Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


Widening Access in Rural Areas

The Scottish Government has just published “A Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access”. 


The report concerns widening access generally, but makes a few interesting points with regards to rurality and widening access:

  1. The report recognises that the continued use of the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) is ‘less likely to identify those from disadvantaged backgrounds in more rural areas’ because it identifies geographical concentrations of deprivation, and in rural areas the population is generally more geographically dispersed. However, in the absence of any strong alternatives, the report recommends the continued use of SIMD as a marker of deprivation. This is disappointing for those of us working in rural areas, and with individuals who may experience significant deprivation – however in the absence of any strong alternatives the recommendation is understandable, and it is good to see that, at least, the issues with use of SIMD are being foregrounded.
  2. Recommendation 18 specifically mentions rural areas: “Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.” In contrast to the first point, this is a really welcome recommendation – it is absolutely true that students in small rural schools may have less choice over their subjects than in other larger schools. In my experience this can lead to students either feeling unable to undertake certain training routes, or having to take a less-than-ideal training route e.g. undertaking a crash-Higher course in order to access their preferred training.
  3. Finally it is good to see that at the end of the report there is recognition that the authors have had to focus their findings on one specific area: access to the core provision of higher education for those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds or those with care experience. As they note, to their regret they have not been able to focus on a number of areas, including ‘Access to HE for those from rural areas’. Again it’s great to see that access to HE from rural areas is noted as an area of interest, even if the report does not address this to any significant extent.

Overall although it is disappointing that we have retained the SIMD as a marker of deprivation, it is good to see that rural issues are being noted by the authors of the report, and it is great to see that increased flexibility in education pathways is being identified as important for rural communities and rural people.

If you’re interested in this blog you may also be interested in my previous blog on Social Mobility in Rural Areas. It is also maybe useful to note that there is some research on access to HE from rural areas specifically – for example the research coming from St Andrews about Access to HE for rural communities  As ever I would be interested to hear your thoughts too!



ECADOC Summer School 2015

Back in late June I was lucky enough to take part in the second ECADOC summer school – thank you very much ECADOC organising committee! Now, given that I was heavily pregnant at the time and on a blog-break, I haven’t blogged about it since, but now I’m back to blogging, here are some thoughts….

So, first of all for those of you who don’t know, ECADOC is the ‘European Doctoral Programme in Career Guidance and Counselling’ which is funded by the European Commission, and is a joint venture by the European Society for Vocational Designing and Career Counseling (ESVDC) and the Network for Innovation in Career Guidance and Counselling in Europe (NICE). The project aims at “promoting the development of top-notch academics in our field all over Europe and establishing research and higher education in our field at the European level’.

Paris: the location for the summer school.

Paris: the location for the summer school.

The summer school itself comprised of lectures and workshops covering research methodology, and policy and practice of careers guidance and counselling. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet researchers from all over Europe (and some from further afield) and to discuss mutual areas of interest as well as expanding our skills and knowledge. You can see more details about the participants at the summer school and their research interests on the website.

Part of the purpose of the summer school was to encourage collaborative research projects between participants and between nations. Although at the moment I’m currently juggling my PhD studies next to family life and (in three months’ time) my work too, I am hoping that when the time is right some of the people I met might be interested in collaborative research with me. Wouldn’t it be interesting to consider the impact of remoteness and rurality from the standpoint of different countries? I wonder if the different education systems, and different cultures would mean that rural and remote students in different places had different experiences, or would the experience of rurality and remoteness be similar…..?

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“cultural location… is a much better model for explaining social mobility than is the mechanistic undialectical notion of ‘intelligence’.”

This statement was made by Paul Willis in his classic 1977 book ‘Learning to Labour: how working class kids get working class jobs’ which I have been reading this summer. In the book Willis follows a group of young ‘lads’ as they make the transition from school to work, and comes to some fascinating and challenging conclusions.


Perhaps the most challenging part of the book is that Willis attempts to demonstrate how the lads’ reactions to school and careers guidance processes while appearing ‘radical’ in some respects actually helps maintain the status quo by preparing them well for working class jobs. So, for example Willis shows how counter-school culture bears some similarities with factory floor culture.

