Postcards from 'the edge': Power in the life worlds of educationally displaced young people

Year: 2012

Author: Humphry, Nicoli

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


In Australia we have a significant proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who, for a range of reasons, are no longer attending school.  Studies estimate from 25% (Campbell, 2004; Smyth, 2005) to 100% (Kelly 2001) of the student population can be considered disadvantaged or 'at risk', suggesting that there are a significant proportion of young people existing in less than ideal circumstances.  It is disturbing to recognize then, that the educational discourses surrounding these young people are firmly established in reified notions of deficit (Smyth 2005; Zyngier 2008; Mills 2008; Rix 2010), particularly when these understandings have been shown to have further impacts on the extent of the disadvantage experienced by these young people.  In this paper I argue that to address these issues, educators require an understanding of these young people's perceptions of their life worlds in order to address deficit notions and to reconcile young people with their learning.  To do this I have drawn on a study of four schools based in one Australian organisation to explore how it is that these schools were able to reconnect some of our most disadvantaged young people with education.  I accessed ethnographic techniques such as: interviews, conducted with 21 staff and 20 young people; observations, of over 100 people participating in the day-to-day activities of the organization; and immersion, spending over 18 months with the organisation across the four school sites.  Drawing on the analytical tools offered by a Foucauldian notion of power relations and sovereign power, I analysed snapshots of the lives and relationships as spoken by these young people in their interviews. On the basis of this analysis I identified three sets of relationships that seemed to be significant and often damaging in their lives: their family relationships; their relationship with the law; and their relationship with their previous mainstream schooling.  The complexity that is presented by these relationships, separately and in combination, often worked to set up barriers, which precluded the young people from schooling.  In conclusion, I briefly suggest that the way in which these young people are approached within educational settings can determine the effect of these barriers. and provide some examples from the four schools in the study.