Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Diane Reay, Miriam David and Stephen Ball (2001) 'Making a Difference?: Institutional Habituses and Higher Education Choice'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 4, <>

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Received: 12/10/2000      Accepted: 12/2/2001      Published: 28/2/2001


Few studies have focussed on the impact made by individual institutions on the attainment of prospective university applicants and their subsequent destinations within higher education. In this paper we deploy the concept of institutional habitus in order to explore such influences. In spite of an inevitable degree of overlap and blurring of boundaries between peer group, family and institution we argue that there are specific effects from attending a particular educational institution. And these become most evident when examining the choices of similar kinds of students across the private-state divide. We conclude by arguing that, despite the gaps and rough edges in the seams of the concept of institutional habitus, these do not vitiate its value but, rather, suggest the need for further work. This paper then is the beginning of our efforts to try and develop institutional habitus at both the conceptual and empirical levels as a method for understanding the ways in which educational institutions make a difference in higher education choices.

Higher Education Choice; Institutional Habituses; Social Divisions


There is little literature which examines the influence of educational institutions on the shaping of higher education choices. In the US Boyle's (1966) study suggested that college aspirations are influenced by the practices of high schools and, in particular the imposition of academic standards. Alwin and Otto's (1977) research mapped the impact of high schools' average ability and SES levels on individuals' ability and SES levels and concomitantly their choices of higher education. Falsey and Heyms (1984) found that privately educated students were significantly more likely than their public school counterparts to go on to prestigious four year higher education institutions even when ability levels, aspirations and social class were controlled for. More recent research in the US (McDonough 1996) argues that the interplay of a student's social class background and secondary schools' organisational contexts and processes are central to the question of where an individual attends university.

In the UK, despite a recent emphasis on the contribution of individual schools and colleges to the qualifications and destinations of young people at the age of sixteen (Cheng 1995>; Smith and Tomlinson 1989; Ball, Macrae and Maguire 2000), few studies have focussed on the impact made by individual institutions on the attainment of prospective university applicants and their subsequent destinations within higher education. In this study we have deployed the concept of institutional habitus in order to explore such influences. Bourdieu (1993: 78) describes habitus as 'a power of adaptation. It constantly performs an adaptation to the outside world which only occasionally takes the form of radical conversion'. As such it is primarily a dynamic concept, a rich interlacing of past and present, individual and collective (Reay 1998a). Habitus can be viewed as a complex internalised core from which everyday experiences emanate. It is the source of day to day practices. Habitus produces action, but because it confines possibilities to those feasible for the social groups the individual belongs to, much of the time those actions tend to be reproductive rather than transformative (Bourdieu 1990). Dispositions inevitably reflect the social context in which they are acquired.

Any conception of institutional habitus would similarly, constitute a complex amalgam of agency and structure and could be understood as the impact of a cultural group or social class on an individual's behaviour as it is mediated through an organisation (McDonough 1996). Institutional habituses, no less than individual habituses, have a history and have been established over time. They are therefore capable of change but by dint of their collective nature are less fluid than individual habitus. In earlier work Reay argued that schools and colleges had identifiable institutional habituses and utilised the concept to demonstrate how the organisational cultures of schools and colleges are linked to wider socio-economic cultures through processes in which schools and their catchments mutually shape and reshape each other (Reay 1998a; b). In a further project paper we examine the relationship between familial and institutional habituses (Reay et al 2000) and, whilst recognising how enmeshed familial and institutional habituses are, in this paper we draw on evidence to demonstrate an institutional influence over and above the direct impact of family background. Perceptions and expectations of choice are constructed over time in relation to school friends and teachers' views and advice and learning experiences no less than in relationship to the views and expectations of families. Thus, in relation to higher education choice, our interview and observational data suggests that 'a school effect' - what we term institutional habitus - is an intervening variable, providing a 'semi-autonomous' means by which class, raced and gendered processes are played out in the lives of students and their HE choices.

In their research on elementary schools in the Netherlands Rupp and De Lange develop the concept of educational status which is determined by the level of secondary schooling for which the elementary school prepares its pupils (Rupp and De Lange 1989). Implicit in the concept is the dynamic relationship between the characteristics of a school's intake and its educational status. Applying this concept of educational status to the six institutions in our study we can see that the educational status of a sixth form or FE college ( the spectrum of the university hierarchy for which the institution prepares its students) constitutes an important part of institutional habitus. At the same time, there are other inter- related elements, most notably, curriculum offer, organisational practices and less tangible, but equally important cultural and expressive characteristics. These latter aspects,'the expressive order' of the school, include expectations, conduct, character and manners (Bernstein 1975)

Although Martin Thrupp does not use the concept of institutional habitus, his work on school mix illuminates the workings of different aspects of institutional habitus by demonstrating how the numerous differences between schools in group, instructional, organisational and management processes are linked to school composition (Thrupp 1999). Working with concepts of critical mass and middle- class/organic, working-class/inorganic relations between home and school he illustrates the ways in which power relations between different social classes within schools are of central importance. For Thrupp, class based organic and inorganic relationships are played out at the school level:

