We are constantly told by practitioners and policymakers that it is working class kids’ ‘lack of aspiration’ that explains their low educational achievement. But actually, the evidence points in other directions. All the ‘lack of aspiration’ discourse does is blame working class families for inequalities entrenched in our education system.
Ever since the New Labour administration finally began to acknowledge the size and immovability of the social class gap for educational attainment, we’ve been subject to the buzzword of ‘aspiration’. Apparently, the key explanation for working class kids’ comparative underachievement in relation to their middle-class counterparts is a lack of aspiration to achieve – at school and in future occupations – on the part of these kids and (especially) their parents. This notion of a ‘lack of aspiration’ among working class families was continually bandied at seminars, in speeches, and in policy documents (it can be seen running through the recent ‘Extra Mile’ initiative, for example), and continues to be regularly mobilised. The recent White Paper echoes the New Labour White Paper of 2005 in its demand to ‘raise aspirations’ as a means to narrowing the socio-economic gap for attainment.
However, this view at best reflects ignorance (and a deficit construction of those in poverty as to blame for their own plight), and at worst suggests a deceitful skewing of blame for educational inequality away from the educational system, and on to the individuals within it. In fact the evidence points away from young people’s ‘lack of aspirations’. Our own recent scoping work for the social justice programme at RSA Education confirms this too (we have consulted with working class sixth-formers on our social justice programme, and with FE students and practitioners in focus groups to scope our ‘Furthering Education' initiative).
Young people from working class backgrounds do not ‘lack aspiration’. Indeed, for many, their aspirations are often so high as to be potentially unrealistic. This ranges from the many working class young people in inner city schools that express a wish to be doctors and lawyers, to those who aspire to be professional footballers or X-Factor finalists (the latter much complained about by FE practitioners in our recent focus groups). Supporting the research in this regard, working class young people in our recent focus groups maintained universally that their parents desperately wanted them to do well in education, and to secure good jobs. However, what they also reported was their parents’ lack of knowledge and resources to be able to offer meaningful help and advice in this regard. This lack of information also applies to the young people themselves, who often have little idea as to the qualifications necessary, and routes (often involving significant financial cost) involved in accessing their desired occupations. What is urgently needed is better information and advice to these young people, who lack the knowledge, networks and other aspects of social capital so effectively deployed by their middle-class peers.
Moreover, for many other working class young people, ‘aspiration’ is being systematically killed by a schooling system which informs them they are failing. There is a raft of educational research to support this point, notably that of Prof Diane Reay (Cambridge). In an increasingly segregated education system, working class young people are concentrated in the lowest streams, and (as Dr Ruth Lupton shows), often in poor quality schools. Although they begin school at a disadvantage, the achievement gap widens as they proceed through the system. Young people are not slow to understand the messages of being placed in low sets and so on – and as they pick up the message that they are perceived as ‘slow’ and ‘not academic, unsurprisingly aspirations for ‘brainy’ professions and occupations fall. This is a logical response. The psychological impact of such understanding and self-perception is not to be underestimated. This also has a generational effect, as many parents who have had bad educational experiences wish to protect their own children from ‘unrealistic’ and painfully disappointing investment in education.
What I am arguing, then, is that the blithe bandying of the trope of ‘aspiration’, and the self-satisfied projection of deficit onto working class families’ ‘lack’, covers a British reality that comprises a systematic smashing of dreams for many working class young people, in an education system wherein still only half young people achieve the standard 5 A*-C including maths and English at GCSE.