Guest Post: Aspiration. Where is it?

Guest Post by Rebecca Fisher

Working for an international volunteer organisation, it’s easy for me to take for granted the benefits that travel, cultural exploration and volunteering can have on an individual and the way a person views the world and their place within it.

The importance of aspirations has been discussed heavily in education policy and practice in the past few years, with some arguing that it is a lack of aspiration within low-income families which causes a lack of aspiration in their children, resulting in low levels of social mobility in deprived areas in the U.K., something being discussed by Nick Clegg today, on the first anniversary of the launch of the Social Mobility strategy

With the help of some funding, Madventurer was able to take a group of volunteers from a school within a disadvantaged area in the North East of England, to work on a community development project in Ghana in 2011. The school has transformed itself over the past few years and affirms that one of its aims is not to raise its students aspirations , but to allow its students to “pursue their own ambitions.” However, due to questions raised by the press and certain politicians, one might be inclined to ask what these ambitions are, or if they even exist, although recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation questions some of these assumptions.

Due to the funding received, the cost for the students’ trip was minimal, which meant that the trip was open for all to apply to, regardless of financial background. Recruitment for this trip was based upon interviews which students had to prepare and present to a panel of impartial judges, and 13 students were selected based upon their ideas and passion for working within the community in Ghana and not on their ability to pay for the trip.

In October 2011, the Madventurer crew travelled to Ghana with the school group, and during a 2 week trip the students worked very hard, completing the construction of a 4 classroom block for a community school and working with the local students in the afternoon in a cultural and educative exchange. I have worked with young volunteers on different projects in the past, but it was not until this school trip that I witnessed such a striking change and development in the volunteers. I think this was due to the fact that the students had never experienced, or even considered, embarking upon a trip like this before and the effect it had on them was significant. When discussing with the teachers what they viewed as the biggest developments for the students they all agreed it was not that they became ambitious or aspirational, but that they realised what their ambitions and aspirations could be and how they could reach them.

Dependent on funding, Madventurer strives to take as many youth and school group volunteers from local areas throughout the UK on overseas development projects as possible, due to the positive development seen in the volunteers’ and the results witnessed after their return. On our youth and school volunteer group trips in the past, we have seen volunteers realise their career paths: one volunteer going on to study Architecture after completing an African Art Project at school following their trip; three young volunteers pursuing careers as youth workers; and one of our volunteers from last year now wants to pursue a career in international development and will be completing her work experience in Madventurer’s UK office this summer

I returned to the school last week to carry out a presentation for the students who will be volunteering with us this October. My presentation included pictures and video footage from the project last year and all of the students were moved and excited about these past achievements and the possibilities that this year’s project holds. For me, this reaction and the successes of past projects with young volunteers, shows how it is not a lack of ambition or aspiration within children from low-income backgrounds which is inhibiting social mobility, but that they have perhaps not been given the opportunity to discover what their aspirations could be and how they can reach them.

Rebecca Fisher

Head of Global Volunteering


Madventurer provides sustainable and ethical projects worldwide, pursuing development, global education, cultural exploration and life changing experiences. Madventurer is a not-for-profit organisation which helps raise funds for the MAD (Make A Difference) Foundation – Registered UK Charity No 1111805.

4 responses to “Guest Post: Aspiration. Where is it?

  • Helen Walker

    You may also be interested taking part in training and research in how we are managing to raise aspirations, resilience and optimism in c&yp, families and communities at HOME already in the NE.

  • Helen Walker

    Ps Dismayed at lack of vision of PHF funding for artists in the NE today. No care, interest or strategy for making a difference for aspiration in the NE through community art.

  • Stephen Crossley

    Hi Helen, thanks for the comments.

    It looks like you do some very interesting work. What do you think of the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation research which suggests that the term ‘raising aspirations’ might not be very helpful and that there isn’t a great deal of evidence of ‘low aspirations’? (We’ve done a couple of blogs based on some of these research findings). They suggest ‘keeping aspirations on track’ might be more appropriate and, in the North East, a few people have suggested ‘realising aspirations’ as an alternative.

    Do you have any thoughts on this?


    • Helen Walker

      Hi Steve
      Yes I agree entirely with JRF findings and that supporting young people to realise their own aspirations is key. Unfortunately our education system (particularly secondary) doesn’t ask what’s really important to them and what difference they want to make for themselves and for others- ie. finding the relevance and purpose in their lessons and then supporting them to realise their aspiration. This is at the heart of my work in the NE regional CIC ‘r u Making a Difference 2?’ and have fabulous early impact across a variety of settings, such improvements in behaviour, writing, attendance, maturity, social responsibility and psychological capacity.
      Most of this is centred around schools in Walker, but have used it with School Leaders and NHS Managers too who have made changes to Performance Management systems to grow psychological capacity and leadership impact of their staff too.
      Had a meeting with NE regional arts organisations yesterday who have a large amount of charitable funding to improve artists skills the community- was really dismayed that there was little sense of trying to make a difference for others in the region. Our NE statistics aren’t great as you know.
      This afternoon I’m working with a Northumbria Univeristy Academic WellBeing Group along with some of the regions WellBeing charities, to facilitate what’s important to them (aspiration) and what difference they want to make across the NE region in WellBeing.
      If anyone wants to try some of the techniques for research and impact purposes that would be fantastic.
      Best wishes

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