Joanne McDowell, Queens University Belfast

One main part of the GOETE project aims to provide a comparative assessment of individual educational trajectories and educational practice from the perspective of students and parents through standardised questionnaires. Two questionnaires were developed and used to survey students and their parents. The student survey aimed to assess young people’s subjective accounts and experiences regarding progression through their educational trajectories to date as well as attitudes, expectations and aspirations towards continued participation in education. The parental survey was used to assess parents’ views in relation to school choice, progression, problems and support experienced in their child’s schooling as well as their expectations for their child’s future educational and employment career.

The research was conducted with young people aged approximately 15/161 years who were in their last year of compulsory education in 3 cities per country. Lower secondary schools were selected at random from a sampling frame in each city. The sample was stratified according to school context and/or the level of (socio-economic) disadvantage within the school and its catchment area. Here three categories of stratification of school contexts were used: disadvantaged, average and affluent defined according to each national context.

The aim was to involve around 12 schools in each country. With an estimated average achieved sample in each class of 25 students and 2 classes per school it was expected to achieve a sample of 600 in each national context providing a total European sample of 4,800. Questionnaires were distributed to students through in-class surveys, and parent questionnaires were distributed at the same time for parental completion at home and return. The datasets of all 8 participating countries were merged to create an EU sample (UK, Italy, Slovenia, France, Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands). In total, the final samples resulted in 6390 student participants and 3290 parent participants across the EU countries involved in the GOETE project. Most countries were broadly balanced in terms of school type, but some were under-represented either in terms of disadvantaged schools, which in many cases proved hard to access, or affluent schools. Design weights were applied to balance the sample by country, and each of the school contexts. Despite these shortcomings the achieved sample represents a very large European sample of young people in their final post-compulsory year of education across 8 countries and statistical designs weights can help adjust for any observed imbalances in the national samples. In order to make best use of this unique dataset the focus of the analysis was at the European level and in particular the ways in which education systems are organised to strengthen the reliability and validity of the findings.

The GOETE themes

The GOETE project is interested in five overarching and interrelated themes in relation to European education systems: Life course, Governance of education, Access to education, Coping and support in education, and the Relevance of education. This research was concerned with understanding how education systems deal with the changing relation between education and social integration in the knowledge society. Applying a life course perspective it asks how young people’s access to different stages of education is regulated, how coping with forms and demands of education and lifelong learning is facilitated, and if and how education is perceived as relevant for the future lives of young people. Examples of some of the key findings that address the life course theme at the EU level are presented in this newsletter to highlight some of the main issues that young people growing up in today’s economic climate encounter, and how this may affect their future trajectories.

Life course

Applying a life course perspective means it is important to assess how young people view education and its relevance and place in their lives, both present and future. To investigate educational aspirations, students’ attitudes to their future plans and what they expected to do at the end of compulsory education were examined, as well as their occupational aspirations for the future. Figure 1 shows that a clear majority of young people wish to remain at school, with just over seven out of ten young people in the sample saying that they intend to stay on in some form of full-time education (71%). Full-time employment was the most popular response among those who wanted to leave school at the minimum age, with one in ten young people wanting to get a full-time job and 7 per cent a work placement or an apprenticeship. Only around 2 per cent thought they would be looking after the home or family or were hoping to become a full-time parent (included in ‘other’).

Question as to what students think they will be doing after compulsory education
Figure 1: Question as to what students think they will be doing after compulsory education

Differences were apparent across socio-economic status of schools; where perhaps not surprisingly a lower number of students from disadvantaged schools wished to carry on with education than among the average and affluent groups.

Furthermore students in disadvantaged schools were much less likely to aspire to a place on a university course. Nearly two-thirds of students from disadvantaged schools did not want to go to university (63%) compared to less half of those from affluent schools (39%), with the average schools falling somewhere in-between (53%). Those from disadvantaged schools were also more likely to want to leave school at an early stage or enter employment than those attending average or affluent schools. This is reflected in their occupational aspirations whereby those from disadvantaged schools were more likely to be aspiring to jobs that did not always need further education. Students from the disadvantaged schools tended to opt for more vocational, skilled manual occupations than any other group. Affluent students tended to choose more prestigious jobs that would require higher education.

Overall young people’s educational aspirations are very high with around half saying they wish to study in Higher Education (49%). These high educational aspirations are also reflected in the student’s occupational aspirations with the majority of young people aspiring towards managerial, professional or higher technical occupations (Table 1).

Table 1: Student Occupational Aspirations (ISCO 2008)



Managers, senior officials, legislators




Service and Sales

Skilled Agriculture

Craft and Related

Plant and Machine Ops














* Less than 0.5%

In many respects young people across Europe have appeared to have embraced the concept of the knowledge economy, and aspire for both higher levels education and the sorts of graduate jobs that they expect in return. However, it is somewhat unclear in the context of the global economic crisis the extent to which these aspirations will be fulfilled. While in some GOETE contexts the economic down turn has had a minimal impact on young people in other contexts rising youth unemployment has particularly hit young entrants to the labour market. And this is no longer restricted to the less qualified but also well qualified graduates as well. This risks undermining social bargain they have been led to believe is the result of educational success: ‘work hard at school and you will be rewarded with a good job’. While it is too early to tell the scarring effects of the current economic crises on this current generation of young people, although some are already labelling them as the ‘lost generation’, it is likely they will experience further levels of qualification inflation and under-employment.

