Book Review of Bill Esmond and Liz Atkins, Education, Skills and Social Justice in a Polarising World: Between Technical Elites and Welfare Vocationalism

Book review by James Avis(1), April 2022, Email:

Book Link
In this review, I want to give readers a sense of the arguments contained within the book and then move on to raise a number of reflections. As with any good book it encouraged me to think about a number of issues, three of which I want to discuss further in this review – class, socially just transitions and revolutionary reformism/non-reformist reforms. 

Education, Skills and Social Justice in a Polarising World [hereafter ESSJ] is in many ways an impressive book, notably for its wide ranging scope. Nominally, it addresses what it describes as technical elites and welfare vocationalism, but does so much more than this. It very importantly engages with European/Scandinavian VET, drawing out the distinctions between various versions of the dual system as well as Scandinavian approaches to VET. These arguments are particularly important for an English readership as they stand in contrast to many English analyses that tend to both homogenise and de-historicise European and Scandinavian VET. Such analyses fail to take into account changes over time and consequently offer ahistorical, static and stereotyped conceptualisations. 

Esmond and Atkins combine a detailed description of VET alongside an analysis of these varied systems. They acknowledge the play of neo-liberalism upon VET, which reflects Thelen and Busemeyer’s (2008, 2011) discussion of dualisation, segmentalism and individualisation. Dualisation can be seen in the distinction between the life chances and potential income of those encountering welfare vocationalism compared with those ‘nominally’ described as a technical elite. Segmentalism and individualisation is reflected in the narrowing of VET to serve the specific requirements of particular employers, allied with the move away from collectivism to individualism. At the same time these changes are not all of a piece and vary in a number of ways being framed by the particular context in which they are located and demand the type of close-in analysis found in ESSJ

Esmond and Atkins analysis is centred on VET/TVET’s relationship with the working class and particular fractions therein, that is to say the technical elite, those subject to welfare vocationalism and the new economy precariat. Welfare vocationalism can be seen in low waged care work, though the authors acknowledge the nomenclature of the technical elite is problematic. In one sense this technical elite represents a privileged fraction of the working class yet in terms of the wider structural and hierarchical relations of society this group faces potential disadvantages. The new economy precariat refer to those involved in creative and digital labour who are often involved in gig working facing intermittent employment.

In a number of respects, the book echoes earlier analyses concerned with VET, young people and transitions from education to work, but moves beyond these. Its specific contribution rests with a number of features:

  • A detailed description of VET systems set alongside a close-in analysis of these
  • A policy analysis of technical higher education, HIVE, T levels set alongside a discussion of welfare vocationalism
  • A concern with social justice, ethics and the common good
  • A critique of human capital theory
  • An engagement with the life chances of VET students 
  • An analysis of the new economy of precariousness 
  • A concern with socially just transitions

The above list serves to point towards the range and breadth of the book, encouraging me to think about a number of issues and reflections. In the following, I comment on and raise questions about:

  • Class
  • Socially just transitions
  • Revolutionary reformism/non-reformist reforms 

With respect to class, the book raises questions about the salience of educational processes in social reproduction, the interruption of this and the re-composition of class relations. That is to say, the making and remaking of class in the current conjuncture and the way in which this is mediated in relation to gender, but also importantly to race and ethnicity. Whilst the authors focused on class and gender, far less attention was given to ethnicity and race.  Indeed, can we think about class as independent of these structures? Clearly, notions of intersectionality capture these relations but in this instance need to be pushed further. Often, I fear we make gestures in this direction but need to do so much more. 

In relation to welfare vocationalism and that encountered by the technical elite, we confront issues of domestication, containment, as well as struggle. This spills over into the manner in which we understand the re-engineering of transitions between education and work, especially given the increased salience of precariousness. This serves to raise the question of how narrowly, or broadly, we constitute class. Clearly, notions of welfare vocationalism and the technical elite address specific fractions of the working class. However, we also need to be aware of the divisions within these categories. We need only to think about those who are economically and socially marginalised, which in part echoes earlier debates about the putatively rough and respectable working class or indeed Phil Brown’s (1987) ‘ordinary kids’. These processes rest alongside changes to the labour market and the shift in employment towards the service economy reflecting the loss of employment in manufacturing,  the precarisation of the professions, as well as the stripping and hollowing out of middle level jobs – all of which are classed processes. The preceding encouraged me to think about cultural conceptualisations of class and the constructions of the middle class. In the latter case there is a conflation of this category with the ruling class –  those who may not own but who nevertheless control the means of production. This led me to think about alliances between fractions of the  middle class and the working class.  This in turn raises question about the manner in which we think about graduate unemployment, the vulnerability and precariousness of welfare professionals, as well as the ongoing ‘proletarianisation’ of much white-collar waged employment. Pfannebecker, and Smith (2020:7) draw our attention to the rapid changes that impact on the white collar work of professionals as a result of the automation of some tasks, allied with deskilling and growing precarity. Can we imagine these professional groups sharing a common cause with the working class – or perhaps we should conceive of such professional and white collar workers as already part of the working class?

