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Professor Kathryn Ecclestone

Westminster Institute of Education,
Oxford Brookes University,
Harcourt Hill Campus,
Oxford OX2 9AT

tel: 01865 488585  




Thematic Seminar Series


Transitions through the lifecourse: analysing the effects of identity, agency and structure

Prof Kathryn Ecclestone ( University of Exeter )
Prof. Gert Biesta (University of Stirling )
Dr. Helen Colley (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Prof. Martin Hughes (University of Bristol)


Key messages
Seminar events

The rise of transitions  as a political concern

Transitions have become a major focus for policy across the British education and training system, with a spate of policy texts and initiatives to deal with them.  There is a serious political investment to ease transitions between educational sites, between different phases and requirements, and from education to other social sites.  Particular concerns focus on the dip in achievement and motivation that takes place for many children in the move to secondary school, a drop in retention in further/tertiary education at 17, and rising rates of drop-out in higher education.  Transitions depicted as formal progression and movement through the system encompass:

Early years to school and compulsory schooling 
  • the move from home to nursery/family centres
  • the change from nursery to primary school, with nursery and early years provison as a ‘foundation’ for school  
  • the move from primary to secondary school
  • new subject choices at 14, requiring new partnerships for vocational education between schools and further education (tertiary) colleges
Post-compulsory education
  • the move from key stage 4 of the school national curriculum to training or further education
  • informal transitions between school and non-school activities, such as youth clubs and certification of non-school activities
  • the change from training or FE to work, training or higher education
  • transitions into and out of prison
  • transitions for ‘non-traditional’ participants in higher education
Learning through the lifecourse
  • the move from family, social and work life into formal literacy and numeracy programmes  offered either at work or by educational providers
  • changes in job roles and/or responsibilties
  • opportunities, changes or disruptions caused by restructuring and economic change
  • the move into further and adult education for adults

Objectives and research questions

The seminar series brought together academics, and policy and practice-based professionals around the theme of transitions, and was the first time that different theoretical and empirical perspectives from education, lifecourse study, feminist studies, careers and sociology, including the ESRC Identities Programme, were brought to bear on a complicated and contested concept, linked concepts of identity, agency and structure, and associated practices and policies in educational settings. 

The seminar series addressed the following questions:

  1. What are the main conceptual perspectives on transitions?
  2. How do ideas about transition, agency, identity and the effects of structural conditions help us to understand transitions better in research, policy and practice?
  3. How do policy makers, professionals and researchers and those experiencing transitions make sense of them?
  4. Why are transitions a problem for some individuals and groups, and for whom are transitions not a problem?
  5. How do policy initiatives depict transitions, either overtly or implicitly?
  6. What interventions, activities and practices are seen as useful in dealing with transitions?
  7. What are the contested or controversial aspects of debates and practices around transitions?

The seminar series

The seminar series built upon the work of an earlier thematic group within the Teaching and Learning Research Programme on ‘learning through the lifecourse: the effects of identity, agency and structure’.  In this earlier thematic work, members of a core group drawn from TLRP projects in workplace learning, compulsory schooling, had been conceptualising the links between identity, agency and structure in different phases of learning.  The seminar series developed from this work. 

The core group comprised Professor Alison Fuller (TLRP), Professor Karen Evans (TLRP), Professor Gert Biesta (TLRP), Professor Martin Hughes (TLRP), Professor Andrew Pollard (TLRP Director), Professor Kathryn Ecclestone (seminar series director), Dr Helen Colley (TLRP), Theo Blackmore, Dr John Vorhaus (NRDC), Professor Leon Feinstein (Wider Benefits of Learning Research Centre) and Dr David Moseley (Newcastle University).

Seminar series design and organisation:

The Planning Group for the Series comprised Ecclestone (Exeter, Nottingham now Oxford Brookes University), Biesta (Exeter) and Hughes (Bristol).

Six seminars were held: London (March 2005), London (October 2005), Exeter (January 2006), London (March and May 2006), Nottingham (2006).  We have also planned a further event to finish work on the book agreed with Routledge (see below) to be held in Oxford (January 2008).  Each event was preceded by a planning group meeting to prepare a brief for the presenters, based on updating and developing a working paper.

Each seminar presenter was asked to address key questions in a working paper that was developed between each event.  One of the many strengths of the format and the quality of the papers we commissioned was that authors engaged closely with our aims, questions and evolving understanding, presented in the working paper .

