Blame the kids, blame the teachers: David Laws and the complexities of ‘aspiration raising’

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Last week, David Laws, Minister for Education, attacked teachers and careers educators for creating a culture of ‘depressingly low expectations’ and holding back disadvantaged children by discouraging them from ‘aiming for the stars’.  Laws argued that the flatlining of ‘social mobility’ (highlighted by Alan Milburn’s recent report) was not simply the result of poverty but a lack of ambition among teachers which led young people to only consider local employers and ‘lower status’ careers:

Even in my own constituency, Yeovil, which would not be regarded as one of the deprivation blackspots of the country, most young people would regard going into investment banking as almost leaving the country, because it’s a different world… They will often be encouraged to think it is beyond them…. there are too many young people who think that the two or three big employers in their local town are the limit of their aspiration.

Laws is not a lone voice here. Only a few weeks ago, Michael Gove spoke at the Conservative Party Conference about a ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations among teachers which was failing to address the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.

Scholarship in the sociology of education has critically engaged with the ways in which discourses of ‘aspiration’ circulate across government policy and how these constitute particular kinds of pupil – and parent – subjects. This research, including my own work with Heather and elsewhere with Sumi Hollingworth – has problematised asocial discourses of ‘low aspirations’. As I have previously argued on this blog, such individualising discourses negate the wider economic structures within which aspirations can be realised. While aspirations discourse has been characterised by a long-standing focus on the ‘deficiencies’ of parents and pupils, recent statements made by Laws and Gove indicate, I think, a new shift whereby teachers become a new subject of blame for educational inequalities. Indeed, teachers are increasingly charged with raising the aspirations of young people through various practices and initiatives. But what does this work of encouraging pupils to ‘reach for the stars’ involve? What interpersonal dynamics are at play in ‘raising aspirations’? And how might attending to these help us critique and trouble the prevailing narrative of the Coalition’s education policy? Laws’ recent comments provoke engagement with these very questions.

Laws warns that some teachers in state schools are discouraging their pupils from applying to Oxbridge and other ‘elite’ universities, telling them that these are ‘not places for them’. Earlier this year, the Sutton Trust released results of a national survey of teachers in state schools in which over half surveyed said they would not encourage their brightest pupils to aim for Oxbridge. While politicians and other commentators used this as evidence of a failure within the teaching profession, ATL general secretary Mary Bousted proposed an alternative narrative:

Teachers might have some very legitimate concerns about whether an academically gifted pupil would fit in and thrive in Oxford or Cambridge. I was in a Cambridge college last week and it oozed wealth and privilege. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable there, so how would somebody feel if it was totally alien to their upbringing? It would be preferable if teachers did feel more comfortable about recommending Oxbridge… But we have to ask questions about why they don’t and I don’t think it is because they are unambitious for their pupils.

Bousted’s words echo those of a working-class teacher I recently interviewed from a secondary school in a former industrialised town in the West Midlands, characterised by mass unemployment and multiple deprivation. This teacher was responsible for various initiatives and schemes at the school oriented to supporting young people’s aspirations and transitions into work and higher education. This included selecting two pupils in the school to take part in the government’s new DUX award scheme which allows ‘bright’ pupils to visit ‘top’ Russell Group universities for a day. The teachers explained to me why he did not select his most disadvantaged pupils for such a scheme:

With those pupils you have to start small … If I took them for a day out to Oxbridge, they would feel lost …by the institution, the type of people there, the place, the culture … It’s a culture shock and it’s too big a leap, from one extreme to another… These one off visits don’t work. It raises them [the pupils] for a few hours and then they’re back to where they were before. You take them to the top then take them back down to the bottom and that’s it … there isn’t the support they need there. For these [working-class] pupils it’s about building the scaffolding, providing the building blocks [and] helping their aspirations to grow organically. You have to do it carefully.