Schools develop processes that reflect their SES mix. Solidly middle class schools have strongly supportive student cultures which allow them to teach an academic, school-based curriculum and to organise and manage themselves relatively smoothly. Working class students who attend a working class school may often fail not only because of their own background but also because they are attending working class schools which cannot offer middle class types of school resources and processes. Conversely working class students who attend a middle class school are more likely to succeed because they are exposed, despite their individual class backgrounds, to the contextual benefits of a middle class school mix. (Thrupp 1999: 125-6)

Here we can see how wider socio-economic cultures impact on organisational practices within schools and colleges in ways which, we argue later, also shape opportunities and constraints within the higher education choice process.

Although the main foci for this paper are the institutional contexts within which students make choices of higher education and the organisational practices that support their decision making, we recognise that the various influences impacting on students' choices cannot be separated out and compartmentalised. Rather, higher education applicants are located within a matrix of influences which are best represented by overlapping circles of individual, family, friends and institution. The relative weight of these spheres of influence are not only different for different individuals but shift and change over time for students. Yet, in spite of an inevitable degree of overlap and blurring of boundaries between peer group, family and institution we argue that there are specific effects from attending a particular educational institution which become most evident when you look at the choices of similar kinds of students across the private-state divide.

It is also important to emphasize that individuals are differentially positioned in relation to the institutional habitus of their school or college according to the extent to which influences of family and peer group are congruent or discordant with those of the institution. It is only the more privileged of the middle class students, primarily in the private sector, who experience the different contexts impinging on choice as almost seamless. While this advantaged minority are operating within spheres where the diverse influences are predominantly reinforcing rather than in competition with each other, for the majority of students there is less of a fit between educational institution and family and friends. Most are managing a degree of dissonance, and a significant minority are having to cope with tensions that make choice both conflictual and problematic. Whilst recognising this inevitable messiness of choice, in this paper we deliberately foreground the impact of the institution attended. In subsequent papers we intend to deal more centrally with both family and peer group.

The Research Study

The data we draw on in this paper comes from our ESRC research study on choice of higher education (award no. R000 23 7431). The study focuses upon two cohorts of student 'choosers', their parents and various intermediaries (careers teachers, sixth form tutors etc.) in 6 educational institutions; an 11-18 mixed comprehensive with a large minority ethnic, working class intake (Creighton Community School - CCS) and a comprehensive sixth form consortium which serves a socially diverse community (Maitland Union - MU), a tertiary college with a very large A-level population (Riverway College - RC), an FE College which runs HE Access courses (Fennister FE College - FFEC), and two prestigious private schools, one single-sex boys (Cosmopolitan Boys - CB), one single-sex girls (Hemsley Girls - HG). All of the institutions are in or close to London. Our research is institutionally located in this way specifically to enable us to explore the effects of institutional contexts and processes and the ways in which they interweave with, and at times work against, individual, peer and familial influences.

The data collected included both qualitative and quantitative material. We initially administered a questionnaire to 500 students across the six institutions, relying on tutors to select representative tutor groups for us. Individual interviews were then conducted with 120 students. At first we interviewed those who had volunteered through the questionnaire, but then attempted to broaden the sample to both address imbalances, notably in relation to gender, and to include a range of interesting cases, for example, first generation students and Oxbridge entrants in state schools. Sixth form tutors and other key personnel were interviewed in all six institutions (15 in total), as well as a sub-sample of forty parents. Supplementing these three data sets were field notes from participant observation. We attended a range of events in all six institutions, including parents' evenings, HE careers lessons, Oxbridge interview practice and tutor group sessions on the UCAS process. In the rest of this paper we draw on interview, questionnaire and observational data to look at some of the ways in which the various components of institutional habitus; educational status, organisational practices and expressive order influence the choice-making process and, concomitantly, choices of higher education.

'Careers Advice, What Careers Advice?': Levels of Practical Support and Advice within Different Institutions

One key aspect of institutional habitus that impacts directly on students' higher education destinations is the quality and quantity of careers advice provided. In this section we explore how different institutional habituses transform into widely differing practices within institutions. It also becomes evident that there are enormous differences in resourcing of careers and higher education advice between the state and private sectors. The jibe 'careers advice, what careers advice?' was made by one of the MU students but at both MU and RC the prevalent student view was that careers advice was largely uninfluential or, at times, actively unhelpful. Students most commonly commented that advice had simply reiterated what they already knew or else had been so inconsequential they had difficulty recalling what advice had actually been given. The situation in the two private schools was very different. Below we describe careers advice at CB but the support was similarly intensive and extensive at HG:

There is a deputy head of careers as well as myself and then there are about three or four other people that help me quite a lot with various careers matters. We have got a careers consultant that comes in from Excel Careers, he comes in usually two days a week. (Dr Anderson, CB)

As Dr Anderson indicates, careers advice at CB is a major enterprise. Careers education and guidance is provided by two full-time members of staff, the Head and deputy head of careers, by consultants from Exel Careers, but also by other outside agencies, as well as tutors and subject specialists within the school. The school provided frequent input on careers and subject choice from year 9 onwards, including informal lunchtime seminars when leading professionals in their fields, such as academics, lawyers, journalists and politicians, came to talk to students about their work. These 'perks' were in addition to regular, timetabled input on higher education choice. As Marcus claims, "by the fourth year they're really making you think along the lines of university, not letting you just get by and make decisions on your own".