TLRP projects have been extensively involved in each of the seminars as both presenters and participants. A total of 18 papers were presented in the seminars, of which five were from TLRP projects: 10 of these will form chapters for the forthcoming book (see below). Each seminar was attended by a core group of nine people, six  from TLRP projects.  In addition to the core group,  a total of forty people attended, fifteen of whom were from user groups including the Adult Learning Inspectorate, family learning centres, local advisory services, three of whom were PhD students, four from research centres such as the NRDC and Wider Benefits of Learning Centre .  The small scale of each event enabled focused and intensive discussion that developed understanding over the series as a whole.

Seminar events (back to top)

Seminar 1 – March 4th 2005, Institute of Education, London

The core group met to consider two papers, one by Professor Karen Evans about youth transitions in the labour market, and one by Professor Andrew Pollard summarising his work on pupil career and its implications for children’s transitions through school.  Professor Gert Biesta produced a synthesis of the key themes and concepts and this formed the basis for the first working paper in the series.
Seminar 2 – October 12th 2005, University of London

The second seminar brought together representatives of family learning centres, local authority advisory services, post-compulsory inspectorate, the National Research Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, the Wider Benefits of Learning Research Centre, academics from education, work-place learning, educational psychology and careers guidance to explore the importance of transitions as a policy concern in different contexts.  We also asked how far concepts of identity, agency and structure were of interest or use in practical contexts when organisations have to consider transtions.

Seminar 3 – March 16th 2005, University of London

The third meeting comprised the core group to consider the latest draft of the working paper, a book proposal and the first insights from the literature review.

Seminar 4 -  January 16th -17th, University of Exeter

The fourth seminar comprised papers from Professor Hilary Fabian (North Wales University) on transitions to secondary school, Professor Michael Eruat (TLRP) on transitions from higher education to learning in the workplace, Professor Phil Hodkinson (Leeds) on transitions from masters’ programmes to work, Professor Lynn Tett (Edinburgh) on links between transitions through adult literacy and numeracy programmes and the development of social capital, Professor Mary Hamilton (Lancaster) on the role of initial assessment in transitions of adults into and through literacy programmes, Professor Jocey Quinn (Exeter) on drop-out from higher education by working class students).  The seminar was attended by the core group and the presenters of the papers listed above.

These papers proved invaluable in linking the practical manifestations of transitions to concepts of structure, agency and identity and in developing further insights and, most importantly, an understanding of gaps in the conceptual and empirical fields of transitions.

Seminar 5 – May 14th, University and Colleges Union, London

The seminar discussed papers by Professor David James (ESRC Identities and Social Action Programme) on transitions to secondary school from the perspective of parental choice, Professor Melanie Walker (Sheffield) on capability and identity in transitions through higher education of ‘non-traditional’ students, Professor Gert Biesta and Dr Michael Tedder (TLRP) on learning from life history in transitions through the life-course.  In addition to presenters, five of the core group, together with Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker (TLRP) and two research fellows from the Wider Benefits of Learning Centre attended the seminar.

Seminar 6 – November 11th-12th University of Nottingham

The final seminar discussed papers by Professor Kathryn Ecclestone (TLRP) on the role of assessment in managing transitions in educational contexts, Professor Martin Hughes (TLRP) on home-school knowledge transitions and their implications for practice, Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker (TLRP) on transitions in non-traditional higher education programmes, Dr Helen Colley (Manchester Metropolitan University) on feminist critiques of conceptualisations of transitions, Professor Sheila Riddell (TLRP) on transitions and identity for disabled students in higher education, Dr Edmund White (TLRP) on transitions for adults learning literacy and numeracy in work-place contexts, Professor Alison Fuller on transitions and occupational identity formation, Professor Roz Ivanic (TLRP) on transitions between formal and informal literacies in further education programmes, and Professor Margie Wetherall on questions of identity in the ESRC’s Identities and Social Action Programme.

In addition to speakers, six of the core group, a research fellow, lecturer and two PhD students from the School of Education at Nottingham attended the seminar.
We also undertook an extensive literature review which informed the basis for conceptualising transitions in different contexts in subsequent versions of the working paper.  We placed particular emphasis on developing a deeper understanding of meanings and practices associated with transitions in different contexts.

Key messages (back to top)

These findings draw on a paper produced at the end of the series by Ecclestone (2007, see DSpace) and will be explored in detail in a forthcoming book (Ecclestone et al 2008, in progress).

