Outclassed?: Undergraduates' Perceptions of the Competition for Primary Teaching Jobs in England and Wales

by Andrew Morrison
Cardiff Metropolitan University

Sociological Research Online, 18 (3) 6

Received: 22 Feb 2013     Accepted: 8 May 2013    Published: 31 Aug 2013


This paper presents the results of a mixed-methods investigation into undergraduates' perceptions of the competition for Newly Qualified Teacher positions within the primary sector in England and Wales. The study sample was a cohort of final-year Education Studies undergraduates at a post-1992 university in Wales. All of the participants aimed to become primary school teachers. The study's rationale lies in evidence that teaching is becoming more competitive while offering less security. The study revealed that the students had a realistic view of the labour market for NQT positions, showing awareness of the increasing demands placed upon the cultural, social and material resources of potential entrants. Although this knowledge did not deter the students, it is concluded that developments within teaching may ultimately deter working-class students. This has worrying implications for the composition of the teaching profession and, in turn, for wider issues of social justice within education.

Keywords: Class, Gender, Teaching, Employability, Higher Education


1.1 This paper reports the results of a small-scale mixed-methods investigation into undergraduates' perceptions of the level of competition for Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) positions within the primary sector in England and Wales. The study sample was a cohort of final-year undergraduates following a degree in Education Studies at a post-1992 university in Wales. The great majority of the participants were female and working-class as categorised by parental occupations. Teaching and related employment are the most popular career destinations of students following the course, and all of the participants interviewed for this study had indicated an intention to become primary school teachers. The rationale for this investigation lies in the shifting position of teaching as a form of employment in England and Wales, and in the possible effects of these shifts upon potential entrants' perceptions of the profession. Teaching has traditionally been seen as a 'respectable' career destination for socially mobile working-class young people, particularly women, offering both social advancement and a degree of job security and stability. However, recent evidence indicates that entry to teaching is becoming more competitive, while offering less career security and stability.

1.2 The purpose of this article is to examine the extent to which potential entrants to teaching are aware of these changes and to consider how such knowledge may affect their perceptions of the profession. In the next section of this paper, I will discuss some historical and current developments in primary school teaching, making particular reference to issues of social class and gender. I will firstly discuss the historical position of teaching as an aspirational occupation for working-class young women; in light of the ways in which the status of teaching evolved quite differently in Wales as compared to England (Williams 2005), I will focus particularly on the development of teaching in Wales. Following this, I will outline some aspects of more recent changes occurring within teaching which have contributed to its evolution as a more competitive and less secure professional occupation; again, in view of the way in which educational policies in Wales have taken quite a distinct path from those in England since Welsh devolution in 1998 (Rees 2007), I will place particular emphasis upon the situation in Wales.

Teaching: gender and social class

2.1 As Gardner (2002: 133) notes, from the late nineteenth century teaching functioned as an important conduit of upward social mobility for able working-class pupils. Above all, teaching (and particularly primary teaching) came to be regarded as a 'respectable' and realisable career destination for working-class young women. For example, in their seminal 1960s study of social class and education based in the city of Huddersfield in the north of England, Jackson and Marsden found that of thirty-nine working-class female grammar school pupils studied, thirty went on to become teachers, with the majority working in the primary sector (Jackson & Marsden 1966: 178). For many working-class young women, teaching represented a partial break with the interlocking constraints of class and gender, while offering a comparatively 'safe' job (Maguire 2005a).

2.2 While teaching has historically had an important role in the social mobility of working-class young women within the UK, it may be argued that it has played an especially important function in relation to women in working-class communities in Wales, and particularly in South Wales. Williams (2005) argues that from Victorian times, teaching was held in high esteem in Wales and for much of the twentieth century it was, along with nursing, the main professional occupation for young women. Furthermore, in the period of Williams' (2005) study, 1900–1950, Welsh teachers were more likely to be from a working-class background than their English colleagues. Williams (2005) offers two reasons for this. Firstly, the heavy industrialisation that characterised the South Wales valleys in this period meant that few other 'suitable' (i.e. suitably gendered) career opportunities were available to academically successful working-class young women; secondly, the different social structure and cultural context of Wales permitted greater access to secondary education among working-class girls, thus facilitating progression on to teacher training colleges (Williams 2005: 75).