While much has been done at the EU and national levels to promote the concept of gender equality, we can still see evidence among this generation of boys and girls adhering to fairly gender specific occupational roles. Males and females in the GOETE survey both typically chose stereotypically gender specific jobs, with men choosing the male dominated areas of military, managers/senior officials; technicians; plant and machine ops; and craft and related occupations. Women however were drawn toward occupations in the stereotypical female employment sectors as professionals, and service and sales positions, although more than one in ten had aspirations towards technical related occupations. Perhaps at the risk of alienation or marginalisation both sexes wished to remain within occupational areas deemed suitable for their gender (Lupton, 2000, Williams 1995). This may be the result of traditional stereotyped gender roles that are currently still solidified by the traditional beliefs and practices of schooling, study and job occupations (Holmes 2006, Eccles 1987). This may be a result of school/parental influences that still channel or encourage boys and girls into certain gender specific job roles, and may even be part of a hidden curriculum in school reflected in stereotypical teaching contents, teaching methods and the general climate in the classrooms. The international PISA study (2006) has highlighted that girls only represent a small proportion of the population who complete education in the fields of mathematics, science and computer science. Across the EU there are only 12 per cent of girls who study for a university degree in the areas of science and mathematics. Furthermore, their confidence in succeeding in such areas may be lower than among the males (Eccles: 1987). Differences in the confidence of females and males in their potential achievement in mathematics, a traditionally male area of study especially at tertiary levels (Eurostat 2008), was illustrated in the GOETE survey. At the EU level, the student survey found a significant difference between boys’ and girls’ confidence in how well they will do in maths. Over half of males felt they will do well or very well in maths (52%), compared to just over two-fifths of females (44%). Females were also found on average to have a lower sense of their subjective health or well-being, lower self-efficacy, and were less confident in their abilities in achieving in school than males. Despite this, females were still more likely to want to attend university, with 51 per cent of women wishing to achieve an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in comparison to only 46 per cent of men. This desire to achieve a high level of education indicates that females may see tertiary schooling as a means for upward social mobility in terms of gaining a good job and therefore independence.

Although students have high educational and occupation aspirations, albeit framed by gender specific considerations, they also demonstrated a degree of awareness or realism that having a ‘good’ education will not necessarily lead to secure and attractive careers. Over 30 per cent of the young people in our sample were not confident they would ever achieve their ideal job. Parents also reported high educational aspirations for their children with over half the sample (61%) hoping their child would achieve a university degree or higher, but 35 per cent had concerns about their children actually achieving their educational goals, feeling that something would stand in their way of fulfilling their educational ambitions. Parents were mainly worried about their children not doing well enough in school to gain access to university (24%), while 18 per cent felt they would not be able to afford university financially. Sixteen per cent of parents had concerns about the availability of university places with increasing competition to secure a place. Therefore, students across the EU may have their life course trajectories altered by broader processes than their immediate school context or education system. The labour market demands higher and higher qualifications from their future employees which can push students to aim higher and continue their education pathways after compulsory schooling. However, due to the uncertainties generated by the current economic climate, jobs are harder to secure, unemployment is rising, competition for university places is tough, and fees in some contexts are rising perhaps putting university beyond the reach of some students altogether despite their aspirations. With hindered access to education, confidence may be lowered, leading to adjustment and “cooling out” processes resulting in lowered hopes and goals for the future, i.e. to decreased possibilities to plan the future life course. These processes are not innocent as they allow the reproduction of both educational and broader socio-economic inequalities.

Analysis of the parental reasons behind their educational aspirations for their children showed that in general, subjective reasons such as feelings of personal accomplishment or doing a job of personal interest were more important to parents than external reasons such as good pay or secure employment. However, these reasons varied according to socio-economic status; the more affluent the parent (the more socio-economic-cultural capital they have) the more they can afford to plan or think about their child’s future in line with their children’s interests, desires and abilities. Parents in lower socio-economic positions on the other hand, were more likely to feel their wishes, plans and aspirations would be subjected to the external fluctuations of capital, demands in the labour market and current socio-economic prospects in society. This suggests that all these factors combine and reinforce both the subjective and objective difficulties that students and their families from more disadvantaged backgrounds have to overcome and thus have considerable and long-term influence over the life course trajectories of these students.

References and Further Reading

Eccles, Jacquelynne (1987): Gender roles and women’s achievement–related decisions. In: Psychology of women quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 135-1721.
Eurostat (2008): Education and Training statistics Database. At: (28.04. 2010, last 10.11.2011).
Holmes, Janet (2006): Gendered Talk at Work: Constructing Social Identity through Work Place Interaction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Lupton, Ben (2000): Maintaining masculinity: Men who do women’s work. In: British Journal of Management, Vol. 11, pp. 33-48.
Prenzel, Manfred, Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Blum, W., Hammann, M., Klieme, E. & Pekrun, R. (Eds) (2007): PISA 2006. Die Ergebnisse der dritten internationalen Vergleichsstudie. Münster: Waxmann.
International Standard Classification of Occupations (2008): Online at (accessed on
10. 09. 2011).
Williams, L. Christine (1995): Still a Man's World: Men who do "Women's Work”. Berkeley: University of California Press.