It is important to reiterate that institutions in the state sector uniformly had far lower levels of resourcing. They were also often responding to very different student needs. For example, at both FFCS and CCS advice and support is rooted in a recognition of the considerable financial and geographical constraints many of the students are operating under. CCS is located in an inner city area which has many features of inner city deprivation. Two thirds of the students are eligible for free school meals, approximately 75 are in temporary accommodation and a sixth are refugees from a total of 19 countries. Over a sixth are on the register of special needs. Sarah, head of sixth at CCS, maps out a very different academic landscape to that of CB. In CCS 45% of the sixth form are studying ordinary level GNVQs and for girls, in particular, "parents just assume that their education terminates when they finish their GCSEs even though many students do very well in their exams" (Sarah, Head of Sixth, CCS). She highlights a dissonance between home and school in which "we try and persuade them to stay on. But their parents don't want them to continue". In contrast to the push from year 9 in CB to consider both post-16 and post-18 options, at CCS staff have just instituted a year 11 conference where pupils "are taken out of lessons for a day and given advice and counselling about options post-sixteen and beyond". Sarah talks repeatedly in the interview about the need to persuade parents to let their children stay on. Unlike the parents at CB and HG who are pushing in the same direction as the school and its staff, at CCS staff and parents are often pulling in opposite directions:

There is a lot of work that still needs doing because we are still losing students. It's about working at all levels, using home link people, getting parents or their children already at university to come back and using them as positive role models to try and persuade, but ultimately it's a long process because they will have come from communities where none of them have experienced this. So naturally they are suspicious. (Sarah, CCS)

While there is a high degree of congruence between familial and institutional habitus in both HG and CB, CCS is having to deal with a number of tensions embedded in the habitus of the school. On one level such tensions are inevitable in predominantly working class schools; an attribute of inorganic relations between home and school (Thrupp 1999; Lareau 1989). Yet, tensions of class difference are compounded by ethnicity. Imbrications of gender, ethnicity and class meant that often for the Bengali female pupils and, to a lesser extent, their brothers, higher education was considered a luxury ill-afforded. These tensions are further exacerbated by a current educational policy which has instituted funding regimes in which money is tied to individual pupils. For schools like CCS, under-funded and under pressure, it becomes imperative to ensure as many pupils stay on post-16 as possible. Yet, at the same time there is a recognition that the transition to higher education is extremely difficult for many of the the pupils:

There is a lot of concern about whether I can possibly afford to do this, whether I can possibly afford to take this risk, to take out student loans and to self finance my education. There's a process of having to sort of say although it is all pretty bleak there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But already some students are worrying, have a lot of anxiety about how will their families afford this. (Sarah, Head of Sixth, CCS)

Institutional habitus interacts with familial habitus to generate very different processes in CCS to those enacted in the private schools. There are clear consequences for how teachers' time and energy is directed. Unlike CB and HG where moving into the sixth form was an automatic process which did not require teacher encouragement, Sarah spent a large part of the summer term trying to persuade year 11 pupils and their parents that staying on into the sixth form would be beneficial. She also regularly spent substantial periods of time at the beginning of the academic year talking to year 13 parents about the importance of further qualifications for their children. While many of the CCS students were dealing with a dissonance between familial and institutional habitus which often culminated in a sense that higher education and even 6th form attendance was 'not for the likes of us' (Bourdieu 1990), the situation at CB and HG was very different. In Bourdieurian terms at the two private schools, in the vast majority of cases, familial habitus "encounters a social world of which it is the product, it is like a 'fish in water': it does not feel the weight of the water and it takes the world about itself for granted" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; 127).