Readers may notice that I have not said much about race, ethnicity and VET, ESSJ touches on this but it is relatively underdeveloped in the text. To be fair the book is orientated towards the global north but nevertheless I wonder about the manner in which its arguments could be bent to address the global south. In this instance thinking about the manner in which VET could be articulated to and provide use values for the radical projects of the workless  -those existing outside the capitalist wage relation. Perhaps I am being unfair to the authors, after all there is only so much that can be done in a single book. 

I wondered about the notion of socially just transitions which we could think of as being either a call for struggle, or indeed, as something of a misnomer. I am reminded of Bernstein’s (1970) argument that Education cannot Compensate for Society and Gorard’s (2010) re-working of this slogan to read Education can Compensate for Society – a Bit (see Avis and Orr, 2016). The notion of socially just transitions opens itself up for domestication and colonisation but can also be a site of struggle. We could think about different sites of struggle, access to which is partly shaped by how we are positioned in cultural and social relations and which may serve to open-up or close down sites of struggle. 

There is another point I would like to make about social justice drawing on Preston’s (2022) study of AI and the capitalist university. Unsurprisingly, he points out that his concern is with capitalism and writes that he takes, 

an unusual angle in not being overly concerned with tracking the impact of specific aspects of AI on equity or social justice. [arguing that] By its nature capitalist work (whether it uses AI or not) results in inequalities between capitalists and labourers (and between groups of workers) and exploits and immiserates labour.

(Preston, 2022, p. 4)

In other words the object of critique is capitalism and he calls for the abolition ‘of [the] historical categories of capital, labour, class, and the state’ (2022: 158). Preston’s argument touches on the way in which we can think about waged labour and its embeddedness within capitalist relations – the antagonistic relation between labour and capital. His argument offers a rather different take on socially just transitions and serves to problematize the struggle for more equitable outcomes, these being set within capitalism and the antagonistic relation between capital and labour. One way in which we can square this particular circle is to think about sites of struggle and how we are positioned within them.

The current conjuncture is characterised by,

  • Worklessness and churn
  • Lack of decent jobs
  • Loss of middle level jobs
  • An emergent post neo-liberalism 

All of the above raise questions about what a socially just VET/TVET would look like. Importantly, Nancy Fraser (2019) drawing on Gramsci suggests we face an interregnum in which ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ and calls for non-reformist reforms which would seek to transform social relations. There are at least two points to raise. Firstly, the features of the current conjuncture point towards the failures of neo-liberalism and the manner in which its rhetoric celebrating the market, competition and so on, is increasingly seen as fraudulent. Secondly, her notion of non-reformist reforms/revolutionary reformism points towards the importance of a variety of forms of struggle and could include those highlighted in ESSJ.  The point is that for Fraser these forms of struggle concerned with access, fairness, knowledge and the like constitute elements of struggle that seek to transform the social formation aiming to move beyond neo-liberalism and transcend capitalism. 

I would like to give the last words to Esmond and Atkins: 

Whilst we can trace the erosion of educational and socially just meanings from vocational education in England, we have also been able to point to alternative directions over the last century. Consequently, we do not only argue that the stratification of VET in England may find imitators across international boundaries. We also suggest that aspirations to find policies and practices that achieve more equitable outcomes and advance social justice are likely to be echoed internationally.

(Esmond & Atkins, 2022, p. 158)

The book will be of interest to VET researchers, those interested in education policy, undergraduate, post-graduate and doctoral students. 


(1) James Avis Emeritus Professor, University of Huddersfield, Professor of Post-Compulsory Education, University of Derby


Avis, J., & Orr, K. (2016). HE in FE: vocationalism, class and social justice, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 21:1-2, 49-65,

Bernstein, B. (1970). Education Cannot Compensate for Society. New Society 15 (387): 344–347.

Brown, P. (1987). Schooling ordinary kids: inequality, unemployment, and the new vocationalism, London, Tavistock Books

Esmond, B., & Atkins, L. (2022). Education, Skills and Social Justice in a Polarising World: Between Technical Elites and Welfare Vocationalism, Abingdon and New York, Routledge

Fraser, N. (2019). The old is dying and the new cannot be born, London Verso

Gorard, S. (2010). Education Can Compensate for Society – A Bit. British Journal of Educational Studies 58 (1): 47–65,

Pfannebecker, M., & Smith, A. J. (2020). Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism, London, Zed

Preston, J. (2022). Artificial Intelligence in the Capitalist University: Academic Labour, Commodification, and value, Abingdon Routledge

Thelen, K., & Busemeyer, M. (2008). From Collectivism Towards Segmentalism: Institutional Change in German Vocational Training. MPIFG discussion paper 08/13, Coln, Max-Planck-Institute.

Thelen, K., & Busemeyer, M. (2011). Institutional Change in German Vocational Training: From Collectivism Towards Segmentalism. In The Political Economy of Collective Skill Formation, ed. M. Busemeyer and C. Trampusch, 68–100. Oxford: Oxford University Press