‘The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations’
(Image produced by Ros Asquith and taken from The Guardian on o3/05/20111 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/cartoon/2011/may/03/schools-tuition-fees)
A couple of weeks ago we held an event looking at the role of aspirations in educational attainment. Professor Liz Todd from Newcastle University discussed some of the policy assumptions around this area and touched on some findings from her forthcoming research with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This post will, hopefully, provide attendees and others an opportunity to comment on this area of work.
Liz’s work and other reports from JRF challenge a lot of the assumptions that ‘raising aspirations’ – mainly amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – can lead to an increase in attainment. There is remarkably little evidence that such an approach is likely to succeed or, indeed, that poorer families have lower aspirations than more affluent families.
And yet, this lack of evidence does not stop newspaper articles like this one in The Telegraph, policy initiatives such as this one from the previous government highlighted in The Guardian under the headline ‘Government plan to raise aspirations of millions of children’ or political speeches like this one from Andy Burnham which include the lines:
All across England, you can hear the sound of falling aspiration. And it’s terrifying. Tony Blair said his priorities were education, education, education. And because of what he did we can now go further: aspiration, aspiration, aspiration.
A separate JRF report on achievement and aspirations by Goodman & Gregg found that:
The evidence on school and local-based interventions to improve young people’s social and emotional skills, behaviour, and participation in positive activities needs to be strengthened. In particular, there is very little evidence on whether these eventually lead to improved school attainment
Liz asked during her presentation ‘what do we mean by aspirations?’ and a recent study by researchers at Leeds University suggested that aspirations amongst parents from different backgrounds were not necessarily linear (low-high) but that they were qualitatively different. They suggest that different parents attach greater or lesser importance to the role of formal education in their child’s development and this was dependent on many factors. A number of parents wanted their children to be safe, to be happy or to know the difference between right and wrong, whereas other parents talked about their children’s development in more academic and educational terms
Many working-class parents were strongly exercised by their children’s formal education, saw it as necessary to a good start in life, and manifested a strategic orientation towards their children’s educational success. Other working-class parents manifested a more limited sense of efficacy in influencing their children’s educational future. This was more typically associated with greatest disadvantage, although a range of factors were evident, and disadvantage in itself did not undermine hopeful action in respect of education.
Liz also asked, with the aid of Charlie Brooker (bad language and extreme cynicism warning) at one point what kind of education system we wanted and what kind of society we wanted to live in. Another research project, looking at white middle class parents (typically those characterised as having ‘high aspirations’)who sent their children to urban ethnically diverse schools found that:
These (pro-welfare, left-leaning) parents are also playing the educational market and capitalising on educational investments. Whilst most would claim they want a good education for all children, their actual social practices in the educational arena are still primarily about competition and trying to generate a greater profit than other parents. This paucity of aspiration comes as something of a surprise. The irony here is that it has traditionally been the white working-classes who have been judged for a paucity of aspirations: perhaps it is just that the circumscribed range of aspirations differs for different classes
So, what do you think – and how do we begin to change the tone of the discussions around aspirations? Can we get policy makers and politicians to start talking about ‘realising aspirations’ or, as Liz suggested ‘keeping aspirations on track’? Or do you have any unanswered questions regarding what you heard at the event or what you have just read above?
Liz’s forthcoming work with JRF is likely to be published in March or April, along with another report exploring evidence around the role of aspirations in educational attainment. JRF recently published a report called ‘The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations’ and also have a wide ranging area of work looking at the links between education and poverty that can be found here:
If you would like a copy of the presentation that Liz gave at the event, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org