A nation riven by aspiration

28th October 2016 at 01:00
The concept of ambition has become distorted by its relationship with social mobility, argues Michael Merrick, with the university obsession risking disenfranchising students from a working-class background

Aspiration has become quite the fashion in education. It appears to be the solution to everything from a lack of social mobility to poor discipline, from dreary school culture to boys’ underachievement. And we might say that, in so far as it draws distinctions between good and bad choices, it has value.

However, it soon gets a little more complicated. Because, as aspiration is often presented, one discerns at its heart the presumption of a certain set of outcomes, which broadly align with the goals of social mobility in general. Why else would a school announce that it aspires for all its students to enter university?

I don’t intend to argue against that ambition, and I wince instinctively when I hear the suggestion that not all children should aspire to further learning. My concern is elsewhere: that our accounts of aspiration exclude too many, making pupils choose between occasionally contrary impulses. At times “aspiration” incentivises against itself while simultaneously denigrating the choice not to follow its pathway.

Home is where the heart is

In our definitions of aspiration, we rarely allow the intrusion of those accounts that speak of technical or vocational flourishing. Instead, successfully attaining status within the traditional knowledge economy is generally what counts.

And while government figures might look at income patterns to explore changes in social mobility, it is difficult to deny that the issue also contains a cultural edge.

For our politicians and our thinktanks, social mobility means being inducted into the middle class – for the working classes, it is the ability, often the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from.

Here, perhaps, lies the root of that long-observed fear within working-class communities in particular: that education does not expand minds, but sows prejudices, turning children against an upbringing rather than building upon it.

Put simply, for a young person from certain parts of our country, pursuing the social mobility dream might feel like it is irreconcilable with their background: from accent to habit, one feels compelled to choose between the two.

Yet, whereas some might see a background that needs to be overcome, others might see an upbringing that made us who or what we are, a web of connections and relationships that sustain us.

Virtue and sound sense might well find expression in the decision to leave home and pursue the dominant accounts of success, but they do not exist there exclusively.

For other people, they can also exist in becoming a full part of that web of life and community that has maintained them, that gives them meaning and identity.

The social mobility narrative has neglected to recognise the virtues and good fortune in precisely the sort of upbringing that it deems students must overcome. In so doing, it creates a false opposition – consigning children to a choice between success and perceived stagnation, entrenching the notion that we generally only flourish when we leave, rarely when we stay.

Which can put teachers in a difficult position. We want children to be successful, but if our measure of success is exclusively tied up with social mobility, and the designated pathway for achieving it, then we risk disenfranchising those who decide that the costs of pursuing such accounts are too high.

Some see a background to be overcome - others see that it made us who we are

Making success and rootedness a zero-sum game will only lead to the alienation of the rooted – those whom Jon Cruddas, the Labour politician, has called “the Settlers” in contemporary society – calling into question the value, and dignity, of their own shot at the good life.

It feels instinctively unwise to set aspiration as something seemingly in conflict with those virtues shown in people’s decisions to choose other paths – family, friends, duties, commitments, obligations, love.

This problem is particularly acute when one takes physical geography into account, the factor that really does confound the meritocratic ideal because it is that much harder to circumvent.

The situation might be straightforward if you live in a big city or within easy reach of a good university, but if you’re from (say) Workington in Cumbria, how do you become “socially mobile” without first leaving all of your family and friends behind?

The nearest Russell Group university is 100 miles away: might social mobility, and the esteemed universities deemed most likely to deliver it, be as much about physical geography as they are about a deficiency in the virtue of aspiration?

Entering the professions presents the student with a similar dilemma – practising within them might render you better off elsewhere, too.

Factor in the debt (which, despite all the pointing at graphs and insisting otherwise, really does influence the decision-making of the working class), and the living costs, if some decide this is too high a price, are we to decide they simply lack aspiration?

Which leads to another question: have we painted ourselves into a corner where aspiration, and by extension social mobility, are for too many deemed incompatible with their background and upbringing and the human relationships that reside there? If we have, then are we really happy with that?

All things being considered, maybe we should be less surprised if a cohort decide that the orthodoxies of “aspiration” – and the academic pathways that they have been led to believe are irrevocably tied up with them – aren’t for them.

They have made this decision not because they are not “aspirational”, but because the way that term is configured in educational discourse doesn’t touch on what they think of as flourishing.

Because of this, maybe we should concern ourselves less with defining the pathways of aspiration, and worry more about our core aim – to deliver excellent education to all, and to make all believe that it really is important for them, whatever future paths they choose.