2.3 Of course, the social mobility that teaching offered young working-class women in Wales in the period 1900–1950 should be placed firmly within the relativity of its historical context. Female teachers were typically required to resign upon marriage (Gardner 2002: 120) and, when employed, were overwhelmingly concentrated in infant schools and other less remunerative, lower-status sectors (Williams 2005). Moreover, although teaching was perceived to be a relatively secure and stable profession, an over-supply of teachers in the inter-war years meant that by 1924, thirty-eight percent of female newly qualified teachers (NQTs) were out of work in Wales (Williams 2005: 77).

2.4 Thus, any discussion of contemporary issues surrounding increased competitiveness of entry to teaching needs to be located within an appropriately broad historical view; nevertheless, expansion of the school system in England and Wales after the second world war saw the public sector teaching workforce increase from 175,000 in 1946 to 294,000 in 1964 (Jones 2003: 68). Moreover, expansion in this period could not keep up with demand and, indeed, the notion of an under-supply of teachers continued to be the dominant perception and a cause of concern to policy-makers until very recently (White et al. 2006). While the statistical bases for such concerns have been contested (White et al. 2006), evidence from across the UK as a whole indicated that, until recently, the majority of NQTs were successful in getting a teaching position (Gorard et al. 2007: 424), thus pointing to teaching being a less competitive occupation than many other graduate-entry professions (High Fliers 2011).

2.5 Teaching continues to be a highly gendered profession in England and Wales. In both countries the balance of male to female teachers is 25%–75% (GTCW 2012: 4), with a considerably higher proportion of female teachers in the primary workforce. Available data also indicate that teaching continues to be relatively popular with graduates from working-class backgrounds. Wakeling (2005: 511), for example, reports that undergraduates from occupationally 'unskilled' households are twice as likely as those from 'professional' backgrounds to study for a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). In another study, Purcell et al. (2005) found that graduates with a first degree that conferred primary QTS were more likely than their counterparts with a degree that did not provide QTS to have studied at a lower-ranked post-1992 university and to have attended a state secondary school rather than a private fee-paying school (Purcell et al. 2005: viii). Given the established links between individuals' social class and their secondary and higher education in the UK (Reay et al. 2005; Archer et al. 2003), it may reasonably be inferred that at least some trainee teachers are from lower socio-economic groups than the broader graduate population. Further evidence for this interpretation may be found in the fact that, as Furlong et al. (2006: 51) note, the undergraduate route into primary teaching in Wales is seen to serve an important function with regard to access (i.e. in terms of social class) to higher education.

Teaching: competition and insecurity

3.1 While teaching may traditionally have been perceived as less competitive and more secure than many other graduate occupations (a perception that has not always cohered with historical reality, as I have discussed), it could be argued that the profession is currently more competitive and less secure in both England and in Wales than at any time since the Butler Education Act of 1944. Since devolution in 1998, Wales has actively pursued an education policy that is quite distinct from the marketisation paradigm currently favoured in England—a paradigm which has led some commentators to conclude that teaching in England is shifting from being a 'professional-ethical' form of practice towards a more 'entrepreneurial-competitive' regime (Ball 2008: 149) with consequent implications for teachers' job security. In contrast, in Wales promotion of higher standards has tended to be pursued through an emphasis upon partnership between teachers and local and central government rather than through punitive competition (Rees 2007: 11). In this respect, teaching may be regarded as a more secure profession in Wales than in England. However, as a result of long-term demographic changes, and of the policy responses to these, teaching has become an increasingly competitive profession to enter in Wales in recent years.

3.2 In 2005 the Welsh Government commissioned a review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in response to concerns regarding an over-supply of teachers. These concerns were based on prevailing demographic trends indicating a continued fall in secondary and primary phase pupil numbers and on statistical evidence which pointed to a mismatch between teacher supply and demand. The 2006 Furlong Report recommended an initial reduction in primary phase ITT of fifty percent on 2005 provision (Furlong et al. 2006: 6). In order to make such substantial cuts, the report recommended that, over the next five years, Wales should move all primary phase ITT to an entirely post-graduate route and phase out the undergraduate BA Education degree, the route which over half of all trainees followed at the time of the report's publication. As a replacement for the BA Education degree, the report proposed a new 'Pre-Professional Degree'; the new degree would be targeted at the same group of vocationally-oriented 18 year olds who had previously been attracted to the BA Education degree, but it was intended to have a broader vocational appeal and to lead to a range of education-related occupations (Furlong et al. 2006: 51). The aim, as the report's authors seemed to concede, was to placate but also to diffuse demand for education-related undergraduate study in Wales.