This 'taken-for-granted' disposition which develops when familial and institutional habituses are in symmetry is evident in Hinal's reasoning. He explains why not going to university was inconceivable, going on to elaborate a lengthy, considered process of choosing higher education which implicates both institutional and familial habitus:

Well, for me, it was (inconceivable), because basically people tell me this, that, that, that, regardless of who they are. For example, for universities, people will tell you this is good that is bad, and they did a similar type of thing. People were telling me do these A levels, do those A levels, but ultimately what I did was literally, just stood in the middle and just thought every decision out and crossed them out as I went along. (Hinal, CB)

While he does not distinguish between people within the family and school, he clearly locates motivation and information with others in a way that suggests that institutional and familial habitus are working in the same direction and that both are crucial in his decision making. The contrast between Hinal and Shamina and Ruma's descriptions of the choice process highlights the very different institutional habituses of the two schools:

I just picked up the ones, it was sort of, I was in a rush and I was panicking because I left it so late, which ones to choose, which ones to go to, and I just put down, Mr Russell said it would be better to choose these universities, so I just looked it up and said OK then, I'll just choose this. Because I was panicking at the last minute and the deadline was coming. (Shamina, CCS)


I started filling my UCAS form at the last minute and I was sort of in a panicking state. I just had to chose six quickly so it was just the ones I knew about. I did it really quickly. I had to.....if I could do it again I would take longer and look through things more. It was too much of a panic. (Ruma, CCS)

While Hinal's 'as I went along' implies an unrushed, almost leisurely process, Shamina, Ruma and their friends in Creighton community school talk in terms of 'panic' 'haste' and 'rush'.

Educational Status and Institutional Habitus: Limiting the Field of Possibilities

Curriculum offer is an integral part of institutional habitus and underpins the educational status of institutions. Subject preferences highlight curricula differences between the state and the private sectors with traditional 'academic' subjects predominant in the private sector schools and 'new' subjects more in evidence in the four state sector institutions. Options at both GCSE and A level in the private schools presuppose traditional subjects at traditional universities. Both single subject sciences and the humanities are popular. In contrast, the state sector abounds with media studies, sociology, business studies and other 'new' subjects where there is a greater match with similar 'new' subjects at new and redbrick universities.

The six institutions in the study covered a wide range of educational status (Rupp and De Lange 1989), from HG and CB, both preparing their pupils for elite universities, to CCS where, as we have already described, the poverty and deprivation of the catchment area means, as one sixth form tutor exclaimed, 'even getting to university is a miracle'. While HG declares in its brochure for parents that the school " is selective and the atmosphere unashamedly academic", CCS is struggling to retain a viable year 13 in the face of high drop-out rates. Comments made by two students at the schools encapsulate the very differing institutional habituses. For Hugh at CB "you've got it all laid out on a plate", while Phu Ca at CCS claims "we are really really struggling". In such starkly opposed circumstances of advantage and disadvantage 'a good choice' translates into very different options. Below we try to develop further what 'a good choice' signifies within differing institutional contexts.

Articulating similar attitudes to those expressed by Roker's privately educated girls (Roker 1993), George at Cosmopolitan Boys explains that it is expected that pupils would apply for 'a good university' at his private boys' school:

My application from here is quite typical of everyone applying in that there are the top twenty universities and people do look at them like this, these are the ones Cosmopolitan Boys apply to.

Dr Anderson, the head of careers, makes very explicit the link between 'good' and 'elite' for the majority of boys and their parents at CB:

A 'good' university is a university that has been there for a long time, and is well-established generally...... I think there is a sort of status feeling, you know, the highest status is to go to Oxford and Cambridge, the next one is to be going to Durham, Exeter or Bristol, and you go there regardless of how good the course is in your particular subject.

Dr Anderson's comment is one of many examples in the transcripts that illustrate the extent to which institutional habitus, shaped by the dominant familial habitus, limits the universe of possible university choices to a smaller range of manageable considerations.

Processes of delimitation are also evident in both the FE college and CCS, but generate very different outcomes for the students to those in Cosmopolitan Boys. For example, at the FE college advice and support is shaped by a recognition of, not only the necessity to think local, but also existing prejudices, particularly in the elite universities, towards access students. 'A good choice' is one which builds on longstanding relationships with a number of local higher education institutions which have developed mature student friendly admissions policies. The college has strong connections with two such local universities and as Olivia, a lecturer, comments:

We know from experience that some of the higher education organisations aren't very sympathetic to mature students, and we politely and discreetly suggest to our students that they don't apply there, because we know they will be very unhappy or they will drop out, because we have got them to this stage, we have sweated blood over these students and we don't want them to fail at the next hurdle, so there are some places we know are very sympathetic and very supportive, and ex-students have been very happy there, and those are the places we'll encourage students to apply to.

Making Connections within the Field of Higher Education

Both Dr Anderson's and Olivia's remarks highlight the importance of a further field of institutional habituses. Framing the institutional habituses of the schools and colleges are the institutional habituses of the universities. The degree of coupling (Weick 1976) between schools/colleges and universities is a manifestation of educational status and clearly has a bearing on student choice. The FE college has instituted processes of strong coupling with two local universities which are reflected in the percentage of students applying to them; 32% of the humanities access students moving on to university in Autumn 1999 went to Roehampton, while a further 25% were going to SOAS. Less formalised, although also influential, as we have seen, is the guidance about where not to apply, rooted in lecturers' perceptions that many of the traditional universities are unwelcoming places for mature students.