Broadening horizons

And yet: I live in an area that might be considered a prime target for those pious lectures from chief inspectors and politicians who have become fabulously successful down in London, with all the advantages that come from being there – the provinces, if you will.

I am animated by a desire to expand horizons and bring the world into the classroom to convince the children within it that it is worthy of exploration.

I try to challenge insularity and a lack of intellectual curiosity, and was quietly delighted when some of our students entered into top universities this year. I have come across students who genuinely don’t see the allure of visiting Rome, or watching theatre, or appreciating art; and it leaves me disheartened. It is a lamentable fact that lack of access can lead to lack of interest, and lack of interest can lead to refusal to access. The fundamentals of a good education require us to overcome that, to persist in trying to show our students why these things matter.

So, something in the aspiration vision does indeed chime, even if (for me) it is not quite what its adherents generally think it to be.

And we must remain alert to arguments that go too far in the opposite direction. For example: the claim that aspiration and social mobility are just middle-class imperialism, followed by the argument, no doubt well-meaning, that we shouldn’t impose middle-class standards on to working-class children and judge them deficient for not having met the ambitions and values of a different social class.

There may be a grain of benign instinct buried away in this argument – it at least acknowledges that we need to think about different social realities and not just insist we can extract folk out of their origins – but it nonetheless patronises.

Why would we want to tell working-class children that they needn’t worry about doing the kind of things some middle-class people do, when our real concern is them not having to shed heritage and identity as an entrance fee?

This is where the danger lies. Entwining aspiration solely with university can and does convince some that education is only valuable or worth persevering with if your life decisions align with that view of post-school life.

Don’t want to be a doctor? Prefer to be a mechanic? Fine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn your Shakespeare or learn about the Windrush. The moment we tell ourselves that it does – the moment we assign aspiration and education excellence to a particular pathway – is the moment we deny our children their shared rights and privileges of a cultural inheritance.

This is why our configuration of education around aspiration might need to be detached from professional outcome – not because aspiration is a middle-class thing, but because in tying it to a certain pathway we have decided that it can never be a working-class thing.

The opposite of aspiration is not - and need not be - stagnation 

The result? A disjointed philosophy that divides students between the practical and the scholarly, pushing them off into either the vocational or the academic, according to which aspect of the market they might best serve.

It cannot be emphasised enough that this is a modern ruse. An educated, articulate and learned working-class is not at all a contradiction in terms. Our history, and no less our cultural heritage, screams this at us.

It might be tempting to assign openness to scholarship as the product of a more enlightened era when education was seen as food for the soul. Though perhaps that is to sentimentalise what was just as likely to be the result of pragmatism and ingrained wisdom – it is through education that we best resist oppression, through education that we best discern and assert our interests, through education that we give ourselves the best chance of succeeding in the art of living well.

Working-class children want to study for a degree? Brilliant. All the better. But they shouldn’t have to leave who they are and where they are from behind at matriculation. Nor should they have ingrained into them the insidious belief that those who chose otherwise – those back home – are somehow failing.

That we have come to accept otherwise can only be the consequence of a utilitarian estimation of education: if some children work well with their hands, why do they need their heads? Why aspire? And all the while, a group of middle-class pupils have been corralled toward university, regardless, as aspiration fails to present itself in any other socially acceptable form.

The opposite of aspiration is not – and need not be – stagnation, and yet we seem to have made it so. In so doing, we unwittingly reaffirm the idea that a good education is for those who seek to follow that pathway into undergraduate study and beyond, and not really for anybody else.

But the price of pursuing that “aspirational” vision remains high enough – with both economic and human costs – that some decide the normative routes are not for them.

This is not because they are not aspirational, but because their aspiration expresses itself in ways more closely aligned to their values and obligations, duties and desires.

In short: if given a choice between abstract ideas of success and social mobility on the one hand, and concrete realities of rootedness and (hopefully) flourishing on the other, some choose the latter. Not every bond is a tie that binds – some become the ladders that help us soar.

And so the questions present themselves: what do we have to offer these children beyond a disappointed sigh and sometimes a sneer? Can we rescue working-class culture from the clutches of those who think it is only ever something that must be abandoned or overcome? How do we convince our students that an excellent education is a gift for all, wherever your ambitions lie?

Either way, it seems to me that it’s important that we do. Lest we continue to scratch our heads and wonder why so many of those who sit before us continue to feel uninspired, alienated, by what we offer, by what we say, and by what we tell them they should aspire toward.


Michael Merrick is a teacher and RE lead at the St Ninian’s Catholic Federation, Carlisle

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