3.3 As it has become more competitive to obtain a place on a teacher training course in Wales, so the profession has also grown increasingly insecure for serving practitioners. Although, as previously discussed, the relations between teachers, education authorities and politicians are not marked by quite the same punitive accountability faced by teachers in England, recent policy initiatives have had the effect of removing any lingering sense of a 'job for life'. The most important development in this respect has been the 21st Century Schools Programme. This programme is a collaboration between the Welsh Government (WG), the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and local authorities, and aims to create '…a generation of 21st Century Schools' (WLGA 2010: 5). One of the two principal issues framing the programme has been the concern surrounding excess pupil places. On this point, the programme is clear that school closures are one of a range of options that local authorities must consider when drawing up their ten-year plans (WLGA 2010: 15).

3.4 Thus, it has been argued that primary teaching employment in England and Wales is now characterised by relatively high historical levels of competition and job insecurity. However, while there is a wide body of research which has examined the motivations of prospective teachers (Purcell et al. 2005; Hayes 2004), it is believed there is little in the extant literature which examines undergraduates' perceptions of teaching in terms of competition or job security. This study aims to fill that gap through a Bourdieusian analysis of the students' subjective sense of their employability within primary teaching.

The research study

Case study institution

4.1 The case study institution is a large multi-site Welsh university. It is a 'post-1992' institution which became a university with the passing of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. The majority of the in-take are from working-class backgrounds and are mostly among the first generation in their families to go to university.

B.A (Hons) in Education Studies

4.2 Education Studies draws from sociology, philosophy, psychology and history with the aim of presenting a critical approach to education as a field of study. The growth of Education Studies is relatively recent, emerging in reaction to the de-theorisation of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) programmes in the 1980s. Despite the subject's origins in ITT, the degree does not confer Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). If an Education Studies graduate wished to become a teacher, the normal route to QTS would be through a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), a one-year full-time teacher training course. This is a popular option with students at the case-study institution.

4.3 In the 2010–11 academic year, there were 103 students on the third-year of the BA (Hons) degree, of whom 89 (86.5%) were female and 14 (13.5%) were male. Using the university's own ethnic categories, the students were asked to self-categorise themselves. 100 of the 103 students (97%) described themselves as 'White British'; of the remaining three students, two were 'Asian or Asian British Indian' and one was 'Other Asian'.

4.4 The research project followed a two-stage design as explained below.

The questionnaire

4.5 A short self-completed questionnaire formed the first stage. The questionnaire tool was chosen for its value as a cost-effective means of collecting data from a large number of widely dispersed participants (Lewin 2005). The purpose of the questionnaire was to elicit students' perceptions of teaching in terms of:

4.6 The questions were of the 'semantic differential' type and were used for their flexibility in measuring the evaluative strength (i.e 'useful'—'useless' etc) of participants' responses. In September 2010 the questionnaire was distributed to all 103 third-year students. 89 fully completed questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 86.4% which may be regarded as very high for a self-completed questionnaire (Denscombe 2005: 8). The data was inputted into the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) computer program. Participant responses were given a numerical value, thus converting answers into ordinal data. This was then analysed descriptively as simple frequency distributions. The gender balance of the questionnaire sample almost exactly matches that of the wider cohort (see Table 1).

Table 1:

Year 3 Education Studies Cohort
14 (13.5%)89 (86.5%)103
Questionnaire Sample
12 (14%)77 (86%)89

The student focus groups

4.7 The second stage involved the use of focus groups, the purpose of which was to follow up on the questionnaire data with more in-depth qualitative responses. Focus groups were chosen for their potential to discover a collective perspective on the research topic, and for their capacity to encourage interactive discussion (Gibbs 2012). The nature of the research was explained to the students, and those interested in participating were asked to put their name on a list of volunteers. This produced a total of thirty-seven volunteers: 32 women and 5 men. Using this list as a sampling frame, the study employed a random stratified sampling approach whereby students were randomly selected from the volunteer list in broad proportion to the gender composition of the wider third-year Education Studies cohort. In the event, this produced a sample of 17 females and 4 males interviewed across four focus groups between 6 October 2010 and 21 January 2011. The focus groups followed a semi-structured approach. The data was analysed following the Auerbach and Silverstein (2003) model whereby data was 'reduced', categorised into 'themes' and then interpreted theoretically.

