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A-levels: How to tackle parents with low aspirations for their children

Today, Emma will have got her A-Level results. In all likelihood, they would have been exceptionally good. But Emma won’t be going to university in September. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go – she would love to take her studies to the next level – it’s just that her parents don’t want her to apply. So Emma, not wanting to upset her parents nor attempt university without their support, has taken an apprenticeship at a fast-food chain.

This true story (though with names changed) is told by Hayley Ryan, head of humanities at Totton College Southampton, in the 15 August issue of TES. She uses it to illustrate a common problem for teachers and FE lecturers: dealing with families that have lower expectations of your student than you do.

As Hayley explains, the problem is often that parents are “afraid of their child wanting a life radically different from their own”.

“In Emma’s case, her family do not share her aspirations and are instead forcing her to remain at the same level of education and employment as themselves,” she explains. 

Tackling this issue is not easy.

“In education we talk a lot about ‘aspirations’ and how to raise them, but what does it actually mean?,” she asks.“Well, for me it translates as ‘making someone want more for themselves (or others) and from themselves (or others)’.

"However, this is an incredibly loaded statement. It contains the implicit assumption that what they have already got and who they already are is not good enough. This latter interpretation of raising aspirations can disaffect those you aspire for as you create distance through judgement.

“Also, Emma’s parents perhaps feel apprehensive at the prospect of their daughter entering a world that they perceive as being ‘other’ to theirs. Would she begin to lose respect for them? Would she become embarrassed by them? Such insecurities are understandable and deserve our careful consideration.”

So what is the answer? How can teachers make sure that communication with parents, in scenarios such as Emma’s, is effective? Hayley suggests the following: 

• It is essential that you make parents feel comfortable and unjudged. Ensure that their fears are validated; you understand them and agree that they are a justifiable cause for anxiety.

• Make it clear that you are focusing on the student’s future as opposed to their background or origins. This avoids any form of personal judgement and keeps the discussion focused on what can be as opposed to what is.

• You need to offer key information pertaining to studying at university, in particular the positive financial impact it will have on their child’s future income.

• But don’t be pushy or dogmatic about this. Back off if you seem to be causing agitation.

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

Read the full article in the 15 August edition of the TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 


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