Education and equality: A critique of the ‘poverty of aspiration’ agenda

Kim AllenJon Rainfordpost by JON RAINFORD & KIM ALLEN
University of Bedfordshire and Manchester Metropolitan University

A recent post on this blog by Penny-Jane Burke referred to the idea of ‘raising aspirations’ as a central motif of government higher education policy. This discourse of ‘raising aspiration’ endures within recent higher education policy as well as the government’s social mobility agenda and is far from new. It is not only a routine feature of national policy. It also permeates the institutional policies of the full spectrum of higher education institutions. From traditional, elite institutions such as Oxford to newer ones such as Plymouth or Bucks New University, many continue to use the term raising aspiration in promotional material.

As a practitioner in widening participation and a researcher of young people respectively, we – like Burke and others – are committed to critically examining and challenging the currency of the notion of ‘raising aspirations’ within governmental and institutional policy. In particular, we want to question why such energy and focus is given by government to tackling a so-called ‘poverty of aspirations’ rather than address more pressing structural issues that significantly shape young people’s educational chances. These include growing levels of material deprivation, poor housing, food poverty, the roll back of social security and rising levels of parental unemployment – the very issues that are being made worse under the government’s austerity drive (see BSA 2013). Furthermore, we are concerned that in focusing on individual pupils’ aspirations, government policy avoids tackling the deeper social inequalities and institutional structures and practices which restrict access to higher education, and thus shifts the blame for addressing deepening educational inequalities and injustices.

From our experiences as a practitioner working with young people discussing their futures on a daily basis and as a researcher who has explored young people’s views of celebrities and aspirations extensively over the past few years through an ESRC funded project (CelebYouth), neither of us have met a young person with low aspirations. As part of the CelebYouth team, Kim has spent the last two years exploring young people’s imagined futures. The 150 young people interviewed for the study had rich and varied aspirations for higher education and professional careers, busting the common myth put out by policymakers that young people suffer a poverty of aspirations. Likewise, for Jon, typically three quarters of primary school children on each widening participation visit to his university already aspire to university and most careers they talk about are ones where some form of higher education or training would be needed (such as medicine, engineering or accountancy). Our observations and experiences reflect findings of a raft of research that confirms that aspirations among lower socio-economic groups are ‘high’ (see for example, St Clair et al, 2013; Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2012).

What we have observed however – and what concerns us – is how a hierarchy of aspirations produced within government policy appears to be trickling down into young people’s accounts of what pathways they think they can or should take. Indeed, the recent BIS report on widening participation that outlines the government’s national strategy for access and student success in higher education talks not of ‘raising aspiration’ but ‘channelling aspiration’ (2014: p.31) through things such as information, advice and guidance and ensuring that pupils’ aspirations remain ‘realistic’. While this signals an important recognition by government – at least on the surface – that the so-called ‘poverty of aspiration’ does not exist, it raises critical questions about what might be deemed a ‘realistic’ or ‘good’ aspiration? And for who? What is the effect of these distinctions on how young people imagine their future and who they can become?

In the CelebYouth project, Kim and her colleagues found that young people were acutely aware that some careers and educational pathways (especially elite universities and professional careers) are deemed to be ‘better’ or ‘higher’ than others (such as vocational courses and trades, post-92 universities, or becoming a parent) leading many to dismiss future pathways in areas they are passionate about for more ‘sensible’ or ‘respectable’ pathways. Likewise, in Jon’s experience with school children, he has observed a lack of fit between the aspirations the young people communicate and the school subjects that currently inspire and interest them. Many often talk enthusiastically about their favourite subjects being PE or Art yet few talk about careers related to these. This disconnect is often framed through the way in which the core curriculum focuses on the importance of certain subjects such as Maths, English and Science and the associated hierarchy they sit in above non core subjects such as Art or PE.

The BIS report also references ‘good’ examples of outreach work (such as campus visits, mentoring and summer schools) as achieving ‘positive outcomes’ including ‘increased [pupil] motivation and ma[king] learners realise that they needed to work hard if they wanted to achieve their goals’ (p32). Yet again we see an emphasis on individual ‘dispositions’ and attitudes (motivation, hard work, confidence) rather than structural inequalities. What’s more, and as we have argued before, isn’t telling young people to just ‘work hard’ (the cultural zeitgeist of Cameron’s austerity Britain) simply unethical and irresponsible in a context of rising levels of youth unemployment, a hike in tuition fees, and the continued destruction of social security? This emphasis on raising aspirations as the object of governmental attempts to tackle educational inequality is a ‘red herring’ (St Clair et al, 2013) and an incessant focus on this will do little to help achieve a more socially just and inclusive education system.

So what could be done differently? HEIs need to focus on working with not only children but also parents and communities to help improve understanding of the potential range of careers available across the spectrum of subjects. Much work focuses on the value of STEM careers at the expense of those in the Arts and can perpetuate inequalities. The issue is not one centred on individual students but in deeper structural inequalities that need to be addressed further.

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