Although Willis’ book is dated in the experiences he describes – with vast changes in the economy since the 1970s – there were still a number of points that made me reflect. First of all, was his challenge that any economy relies on large numbers of low and semi-skilled jobs which are essentially the same. For people entering these kinds of jobs, the standard careers-adviser questions about ‘job choice’ don’t make a great deal of sense. Similarly he talks about the ‘educational fallacy’ that upward mobility simply requires individual effort and achievement, stating that this can only ever be possible for a small number of people not the working class as a whole, as the economy requires a large number of lower level jobs. For Willis the ‘lads’ in his study ‘expose’ these fallacies for what they are, but are unable to mobilise any radical response to their insights because of various limitations – which are basically other strongly held beliefs that lead them to accept their lower occupational positioning on the basis of other kinds of superiority (such as sexual superiority coming from the machismo of doing hard physical labour).

Now, for my study into rural young people, this is interesting in terms of the way that different young people may respond to the prevailing ideology of their school and careers guidance provision. However, there is also a larger question raised about how the ‘lads’ view careers guidance as (generally) not appropriate to their context. And this got me thinking about how the rural context may also lend itself (sometimes) to a perception that careers guidance is not very relevant. In a rural community like Orkney for instance, if someone wants to stay on the island, then sometimes the notion of ‘choosing’ a career may be inappropriate – because choices are limited, with many training routes unavailable on the island, and numbers of people employed in different sectors sometimes so small that unless someone retires or moves job there may never be an opportunity to work in a particular role. So, I wonder how the realities of rural life impact on perceptions of careers advice and then impact on uptake and experience of careers guidance services? I also wonder if careers guidance is different in its very nature in rural areas – for example I know that many of my conversations centre around thinking about broad kinds of work that interest a client and how to generate opportunities, build networks and create ‘luck’, rather than finding the ‘ideal career’.

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What Use is a Degree?

I’ve just finished readingWhat use is a degree? Life-stories of University Graduates’ by Ward, Jones and Jenkins. This book collects eighteen different life stories of graduates from the Oxford Brookes Geography degree from six cohorts: 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991 and 1994. The stories in the book are concise, interesting and occasionally moving accounts of graduates about their experiences at University and after.

What interested me in this book was the importance given to the graduates’ stories as stories. So there was very little introduction to the stories (less than a page), and the methodology chapter was positioned at the end of the book. About half way through reading the book I flicked to the end to check what was coming – I couldn’t quite believe that there would be no comment or interpretation of the stories, but indeed there was none. I found this frustrating (as if the researchers were withholding something), but in a way what this did was to give absolute primacy to the words and the stories of the participants themselves and ultimately it probably meant that their stories stayed with me more.

The brevity and coherence of the stories was also striking and added to the impact they had. I was struck by this because I know that this is not how we present our experiences naturally in conversation – in my last piece of research the interview transcripts were lengthy, scattered, full of unformed thoughts. In this book the researchers had gone beyond just interview transcripts and had worked with the graduates to edit their stories ready for publication. This left me wondering about if and how the process of editing and re-writing their own words had impacted on the graduates and how they understood their experiences. I thought there was a missed opportunity in the book to explore how the process of the research had affected the participants.


Image courtesy of jannoon028/
How does constructing and editing our career story impact on us and our understanding of our journey?

In terms of the stories themselves I found them very affecting, which I guess is one of the characteristics of a good story – the impact on the reader. I was particularly moved by the young man who had been sent to prison shortly after graduating and yet had still managed to forge a good career. Snippets of the stories brought back acute memories of my own journey post-graduation, and I found this oddly reassuring (that I wasn’t the only person who experienced this). I wondered then how stories like this could be used in guidance settings. For me, I recognised some experiences from my past, and found the stories thought provoking, but how would reading stories like this influence the way I or other people thought about the future and would they impact on how we manage our career journeys? I wondered what kinds of exercises a guidance professional could use around the reading of stories to assist career development?

Overall I was left wondering what the impact of the book might be, beyond being an interesting read. In particular I wondered about how possible it is to draw themes from such a wide time span. The context of the 70s was quite different from the 90s and although this was anecdotally interesting, I thought I might have preferred an in-depth case study of one cohort. This may have limited the wide scope of the research and made it less transferrable between time settings but it might have been easier in terms of data collection (generating more interest in the student cohort) and would have made the final text much more intertextual (with participants talking about each other). This may have allowed more in-depth analysis and comparison between different individuals and their approach to learning and career routes. I found this particularly interesting as a ‘saturation sample’ of one or two cohorts of Orcadian students is what I am intending to look at in my PhD.