Reach for the stars!... Then what?

By Loic Menzies, LKMco Director

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Round Up Report “The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing The Educational Attainment Gap” draws together three different reports which look at the impact of educational interventions on attainment. It has two main conclusions:

1. The absence of rigorous data on the impact of education interventions poses a challenge to evidence based policy making and has led to “the proliferation of ‘hopeful’ interventions with unknown effectiveness in enabling disadvantaged children to realise their ambitions”
2. Claims about 'poverty of aspiration’ are highly contestable to say the least.
The challenges of ‘evidence based policy’ making have been frequent enough LKMco themes (The Disciplined Incoherence of Footnote 57The Curious Case of Pisa and SuicideGove Selective in Evidence used in Education White Paper,  Evidence Ping-Pong and the three pillars of school reform, Lies Damned Lies and Statistics) so for now, lets focus on the conclusions relating to aspirations:
The main point made in the report is that many educational interventions are premised upon "questionable assumptions about pupil aspirations." The report exposes the fallacy that poor children and their parents lack aspirations.  Indeed it recognises, contrary to Schoon (2006) - who argues that “parents with fewer financial resources tend to hold lower aspirations for their children, and young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower aspirations than their more advantaged peers,” that most parents and pupils would like to do well in school and to go to university. Rather than low aspirations being the cause of low outcomes, it might therefore be the other way round; "what might look like ‘low aspirations’ may often be high aspirations that have been eroded by negative experience." This chimes with research suggesting pupils adjust their perceptions of reality in order to normalise their lack of educational success; Garth Stahl (LKMco Associate) and I currently have a paper in review called "Comparing the Educational, Occupational, Material and Moral Aspirations of White Working Class Boys." (We're speaking about it at Cambridge University Faculty of Education on Tuesday the 2nd of May if you're interested.) Like the JRF who found that pupils did not tend to think that not working was acceptable, we argue against the view espoused by Marks that in post-industrial Britain,  ‘Learning to Labour’ (Willis 1977) has shifted to ‘Learning to Loaf’ (Marks 2003).  Indeed, participants in our research did not show any desire to “loaf” nor any admiration for those without jobs.
So if that's the case, what next: 
Well, if it’s pupils' and families' capabilities rather than desires which are lacking, then increasing their desires through "inspiring" mentoring programs is unlikely to have the intended effect. Anyone who's spoken to a kid who wants to be an astronaut, inventor or train driver, knows that kids dream of reaching for the stars, but that’s not enough. They also need a ladder to help them get there. Given that kids from poor backgrounds are already falling behind educationally by the age of 3 (Feinstein 2003) , the ladder is being pulled away from under kids feet, pretty much from their day of birth. It's no wonder then that they quickly become disadvantaged in terms of capabilities and no wonder that they then lower their aspirations. Wouldn't you?
If we start to see low aspirations as a symptom of educational underachievement rather than the fundamental cause, how do we stop treating the symptom and start addressing the cause?
As The JRF’s report argues, "the real difficulty for many children was in knowing how to fulfill their ambitions". "Rather than raising aspirations in order to raise attainment, there is a real need for children and parents to be offered support to learn more about educational and career options so they can make more informed decisions about their future."
In the context of massive funding cuts for (admittedly frequently dodgy) careers advice, this is problematic to say the least but The JRF suggests a potential way forward: they are particularly keen on programmes which boost parental engagement and support. They present some examples of US projects that have done this but there's already great work going on in this area here in the UK. For example, whilst Achievement for All speak the language of aspirations they have achieved amazing (and comprehensively evaluated) outcomes by building bridges to parents and helping schools provide personalised support for the pupils who need it most. Programs like this should help with a concern raised in the report that "what looks like ‘parental disengagement’ may actually be the result of a high level of commitment to their child’s education, which is not matched by the capacity to provide effective support or by the ability of schools to work effectively with parents." Similarly, in her article for Children and Young People Now about how Tower Hamlets has become such an educationally successful borough (ironically called “A Wealth of Aspiration”),Charlotte Goddard describes the way schools work with parents who lack the ability to support their children academically, helping them find practical ways to support them. This might be through simple steps like providing a quiet work space. Laura McInerney (LKMco policy development partner) has also described how she works with East London parents, supporting them in managing their children's phone or Playstation usage. Practical steps like this may seem small but they empower pupils to achieve their aspirations by giving them the support they need to achieve educational outcomes.
Despite all this, the report does not conclude that aspiration raising initiatives are pointless.  It recognises that they may address issues such as behaviour and truancy. The key point though is that causal links are questionable and that there is a lack of rigor in the evidence.
That said, it would seem to me that if we look at some of the teenagers whose aspirations have already been extinguished through the normalisation process described above, there might be a place for programs that re-ignite their dormant ambitions.
