The Impact of Academic Transition on Learner Identity

This paper presents research undertaken for a professional doctorate and conducted in a college of Further Education in the North West of England. Individual interviews took place with 24 A-Level and BTEC students in the academic year 2014/15, during which participants were asked to narrate their experiences of educational transition from school to college. For the purposes of this research, this notion encompasses both the physical and social transition of moving from secondary school to college, and the academic transition from studying at level two to becoming a level three learner. The research finds that whilst learners demonstrate an awareness that A-Level and BTEC qualifications are perceived to carry different levels of cultural capital, a change appears to be taking place in the field of post-16 education, with vocational learners making a bid for recognition.

In order to conceptualise the literatures on academic transition and identity and to better understand the interrelation between the two, the researcher has developed a fully transferable theoretical framework called the MERITS Plus model. This consists of a six stage framework that was developed and piloted during the study, with the addition of an additional layer of analysis using Bourdieu’s thinking tools in order to trouble and contextualise the original model. As well as presenting the findings of the research, this paper offers an outline of the MERITS Plus model and how it can be used to provide new insights into students and their experiences of academic transition, with a particular consideration of the potential impact of educational choices upon an individual’s sense of self.

Changes to the education system make it more important than ever that learners embarking on post-16 study have clear motivations for their academic choices as well as an understanding of how the process of transition may affect their sense of self in both positive and negative ways. Recent years have seen severe funding cuts in the FE sector, the compulsory school leaving age rising to 18, and significant changes to the structure of A-Levels. Add to this the current uncertainty over the merging of post-16 institutions proposed under the Area Review process, and it becomes crucial that colleges attract and retain the right students by managing their expectations and adequately supporting their transition from level two to level three study.