Helping parents to let their children fly free

Raising aspirations is a key concern for all teachers, but how far should you intervene when a pupil's family is blocking the way?

Let me tell you the story of Emma. She is a bright, talented and conscientious young woman who loves Greek tragedy, Gothic literature and writing her own short stories. I have not taught many students who are as committed to their studies as Emma and her no doubt impressive A-level grades will be well-deserved.

But, unlike other students, Emma will not be using these grades to access university. Her father has forbidden her. Instead, he has forced her to apply for an apprenticeship at a popular fast food chain and she will begin working there in the summer. Why? Because no one in Emma's family has ever been to university and their employment is not secured on the basis of higher education. Emma is expected to earn money so that she can support herself, rather than saddle her family with a frighteningly large debt.

Emma's story is an example of a family being afraid of a child wanting a life that is radically different from their own. Her parents do not share her aspirations and are encouraging her to remain at the same level of education and employment as them. Cases such as this pose a real difficulty for teachers: how can you ensure that your students are aspirational when their families, backgrounds and even cultures are working against you?

War of the worlds

In education, we talk a lot about aspirations and how to raise them, but what does that actually mean? For me, it is about making someone want more for themselves (or others) and from themselves (or others). However, this is an incredibly loaded statement. Alongside an idealistic notion about enabling every learner to "be someone", it contains the implicit assumption that who they already are is not good enough.

There are also different levels of aspiration and we should always value an ambition in light of what the individual is able to achieve. For some young people, an apprenticeship at a fast food chain is a fantastic opportunity that will bring personal fulfilment and success. Not every student we teach is suitable for university - nor is a degree the only signifier of achievement. The notion of being the best that you can be allows for multiple interpretations, based on the individual in question.

However, university is the appropriate aspiration for Emma. I am devastated by the idea of her wasting her talents and being unhappy in her apprenticeship.

But let's look at it another way. Emma will be in sound employment by the end of the summer, whereas many of her peers will be taking out loans of several thousand pounds to pay university fees. And this is the position her parents are coming from. We cannot blame them for being afraid of the financial impact of university. They are not affluent and cannot support their daughter. She would have to take out a student loan and the level of debt she would amass during her degree is understandably worrying.

We might think it absurd of them not to see the value of a university education. But why should they? Having not been to university themselves and assuming that they have had little experience of people who have, on what basis would they have secured this knowledge? Higher education has not featured in their lives.

Furthermore, Emma's parents may well feel apprehensive at the prospect of their daughter entering a world they perceive as being "other". Would she begin to lose respect for them? Would she become embarrassed by them? Such insecurities are understandable and deserve our careful consideration.

Crucial conversations

So in scenarios such as Emma's, how can we make sure that our communication with parents is effective?

l It is essential that you make them feel comfortable and not judged. Show that you understand their fears and agree that these are a justifiable cause for anxiety, then ensure that their worries are addressed.

l Make it clear that you are focusing on the student's future as opposed to their background. This avoids any form of personal judgement and keeps the discussion centred on what can be as opposed to what has been.

l You need to offer key information about university, in particular the positive financial impact it will have on their child's future income.

l Do not be pushy or dogmatic. Back off if you seem to be causing agitation.

l Lastly, show them that you genuinely care about their child and their child's future. Be an ally.

Of course, sometimes you will not achieve the outcome you want even after all this. You cannot berate yourself for failing - this is what I tell myself about Emma. My conversation with her father did not lead to her applying to university this year. But I hope that when she is older and able to independently finance herself through a degree as a mature student (which she assures me she will), I will have helped them to be in a better position to understand her decision.

Hayley Ryan is head of humanities at Totton College in Southampton

What else?

What teachers can do to raise expectations.


Watch a Teachers TV video about using case studies to increase aspirations.


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