Where you come from isn’t where you’re going

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Schools must help young people to embrace the unique experiences they’ve had – and use them to shape bright, boundless futures

If you’ve never tasted a banana, you’re unlikely to ask for one with lunch. That just means you haven’t experienced banana yet, not that you won’t love it once you have.

What does “low aspiration” mean? Does it mean that I’ve decided what I want to do with my life on the basis of rich, objective information, and that it isn’t ambitious? Or does it mean that my life so far has given me a narrower-than-average range of experiences to draw from in imagining my future? In which case, I might have decided what to do with my life on the basis of very little information. My plans may appear to lack ambition as a result, but my aspiration isn’t “low” – it’s been limited by a range of factors.

Good schools provide inspiration and ideas. They expand horizons and fuel ambition. They support the development of confidence and skills in the young people they serve. And good schools do this irrespective of the backgrounds of their students.

Stretching young people who have more limited access to role models, networks and opportunities en route to adulthood is crucial, to help them plan a future unbounded by the patterns they see in their own households. It’s also a big conceptual leap for any student.

My sister and I were the first in our family to go to university or college. But my mother read a lot (from Philip K Dick to literary classics) and my father was thought an oddity as a dairy farmer with a love for classical music. He was registered blind and could never read or write comfortably. His mother was a church organist, so he listened rather than read; BBC Radio 3 bumped Radio 1 as his channel of choice in the milking parlour.

My sister ended up at music college and I studied English. We are textbook examples of the power of parental modelling. At school, my “careers” development was a brown box-file in the library. As a farmer’s daughter, I was presumed to be preparing to become a farmer’s wife. My school didn’t help us to make any conceptual leaps (they told my sister she’d never make it to music college), so thank goodness for the modelling we got at home.

In the night garden

In my early teenage years, my immediate aspiration was to make it to the Gardens nightclub in Yeovil. It was an ambition I shared with my friends and I still remember how important it seemed. I did at least have the chance to meet farmers of marriageable age there. My school would have understood this desire – expected it of me, I suppose.

At a national awards ceremony earlier this year, I sat next to a charismatic, millionaire digital entrepreneur. Like me, he is from the West Country, and he once had the same driving ambition to get through the doors of the Gardens. The sense of mutual validation was remarkable. We agreed that the club itself was a disappointment – a mirage of tacky tin palm trees, smoke machines and sticky coconut-based cocktails. We also agreed that it was a bonus neither of us had been knifed: the parasol in the cocktail, as it were.

Getting a pass to the Gardens was a part of my growing up. I didn’t learn everything from university, and I didn’t find a husband there either. “High” and “low” aspiration sound like value judgements rather than statements of fact. How about “narrow” and “wide” as more accurate descriptions of access and experience?

Good schools don’t knock “low” aspiration out of you – they fuel ambition and unlock the potential of young people by expanding horizons and being surprised by nothing. They help pupils to work out what they are capable of and they don’t make assumptions. They give students a chance to demonstrate how they can contribute to their communities and what their futures could be like because of who they are. They help young people to visualise an ambitious future for themselves, and show them exactly how to get there. People aren’t all the same. I was frightened of cows – I was going to be a wash-out as a farmer’s wife. But no one ever asked what else I might do.

My entrepreneurial dinner companion and I were briefly united by our backgrounds. Our enthusiasm baffled our table companions and delighted us both – these connections with identity and personal history are important. Growing up on a farm, loving dancing, being from the West Country – these are all part of who I am. No exercise in “raising” aspiration should turn us away from our experiences, nor should they limit where we go next.

Our job as educators is to stretch aspiration and include in that stretch all the experiences that make us unique. In this way, we strengthen communities and identity through our schools, and support genuinely comprehensive education. To dispense with any part of our heritage should be by choice. Although my sister is now a highly regarded mezzo-soprano, it doesn’t mean she’s not a dab hand at hauling bales of hay.

Honor Wilson-Fletcher is director of educational charity the Aldridge Foundation

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