Vocational programs fostering unequal citizens?

By on 03.12.2018 in Research findings
JustEd researcher Mattias Nylund

JustEd researcher Mattias Nylund

What kind of citizen is fostered in the vocational programs and how is it impacting and constructing power relations related to class and gender? A team of researchers compared the vocational and academic programs in Sweden and found some problematic trends when it comes to social justice in education.

JustEd researcher Mattias Nylund has been following students at vocational programs for more than 2 years – sitting in the classrooms observing, conducting interviews with students, teachers and principals, in addition to studying curriculum, teaching materials and policy documents.

“We had to be there with them in school a lot of time to try to get under the skin of what is going on in the vocational subjects. We have collected a bunch of ethnographic data.”

Together with his colleagues Kristina Ledman, Per-Åke Rosvall and Maria Rönnlund, Nylund has studied and compared several different vocational programs from various angles. The ongoing part of the study focuses on three very different vocational programs – the vehicle and transport program, the health and care program and the restaurant and management program.

“We have one sector dominated by women and one by men, with very different discourses on how to be and how to behave and what counts as important knowledge.”

The vehicle and transport program is heavily male dominated, and is often described as a program where the students do not want to study general subjects because they will not go to higher education. The health and care program is heavily female dominated, and a lot of the students continue on to higher education.

“Then we have the restaurant and management program, which on the surface is a more gender balanced program. However, we realized after a short while, that this was not really the case. Once you go in to the program, you notice that boys make certain choices – like working with charcuteries, while girls choose something else, like to work with pastries.”

Girls learn to be subordinate
When initiating the project, Nylund and his colleagues wanted to find out how students are divided in upper secondary vocational programs and how knowledge is organized in the studies whether you are male or female. As a male or a female, what are you expected to get knowledge about?

“In the female dominated vocational programs we found more abstract knowledge and more disciplinary courses. The courses had a clearer conceptual base of knowledge. The male dominated programs, on the other hand, had clearly less of that. In general, the girls got more theory than the boys. We also saw that the boys’ knowledge was very much organized towards production in society.”

However, the researchers noticed that the theoretical knowledge in the female dominated program often was contextualized so that it was not clearly geared towards being able to think critically about society:

“We found a very clear gender divide where the girls got more theory than the boys, but the boys got more socially accepted knowledge and labor market relevant knowledge. The theory the girls got was not primarily geared towards being critical but, in some crucial ways, rather to be subordinate. We argue that this curriculum is not challenging the gender distribution of knowledge, socialization or division of labor in society, rather it sort of keeps preparing for traditional patterns of what is a female, and what is a male. What we have found, in short, is that the contemporary curriculum does not do much for changing class and gender inequalities.”

Class and gender determine our future
Nylund is very intrigued by the position of vocational education, since its organization has an important impact on issues of class, gender and ethnicity:

“Students whose parents do not have an academic education are often dominant in vocational programs and generally, vocational programs are more gender-segregated than the academic programs.”

Nylund and his colleagues argue that we have an upper secondary school where class and gender matter a lot for where we end up in life.

“The vocational programs are very much populated by students with working class backgrounds, and these students are, not least on a curriculum level, primarily prepared to go out and be adaptable workers. On the other hand, you have students from middleclass backgrounds and more privileged homes, who are given more conceptual help from upper secondary school to understand themselves, society and their position in society.”

This way of organizing the curriculum is a way to reproduce class and gender differences, and also life chances, Nylund reckons.

Fostering different kinds of citizens
Nylund is critical when it comes to the capability of the contemporary organization of vocational programs for preparing the students to be an active part in shaping society or thinking critically.

“Today there are two very different logics operating in vocational and academic programs. In academic programs, you have source criticism as a key goal, knowledge based on concepts and models. You also often contextualize topics through history or social science.”

In the vocational programs, the researchers found rather the opposite.

“When analyzing the curriculum, there was for most vocational programs very little content based on concepts, theories or historical contextualization, like putting it in to a social science context. The knowledge is mostly about how to be at the workplace and how to, basically, adapt yourself to the shifting needs of customers, employers and the labor market. We therefore argue that in the vocational programs today the students are not really prepared for being an active part in shaping society or to think critically about what is going in the workplace or in the world around them.”

Overall, Nylund is seeing the organization of upper-secondary school in Sweden as part of a larger international trend of how to organize education, in which educational inequalities are growing.

“The reproduction of class and gender inequalities has always been a problem in educational systems, in Sweden and elsewhere. With contemporary trends of organizing education, often guided by ideas of ‘market relevance’, these inequalities seem to deepen. Students from different social backgrounds are prepared for very different roles as workers and citizens in society. However, when observing the educational practice, we have also found examples of when teaching has the potential of strengthening the democratic potential of education. We hope, in the future, that results reported from our research project can be a part of a discussion on how to strengthen this democratic potential.”  

NAME: Mattias Nylund

TITLE: Assistant professor, University of Gothenburg

PLACE OF BIRTH: Gothenburg, 1980-07-18

LIVING IN: Gothenburg, since the beginning of 2000s

I finished my teacher education at Gothenburg university which qualified for teaching at upper-secondary level in philosophy and history in 2007. I then finished my Phd at Örebro university in 2013. Since 2012 I work as an assistant professor at the Department of Education and Special education in Gothenburg. 

Much of my research has been on vocational education. More generally, my research interest is mainly in the field of sociology of education, with particular focus on how educational processes reflects and affects class and gender relations.

I love tennis.

I like most kinds of food. The context and company are probably the most important parts of a great meal though. So, a simple pasta amatriciana with some table wine at a trattoria in Rome in good company, sounds good to me.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS with important results in the context of this interview are:

Fejes, A., Nylund, M. & Wallin, J. (2018): How do teachers interpret and transform entrepreneurship education?  

Ledman, K., Rosvall, P-Å. & Nylund, M. (2017): Gendered distribution of ‘knowledge required for empowerment’ in Swedish vocational education curricula? Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 70(1), p.85-106. DOI: 10.1080/13636820.2017.1394358

Nylund, M. (2012): The relevance of class in education policy and research. The case of Sweden’s vocational education. Education Inquiry (3) 4, pp. 591-613.

Nylund, M., Rosvall, P-Å. & Ledman, K. (2017). The vocational–academic divide in neoliberal upper secondary curricula: the Swedish case. Journal of Education Policy. 32(6). 788-808. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1318455



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About the Author

About the Author: Charlotta Järf is in charge of the communications and marketing activities for JustEd, The Nordic Centre of Excellence, an international research network with 14 partner universities in 8 countries. With ten years of professional experience in Communications and Marketing, and five years as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, Charlotta has a practical set of skills in strategical communications, PR, social media, graphic design, video and content production. .


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