Accessibility links

It’s been gone for a couple of weeks now, but in case anyone is still looking for an excuse to have another conversation about ITV’s phenomenally successful costume drama, do read on. As those who watched the show will know, one of the sub plots involved Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, trying to help housemaid Gwen to obtain a position as a secretary – an aspiration of self-betterment generally resented by servants and masters alike. I don’t think anyone could argue that Gwen should have been prevented from trying to move up in the world, nor that it is a tragic injustice that she had to fight so hard even to convince her friends of her right to do so.

It’s been gone for a couple of weeks now, but in case anyone is still looking for an excuse to have another conversation about ITV’s phenomenally successful costume drama, do read on. As those who watched the show will know, one of the sub plots involved Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, trying to help housemaid Gwen to obtain a position as a secretary – an aspiration of self-betterment generally resented by servants and masters alike. I don’t think anyone could argue that Gwen should have been prevented from trying to move up in the world, nor that it is a tragic injustice that she had to fight so hard even to convince her friends of her right to do so.

However, I don’t know if I was the only person who felt slightly uncomfortable when Lady Sybil’s political ideals meant that she kept pushing Gwen to apply for jobs when rejections left her distraught and in tears and convinced that she had been wrong to step outside her station. One couldn’t help but feel that Gwen’s real life struggle was a kind of test case for the privileged Sybil’s radicalism and that there was every possibility of losing sight of Gwen’s best interest in Sybil’s principled pursuit of female empowerment and social progress.

What has this to do with education? Well for a start, it reminded me of (in the sense of being the opposite to) a scene in the hilarious – but frighteningly real – comedy spoof ‘People Like Us’ where the fictional headteacher and his deputies suggest including in the school mission statement the line ‘every child will be supported to reach their full potential’ until one of the deputies points out that that seems a bit disingenuous. “Because lots of them aren’t going to, are they?” Cue general agreement and confused frowns.

When does responsible realism become intolerable low expectations, and when does principled ambition on someone else’s behalf become their exploitation for one’s own political ideas?

The government and wider society need all children to aspire to university, and need to work to encourage them to – otherwise we are no better than those in Gwen’s day who accept the status quo without a thought. How, in this day and age, can we not have high expectations for all children and want all of them to ‘reach their potential’? On the other hand, how fair is it for teachers to insist that children ‘raise their aspirations’ and ‘aim high’ when the opportunities simply are not there? More than 200,000 young people were unable to secure a university place this year. Whose children are going to step aside next year to ensure that groups currently under-represented in higher education get a shot? I don’t know, but there will probably need to be more than 200,000 of them.

I wasn’t sure what answer writer Julian Fellowes would give in the last episode of Downton Abbey: whether Lady Sybil’s interference would lead to disaster for Gwen, or whether her ambition and determination on Gwen's behalf would vindicate her by the triumph of her ideals. Perhaps because the show was themed around the winds of progress and change that were sweeping through England immediately pre-1914, we were treated to a happy ending and Gwen gaining a position as secretary for the telephone company (just to press the point home). Here in the real world, however, the winds of change seem to be blowing in the opposite direction, creating fewer opportunities, not more.

Might the answer be that we need to delink ideas of aspiration, potential and ambition from a linear hierarchical notion of success, defined by entry to university and professional elites, which inevitably results in failure, or its perception, for many? John Hayes suggested in a speech at the RSA last month that sector skills councils could be rebranded as 'Guilds' to increase the prestige attached to what he terms 'craftspeople'.

Will this be enough do we think?

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.