One final question which the report does not go into is what we actually mean by aspirations. Who decides what counts as an “aspiration” and how do we categorise which are “high” and which are “low”? ... But that's a whole other kettle of fish and is what Garth and my article is about. We can return to that another day. 
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Round Up Report “The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing The Educational Attainment Gap” is available from their website, as are the three reports on which it is based.
Francesca's feeling horrible - Where's the Subject in the Discourse of Aspirations?
By Garth Stahl - LKMco Associate
The Jospeh Rowntree Foundation’s report on AABs (Attitudes, Aspirations and Behaviour) couldn’t be more timely for me as a teacher of a Year 11 class fast approaching their GCSE coursework deadline. Yesterday, Francesca, a perfectly capable student who was feeling the demands of a rigid exam-board deadline, broke down in tears in my office uttering the words “it all makes me feel horrible” in reference to her education.  
I would argue that it is difficult to discuss aspiration without acknowledging the context of neoliberal policies and practices that dominate our institutions, including education (Giroux 2004).  Education has become framed by a neoliberal ideology in which ‘aspiration’ and the power-laden discourses surrounding it are a dominant (and convenient) rhetoric. The JRF report shows that we know little about the relationship between AABs and educational outcomes, and cites research showing the lack of evidence for a causal link between the two.  I would argue that attitudes, aspirations and behaviour are all deeply contextual and constantly shaped by social capital and economics, whilst educational outcomes are primarily determined by human capital which in the case of education equates primarily to teacher effectiveness and parental engagement.  
While there is nothing new about the aspiration rhetoric per se, I object to an aspiration rhetoric grounded in education reforms focused on a narrow, neoliberal view of standards.  Within this discourse, our identities are side-lined as people are rendered ‘entrepreneurs of the self.’  Francis and Archer (2007), write that in the neoliberal discourse “there are no foundational aspects of selfhood such as ‘race’ or gender that preclude an individual from taking up the opportunities available to them – failure to do so simply reflects an individual lack of enterprise” (19).  As a result, the aspiration rhetoric coupled with this dominant discourse can serve to divorce people (and their educational attainment) from their context. 
As we all contend with governments focused on economic survival or demise, Davies and Bansel (2007) write: “A particular feature of neoliberal subjects is that their desires, hopes, ideals and fears have been shaped in such a way that they desire to be morally worthy, responsibilized individuals, who, as successful entrepreneurs, can produce the best for themselves and their families.” (251).   Francesca buys into the aspiration rhetoric and maintains the desires, hopes and ideals which the neoliberal discourse prescribes for her – as a subject of this discourse she blames herself for her failure and is blind to the wider milieu which contextualises her.  The report mentioned several times that parents and children who exist in poverty generally have high aspirations and positive attitudes to education (Goodman and Gregg 2010) but remain uncertain of how to transfer their aspirations into stable middle-class employment and how to contend with various disadvantages. It is this uncertainty which throws up so many challenges for Francesca and which disproportionately hinders her and her peers. That’s why she may not need higher aspirations but instead, help finding her way round the obstacles an unequal society has placed in her way. 
Unfortunately, the aspiration rhetoric is often heard loudest in the areas of the most social disadvantage and severe class-based marginalization.  What is troubling about some ‘intervention’ programmes directed towards social mobility is that they frequently fail to recognize significant factors pertaining to inequality such as social capital, cultural capital and marginalization.
The power of the aspiration rhetoric cannot be denied.  What is essential to note in regards to Francesca is how robustly neoliberal expectations are embedded in her own subjectivity and how strongly her sense of self-worth is tied to a GCSE qualification.  Whatever she has had to overcome in order to gain that qualification has been ignored. What is often striking in not only the way people become naturalized, but that the arbitrariness of this processes quickly becomes invisible (Bourdieu 1992).
It leaves me wondering if that ‘horrible’ feeling Francesca describes is perhaps the realisation that she is fast becoming another number, divorced from her original identity by a prescriptive and de-personalising system.   
Archer, L. and Francis, B. (2007). Understanding Minority Ethnic Achievement. (Oxon, Routledge).
Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. (Cambridge, Polity Press).
Davies, B. and Bansel, P. (2007). "Neoliberalism and education." International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 20(3): 247-256.
Giroux, H. (2004). "Public pedagogy and the politics of neo-liberalism, making the political more pedagogical." Policy Futures in Education 2(3 & 4).
Goodman, A. and Gregg, P. (2010) Poorer children’s educational attainment: How important are attitudes and behaviour? York: JRF
Marks, A. (2003). "Welcome to the New Ambivalence: reflections on the historical and current cultural antagonism between the working class male and higher education." British Journal of Sociology of Education 24(1): 83-93.
Schoon, I. (2006).  Risk and Resilience: Adaptations in Changing Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Willis, P. (1977). Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. (New York, Columbia University Press).

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