MISSING MIDDLE: a comparative study of transitions among low achievers from academic upper secondary school
Supporting smooth transitions between levels in the educational system, and ultimately to the labour market is crucial in a societal and individual perspective. A group of students who have received little scholarly attention are those who achieve an academic qualification in upper secondary education, with comparably low grades (CLAA – Completers with Low Academic Achievement). There is little knowledge of where students head to after completion of upper secondary, whether they use their academic qualification to access higher education and/or to what extent they have successful careers. The project is a collaboration between NIFU and SPS, OsloMet, where NIFU is the project leader and owner.
CLAA have acquired generic skills and a certificate of upper secondary education which in principle grant access to higher education. However, if competition for higher education access increases, this group is likely to be left out, as they have poor grades and qualify for a more limited number of higher education programmes. What opportunities do these young people envisage in the labour market or in higher education? What are their future plans?
The project MISSING MIDDLE will investigate these questions using qualitative and quantitative data. The project is organised in four work packages: a qualitative part (WP1), two WPs using registry data (WP2 on students completing the general academic upper secondary programme, and WP4 on students completing the one-year supplementary programme, i.e. a ‘makeup-year’ available to students who commenced a vocational track but who wants to get the academic qualification granting access to higher education), and one WP using survey data from an international survey which covers students in Norway, Spain, Belgium, Finland and Iceland (WP3). In 2022 all WPs have started their work, and the first international researcher meeting was held in Oslo in June 2022, with participants from Finland, Iceland, Belgium and Spain.
WP1, the qualitative part of the project, is set out to interview students who are about to complete their upper secondary education at the start and the end of their final year in upper secondary (third year of a general academic upper secondary programme). The first round of interviews was conducted in Oslo and Bergen in autumn 2021, and a follow up round via telephone have been conducted in October/November 2022. The first interviews were transcribed in the spring of 2022 and the analysis work has begun, together with analyses of the texts that the students wrote during the first data collection. Data from the second data collection (autumn 2022) will be transcribed in early 2023.
In WP2 and WP4 (the WPs using register data), analysis work has begun, primarily by rigging data files for use in the project and starting analyses. Analyses have been presented as preliminary results at conferences, and a working paper is being put together, to show how the population "missing middle" can be defined. The working paper will be published early in 2023 on NIFU's website. In WP3, the sub-project that reuses ISCY data, an article has been published in the Sociological Review. The main finding in this article, which examines the relationship between class and school results, finds that those who come from families with a lot of capital do better in mathematics and Norwegian in school, and that students with a high social background who go to schools where the other students have a high background generally get better grades.
Little is known of the career patterns of those who have completed an academic qualification in upper secondary education with low academic achievements (CLAA – Completers with Low Academic Achievements). Numerous studies have focused on either early school leavers or high achievers. This project targets the ‘missing middle’ in education research - neither prepared for, or necessarily admitted to higher education, nor holding an occupation-specific credential in labour market-demand. Thus, this is a group with rising risk of unemployment when competition for jobs increases and access to higher education hardens. We propose an empirically and theoretically bold study to produce knowledge on the aspirations, transitions and outcomes of students in the lower half of the achievement distribution in Norway. The study includes as a multi-method longitudinal comparative design linking comparative longitudinal survey data, qualitative data from four countries, and detailed Norwegian administrative registry data for several cohorts over time. This provides unique opportunities as to problematizing, renewing and develop dominant theories as well as the critique. The project is organized in four interrelated work packages, conducted by a collaborative and inter-disciplinary team of researchers at NIFU and Centre for the Study of Professions (SPS) at OsloMet. The international network of esteemed scholars from Belgium, Finland, Iceland and Spain provides insights contributing to produce high-impact knowledge to the academic community, users and policymakers.