Education and Career Decision-making: Challenging the context of choice

Paton, K. (2007) Education and Career Decision-making: Challenging the context of choice At Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference. 12 Dec 2007.


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In the UK, choice is at the heart of government policies on education, training and careers guidance, as provision becomes more marketised and ever more diverse. The logic that has underpinned many of these policies is that people need high quality information about the provision on offer and if they have this, they will be able to make well-informed choices about their education and career pathways. This will, according to the policy literature, facilitate the functioning of the education and labour markets and ensure social inclusion. Choice has therefore become a highly charged concept. The term ‘choice’ conjures up strong ideas of human agency. The individual is free to select whatever action she or he desires or may discriminate between different available options and pick the most suitable. However, there are a number of difficulties with the idealised scenario offered by the policy focus on choice. First of all it infers that education and career choice is a linear process. Secondly it presupposes that education and career decision-making is an individualised practice. And thirdly, its assumptions imply some kind of deficiency on the part of those who appear to restrict their selection to specific fields.
A study funded by the ESRC, and undertaken as part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) has provided an opportunity to explore the educational and career decision-making of adults at different stages in the life-course. The project is examining the extent to which higher education is conceived as 'within the bounds of the possible' for non-participants and is exploring how attitudes to higher education and decisions about non-participation are embedded within 'networks of intimacy', consisting of family members and close friends. The study has involved case studies of sixteen networks of intimacy. We have identified non-participating adults, qualified to level 3, at different stages in the life-course in order to provide 'entry points' to each network. Each case study has involved two interviews with each 'entry point' individual, followed by semi-structured interviews with approximately five ‘network members’ who are identified as sources of influence in the decision-making process.
Our evidence suggests that the reality of educational and career choice is: • Messy rather than straightforward • Often influenced at least as much by chance as by planning, • Rational, but in a pragmatic way rather than a technical sense • Both constrained and enabled by people’s ‘horizons for action’ (the choices they believe possible for themselves) • Strongly embedded and co-constructed within inter-generational networks of intimacy • Influenced by class and gender (as well as life stage and disability) • And, embedded in changing opportunity structures In this paper, we will argue that the current terminology and framework of choice used in the policy literature is inappropriate. Initiatives aimed at increasing the range of post-16 educational and training choices and providing better guidance are commendable, but too simplistic. The policy focus on the individual detracts attention away from the need to understand the social embeddedness of decision-making and creates the illusion of control. If policy makers and practitioners are serious about doing something to ameliorate existing inequalities in post-16 participation then they must recognize the complexity of the decision-making process and understand that education and career “choices” are deeply embedded in different kinds of biographies and opportunity structures.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Venue - Dates: Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference, 2007-12-12 - 2007-12-12
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ePrint ID: 57682
Date :
Date Event
December 2007Published
Date Deposited: 20 Aug 2008
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2017 17:39
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