Twenty years after a seminal report on inequality and further education, Krystal Douglas FRSA argues that more needs to be done to understand what we mean by aspiration and that a good start would be to ask young people themselves.
It is over 20 years since the Learning Works report was published in 1997 by Baroness Helena Kennedy. Having read it at the start of my PhD, it made for pretty damning reading. Throughout Baroness Kennedy draws on data of dwindling further education budgets and national literacy and numeracy rates, which have plateaued. She highlights evidence that those with good academic outcomes, are more likely to seek additional education and on-the job training, potentially further boosting their employment options. She explains that the stark reality in the UK is “if at first you don’t succeed... you don’t succeed!” However, it is not all doom and gloom. To challenge these harrowing statistics, Baroness Kennedy places her wholehearted support behind the further education sector and life-long learning, with its ability to offer flexible learning opportunities and transform lives.
Twelve years on from this report, I turn up at a further education college with my mum. A 17-year-old black teenager, four months pregnant with a string of A and A* GCSE grades. Having been strongly nudged out of my all-girls grammar school – today, we would call it off-rolling – I entered, reluctantly, what would become my educational home for the next two years.
It was our fourth visit to an educational establishment that morning and we had lost count of the number of sixth form colleges we had called. Hardly any would comfortably enrol me two weeks into Year 13. But this place was different and from the moment we walked through the huge automatic doors, the staff could not help us enough. Without any further delay, I was enrolled, was able to speak with my new tutors about the content I have covered so far and was told I would be expected at college on Monday afternoon, timetable in hand.
This was the start of two further years at college. In that time, I faced some of the hardest challenges of my life; top of the list was becoming a mum. But beyond my A’Levels, my time at college taught me an invaluable lesson about educational success: it isn’t always linear. Armed with this knowledge, alongside the confidence, hard work and support from a multitude of friends and family, I completed my A’Levels and my degree in ‘quick’ succession.
By the time I graduated, I had become intrigued by the very idea of education. This intrigue quickly developed into a vocational passion, and my first role post-college is working for an education charity, which provides tutors to support young people in their exams. I combined this with being an advocate; offering guidance on accessing services and directing service-users to vocational and educational training to develop their independence. Juggling these two roles, I set up a tutoring school with a difference; a space which promoted a love of learning, developed young people’s empowerment and their inquisitive minds by giving them the opportunity to construct their own learning activities with their tutors, in and out of the classroom. I also got involved in my daughter’s school as a member of the Parents, Teachers and Friends Association and soon secure a graduate position in the Department for Education.
But everywhere I turned, educationalists are talking about aspiration. They talk of investing time and money in ‘raising aspirations’ for ‘disadvantaged groups’. Much of this language suggests that these young people are intrinsically lacking in some way; it inadvertently blames and individualises the issue. The reports and the media suggest that individuals are deficient, at fault or are failures if they do not flourish in education, rather than highlighting the structural barriers that young people face.
However, along my journey through formal education, I have met, supported and sometimes had to watch, many of my fellow young parents scramble to get out of a cycle that constantly hinders their undoubtedly high aspirations for themselves and their children. They continue to be some of the hardest-working and resilient people I have ever met. The mantra, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again!’ just does not quite fit with my experiences. Furthermore, it seems that every layperson knows about education and aspiration; so I began to take a more critical approach and to ask what young people really aspireto do.
By the time I started my PhD I was thinking less like a practitioner and more like theorist and had started to ask questions like: what actually is aspiration? What can young people themselves tell us about what individuals might want to do when they leave school? And do many individuals really have ‘low’ aspirations? Rather than just conducting a survey asking people whether they would like to go to university, I explored new ideas about young people’s aspirations, observing how they construct these in everyday life and in conjunction with their peers. The detail was important; we know relatively little about what shapes young people’s aspirations in areas where poverty rates are high and where the number of pupils going to university remains low. Young people have a lot to teach us and I used my PhD to provide an opportunity for young people to shape knowledge of what aspiration is and challenge what it is not.
Looking back now, while my mum and I sat in the office of the head of my sixth form, where she told us that “girls at our school don’t have babies”, I wonder what her aspirations were for me and how those clashed with those I had for myself. She almost certainly thought that pupils had one shot at their future, and that if at first they did not succeed, they wouldn’t succeed.
Krystal Douglas FRSA currently works as a researcher. She has recently completed her PhD and works with schools, charities, think tanks and universities to develop and evaluate outreach activities. She is particularly passionate about outreach that promotes inclusivity and empowers aspiration, both within and beyond higher education.