This week’s SOCRMx activity activity is as follows:
- Visit the UK Data Service database of these essays, and read a number of them (ideally between 6-10). Make some notes about what you notice about the content, use of language, or other features of these essays, and where there are similarities and differences between them that you find interesting.
- Write a blog post, consider each these of the following three questions in turn:
- What is a key theme that emerges for you from the essays you have read?
- What is an interesting question that researchers might be able to answer using this data?
- If you were conducting a project using this data, what would you want to do next?
‘The School Leavers Study, 1978 is comprised of a series of short essays written by young people living on the Isle of Sheppey in the southeast of England who were about to leave school in 1978. They were asked by sociologist Ray Pahl to imagine that they were nearing the end of their life, and that something made them think back to the time when they left school. They were then asked to write an account of their life over the next 30 or 40 years.
So, these essays express the expectations and hopes that young people at this time, in this place, had about their futures.’*
I analysed the first ten essays, all written by male school leavers. I started my analysis in OneNote, making handwritten notes about themes/codes:
The notes in their entirety can be found here.
What struck me, on first reading, was the limited ambitions which were evidenced by the essays, with many of the boys presuming that life would be lived locally, in manual employment. When provided with an opportunity to allow their imagination to roam freely, to think about all they might be able to do and achieve in their lives, many predicted failure or only modest success.
I then imported the relevant essays into Dedoose and coded excerpts with the themes I had identified during the note-taking stage.
This exercise was incredibly useful: the process allowed me to more clearly define the most relevant codes and to see whether my initial impressions about dominant themes were supported by a more rigorous analysis of the text. One aspect of this with which I struggled, was whether to mark up every possible instance of a code. I decided not to take that approach – it felt too quantitative for the purpose of this exercise – and rather focused on identifying interesting excepts from the essays and coding each of these.
The resultant data supported my initial suppositions about what the essays evinced: a focus on getting an apprenticeship and working locally.
Most of the successes outlined in the essays were relatively modest but often focused on achieving financial security: ‘Then when my apprenticeship had finished I had to make some kind of decision to what I was going to do so in the end I sold all of my disco and put the money into a small business using the skill I had already learned from my apprenticeship to become quite a good little engineering shop.’ (Essay 14). One boy allowed himself to both dream big – he wanted to become a racing driver – but, even in this hypothetical arena, he allowed his own ambition to be thwarted: ‘At this time I was still living at home on the Isle of Sheppey, and my motor racing lessons were at Brands Hatch…I had nearly finished my lessons but I decided to come back to the island and get a job as a full time mechanic.’ (Essay 18).
Given the stage in life at which these essays were written, it’s perhaps to be expected that many of them focus on exams and apprenticeships. For me, this raises questions about the messages these boys were receiving at home and at school about what they should be aiming for in life.
Using this data, researchers would be able to explore a range of interesting questions. The survey was conducted during a period of economic unrest and uncertainty, so perhaps it is to be expected that, for these boys, achieving stability and security were primary concerns; it would be interesting to revisit the respondents and ask them to re-read these essays and compare them with the reality of their lives. so far It would also be interesting to work with the boys as adults, who might be able to reflect on why they articulated those specific ambitions at that age.
If I was conducting a project using this data, I would be interested to replicate the study with school leavers on the Isle of Sheppey now. It would be fascinating to explore whether today’s 16-18 year olds still have the same sense of limitation. They live in different worlds; progressing to further or higher education is more common and teenagers today occupy social media spaces which are filled with success stories. There are a number of interesting political questions which might usefully be explored about how we can encourage students to push beyond their perceived boundaries; what strategies, schemes and interventions might result in school leavers writing essays in which they think it’s alright to be a tobogganist (see video)…
**Warning: the language in this video is as rich as you would expect from Connolly…**
* summary taken from here