Raising Aspirations?


Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

— Mark, 4:3-9, KJV

In schools we assume a lot we probably shouldn’t.  One of the most damaging of these assumptions is that disadvantaged children want the sort of lives their teachers have but just don’t know how to get them.  When children make it clear, through bad behaviour or lack of work, they don’t want to get qualifications and have professional careers we attribute this to a sort of false consciousness; disadvantaged children, the thinking goes, would want the lives we lead if they knew more about them.

I am not wholly against this.  We do have a duty to show and help children access the widest possible range of opportunities.  We are generally only really curious about things we know a bit about and, if a child knows nothing of university or professional work, they won’t know enough to aspire to them.

Most schools serving disadvantaged communities work hard to try to familiarise poorer children with lives different to their own.  We take them to universities, get professors in to speak to them and assign them degree qualified academic mentors.  These strategies do some good.  I’m sure some children who would not otherwise have considered further education do so because of such schemes.

But not enough do.  Too often the seeds we sow are devoured by the fowls of the air.

I think this is because such strategies and schemes only work if they take place in the context of a meaningful academic ethos that helps children see that further education doesn’t have to look dramatically different to their own everyday experience.  The absence of this ethos can actually make such efforts counterproductive because the difference in culture presents children with an intimidating shock.

It is really very important to note that children who we may see as having low aspirations, quite rightly, don’t view themselves that way.  Few poorer children look to their teachers and think ‘my life is lower than theirs.  I want to work hard so I can be like them.’ Instead, they are more likely to feel their aspirations are different to those of the degree-qualified professionals they encounter.  Poorer children often live in close-knit, caring communities in which success is defined differently.  Being a loving, caring mother, a witty, fun-loving local character or a responsible, capable nursery assistant are seen, quite rightly and understandably, as positive and, crucially, realistic achievements. Of course, not all the lives children might choose to pursue are as positive as my first set of examples.  Some, feeling that success as it is defined by their schools is beyond them, are unfortunately seduced by darker lifestyles.  In isolation, no amount of mentoring schemes or trips to university campuses can stop this.  Children who don’t believe they are capable of achieving the grades necessary for a life they don’t really understand or want won’t ‘raise’ their aspirations; indeed such efforts are more likely to make them further disengage.  “This isn’t my life and it never will be,” they are likely to think, “and who’d want it anyway?  It’s boring.”

I actually have huge sympathy for this view. As an adult I’ve become very interested in dinosaurs but I’m also aware, that at thirty-six, it’s probably too late for me to pursue this interest as a career.  If I was selected to go on an elite “careers in palaeontology” course I probably wouldn’t see the point, knowing that it’d be unlikely I’d ever end up being able to make a living hunting for dinosaur fossils.

Even when aspiration raising programmes are effective. once children are removed from them any benefits will quickly fade if the aims are not embedded and normalised by the schools that run them.  If they aren’t nurtured these shoots will scorch and, lacking roots, will wither away.

If their aim is to raise student achievement such schemes put the cart before the horse.  If we want poorer children to see exam success and further education as realistic and desirable then schools need to make sure they are doing well academically first.  Thinking that underperforming children will improve because of such schemes is to miss the point because an underperforming child will see the goals as irrelevant.  If we really want children to have academic aspirations we need to immerse children in a rich, academic curriculum and ensure they are able to successfully access it.  Visits to universities shouldn’t cause culture shock; children should see them as natural extensions of their school lives, not a radical and fundamental change to them.  We if we want them to listen we must give them ears.


10 thoughts on “Raising Aspirations?

  1. I agree with your conclusion but I think you seem to be accepting and reinforcing middle-class stereotypes of poorer pupils.

    By the time they reach you in secondary some of those attitudes would have been embedded in them by the education they have received so far. One does not need to scour twitter or the real world to see that pastoral care rather than academic achievement is seen as more important for poorer pupils (as a group). I hit this attitude over and over again. So what does six or seven years of that lead to by the time they get to secondary?

