Mum’s the word for bridging the disadvantage gap

One academic's innovative idea for helping a deprived community? Ask parents what they need to raise their own aspirations – and then work with them to deliver it

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Trisha Bennett has lived in Whitley for nearly four decades, so she knows it better than most. She has had a front-row seat for all the outside attempts to ‘save’ the people that live there. And there have been many, many attempts: the community development consultant says that the area has been “initiatived to death”.

“Whitley’s one of those places where if you saw it on paper, you’d see it’s this, it’s that, it has a reputation and all of that, but actually it’s a really strong community and people look out for each other,” she says. “You get that quite a lot in a deprived community – they might go and rob somebody the other side of town, but they’ll look after their next-door neighbour. It’s a rough diamond.”

On paper, the statistics are bleak. In the most deprived area of Whitley, employment and health are both ranked first. Not too bad, you might think. But this is on a local government scale of one to 98, where one represents the most deprived, and 98 the least. Males born in Whitley have a life expectancy that is 2.3 years less than the national average. For women, the gap rises to 3.9 years.    

The picture doesn’t get better for education, in which the most deprived area of Whitley is ranked second. While 60.3 per cent of children across the South East achieved 5 GCSEs at grade A*-C in 2016, in Whitley, only 39.4 per cent of children achieved the same. And while the 2011 Census shows that, nationally, 10 per cent of the working-age population have no formal qualifications, in Whitley, that rises to nearly a third of the population (30.4 per cent).

There are hundreds of places in the UK like Whitley. There are hundreds of places that have been “initiatived to death”. And there are hundreds of places where nothing seems to work to improve the lives of communities.

But only Whitley has Carol Fuller. Only Whitley has the innovative approach to raising aspirations and educational outcomes that Fuller has developed. 

Its focus is mums. And it may just prove transformational. 

Raising aspirations

“It’s been said that some successful women get to the top and then they shut the hatch, so that other women can’t come up behind them. I don’t want to be the one who closes the hatch.”

Fuller is associate professor at the Institute of Education, University of Reading. But she is not the stereotype of a middle-class academic dispensing wisdom from an ivory tower.

She was raised in Whitley. She left school, she says, with “very few qualifications and low aspirations”.

“We didn't have aspirations for ourselves, because no one we ever knew went to university. We used to drive past. You could see the sign. I didn't even know what went on here.”

However, after gaining employment in a hospital, she was pushed to study by a ward sister who, Fuller says – with a wry smile – “would lock me in the office until I’d done my work”. 

A levels and an access to higher education course followed and then, Fuller “got to university, and never left”.

Now, she’s going back to her roots, a mere five-minute drive away from the university she works at, for a unique widening participation project.

What’s so unique about it?

Well, there are widening participation schemes that have worked with parents before. For example, Rangefield School in Bromley noticed that school events were predominantly attended by female parents or guardians. To get more men involved, the school now holds a termly “Dads' Hub”, where male parents or guardians are invited to come and learn about ways in which they can support children’s learning in the home.

And there are even schemes that work with parents around aspirations. Take the mentoring charity Mosaic, part of The Prince’s Trust, which runs a scheme partnering female students with professional mentors. Mothers take part in the scheme, which includes a university visit, in the hope that it will help them raise their aspirations for their children.  

But instead of working with parents to raise their aspirations for – or involvement with – their child’s education, Fuller is going to work with a group of mothers in a course designed to raise their confidence and aspirations for themselves.

“I believe our sense of self comes through multiple messages and society gives us messages about who we are and where we fit and our self-worth and our esteem,” she explains. “You have to do work that makes you feel good about yourself, whether it's working in a shop in town or working in a school, whatever it is. 

“But you're not doing stuff that undermines how you see yourself, because that will rub off on your children and you get this negative cause and effect.”

Typically, Fuller says, people try to tackle social inequality by using a deficit model – looking at what children or families are lacking, and then trying to give them something to bridge the gap. But that approach, she says, is not one she agrees with or favours.

“I like to look at what is there, what is good and how we can build that up,” she explains. “To change outcomes for kids in schools, for example, we need to work on how children see themselves and then that will impact on grades and attainment and aspirations. But if we just keep coming in with initiatives on literacy and maths, we're not actually dealing with the barriers.