Interestingly, the DUX scheme received similar criticism in Milburn’s report on access to higher education for being largely ‘tokenistic’ (2012: 38). This teacher’s reading of the DUX awards reveals not a ‘hopeless lack of ambition’ for working-class pupils. Rather it suggests an astute, considered and compassionate understanding of what it means for working-class kids to move into ‘top’ higher education institutions, where ‘mobility’ into such elite spaces is often accompanied by unsettling feelings, including inadequacy, shame and guilt (see the suggestions for further reading below). This can result in a preference among working-class pupils for institutions with a more ‘diverse’ student population, such as post-92 universities.

Laws’ claim that young people are being discouraged from thinking about being in ‘a different world’ neglects what encountering, and existing in, this ‘different world’ might feel like.  There are immense psychic, social and emotional costs involved in ‘aspiring’, when ‘successful futures’ are framed in narrow terms of entry to elite spaces of Oxbridge and professional careers which might necessitate becoming ‘someone else’.  As Bousted suggests, many teachers are acutely aware of this, and such deep understanding demands respect rather than derision.

Furthermore, focusing only on young people’s aspirations for elite institutions – and teachers role in fostering these – neglects the systematic forms of exclusion that operate in the admissions practices at such institutions. For example, Vikki Boliver’s (2011) analysis of UCAS applications and admissions data reveals how the underrepresentation of pupils from state schools in prestigious universities is not simply because they are less likely to apply to these universities, but also because they are less likely to be admitted when they do apply.

Penny Jane Burke and Jackie McManus’ (2011) qualitative research into admissions interviews for elite arts institutions reveals why this may be the case, illuminating the ways in which selection practices privilege dominant forms of cultural and social capital held by the middle class. Research also shows that similar practices of exclusion (and self-exclusion) are found in relation to young people’s aspirations for, and entry to, ‘top professions’ – the kinds of bright, shiny spaces Laws thinks young people should be aiming for. In my own work, I illuminate how, for working-class young people, entering predominantly middle-class professions such as the creative industries can be accompanied by feelings of lack and mis-fit, where they experience these places as ‘not for people like me’.

Finally, Laws’ denigration of young people’s ‘limited’ aspirations for locally available jobs is problematic: as Sumi Hollingworth and I have argued elsewhere, in celebrating young people’s ‘mobility’ for and through work, aspiration policy discourse privileges a very particular flexible, cosmopolitan, middle-class subject and negates the emotional ties and sense of belonging that bind working-class young people to place in ways that shape their futures.

Instead of blaming teachers, there is an urgent need to think critically about the role of teachers in shaping the imagined and real futures of their pupils, and what might be missed out of this dominant discourse of ‘low expectations’.



References for further reading:

Allen, K. Quinn, J. Hollingworth, S. and Rose, A. 2012. Becoming employable students and ‘ideal’ creative workers: exclusion and inequality in higher education work placements, British Journal of Sociology of Education.

Archer, L., Hutchings, M., and. Ross, A. 2003. Higher education and social class: Issues of exclusion and inclusion, London: RoutledgeFalmer

Boliver, V. 2011. Persistent social inequalities of access to higher status universities: An analysis of UCAS data for 1996-2006.

Bourdieu, P. and. Passeron. J. C. 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage

Burke, P.J. and McManus, J. (2011) Art for a Few: Exclusions and Misrecognitions in Higher Education Admissions Practices.

Keane, E. 2011. Distancing to self‐protect: the perpetuation of inequality in higher education through socio‐relational dis/engagement, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32(3): 449-466

Reay, D., Crozier, G., and Clayton, J. 2009. Strangers in paradise: Working-class students in elite universities. Sociology, 43: 1103–21

Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H., & Melody, J. 2001. Growing up Girl: Psychosocial explorations of gender and class. Basingstoke: Hampshire.

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Comments (3)

  • David Wells


    Hear, hear! If Laws-and-Gove and so keen on NOT depressing pupils’ aspirations why don’t they speak out against STREAMING and SETTING which tell pupils from a young age that they are inferior, and why do they favour traditional teach-from-the-front classroom styles that ‘put children in their place’ literally and why do they support rating-and-ranking which ‘puts schools in their place’ and why do they support blaming-and-naming-and-shaming which assume that the way to get people to do better is first to humiliate them. [Explanation, Gove is a Blairite, ‘nuf said.]


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