    Home culture makes a difference too. Most pupils of Indian background my age did not have parents who had quite a stark range of education backgrounds, yet have managed to achieve remarkably well in the education system. The other thing I would say is that for those parents who are poor but ambitious, they have less knowledge and ability (due to house prices) about how to navigate the education system. Thus they often find that changing schools does not mean changing expectations for their children. Their choices are limited and therefore they can’t do what my parents did which is to move their children to schools with high aspirations for all pupils in schools where there is genuine diversity of background.

    One also has to consider the impact of low expectations on a few generations of parents and why they would even consider an education system important when it reaps so little benefit for certain sections of society either at an academic, economic or personal level.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. edpodesta67 says:

    A great post, and a view that I have a great deal of respect for. For me your key sentence is “immerse children in a rich, academic curriculum and ensure they are able to successfully access it”, and I would put the emphasis on access. Just as there’s a risk of culture shock in just dipping children into the unfamiliar waters of HE, there’s a risk of culture shock in immersing them in an academic culture that is alien to them. There’s a risk that ‘they think “this isn’t my culture and it never will be”’. They might also be ‘likely to think, “and who’d want it anyway?  It’s boring.”’

    That means that we have to connect them, to help them see the importance, the relevance of academic culture – the advantages that it brings (not only material ones!). We might also have to make sure that we find non-boring ways to do this.


  3. Alison Honeybone says:

    Thank you for this reflective and thoughtful contribution to a complex area. I work in an FE college and I read a lot of ‘conservative pedogogy’, with which I thoroughly agree in terms of method. But what gets left out of all of it (and I would include the admirable Michaela approach here) is that it is definitely not wrong to want a successful career and a happy life outside the world that teachers inhabit. It’s not wrong to want a fantastic apprenticeship in electrical engineering instead of university. It’s not wrong to want to be a nursery practitioner who works in their home town and sees their family every day. Vocational education at 16 is not a failure. Every day I see successful young people working hard at their vocational courses – and going on to success. I cannot find it in me to tell them that this is wrong and that they ‘ought’ to want what I have. I settle for telling them about all their options – but i feel the whole ‘neo-trad’ education world is a bit ignorant about FE and vocational learning and actual…you know…jobs!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alison Honeybone says:

    Thank you for this reflective post on a complex area. I have spent the day at an HE Widening Participation event at my local university – I work in an FE college. So this is what I do all day. I am completely convinced by the ‘conservative pedagogy’ argument, but I am also surrounded by sharp, engaged young people who don’t necessarily want the wine-sipping, Guardian-angst-ridden life which I lead! They want to be aeronautical engineers, nursery practitioners and …yes…plumbers. And they don’t all want to leave their home town, their family, their supportive communities. I feel strongly that the admirable neo-trad educational world has a significant blind spot when it comes to vocational education and actual…well, you know…jobs (like most people want). I should add that in my job as an FE careers adviser, I often meet university graduates who want to re-train as electricians because their degree isn’t giving them what they want.


  5. Alison Honeybone says:

    Sorry to have posted twice! My first comment disappeared at first…lost in cyberspace I suppose. Did not intend to re-post my point twice over.


  6. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 24th March – Friday 31st March – Douglas Wise

  7. Alison, you have highlighted a big issue I have with the trad approach, namely that working class culture appears to be frowned upon. Following a career path that involves training/apprentership is a valid and valuable career choice. Whilst I support schools such as Michaela insisting on high academic standards for working class students, I don’t believe they offer subjects such as metalwork or technical drawing. Why not? Why don’t trad based schools introduce rigour to the teaching of such subjects, in the same way they do for English, Maths etc.
    What I want is a trad school based in a working class community, that celebrates that community, demands academic rigour, brín’s rigour to the teaching of practical subjects and highlights social inequality in society.


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