4.8 Prior to the focus groups, participants were asked to complete a brief form indicating parental occupations with the aim of building up a picture of each student's social class of origin. Parental occupations were classified by use of the NS-SEC system categories (ONS 2005). Working on the basis of the highest individual parental occupation, it was judged that most parents were employed in NS-SEC analytic classes 3 to 6 (ONS 2005: 9) (see Tables 25 below) or in more directly sociological terms, semi-skilled/skilled working-class or 'new' middle-class (e.g. outside of the established professions) occupations. Nevertheless, I recognise that parental occupation alone represents, at best, a partial constituting feature of an individual's class. It indicates little about the complex of economic, cultural and social resources that an individual may draw upon; additionally, class position and class identity are not the same and cannot be 'read off' from each other. It is for this reason, therefore, that this study has employed a Bourdieusian analytical framework. Bourdieu's argument for the inter-imbrication of economic and cultural relations makes his conception of social class a flexible one with the capacity to show that differentiation lies not along one axis but several, depending upon both the volume and the composition of the different forms of capital (economic, cultural and social) to which an individual has access.

Table 2: Focus Group 1: Parental Occupations

Nam[1]Father's OccupationMother's Occupation
JeanAssistant District Officer Fire Brigade (Retired)Catering Assistant
SamanthaRetail ManagerCivil servant
AmandaPolice OfficerPart-time hairdresser
ClaireLorry driverReceptionist

Table 3: Focus Group 2: Parental Occupations

NameFather's OccupationMother's Occupation
OliverPostmanSchool cook
CarolineVehicle production line workerCouncil Benefits Officer
JohnSocial worker (redundant)District nurse
DerekCarpenterOccupational nurse

Table 4: Focus Group 3: Parental Occupations

NameFather's OccupationMother's Occupation
JanePrinterWitness Care Officer
MaryPart-time courierRetail Manager
TracyCompany Sales RepresentativeSchool Secretary
CarolBus DriverLearning Disability Nurse
JudithTrading Standards OfficerReceptionist
AprilRefuse CollectorShop Assistant

Table 5: Focus Group 4: Parental Occupations

NameFather's OccupationMother's Occupation
MarionSelf-employed PlumberPost Office Counter Assistant
DeborahCare AssistantHomemaker
AndreaTravel AgentVisual Merchandiser
BarbaraTaxi DriverShop Assistant


4.9 Questionnaire findings revealed that teaching was overwhelmingly perceived to be a difficult career to enter, with 36% (n=32) saying it was 'very competitive', and 55% (n=49) identifying it as 'extremely competitive'. Further discussions in the focus groups indicated that this perception could, in turn, be broken down into two principal themes, as I shall now discuss.

Competition for PGCE places

4.10 Across all four focus groups there was a strong perception that more students want to be teachers (thus increasing demand) but that supply in the form of PGCE places had remained static or even fallen. There was also a strong sense in a majority of students' comments (of which the comment by 'Margaret' below is representative) that the 'goal posts' had moved and that while they had kept their part of an implicit bargain by going to university, the authorities had reneged on the contract by raising PGCE entry qualifications:

I think now 'cos obviously...more pupils, students want to be teachers, I think it's wrong that they're putting all these, ermm, results and everything up. I know it's competitive, but I think it's wrong because people have worked, do you know what I mean? [General agreement]. People have left school, gone to college do you know what I mean? Now they're putting the requirements up again. I just think in some ways it's wrong.
'Margaret': Focus Group Four

