The Boris Johnsons of life get a head start – don’t pretend otherwise

We should support pupils’ aspirations on their own terms rather than letting middle-class prejudices cloud our thinking

Don't deny Boris Johnson got a head start in life

Despite there being some 32,000 schools in the UK, one dominates the political landscape and looks set to continue to do so.

If – and it looks exceedingly likely – Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is installed as our 55th prime minister, he will be the 20th Old Etonian in the role and the 28th who attended the University of Oxford.

Now, I have no particular beef with Eton College (nor Oxford for that matter), unlike the Labour activists who want to abolish it along with other independent schools (bit.ly/Tes_AbolishEton).

However, it’s just not healthy or good for the country – or its people – to have leaders coming from the same old sausage machine. How do we tell children honestly that they can all aspire to this particular office when the path to it is, in reality, one well-trodden by only the well-heeled and the well-connected?

There are, of course, notable exceptions – such as John Major, who left his state grammar school at 16 with three O levels. Funnily enough, he is one of the few currently talking any sense on Brexit and refusing to take part in the my-unicorn-is-bigger-than-your-unicorn contest.

In the past, he has expressed shock that, in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power are still held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. The education system “should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born”, he said.

But children need to know that if they do reach for the stars, there’s a chance they could touch them. We tell them to be aspirational, but it’s not that simple. We talk about some – particularly disadvantaged – children lacking aspiration. We blame them as though, somehow, it’s their fault. They are lacking because they do not meet our expectations of what they should be aiming for.

But what if we don’t understand their ambitions? Whose fault is that?

A few years back, I asked a group of primary schoolchildren what they wanted to be when they grew up. Among the usual doctor-nurse-teacher-footballer-singer answers, one little girl said she wanted to be a YouTuber. None of her teachers even knew what that was. So how could they help or even relate? Many would pooh-pooh it as a career choice. But for a child from a working-class background, this route is far more accessible and achievable than becoming prime minister – and almost as lucrative.

Simon Edwards, a lecturer in youth studies at the University of Portsmouth, argues that the cultural standards we set can inadvertently lead to inaccurate and unfair judgements of the aspirations of children from deprived backgrounds.

Most children want to be like their parents when they grow up – because they love and admire them. If I’m a nice middle-class lawyer and my child wants to be a lawyer, too, the road is short and straightforward. No one will say that my child lacks aspiration, even though they aren’t aiming any higher than doing the same job as me.

If I am a shop assistant and my child wants to follow in my footsteps, then that road is also straightforward. But plenty of people will line up to say that my child lacks aspiration.

What we mean is that we “want them to have the same aspirations as a middle-class child”, says Edwards. But the aspirations of the middle-class child could in fact be “lower if you consider where they are starting from”.

For some, the road is long and hard. For others, it’s a hop and a skip. Life isn’t fair – we do children a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 12 July 2019 issue under the headline “There’s little point in denying that the Borises of life get a head start”