Institutional habitus has a significant impact which permeates the choice making processes in all 6 institutions, making some choices virtually unthinkable, others possible and yet others routine (Bourdieu 1984). However, it does not operate uniformly for all students (see also Reay 1998a). The extent to which institutional habitus could be mobilised differentially for different groups of students was particularly evident in relation to Oxbridge applicants. Sponsorship by the school is a valuable asset in a period of credential inflation and Oxbridge candidates in both the private and state sectors gain a significantly greater input from their institutions than those who are applying to less elite universities. Being selected as Oxbridge candidates increases the possibility of augmenting profits of academic and cultural capital regardless of a student's institutional base. As Philip Brown points out:

Credential inflation is intensifying the competition for credentials from elite universities because degree holders stand 'relative' to one another in a hierarchy of academic and social worth. When market crowding occurs, employers become more discerning about the 'status' of credentials. A degree from Oxbridge or an Ivy League University is judged to have greater capital value than one from a little-known university or college in the market for jobs. (Brown 1996: 741)

The relationship between Oxbridge and private sector schools is a further, well documented coupling (Smithers 2000). Oxbridge, despite its recently professed interest in taking more state pupils, is still struggling with decades of in-built bias in favour of the private sector. In both CB and HG informal connections between teachers and Oxbridge colleges are very evident. Not only are there more teachers with Oxbridge backgrounds than in the state sector, for example, 24% of the current staff at HG had been to Oxbridge, but there is also a culture of entitlement; an implicit presumption of compatibility in relation to Oxbridge that does not exist to anything like the same extent in the state schools. Gambetta (1987) asserts in relation to school leavers' higher education choices that students jump as far as they are able.

A recent article in the Evening Standard (15/3/2000) describes Oxbridge as "just a short hop and skip" away from HG; a relatively easy jump in Gambetta's terms. Arabella's text underlines this sense of proximity; a generalised feeling in HG that Oxbridge is the most appropriate place to move on to:

The school has a strong view that I should go to Cambridge, And they've got a sort of general view that that's the best thing to do full yeah, they think I should go to Cambridge, so that has been a pressure.

Her comments are reinforced time and time again by other HG students:

It's definitely suggested to girls that they apply. Everyone who has got a chance of getting in is encouraged to apply. They're really keen for girls to go to Oxbridge. (Martina)


Teachers were kind of pressuring me to apply to Oxbridge. Then I got grades for my modules last summer, which were really bad, and I decided there was no way I was going to apply to Cambridge, and then because the teachers here were so encouraging in the end I did. (Rebecca)

Thirty per cent of HG girls went on to either Oxford or Cambridge in Autumn 1999, while in CB 19% of the boys gained Oxbridge places for the same academic year. CB's school brochure stresses that "the most prestigious providers of HE are targeted and typically 40% of year 13 will apply for Oxbridge places". In contrast, no one applied for Oxbridge in either FFCS or CCS, while in both RC and MU less than 1% of students gained places. In MU, out of a total of 326 year 13 pupils for the academic year 1998/1999, there were only 20 applicants and only three gained a place (although 30 of the students went on to achieve 3 As at A level). In this inner city comprehensive any sense of entitlement or assurance of compatibility is difficult to sustain within an institution where Oxbridge was frequently viewed as "not for the likes of us" (Bourdieu 1990), even by the high achieving pupils.

The qualitative data sheds further light on the differing relationships of the state and private schools to elite universities. As, the extracts below indicate, both CB and MU have a strong committment to getting their high achieving pupils into Oxbridge and both can be seen to be proactive in relation to access. However, underlying Cosmopolitan Boys' activities are long standing, familiar, comfortable relationships with a number of Oxbridge colleges, in which key members of staff have close contact with dons at a range of colleges. Academic social capital, which we have explored in a further paper as an individual asset (Reay et al 2000), also operates at the institutional level. Both the private schools have the academic social capital necessary to cultivate close, friendly networks with Oxbridge, while state schools like MU and CCS are still desperately trying to establish productive links. These intimate connections are made explicit by one of the mothers at CB when she explains why her son applied to a particular Oxford college:

He's applied to St Hughes, because Mr King teaches history and has just been there six months on a sabbatical leave, so we left it up to the school. We had, at this point, been I suppose encouraging him slightly to apply to Worcester (....) And then the school came back and said they had connections with St Hugh's and they advised him to apply there so we said, you know, the school knows what they are talking about.

In contrast, MU's attempts to sponsor potential applicants were being conducted in circumstances of considerably less access to the academic social capital that counted and, despite demonstrating considerable initiative, had a slightly desperate feel of 'stabbing in the dark'. For example, in her letter to an Oxford college, MU's head of sixth writes in support of two pupils' applications:

Both students are considered to be exceptional and achieved highly at GCSE, despite considerable social and material disadvantage. Moira has received free school meals throughout her education. She is the daughter of a lone parent who is dependent on Income Support to maintain the family. Debbie is also from a working class background and has shown considerable personal courage in dealing with her medical condition. I understand Cambridge is very keen to increase its comprehensive intake and sincerely hope these factors will be taken into account when Moira and Debbie are interviewed. (letter sent to Oxford, 30th December 1998)

Here there is no cosy intimate connection; none of CB's extensive network of contacts with Oxbridge, and Ms Keen has to rely on a much more distanced, formalised contact.