  • Managing educational transitions effectively has become a focus for policy, practice and research in the UK, leading to growing numbers of interventions throughout the education system.  These tend to be rooted in assumptions that transitions are problematic for certain groups and individuals and therefore need to be managed more effectively. An increasing number of ‘transition support workers’ in the form of mentors, guidance workers, teachers and others are involved in these interventions.
  • Concern to manage transition is a European policy priority, linked to a view that better management of specific social, educational and career transitions is crucial for breaking cycles of social and economic disadvantage.  This view has been a central theme in government policy on social exclusion, reinforced through ‘Every Child Matters’ (ECM). It also features in policies to raise achievement and increase participation for ‘non-traditional’ groups where better management of transitions into higher education for working-class young people is supposed to realise benefits of social cohesion and the creation of ‘engaged.
  • There is a preoccupation in much of the research around transitions with questions about the effects of transitions on identity.  Agency and structure are treated as secondary concerns and there are relatively few studies that combine all three concepts to understand transitions.  This reflects an important historical shift in academic interest: for example, earlier studies on transitions in the 1970s and 1980s focused much more on questions of structure and agency, with identity as minor interest.
  • Different conceptualisations of transition are strongly contested.  The series identified three broad ways of thinking about transition that are not theoretically or empirically compatible: the meaning used affects practices for dealing with transitions in different educational settings.
  • The conceptual and empirical field of transitions as a research area has not previously been drawn together and the seminar series has therefore made a unique contribution to this task: the forthcoming book will consolidate this.

Major concepts: (back to top)

The series has made an important contribution to thinking  about transitions.  Here we summarise the main understandings of 4 key concepts developed in the seminar series.  These are expanded and applied to specific contexts in the forthcoming book.

  • Transitions

We identified three ways of thinking about transitions.

Navigating pathways, structures and systems

Researchers agree that transition is not the same as ‘movement’ or ‘transfer’, although it involves both.  Instead, transition depicts change and shifts in identity and agency as people progress through the education system. From this perspective, transition is a change process but also a shift from one identity to another. 
This depiction means that managing transitions requires more than facilitating changes in context or easing transfer between them: effective transitions require a better understanding of how people progress cognitively, emotionally and socially between different subjects at different stages of their learning, and how they navigate the complex demands of different contexts.

Strands of life-course research reinforce an institutional or context-specific image of transitions, suggesting that people tend to work out  their own life course in relation to institutionalized pathways and normative patterns. This meaning presents transitions both as the product of social institutions and the outcomes produced by social expectations.  It also differentiates between institutionalised pathways which are about transitions as a change in state or role which can involve changes in status and identity, both personally and socially.  This can open up opportunities for behavioural change and normative patterns.    

Processes of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’
A number of studies illuminate the ways in which people make social and cultural transitions, individually and collectively, in response to a broader context of structural change, such as opportunities in the labour market or changes in work structures and organisation. Some researchers define transition as a personal change between two states of ‘being’ – the before and after of specified learning experiences.  One influential strand of thinking on transitions as a process of becoming has been a large body of work on pupil and learning ‘career’ which explores how transitions combine turning points, milestones or life events with subtle, complex processes of ‘becoming somebody’ personally, educationally and occupationally.  These processes are sometimes a response to particular events, and sometimes events arise out of shifts and developments in identity and agency. 

Such transitions also involve set-backs or processes of ‘unbecoming’ over time, are located and enacted within specific fields rather than emerging from a fixed series of rational decisions and they emerge through periods of routine and stability, as well as from change.  They are influenced by elements of a person’s whole life, rather than merely through their involvement with education systems.  Transitions are therefore not always discernible events or processes and a transition may happen long after subtle, sub-conscious changes in feelings and attitudes.


Post-modern and some feminist perspectives challenge transition depicted as rites of passage, movement through life stages, bridges that connect old and new, ‘crisis events’ or ‘critical  incidents’ and life change rooted in theories of discernible processes of ‘typical’ adult maturation.  In contrast to movements from one lifestage to another, bounded by periods of stability, many women argue that they have been psychologically in transit almost all their adolescent and adult lives. 

From this perspective, many depictions of transition ignore the particular distinctiveness of women’s transitional experiences and use, instead, androcentric lenses that overlook how certain transitions create emotional conflict that is crucial to their outcomes and management, whilst also reproducing inequalities of class and gender.  Such perspectives illuminate transition as something much more ephemeral and fluid, where the whole of life is a form of transition, a permanent state of ‘becoming’ and ‘unbecoming’, much of which is unconscious, contradictory and iterative.  This work not only challenges notions of linearity, chronology, time and change.  It also questions the assumption that people can generate a coherent narrative about themselves.  A feminist perspective therefore undermines assumptions that ‘becoming somebody’ involves a unified subject capable of being transformed, arguing that a subject is not an entity or a thing, or connection between mind and body.

