‘No-one chooses me for anything’
: An examination of sixth form selective practices and the shaping of moderate attainers’ post-school choosing.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Much of the research that deals with university choosing focuses on high attaining state school students accessing ‘elite’ universities. In contrast, this thesis is concerned with the experiences of the discrete – and hitherto under-researched - group of socially and academically diverse, moderately attaining students who form the majority of many school sixth forms.
The policy background to the study is a shift in UK higher education policy discourse from the inclusivity of ‘widening participation’ to the exclusivity of ‘fair access’ which reflects a more pronounced policy focus on high attaining students and their university aspirations. The policy of fair access, including the requirement on schools to submit annual destination data of students accessing ‘top third’ universities, and a competitive sixth form market combine to put enormous pressures on schools. Some appear to have responded to these pressures by differentiating the support provided to students for their Higher Education (HE) or other, post-school choices.
An ethnographic study of three different school sixth forms was used to explore the support for post-school choosing offered to a range of academically attaining sixth formers, with a particular focus on moderate attainers. Forty-eight students were tracked through the sixth forms of a multi-ethnic comprehensive, a Church of England academy and an independent selective boys’ school, to their post-school destinations. Structured and semi-structured interviews were conducted with each student over the course of eighteen months in order to gain insights into the support for the HE choice and applications process, and support for non-HE choices, offered in each school. Interviews were also carried out with three heads of sixth form, a head of careers, a careers advisor, sixth form tutors, and an admissions tutor at a Russell Group university. In each school, participant observation was carried out of sixth form assemblies, higher education and/or careers events, form periods and lessons. In addition, informal interviews were conducted with university admissions administrators, student ambassadors, FE college representatives and parents. The Bourdieusian concepts of institutional habitus (Reay, 1998; Reay, David and Ball, 2005) and teacher habitus (Oliver and Kettley, 2010) and social and cultural capital were employed to help illuminate school practices, teachers’ approaches to supporting different groups of students, and students’ experiences of post-school choosing.
Support for the HE process in the two state schools was differentiated in a myriad of formal and informal ways that overwhelmingly disadvantaged moderate attainers with their post-school choosing. The influence of a dominant fair access policy, coupled with the marketing potential of students accessing Russell Group universities meant that the schools invested disproportionately in high attainers. I suggest that the system of support for the HE process found in the independent school, which avoided an overreliance on the form tutor, was a fairer way of distributing resources.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSharon Gewirtz (Supervisor) & Meg Maguire (Supervisor)

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