Spatial notions of proximity and distance provide a useful way of understanding the relationships of different educational institutions to the field of higher education. As is evident above, CB and HG are located institutionally in far greater proximity to Oxbridge and other elite universities than any of the four other institutions. FFCS and CCS, in contrast, have similarly close relationships with the new universities but are far more distant from elite universities. For schools like CCS Oxbridge is beyond the horizon. RC and MU are best represented as equi-distant between the elite and new universities. They are both institutionally located further away from elite universities than CB and HG on one side and further away from the new universities than FFCS and CCS on the other, whilst occupying a space closer to redbrick universities than any of the other institutions. This spatial representation maps out a geography of taken-for-granteds, possibilities and improbabilities. Some routes are much more obvious and straightforward from one institutional vantage point than another.

The Partial and Specific Nature of Students' Higher Education Knowledge

Lesley Pugsley (1998) argues that higher education applicants in the ten institutions in her research study displayed very different levels of market awareness. Similarly, in this research there was a wide spectrum of knowledge about the HE market in which high levels of market awareness were partial and specific. Students needed to be aware of particular segments of the higher education market depending on their own specific positioning within the field which in turn, as we have seen, is influenced by institutional habitus. This was particularly the case for the FE students, the private school pupils and those at CCS.

The greater regulatory power of the private institutions means that their processes of guidance and channelling, in combination with a fairly homogeneous class intake, contribute to a higher degree of uniformity and a narrower range of choices among pupils than is normally the case in the state sector. Rebecca's words encapsulate the academic steering prevalent in the two private schools:

The school definitely pressured me. I don't know if that's because they want more people to go to Oxbridge, so it be in their league table or whatever. There was certainly quite a lot of pressure for me to apply. But I think it was more a kind of personal thing, they thought I'd enjoy it. And the reason that I was wary about it was just because I was scared of getting turned down and they talked me through that. They said I was setting my standards too low.

This pressure, which was raised by over half of the HB students interviewed, is partly to do with the kind of pupil Rebecca represents. She is middle class and has been predicted three As. Yet, similar students at MU also predicted 3 As reported no such pressure. The two schools were responding very differently to similar kinds of pupils which suggests that institutional habitus is having an impact over and above any family background influences.

Awareness of the relative ranking of elite universities was extremely difficult to avoid given the institutional habituses of CB and HG. Consequently, the vast majority of pupils had detailed, well-informed knowledge of the 'premier division' while, for many, their understanding of the market positioning of new universities was far more blurred and ill-informed. In the academic year 1999/2000 only 7% of the boys at CB went on to attend new universities, nearly all because they had failed to achieve the grades necessary to attend the traditional university they had initially applied to.

The extent, then, to which institutional habitus sets parameters around 'the possible' varied considerably between different institutions. Both the private schools, the FE college and CCS all have institutional habituses which impose narrower boundaries round choice than in either of the 2 large state sixth forms, MU and RC. CCS is the only one of the 3 state sixth forms with an institutional habitus that generates as narrow a range of possibilities as the two private schools, but there the similarity ends. We have referred earlier to the enormous differences in the intakes to CB and HG on the one hand and CCS on the other. The contrast between CCS and the private schools in terms of destinations is equally stark. In CCS 60% of year 13 went on to attend new universities, 20% went into the labour market, 10% went to do further courses at FE colleges and only 10% took up places at redbrick universities. No one went to Oxbridge or any other of the elite universities.

FFCS also had an institutional habitus which set narrow boundaries around choice. Access courses provide a context independent of the family, schooling and social networks which prevented higher study in adolescence (Ganzeboom and Treiman 1991). This greater degree of separation from other possible influences increases the impact that FE colleges can exert over choices. Paradoxically, the greater freedom and distance from other conventional sources of influence, the mature students' relatively autonomous decision making in relation to both friends and family, means that they, no less than the private pupils, are subject to a more powerful institutional habitus than would generally be found in the non-selective state sector:

People are very passionate in places like this, being a woman, being a single mother, being black, being gay. You know, there is no doubt about it, but it is something that is a major issue for these people and they think that these things are going to be held against them when they go to interview and they feel places like UCL, King's and LSE won't want students like them but it just isn't true anymore. (Sophie FE student)

As Sophie's quote, and the one made earlier by Olivia, both indicate, institutional habitus has as strong a channeling and guiding influence for many of the mature students as it has for the private school pupils but for different reasons. While for the latter institutional and familial habituses are often closely aligned, for the mature students it is usually the case that the influences of family and friends outside the college are relatively weak compared to that of the educational institution. Certainly, most of the mature students reported fairly detached relationships with their families of origin. In such a situation the impact of the dominant cultural group or social class within the college on individuals' behaviour can become especially powerful.

