Schooling and Social Identity: Learning to Act Your Age in Contemporary Britain

My new book with the above title is now out (Feb 2020) with Palgrave Macmillan. You can access the book here: – get your librarian to buy a copy!

Here’s an outline of what the book is about:

School’s Out, Forever

My new book Schooling and Social Identitysuggests that the current age-based system of organising learning in schools is in need of radical change. If the so-called ‘Youthquake’ led by Greta Thunberg and others is challenging adult authority, then schools are next.


Why are schools organised according to age?

This question raises important issues about generational relations in contemporary society and about the nature of schooling. While society continues to change dramatically, schools are still organised much as in the 19th century. Drawing on a year of in-depth research in an English secondary school, I argue that age remains the last ‘grand narrative’ of modern society: we still hold on to outdated ideas about how the life course works, imagining it as a straight line from development in childhood and youth to stability in adulthood. While most people’s experiences of growing up and growing old are more complicated than this, schools socialise us into steady progression, year-by-year, into the future. Young people reconcile this message about future certainty with their experiences of life in the era of post-truth, fake news, and ecological crisis, where the future appears more complicated, unpredictable and uncertain now than ever. From lesson to lesson and day to day, as well as in their imagining of what the future holds, young people have to navigate a minefield of different expectations of how they should act their age. I use the entirely new concept of ‘age imaginaries’ in order to make sense of the complicated experiences of young people becoming adults in today’s world.


The tension between a linear picture of growing up and the complex, blurred lines between age categories in the present raises significant questions about mental health and wellbeing, and suggests that more can be done to effectively prepare young people for the future. There is a ‘cruel optimism’ to a school system that promises future stability (in work, family, ecology, politics, etc), while the world becomes less and less likely to deliver on these certain prospects. Instead, schools could be radically reorganised to become more dynamic and inclusive and to better reflect the complex world in which young people live. An important part of this reorganisation would be to move away from grouping according to age. While some schools in the ‘democratic education’ tradition have been experimenting with this idea for decades, it remains to be seen how a move away from age in schooling might be achieved through steady change to the mainstream system of state schooling. Individuals like Greta and youth movements like that in Hong Kong suggest that if schools don’t change, young people will lead the change themselves.


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