4.11 The perception of unfairness, of a promise unfulfilled, found in 'Margaret's' comments may be seen in the context of two factors. Firstly, the expansion of higher education numbers over the past two decades or so in the UK has been premised upon the promise to young people of remunerative and fulfilling employment (Brown et al. 2011). Secondly, there is some evidence that working-class young people themselves tend to relate the benefits of HE to economic/instrumental outcomes (Archer et al. 2003) in contrast to middle-class students who are more likely to cite a personal interest in a subject (Connor et al. 1999). Underlying 'Margaret's' sense of frustration that a 'promised' route to employment may be made inaccessible, is the fact that for working-class students (such as those of this study) the field of HE remains a much riskier prospect than for middle-class students: in Bourdieu's (1986) terms, working-class graduates are even more reliant upon their educational capital as a route to occupational success due to their relatively lower levels of familial cultural and social capital. This sense of the riskiness that many young working-class people associate with HE study within the context of a labour market where a linear link between earning and learning has all but been severed (Lauder et al. 2012) is clearly reflected in the comments by 'Mary', which are representative of most of the students' views:

But, it's like, it's so competitive. I know for a fact that I won't do a PGCE at uni at all. I'd do it if I got offered it at a school 'cos you're guaranteed a placement at the end of it. Whereas, like, going through uni for three years and then doing a PGCE for a year, and then not being able to get a job, you've wasted a year…
'Mary': Focus Group Three

4.12 'Mary's' comments represent a challenge, to some extent, to the human capital assumptions that underpin UK higher education policy rhetoric, whereby individuals are exhorted to make an investment in their education in return for anticipated higher personal incomes (Brown & Tannock 2009). Furthermore, they also highlight how class-based higher education inequalities may also extend to access to post-graduate qualifications. Although, as a Wales-domiciled student, 'Mary' would be entitled to a non-repayable grant of just over sixty percent of the PGCE tuition fees, the salient point is that she perceives the PGCE to be an excessive risk both in terms of deferred earnings potential and the likely employment outcome. The relationship between social class and access to post-graduate study is one that has received comparatively little academic attention (Wakeling 2005). However, Brooks and Everett (2009: 345) make a germane point in commenting that while widening participation schemes have concentrated upon access to a first degree for underprivileged groups, they have ignored inequalities within access to post-graduate study, with the result that working-class students may be excluded from the higher earnings potential associated with such qualifications.

Competition for NQT jobs

Effects of budget cuts

5.1 For many students, school closure programmes and education cuts were cited as the source of both increased competition and insecurity:
...but my friend, her mother's school's just recently closed down. It's in a small village down by me. But, she was the nursery teacher, she weren't even reception. So like, her getting a job…and she's now fifty this year, her getting a job now, she can't get one anywhere.
'Mary': Focus Group Three

You know, the councils are cutting everyone's budgets in such a way that you can't provide a service. Our service lost a major teacher, a member of staff two years ago and we're looking at losing another senior one this year because of budget cuts.
'Louise': Focus Group One
All of the students interviewed for this study had made some social contact with teachers or practitioners in related areas of employment, e.g. early years' nurseries. For most students, this had been achieved through a compulsory work placement but, in a small minority of cases, students also had other contacts in the teaching profession made through family or friendship networks. Here the students are drawing on their personal knowledge of contacts who have suffered due to school closure programmes or cutbacks, and whose stories have served to highlight to the students the realities of an increasingly insecure and competitive profession.

5.2 The students' accounts offer an interesting challenge to some of the more normative theories of social capital development. For example, if we follow Putnam's (2000) distinction between 'bonding' capital, as the values of intra-group solidarity and trust, and 'bridging' capital, as referring to inter-group links based on reciprocity of interest, then we can see that the students' contacts within teaching represent a form of bridging capital: for the working-class students of this study, the contact with teachers represents a 'bridge' to a more middle-class world outside of their immediate familial networks. If we continue to follow Putnam's (2000) thesis, it could be argued that the development of such bridging social capital should encourage individuals to overcome the restrictions of their social backgrounds, thus facilitating a degree of social mobility. One may certainly see this as the purpose of the compulsory work placement at the case-study institution, with its emphasis upon individual employability through the development of professional networking opportunities. In the case of at least some of the students of this study, however, the effects of contact with professionals in the field appear to have been much more ambivalent than was intended: while not exactly dissuaded from attempting to enter the profession by their knowledge of the effects of recent policy developments on practitioners, the students were at least made rather wary.