Collective Versus Individualised Processes

The extent to which decision-making is a collectivised or individualised process constitutes part of 'the expressive order' of an institution (Bernstein 1975), and is a further aspect of the organisational practices, attitudes and assumptions which make up institutional habitus. In our study, there were marked differences between the FE college and other institutions, in particular Cosmopolitan Boys and MU, in the extent to which higher education decision- making was a collective rather than an individualised process. The FE students were much more likely to use the collective 'we' when discussing the choice process, while students in the schools invariably used an individualised 'I'. Alison Kirton (1999) refers to the collaborative ethos underpinning the access course she researched. In FFCS the HE choice process seemed to be underpinned by cooperation in contrast to, in particular, the private schools where the process was far more competitive. The two sets of fieldnotes from interview practice lessons in FFCS and CB underscore this difference. In the FE college the session was set up as a collaborative exercise with the students organised in group of four; one interviewee, one interviewer and two observers charged with providing 'positive feedback'. The tutor's instructions to the class were "to be as supportive and positive as possible". In CB the session was organised very differently. The two boys chosen as interviewee and interviewer were positioned at the front of the class and the rest of the students were instructed to challenge and point out weaknesses, as well as giving the interviewee scores out of ten for both content and performance. FFCS was also the only institution where students were explicitly encouraged to work together on their personal statements.

Both the FE tutors and the FE students also talked extensively of processes of mutual support which were far less evident elsewhere, although there was a slight tendency, which cut across institutional differences, for females to collaborate more than males. For instance, the young women at both CCS and MU seemed to have been sharing advice much more than either the boys at CCS and MU, or pupils in the other three schools. As Maguire et al (2000) found in relation to post-16 choice, 'young women were better at supporting one another and sharing information'. However, it was only at FFCS that there were sustained collaborative processes:

The other students that I'm working with, as well, they have been very helpful. A few of them, Carly and Debbie looked at it for me, gave me advice sort of thing. (Darren, FE college)
The other students have all been very supportive. Everybody helps each other, you'll say I'm thinking of applying for Middlesex or SOAS and someone has either been there or knows someone studying there so there's lots and lots of sharing of information. I guess I've learnt a hell of a lot from the other students. (Rick, FE college)
We are all a really great bunch, we get on terribly well, we are very supportive of each other, both academically and personally. And everybody really helps each other out, if someone has got a problem with something, or they have an obstacle block really is a very good support network. (Lesley, FE college)

In contrast, the school students map out a far more individualised process:

Talking to friends hasn't been helpful. Not at all. Because everyone's in their own little world. Everyone's concerned about what they are going to do. So everyone goes - OK, if that's what you want to do. And they haven't helped, no. (Sheila, MU)
Quite a lot I did on my own actually, because most people were like panicking for their own sake and too busy to talk to you so... (Shamina, SCCS)
Diane: And did you talk much with friends about it? Susie: Not really. Maybe a bit. It depends on what course people wanted to do and stuff. Mostly where we decided to apply to, but not really. We mostly did it on our own. (Susie, MU)
I don't know why I haven't discussed it with any of my friends here, but I don't think anyone has much. I think it's quite sort of, I think everyone finds it quite a personal thing, what they want to do and where they go. And I don't think my attitude has influenced my friends that much, hardly at all really. (Tom, MU)

The more collectivised approach at FFCS and the more individualised approach to decision making in the schools can only be attributed to class differences among the students when we compare the FE college with the two private schools, MU and RC which all have predominantly middle class intakes. However, CCS, with a very similar social class profile to FFCS, shared the individualised approach of the more middle class institutions. We would argue that the difference is as much a consequence of institutional as of familial habitus. The expressive order in FFCS, in direct contrast to those of the other five institutions, gives a very explicit primacy to collegial ways of working and interacting.

Yet, overt processes only tell part of the story of institutional influences. Equally important are the less concrete, more intangible elements. In this regard there were key issues around institutional habituses and indirect collective processes of higher education choice. While the boys at CB and, in particular, the girls at CCS were not helping each other in the direct ways evident at the FE college, they were having an influence on each other's choices; an influence that came through both institutional ethos and peer pressure, as Omar explains in relation to Cosmopolitan Boys:

If you take a group of ten people and nine people have applied to these sorts of universities, like London ones, or you know, prestigious ones, and you don't really want to feel like - I am going to apply to this place just because I want to. And they will say - why are you doing that? Why don't you join the flow? This tends to happen, I find that we all flow with each other. We don't follow each other because we are not sheep, but we tend to flow, and everyone tends to apply to these universities and then you think - do they do my course? Yeah, well, I'll have a look at that. And that is how it tends to go, so...... It is sort of - oh, we are all going here, why don't you have a go and see if you like it, so you try it out and research it and if you like it you tend to follow that. (February 1999)

Omar applied to do medicine which is a popular subject choice at his private boys' school but fails to gain the necessary grades. In a telephone interview after the publication of the A level results he asserts that his poor grades were "really a blessing in disguise because he can now pursue a career in Art":

Now I can do design. Hardly anyone applies to Art College here it's like it's just not the done thing, too low status or something but it really is what I want to do and doing badly's given me the chance so now I'm going to Chelsea Art College and I'm really pleased about it. I think it's going to be much more fun than doing Medicine. (Omar, September 1999).