  • Identity

Broadly, identity can be defined as the ways in which the self is represented and understood in dynamic, multi-dimensional and evolving ways.  Contemporary studies of identity explore the ways in which the social, personal and cultural meet, the subsequent ways in which people are ‘stitched into’ social relations, how identities are made within this psycho-social nexus and the possible actions that flow from understanding one’s place in a system of social relations.   Identity is therefore constructed through complex interactions between different forms of capital (cultural, social, economic and emotional), broader social and economic conditions, interactions and relationships in various contexts, and cognitive and psychological strategies. 
An emphasis on identity means that transitions become problematic if a viable identity in one context does not transfer to another Having to reconstruct an identity narrative can disrupt a viable way of being in a context, making transitions de-motivating and stressful

  • Agency

People’s capacity to interact with others and with material conditions in order to shape their own destinies, both individually and collectively, requires self-direction, self-efficacy, opportunities to exercise autonomy and perhaps a desire to shape a specific field or context. The idea that eduation can, and should, help people develop their capacities for agentic and autonomous action has been a longstanding tradition in western societies since the Enlightenment.  Yet, the rhetoric of agency often elides ‘choice’, ‘action’ and ‘autonomy’ in confusing ways. Lifecourse research presents agency as the ways in which people construct their own lifecourse through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstance.  From this perspective, understanding agency in different contexts and times requires a focus on the dynamic interplay between influences from the past, engagement with the present and orientations towards the future. 

  • Structure

Other researchers see agency inextricably linked to the effects of structural factors of class, race and gender, economic and occupational conditions. For example, studies of working class participation and ‘drop out’ from higher education show the extent to which agency is affected by the ways in which working class and middle class young people and adults are attracted to, and have access to, very different courses and ‘types’ of institution.    From this perspective, agency cannot be divorced from structural factors since different access to economic, social and symbolic forms of capital arises from key social divisions, framing possibilities and restricting  mobility.

While some researchers do not separate the effects of structural conditions from the construction and shaping of identities and agency, the seminar series revealed very different views about the respective emphasis that should be given to identity, agency or structure in understanding transitions.  And, although it is commonplace to acknowledge the importance of ‘context’ (history, socio-economic conditions, institutional ethos, subject discipline etc), many studies do not engage closely with the effect of structural conditions on the forced or chosen nature of transitions, or their negative and positive effects.  ‘Structural environment’ (‘temporal-relational contexts of action’), ‘resources’, ‘context’ and ‘social circumstance’ are not therefore synonymous with structure.

Outputs (back to top)


Ecclestone, K., Biesta, G. and Hughes, M. (eds) (forthcoming 2008) Lost and found in transition: identity, structure and agency in education and work (London, Routledge) (working title)

Conference papers

Colley, H (2007) A material view of time in feminist perspectives on lifecourse transitions, Paper to Keynote Symposium on Feminist Research, British Educational Research Association Conference, Institute of Education, London 5th-8th September 2007

Colley, H. (2008) Women refugees’ learning through transitions: a question of time, Lifelong Learning Institute Seminar, University of Leeds, May 14th 2008

Ecclestone, K. (2008) An identity crisis: the implications of research and policy perspectives on transition, Lifelong Learning Institute Seminar, University of Leeds, May 14th 2008

Ecclestone, K. (2007) Lost and found in transition: the implications of ‘identity’, ‘agency’ and ‘structure’ for educational goals and practices, Keynote presentation to Researching transitions in lifelong learning conference, University of Stirling, 22-24 June 2007

Tedder, M and Biesta, G (2007) The person that I was intended to be: learning from change and transition in the lifecourse, Paper presented at Researching transitions in lifelong learning conference, University of Stirling, 22-24 June 2007


Biesta, G. and Tedder, M. (2007) Agency and learning in the lifecourse: an ecological perspective, Studies in the Education of Adults, 39, 2, forthcoming October 2007

Ecclestone, K. (2007) Just the job.  Preparing pupils for transition to the workplace, Curriculum Briefing, 5, 3, 49-53

Ecclestone, K. (2007) An identity crisis? Using concepts of identity, agency and structure in the education of adults, Editorial for special edition of Studies in the Education of Adults, 39, 2, October 2007

Tett, L. and Mclaughlan, K, (2007) Identity and social capital for adults in literacy and numeracy programmes, Studies in the Education of Adults, 39, 2 forthcoming October 2007

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