Credential inflation

5.3 Questionnaire results found that respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the value of their degree for teaching, with 27% (n=24) identifying it as 'very useful' and 59% (n=53) identifying it as 'extremely useful'. However, while the questionnaire respondents may have been satisfied with the curricular relevance of their degree, further questioning in the focus groups revealed that many students were inclined to doubt its positional value within a highly competitive labour market, and were concerned at what they perceived to be an increasingly opaque relationship between teaching credentials and employment opportunities/employability in teaching. Thus, some students employed a discourse of credential inflation whereby teaching was perceived to require ever higher levels of qualification; importantly, this was seen to be used as a 'screening device' rather than as a genuine reflection of the skills demands of the job:

'Caroline': In a few years every teacher will have to have a Master's. Like, my cousin's a high school teacher and she's had to go back to college. The school paid for her to go to university to do her Master's whilst teaching.
'Jean': It's just a way of keeping it going then, isn't it? Even though you might be over-qualified for a while you then find that in four years' time you're only employable if have a Master's. So, your whole PGCE is irrelevant because you don't have a Master's alongside of it.
Focus Group One

5.4 These perceptions reflect the findings of other studies that have examined graduates' orientations towards the labour market. Brooks and Everett (2009) found that many participants believed a degree was only a 'basic minimum' which had to be supplemented with further post-graduate study in order to achieve a competitive edge. One may see this, to some extent, as a result of the relative 'massification' of HE in the UK and of the broadening of the student social base; as Bourdieu (1986: 33) notes, when class fractions which previously did not enter the race for academic qualifications begin to do so, they force those groups whose reproduction was traditionally reliant upon educational capital to increase their investments in order to preserve the relative scarcity of their qualifications.

5.5 The sophisticated level of some of the students' understandings of the complex, and increasingly misaligned, relationship between the fields of education and employment is apparent in the comments by 'Jean' below. She indicates an intention to return to her previous job as a nursery nurse after graduation, but expresses concerns that she will be 'over-qualified' for nursery teaching (and not receive a wage that she believes to be commensurate with her degree qualification); on the other hand, she is concerned that she may not get a teaching job and thus be 'left in limbo':

The only problem with our degree is, especially the Early Years side of it, is I guess I'm worried that we're all going to come out, like, too qualified and that there's not going to be a suitable job for me. So, I'm going to try and go back to the early years of nursery nursing, say for a while, and then I think I'm going to find that with my degree, they won't want to pay me what I should be paid. Then I'll find I'm unemployable through being too over-qualified and there not being a job higher up for me and I'm being too qualified to go back to what I was doing. So, it is like being in limbo, just not being able to get a job!
'Jean': Focus Group One

5.6 The question of whether there is an 'over-supply' of graduates to the jobs market remains contentious. Critics who argue that there is an over-supply point to the 'graduatisation' of jobs—the process whereby jobs not previously requiring degree-entry qualifications come to demand them (Ainley & Allen 2010). The weight of opinion appears to point towards a degree of credential inflation within the graduate labour market, and a concomitant weakening of any linear relationship between learning and earning (Lauder et al. 2012). There are some indications of this even in areas of employment such as teaching where paper credentials are still a formal prerequisite of entry. For example, there is evidence (GTCE 2010) that many primary phase NQTs have found themselves unemployed or under-employed, and it may be reasonable to infer that some of them have opted for employment in nurseries, for which they are ostensibly 'over-qualified', rather than suffer unemployment. As a result, some students (as in the comments of 'Jean' above) are sensitive to the increasingly fine but also arbitrary line between being 'under' and 'over' qualified for a job. Such sensitivity indicates a nuanced level of interpretation. It requires a lot of skill to decode and to discriminate between the confusing and contradictory messages imparted by, on the one hand, official and institutional policy rhetoric—in which a degree is a valuable positional good within the labour market—and, on the other hand, the 'hot' knowledge (Ball & Vincent 1998) of the labour market gained from (in this case) a degree of exposure to labour market realities, and which may offer a much less positive outlook.