“I just think it's time to take a fresh look at how we might think about doing things in a different way. Rather than looking at parents with this deficit model of what they're not doing right and trying to get them to do the things we want them to do, let's look at it in a slightly different way.”

Mo McSevney, funding and finance officer for the Whitley Community Development Association, describes Whitley as a place that’s usually “done to”. A place where politicians and academics, however well-meaning, come in and offer short-term fixes that have been decided at a distance without looking at the local context – or the long-term picture. 

She says that what people in the area need is to be asked “What do you need?” rather than being told, “This is what’s good for you”.

“There are loads of people who probably know what’s brilliant for me, if only I had the motivation to do it,” she says. “But I’m not going to get the motivation if you’re lecturing me all the time.”

Widening possibilities 

This is where Fuller’s new approach comes into play. She says that when she spoke to parents in Whitley, they told her that the university was patronising the community.

“They said, ‘They keep coming down here and telling us this is what we need to do and we need to raise our aspirations for our children. I have aspirations for my children.’

“So I asked them: what would you like? This is where it came from. I arranged a focus group and what they decided was what would be really good would be a programme for mothers, single mothers particularly.”

She was able to get funding for the project from the university’s widening participation department, on the basis that raising parents’ aspirations for themselves could help raise aspirations for their children.

On the surface, there seems to be some merit to this line of thinking.

A 1999 study in the US, funded by the American Educational Research Association, found a “practically meaningful” relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement, with the strongest relationship being found between aspirations and achievement.

And a 2012 study from the US showed that parents’ education level “significantly predicted educational and occupational success” for children up to 40 years later.

However, before anyone gets overexcited, a 2012 review by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that while research showed an association between parental aspirations and student attainment, there was not yet enough evidence to prove a causal link between the two. In addition, a study from 2015 showed that if parental aspirations were too high, it could, in fact, harm students’ attainment.

But, as McSevney says, if parents don’t know what’s possible for their child, they can’t aspire to it.

“If you’re not exposed to other people who have made other choices, then how can you make an informed choice, because you don’t have that information,” she argues. 

And McSevney knows from experience how powerful this can be. After moving to Whitley nearly a decade ago, she quickly became involved in the local community – gaining a level 3 qualification in community development as she did so. She says that it changed not only her outlook for herself, but for her family, too.

“If you’d spoken to me in 2011 about what I wanted for me and for my family, it might be a very different answer to what I’d give now. I’m more determined, I’m clearer about my own ability to change circumstances round about me. In 2011, I ran around like a headless chicken, “I need help.” Now, I would pick up the phone to tell someone I need them here on this day at this time, to do this. Even in a short amount of time, when you empower somebody to make decisions for themselves, their outcomes might change.”

Bennett agrees, and says that changing a parent’s life could be transformational for a child.

“A lot of the problems in school stem from the perceptions or the relationship that the parent has with the school, nothing to do with the child’s relationship with the school. I’ve sat on a lot of exclusion panels and more often than not, I’ve wanted to sort something for the parent, not the child, because if the parent has a school phobia, or the child has a chaotic home life, well why would the child be content and well-behaved at school, because they’ve got too much going on in their life.”

And, she adds, this goes beyond the self to the very heart of the community.

“Society is structured sometimes – I’m a great one for ‘information is power’ and if we withhold information from people, we withhold power from them.”

Building confidence

Fuller is hoping to help with this with the course, which will look at building confidence and recognising skillsets, but also by giving mothers more social capital. This includes introducing them to employers in the local area, but also getting people involved from local government, who can help them navigate the often complicated world of benefits and childcare.

“I think the universities and communities working together, we can help people even if we can't get them where they want to be, we can help them see how to get there,” Fuller says.

As an example, she tells the story of a mother who attended the early focus groups for the programme. The mother was in her early thirties and had had “bitty” employment but now, owing to the changes in universal credit, she needed to go back to work.

While talking to Fuller, the mother mentioned that she wanted to work with troubled children, but didn’t know who to contact and what qualifications she might need. In addition, she worried that her criminal record might count against her.

