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Geographical and place dimensions of post-school participation in education and work


26 February 2015

ISBN 978 1 925173 12 3


Aspirations have been shown to be a key influence on young people's engagement with post-school education and training. This research explores how aspirations are affected by where a young person lives. It finds that young people are significantly influenced by their educational and career 'inheritance'. By encountering educational cultures (new ideas or experiences) different from their own they are more likely to make life choices divergent from those they 'inherit'. Vocational education and training provides an essential pathway of choice to further education and work but the difference in status  between VET and university pathways is an enduring issue. As has been identified in previous research, practical and financial constraints significantly impact on young people's aspirations and opportunities, while a particular concern for young people in regional and outer urban areas is tolerable travel to study distances.


About the research

Previous studies have demonstrated the importance of aspirations as a key influence on young people’s engagement with post-school education and training. However, aspirations may be hampered by socioeconomic status and geographic location. This research explores how young people who live in the same neighbourhood may experience it differently and hold different values and aspirations in relation to further education and post-school pathways. The research was conducted in four sites: two neighbourhoods in regional and rural Gippsland, Victoria, and two urban fringe sites in South Australia. The research highlights the importance of having a nuanced understanding of the geography and characteristics of neighbourhoods in order to tailor policy responses to suit specific cohorts of young people.

Key messages

  • In all four geographic areas young people are significantly influenced by their educational and career ‘inheritance’, envisaging they will follow in the footsteps of their parents. By encountering educational cultures different from their own, young people are more likely to make life choices divergent from those they ‘inherit’.
    • Boys behave differently from girls. Young men follow the traditions of their fathers, while young women are more likely to leave an area to pursue opportunities.
    • There was no discernible pattern of difference amongst the four areas in relation to expectations that young people progress to university, but schools that were more socially mixed and with students from families with a history of tertiary education were more likely to consider this option.
  • Perceptions of place are important and ‘not all bad’, with many young people electing to stay in, or return to, their familiar environment. However, exposure to new ideas or experiences can ‘disrupt’ the strong ties of the familiar, leading to opportunities that challenge and overcome disadvantage.
  • As has been identified in previous research, practical and financial constraints significantly impact on aspirations and opportunities. A particular concern for young people is access to education provision and the cost of transport. A tolerable travel-to-study distance is a key factor, especially once they finish school.
  • Vocational education and training (VET) provides an essential pathway of choice to further education and work.
    • There is evidence of school retention rates increasing because of the presence of VET in Schools programs.
    • Certificate I and II courses establish an important foundation for learning not acquired in a school setting.
    • The status difference between VET and university pathways is an enduring issue and continues to perpetuate a powerfully entrenched view that VET has to do all the ‘heavy lifting’ in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Understanding the factors that drive the educational aspirations, choices, life chances and imagined futures of young people in different geographic settings is important for designing appropriate policy responses. The role of ‘geography’ in the deliberations of young people is a key aspect. In this instance ‘geography’ encompasses the influence exerted by neighbourhood and school characteristics in determining the aspirations, choices and chances of young people who live in places characterised by socioeconomic disadvantage. We look specifically at the influence of geography on young people in urban fringe, rural and regional areas in Australia and its effect on their post-school labour markets and education and training opportunities. This was one of three topics that comprised a three-year program of work: Geographical dimensions of social inclusion and vocational education and training (VET) in Australia, a research partnership between the Centre for the Economics of Education and Training at Monash University and NCVER.

In this study, we aim to understand the processes that shape young people’s aspirations and post-school educational participation. In particular, we investigate the following two questions:

  • What are the specific mechanisms through which the characteristics of neighbourhood might affect an individual?
  • How do individuals manage their lives in neighbourhoods of socioeconomic disadvantage, make decisions about where, how and with whom they spend their time and imagine their education and work futures?

The study uses data from qualitative research conducted in four sites: two neighbourhoods in regional and rural Gippsland, Victoria, and two urban fringe sites in South Australia, in the north and south of Adelaide. A qualitative methodology was utilised to investigate the mechanisms that enable some people in low socioeconomic status (SES) neighbourhoods to overcome neighbourhood effects and participate in post-school education and training. This methodology also enabled a detailed exploration of young people’s life worlds in different geographic contexts.

The data that emerged from this study provide an understanding of some of the geographical aspects of social exclusion. They also provide an understanding of the role that education and training can have in reducing the risk of social exclusion and in improving labour force participation. These data provide needed insights into engagement in education or training for young people in urban fringe, rural and regional places; they also provide rich information and exemplar cases of the critical factors and influences that facilitate different post-school outcomes for such young people.

These critical factors and influences fall into three categories. The first category involves geographic factors and influences — both the physical and structural geography of the places in which young people live and learn and the accompanying psychology attached to those places. The second category encompasses social influences. These include the influence of gender and gender-based family traditions and expectations; the influence of family lifestyle, values and dispositions; and the influence of the social networks with which young people and their families are involved. The third category is concerned with the influence of what we have called ‘critical events and disruptions’ on young people’s experiences, choices and aspirations; these disruptions can often prompt the development of new aspirations and capabilities.

The body of this report describes important differences in young people’s experiences, perceptions and aspirations across the four study sites, but it also identifies a number of common themes in this experience. Across all four sites, vocational education and training (VET) was found to offer an important pathway for young people’s entry into education and training as well as being a significant mechanism for the re-engagement of young people not in education, training or employment. When it came to other or further pathways and possibilities, however, our study found that numerous factors combine to constrain some young people’s aspirations and choices. Popular culture and policy might celebrate mobility and dismiss the notion of staying local as a less attractive option, but our study found that numerous geographic and social factors force many young people to remain in the local place.

These geographic and social factors include the practical and structural aspects of place, such as distance from centres of learning, lack of transport, lack of broadband, costs of travel, limited education providers and programs, and the unintended consequences of funding policies for education and training. These factors also include what we have termed ‘the social perceptions of place’ or ‘the psychology of place’. Even where schools encouraged young people to consider university study, the influences and expectations of families, friends and other social networks often meant that young people chose to stay in the local place, adapting their aspirations in ways that were gendered and which replicated family and local traditions. This was found to be the case for young men in particular.

This is not to suggest that the local place had a negative or limiting impact on all young people. A number of young people described the inherent attractiveness of their local place, as well as the value of a close-knit and supportive community and its ability to ameliorate the isolation of distance and lack of local opportunities. It is also not to suggest that these young people are locked into fixed trajectories. In many instances, a specific experience or the influence of an individual or encounter served as a turning point, enabling them to navigate complex choices and circumstances or to imagine a future different from that of their family and friends.

Our findings in this study reinforce those of previous studies: they suggest that geography and place continue to be powerful influences in shaping young people’s career aspirations, imaginings and choice. They also reinforce the finding of earlier studies — that there is no single determinant of education aspirations. Instead, the aspirations and choices of young people who live in socially disadvantaged urban fringe, rural and regional places are the product of a complex interplay of factors. These include specific local factors that encourage young people to remain in their place, as well as state and national education policies that expect them to be willing to travel in search of wider opportunities for education and employment. This means that young people, and the places in which they live and learn, cannot be reduced to simple or deficit explanations of rural location and socioeconomic disadvantage. Having said this, policy attention must continue to be paid to the practical and structural factors such as distance, transport, access to information and communication technologies and education provision that influence such young people’s outcomes.


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