A need for 'hands-on' experience and inside contacts

5.7 Finally, there was a strong perception across all four focus groups that a teaching qualification such as a PGCE was not sufficient by itself to secure a teaching position: credentials had to be supplemented by evidence of 'hands-on' experience if a candidate was to stand a realistic chance of getting a job:

'Margaret': It's difficult as well 'cos they want hands-on experience.
'Andrea': Like, if you've just come out of education, you've got qualifications but it doesn't mean that you can do the job, does it? You can't just go in and be a teacher if you've never done it.
Focus Group Four
The students' (quite realistic) perceptions of the necessity for evidence of work experience to complement qualifications stems from the belief, discussed earlier, in rising credential inflation and in the value of qualifications as no more than a 'basic minimum'. While hands-on experience was considered vital, it was also generally believed that social contacts within the teaching profession were the only realistic way to get it.
It's very competitive to get a job...you've got to make connections more. It's more to do with your connections than it is your qualifications. It's not like what you know, it's who you know.
'Samantha': Focus Group One

... when you get your foot in a school, and you start to get to know people and impress people that way, but it is a case of who you know in a lot of cases.
'Claire': Focus Group One

5.8 These focus group findings were clearly supported by the questionnaire results which indicated a clear perception among respondents of the importance of social contacts to competing for employment in teaching, with 79% (n=71) of respondents expressing overall agreement with the statement that they mattered to career success, and a large majority (66.3% n=59) indicating strong agreement. In Bourdieu's (1986: 134) terms, the students are clearly aware that, 'Outside the specifically scholastic market, a diploma is worth what its holder is worth, economically and socially; the rate of return on educational capital is a function of the economic and social capital that can be devoted to exploiting it'. In particular, what is at stake here is the students' ability to convert contingent social relationships within the teaching profession into social capital that is '...at once necessary and elective, implying durable obligations subjectively felt...' (Bourdieu, 1997: 52).

5.9 Both the questionnaire results and the focus group comments are illuminating in the way that they mark a qualitative shift in attitude compared to the undergraduates studied by Brown and Scase (1994), nearly twenty years ago, who exhibited a 'traditional bureaucratic' orientation towards the graduate labour market; the students within the Brown and Scase study who demonstrated this type of orientation tended to be female and/or working-class (as with this study) and premised their career decision-making upon assumptions of a direct correspondence between academic and occupational careers whereby career success was to be achieved through access to 'objective' expertise (as evidenced through credentials) rather than via the deployment of forms of inherited cultural capital (Brown & Scase 1994: 94–5). To such students, careers in relatively 'safe' professions built around credentialed knowledge, such as teaching, were particularly attractive. Such an apparent shift in perceptions among working-class undergraduates (acknowledging, of course, limitations of present sample size generalisability) offers a clear exposition of Bourdieu's (1990: 66) claims for the ways in which the habitus will constantly adjust itself to the demands of the field—the graduate labour market—through a 'feel for the game'. Of course, any claim for a shift in attitudes requires some qualification, and it is clear that the students of this study are aware that, with regards to teaching, there remains a direct correspondence between academic and occupational success in the sense that a degree and teaching qualification remain formal prerequisites; furthermore, it was also apparent from further questionnaire results that teaching was still perceived to be a relatively safe profession once employment had been obtained, as a large majority of respondents (65% n=58) rated job security positively, while just under half (47% n=42) rated it as either 'good' or 'excellent'.

5.10 Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the focus group comments indicate a perception that teaching is becoming more like some other types of graduate careers, e.g. within the media, arts or law, in which entry-level access is gained through some form of internship (often unpaid) and which, in turn, favours individuals with high levels of financial, social and cultural capital (Cabinet Office 2009). Moreover, evidence from previous research certainly seems to indicate that the students have a realistic view of the competitive demands of the teaching jobs market in this respect; as Devine (2004: 140) notes social contacts were instrumental in helping her research participants establish teaching careers. This sense of a perceived shift in the rules of the competition for teaching jobs, brought about by a changing balance in the relative importance accorded to an individual's formal educational capital, on the one hand, and their capacity to convert social and cultural capital into personal employability on the other, is neatly captured in the comments by 'Jean' below:

Start at the bottom and work your way up most of the time. Like, even if you are qualified then you have to still go in even like voluntary, like unpaid helper and just start there and gradually hope they like you.
'Jean': Focus Group One


6.1 Before discussing the conclusions and policy implications of this research, it is important to recognise its limitations. This study has employed a relatively small sample size of students of one degree course at one institution. In addition, both the questionnaire and focus group samples were overwhelmingly female. Although the findings from the male students closely echoed those of the female participants, it is recognised that future studies in this area will need to draw upon a more balanced gender sample in order to investigate for the existence of possible gender differences; a similar argument may be advanced in relation to the ethnic composition of this sample. Having acknowledged this caveat, this study has identified some important findings with wider implications for the issue of undergraduates' sense of their own employability—and particularly those from working-class backgrounds.