Omar's words may be, in part, a post results rationalisation but they also suggest the peer group has a disciplining, steering effect on individual choices. Institutional habitus in private schools like CB imposes a degree of conformity that makes it difficult to break out of narrowly defined parameters of 'acceptable' choice.

The contrast with a large inner London state sixth form is very evident. Sharon, talking about the attitude of her peer group in MU comments:

I dunno, just go to the one you want, really. It's all very laid back. Everyone seems to be going all over the place.

Yet again we can see the ways in which the expressive order of the school impacts on HE decision making. Schools like CB and HG have an institutional habitus informed by a stratified expressive order:

Stratified schools were schools where the units of organisation were based on fixed attributes or attributes thought to be fixed e.g. age, gender, ability, categories of discourse (school subjects). It was thought that where unit/categories were considered fixed then the school would develop explicit horizontal and vertical structures. These would provide an unambigious basis for the ritualization of boundaries and the celebration of consensus. (Bernstein 1996: 98)

In contrast, institutions like RC and MU have a far more differentiated expressive order with mixed groupings of pupils with varying memberships. The expressive order is relayed through elaborated forms of personalised communication rather than through the intensive ritualisation common in stratified schools. One consequence in relation to higher education choice is, as Joely at MU indicates, 'we've all got our own sort of paths to go down. Everybody seems to be doing different things.....Everyone just seems to get on with their own stuff'.


In our research there is little of the calculative, individualistic consumer rationalism that predominates in official texts (Ball, Macrae and Maguire 1999). It was rare in CCS and FFCS, and was only one theme among many in MU and RU. While there were some highly organised choosers at both MU and RC, and, in particular, a number who could be described as 'active researchers', there were equally powerful themes of serendipity, intuitive response, narrow focus, directionlessness and making decisions on the hop in both institutions. Only in HG and CB do we find regular evidence of behaviour that approximates to objective calculative rationalism. While both of these private schools provided protected worlds of 'already realised ends - procedures to follow, paths to take' (Bourdieu 1990) the state pupils in the two large sixth forms, unless they were recognised as 'Oxbridge material', were more likely to be negotiating a morass of choices they often felt ill-equipped to deal with, while the predominantly working class students in both CCS and FFCS were involved in a process of finding out what you can't have, what is not open for negotiation and then selecting from the few options left (Reay et al 2001).

As we argued at the beginning of this paper higher education applicants are located within a complex matrix of influences which are best represented by overlapping circles of individual, family, friends and institution. The relative weight of these spheres of influence shift and change over time for students, generating an inevitable degree of overlap and blurring of boundaries between peer group, family and institution. Within this messy confusion we have tried to disentangle some of the effects of institutional habitus and to indicate some of the ways in which it has an influence over and above the direct impact of family background.

Our referees asked us to outline how our work fits in with the broader literature on school effectiveness. This has been extremely difficult to do. Rather, we see our attempt to theorise 'a school effect' as operating in a different dimension to the largely atheoretical work on school effectiveness with its explicit political agenda around seeing teachers as both problem and solution. Instead our work seeks to begin to unpick the dynamic relationships between schools and catchments in an analysis which both tries to identify differences between schools and the difference those differences make without detaching institutions from their wider social context.

Is the concept of institutional habitus useful for highlighting the dynamic interplay between educational institutions and their catchments? And does it contribute to our understanding of the choice making process? In this paper we have tried to indicate the ways in which the various components of institutional habitus; educational status, organisational practices and the expressive order influence the process and pattern of choice making and the range of higher education institutions chosen. Yet, we are aware that problems remain. Within the same institution there is always a degree to which institutional habituses are mobilised differentially for different pupils. Furthermore, the dynamic between institutional habitus and catchment is inevitably going to be prone to misfirings in which the varying amounts of cultural capital students possess (individual effects) at times takes precedence over the collective effects of institutional habitus. However, we would argue that the gaps and rough edges in the seams of the concept do not vitiate its value but, rather, suggest a need , as Bourdieu (1993) advocates in relation to all his concepts, for further exercise; for putting into practice. This paper is the beginning of our efforts to put institutional habitus into practice; to try and develop it at both the conceptual and empirical levels as a method for understanding the ways in which educational institutions make a difference in higher education choices.


We would like to thank Martin Thrupp for his reflexive feedback on an earlier draft of this paper and the three anonymous referees for their extremely helpful comments.


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