social capital builds on the assertion that relationships matter (Field, 2017), enabling individuals to “get on and get ahead through the connections they have with other people” (Allan & Persson, 2020, p. 153). Through connections to other people, and sustaining them over time, individuals may achieve things they would not be able to do, were they on their own (Field, 2017).

At school, in upper secondary VET, students appear to experience a high level of social capital. The findings in the study reflect Allan & Persson (2021), who found two elements of social capital that appeared to be strongly associated with the students’ success: trust and confidence. Trust and confidence appear in the study’s preliminary findings as represented by relationships between teachers/supervisors and students that enabled students to keep going, or, in the opposite case, the absence of trust and confidence may have contributed to the decision to quit. The preliminary findings show that, in the transition from school to work, the students’ social capital seems in danger of diminishing and needs sustaining.

Following Dahle (2022), support in the workplace through close supervision by teachers and supervisors is important and may help and motivate the apprentices on their way to completion. However, supervision may require resources that workplaces do not have (Dahle et al., 2022); in addition, sustaining social capital through the transition from school to work will place high demands on supervision skills and competencies stretching further than the vocational context. Therefore, building on Dahle et al. (2022), sustaining social capital throughout the transition will require good communication between the school and the workplace, involving the needs of the apprentices, as well as ongoing support for, and dialogue with, the workplace supervisors. Following Nilsson, 2010, p. 251), VET is seen as “a potentially powerful tool for fostering social inclusion” largely due to its ability to bridge the school-to-work transition through apprenticeship, making young people ‘insiders’ in the labour market and counteracting unemployment. VET’s potential for fostering social inclusion notwithstanding, the young people’s narratives show that, within the transition from school to apprenticeship, students’ social capital is in danger of decline, increasing the chances of dropout. Creating pathways within school cultures and institutional and systemic factors to sustain students’ social capital within the transition from school to work, may help VET to increase its inclusionary potential. Further analysis of the young people’s experiences will elaborate on the conditions necessary for sustaining social capital, for VET to fulfil its potential as “a tool for inclusion”, within the Nordic commitment of A School for All.

Ainscow, M. (2020). Promoting inclusion and equity in education: lessons from international experiences. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 6(1), 7-16. 

Allan, J. (2009). Provocations. Putting Philosophy to Work on Inclusion. In K. Quinlivian, R. Boyask, & B. Kaur (Eds.), Educational Enactments in a Globalised World. Intercultural Conversations. Sense Publishers. 

Allan, J., & Persson, E. (2020). Social capital and trust for inclusion in school and society. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 15(2), 151-161. 

Evans, K., Waite, E., & Kerch, N. (2011). Towards a Social Ecology of Adult Learning in and through the Workplace. In M. Malloch, L. Cairns, K. Evans, & B. N. O’Connor (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Workplace Learning (pp. 356-370). Sage Publications. 

Field, J. (2017). Social Capital (Vol. 3rd edn.). London: Routledge.

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Sage Publications.