6.2 It has been argued that the students have made a realistic assessment of the level of competition they can expect to face. Furthermore, changes within the profession, particularly in England (where many of the participants of this study may seek employment), over the last two decades or so mean that once employed, NQTs will no longer be working within what could be considered a safe 'traditional bureaucratic' form of employment in the terms described by Brown and Scase (1994). Indeed, in her study of secondary school NQTs, Smethem (2007) discovered that some of her participants were reacting to the pressures of work intensification and of marketisation by adopting a 'portfolio' approach to their teaching careers, whereby teaching was envisaged as temporary employment that led to other jobs within the overall construction of a portfolio career. As Smethem (2007: 476) notes, the perspectives of the 'portfolio' teachers cast doubt upon the outdated but still dominant notion of a linear teaching career derived from more stable times; importantly, if Smethem's (2007) findings prove to be representative of a wider and continuing trend whereby teaching becomes more like many other graduate-entry professions with an increasingly contingent workforce—and there is some support for this to be found within other studies (e.g. Smart et al. 2009)—this will have implications for both aspirant teachers and the profession itself.

6.3 In particular, if teaching does become more of a 'portfolio' career, it may also become a more middle-class profession that is less attractive to graduates from working-class backgrounds; we know that in order to build up such careers, individuals may require substantial inherited cultural, social and material resources to navigate the complexities and insecurities they will face (Power et al. 2003), and that working-class graduates will be relatively disadvantaged in this respect (Brown & Hesketh 2004; Furlong & Cartmel 2005). If such changes within the profession were to have the effect of deterring working-class graduates from teaching, this would have wider professional and societal implications. It may be argued, for instance, that it is even more important for the social composition of the teaching workforce to reflect that of the wider population than for most other professions; this is because there is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that teachers from middle-class backgrounds can (often unconsciously) position working-class pupils within a deficit discourse, with consequently negative implications for their education (Reay 2006; Dunne & Gazeley 2008; Smart et al. 2009). Of course, we must be wary of the perils inherent in any generalisation and the evidence for whether teachers of working-class origin are less inclined to negatively position working-class pupils is somewhat mixed: Gordon (2003) found that teachers of a similar background to their working-class pupils were actually more inclined than their middle-class colleagues to employ forms of deficit discourse; in contrast, however, Maguire (2001; 2005b) has argued that working-class teachers enjoy a special degree of affinity and empathy with working-class pupils, a factor that has positive implications for their pedagogic and social relations with the students.

6.4 Finally, despite the concerns indicated above, there was only limited evidence that the Education Studies undergraduates of this present study had been deterred from teaching, at least at this stage in their careers. This, however, raises its own issues with regard to the particular position and role of Education Studies degrees in Wales. One could argue that the problem of an over-supply of primary school teaching aspirants in Wales, which the Furlong Report and the subsequent cuts in ITT places aimed to resolve, has not gone away: rather, it has simply been channelled to some extent by the Education Studies degree. That is, Education Studies is the 'Pre-Professional' degree which the Furlong Report called for by any other name. It will be recalled that, according to the Furlong Report, the aim of this qualification was to offer a broader range of education-related study and potential employment outcomes than the B.A Education degree; however, while these curricular aims have clearly been met in the Education Studies degree at the case-study institution, the employment-related aims have met with much more limited success in that, as this study has found, over two-thirds of the third-year student cohort expressed an ambition to become teachers (mostly in the primary sector). This highlights the problematic identity of Education Studies degrees. Despite efforts by those working within the field to position Education Studies as a distinct field of study (Griffin & McDougall 2009), it is apparent that the students at the case-study institution subscribe to the predominant view of the subject as 'the waiting room for teacher training' (Hodkinson 2009: 14). In light of the difficulties in accessing teaching employment, this raises the question of whether Education Studies in Wales is simply exacerbating the problem of a demand that cannot be met.


1All names used are pseudonyms


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