“When I found out what it was she wanted to do and that her criminal record was from when she was 15 and it was nothing that barred her from working with children, I contacted a few people I knew and took her to meet this headteacher,” Fuller recounts.

“The headteacher said, ‘It's not about qualifications, it's about potential. If you want to come and do some voluntary work, you can. I can give you training at least.’

“She went. Then, six weeks later, she texted me to say she’d got a job with the school part-time. It didn't take much. This mum knew what she wanted, but had absolutely no idea how to get there.”

While this all sounds very positive, some may be asking why, in a local area that has such high unemployment, the focus is being given to women – and mothers – specifically.

In response, Fuller says that while boys and men do have their issues, a lack of faith in one’s own abilities is a trait that is more prevalent in females, particularly those who have struggled academically.

“Girls and females are very self-deprecating. Even as an academic and a mentor of academics for promotion, for example, the language they use is passive; they don't push themselves or promote themselves. I think mums have the added issue of the status of being a mum, but also being a female from a particular area adds to that crisis in confidence.”

As an example, she cites her own sixth-form college, which was nicknamed locally as “The School for Unmarried Mothers”. And Bennett says she has heard on multiple occasions, “That’s what you expect from Whitley girls” – not in positive terms, but disparagingly to refer to a pregnancy.

Bennett also recounts a story in which she overheard a teacher at a local academy talking about how they didn’t know the local area.

“My ears prick up at that sort of thing, because I think, you may not be from around here, but you should be interested. It’s important to the kids because it’s their community, it’s their identity.

“If you go to a school that doesn’t understand that and doesn’t understand the context of what you’re in, then that is really negative for you. How can you fight out if nobody understands what you’re trying to fight out of?”

Broadening horizons

Fuller’s course blends the academic with the community – while it will be run by the university, with a final certificate ceremony at the campus presided over by the vice-chancellor, it will be run with the community. Sessions will, in the main, be held at Whitley Community Centre.

The centre is a social hub and is familiar to many mothers; it runs a café during the day, where people can meet and get food and drink for prices that reflect the budgets of local people. And as people eat and chat, smiling down on them from the walls are dozens of pictures of Whitley through the years; emphasising the area’s history, as well as the community aspect that is core to the centre’s being.   

It is the people who use the centre as a vital support network already that Fuller is hoping to reach out to.

McSevney says that raising aspirations for these women – “some of whom believe that the sum and substance of their ability, capability and purpose in life is to make home and have kids” – is mostly about leading them to the realisation that they have more opportunities than they thought.

“I think they suffer from a social anxiety or pressure which says to them that if they want to do something different, it has to be teaching, or a teaching assistant; something that revolves around children and a family unit. The idea that they could go and become, say, a network engineer, is not anywhere on their horizon.”

Bennett breaks in: “However far we’ve come, those traditional ideas of what a woman is and is expected to do in the home still exist in society.”

McSevney nods in agreement. “It’s very difficult to break that cycle if you’re not confident yourself.”

And that, says Fuller, is where disadvantage goes beyond economics to deficits in confidence and self-esteem.

“The government takes a top-down approach. We need to do bottom up, and we need to change from the inside.

“We’re trying to get mums to see themselves differently. Then, that filters down to their children and their children – it can change a community”    

And as for the people of Whitley themselves? 

McSevney says that this project has a different feel to others that she’s seen from the university.

“Projects like this are amazing, because we’re not messing around. We’re saying, ‘What do you need and want to do?’”

And Bennett adds that the course will have a life after its completion.

Should the programme prove a success and run again, the mothers who benefit from the support given by the community and the university will return to mentor the next round of women who take the course.

In time, Fuller says, she hopes that it will become a course run for local people, by local people, with the university as a facilitator, rather than a leader.

In the short-term, however, McSevney says that she has more modest aims.

“If one woman comes back to us after the course and asks for help to do something, then I will feel like we have built a network around them and they understand that they can make a decision and empower change.”

The old saying is that it takes a village to raise a child. It’s just possible that it takes a community to raise that child’s aspirations. 

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