Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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Orkney school leavers (2010-11) – the impact of gender

The dive into statistics continues…. Today I have been looking at the School Leaver Destinations for Orkney, compiled by Skills Development Scotland. I have been focusing on the 2010-11 cohort, as many of these people will graduate in 2015 and will be part of the sample I interview in the future. Here is what I have found:

  • The percentage of leavers entering higher education was low at 30.5% compared to a national average of 35.8%.
  • The proportion entering further education was also lower than the national average (20.6% compared to 27.1%).
  • The proportion entering employment was significantly higher than in the rest of Scotland (33.8% compared to 19.3%)

So far, quite interesting, although not earth shattering – with employment levels relatively high in Orkney, it could be predicted that more leavers would enter employment than elsewhere in the country.

Here is what I found surprising: the gender split in those entering higher education and employment. For school leavers in 2010-11 73% of those in employment were male, and 27% were female. In contrast 31% of those going on to Higher Education were male, and 69% female. Now, I had expected a gender split (in the same year, nationally, 54.5% of Higher Education entrants were female) but nothing quite so acute.

I had previously read about more acute gender divisions in school leavers in rural communities – particularly in Corbett’s study of a remote community in Canada from 1963-1998 where he found that women were consistently about twice as likely to complete secondary school as men, and also more likely to move away for further education (p.94). Corbett links this to the nature of the economy – with the dominance of the fishing industry which ”presents a gendered structure of opportunity” (p.89). In terms of Orkney, the labour market may play a role in the gendered choices of school leavers, with the SLDR report showing that the construction industry was the most common employment destination for male leavers (36%) but also showing that no girls found employment in the construction industry.

However, understanding the interrelation of migration, education and gender is likely to be a lot more complex than talking about the ‘structure of the labour market’ may suggest. After all, it is not so much the opportunities themselves that create a gender division than the social and cultural expectations that deem some jobs ‘male’ and some ‘female’. And with such an acute difference between male and female choices in the 2010-11 cohort of school leavers from Orkney, it seems that this may bear further research….

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“social floating”: a skill for researchers?

In my Masters research into the experience of recent graduates living and working in Orkney, one of my key findings was that to operate successfully in the working world graduates needed to develop the skill of ‘social floating’.

‘Social floating’ is a concept first defined by Corbett (2007) in his research on Canadian school pupils. What he found was the ability to mix with different groups but not to over-identify with any one social group was a characteristic of young people who were about to leave the area to go to University. Therefore, he concluded developing a skill in ‘social floating’ was important in learning to leave the area.

In my research, what I found was that graduates who were living in Orkney also appeared to display the ability to ‘socially float’. And therefore I suggested that social floating may not be so much about ‘learning to leave’ but rather about ‘learning how to be successful in a small community’.

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Floating: not just for bubbles…

Today all of this popped back into my mind as I was doing some gardening and mulling over what it will be like to interview graduates from Orkney as part of my PhD, when I live in Orkney myself. And I was thinking this will be somewhat similar to the hazards of traditional ethnographic research where the researcher is a participant and a researcher (a participant researcher). Even though I will clearly be in ‘researcher’ role when I’m interviewing, keeping a level of objectivity and being able to look at the conversations I’m having ‘from the outside’ about things I know intimately, and shared experiences may be challenging. And that’s when I remembered Corbett’s notion of ‘social floating’ and it occurred to me that not only might this be useful for graduates living in rural areas but also ethnographic researchers involved in participant research….