Everyone has aspirations. We should focus on helping people achieve them

The idea that there is an "aspiration gap" isn't true: and that myth helps people ignore the real problems with our education system, writes Loic Menzies.

It can be rather convenient to put low social mobility down to poor people’s low aspirations but in reality, disadvantaged families start off with ‘high’ aspirations which they struggle to translate into reality.

The media and politicians love telling us that if poor people stay poor, it’s because they don’t want to succeed enough - they just need to be a bit more ambitious. Writing in the Daily Mail, Michael Hanlon tells us that “poverty of aspirations cannot be cured with more welfare handouts.” Janet Daley in the Telegraph explains that “poverty of aspirations is what keeps people poor”. When he was shadow secretary of state for education, Andy Burnham called for “aspiration, aspiration, aspiration” and Cameron has pledged to turn us into an “aspiration nation”.

With aspirations declared to be the problem, raising them has become a national policy priority. The 2010 Education White Paper mentions “aspiration” ten times and announces the introduction of an “aspirational national curriculum”. Meanwhile the 2011 Social Mobility Strategy goes further, managing twenty-nine references. In fact, it seems everyone’s getting involved: the strategy goes on to report that “the entire cabinet has signed up to the ‘Speakers for Schools’ program to demonstrate our commitment to raising aspirations”.

However, the 2010 Millennium Cohort Study revealed that when their children are born, 97 per cent of mothers want them to go to university - exactly the type of aspiration that politicians are referring to. The big difference between rich and poor families’ aspirations is only revealed when you ask parents how likely they think it is that their children will make it there. At this point a huge gap opens up with only 53 per cent of the poorest families thinking their child will attend higher education by the age of 14 compared to 81 per cent amongst the richest. Pupils have high aspirations too: Kintrea studied thirteen year olds in three deprived communities and found that 85 per cent of them aspired to university but only half that many expected to achieve university qualifications. So, the problem is not lack of aspirations but the difficulty of achieving them.

The revelation that aiming high is not the problem has profound implications for how we support children and young people which I explore in my new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – “Educational Aspirations: how English schools can work with parents to keep them on track”. The report explores how best to kindle the glowing ember of aspiration before it goes out, rather than simply ‘being inspirational.’

Given that The Sutton Trust’s new Pupil Premium Toolkit (a guide to how schools can best spend the extra money they receive for disadvantaged pupils) shows that “aspiration raising programs” have “zero months’” impact on learning, a better focus would be what Kintrea describes as helping pupils “navigate the paths to their goals”. Parents often struggle to help their children achieve aspirations which they themselves never experienced. Schools therefore need to engage with parents to give them practical ways of doing so. Paul Shanks, head of Gaywood primary school in Kings Lynn explains that this involves constant communication and “gradually chipping away at the fear of school which comes from some parents’ bad experiences of education.” High quality careers advice at an early stage can also help children understand the implications of their educational choices so it’s a pity the government has swept away support for careers advice and removed the requirement that schools provide ‘Work Related Learning’. Although the quality of provision in the past was patchy, these decisions are unlikely to help.

Schools should treat well-intentioned visiting speakers and mentors with caution - Cabinet Ministers included. The Sutton Trust actually suggests mentors can do more harm than good since they often lack the skills to give pupils the support they need. They can also come and go in a way that is destabilising to pupils. Nonetheless, they can be useful when well trained and their support is focused on learning. Businesses therefore need to design their programs carefully and schools need to be selective.

Above all, we need to stand up to those who use the myth of low aspirations as a convenient but flawed way of explaining-away poverty. Instead, we should focus on the real issue: our terrifyingly-large educational attainment gap.

Photograph: Getty Images

Loic Menzies is Director of the education and youth "Think-and-Action Tank" LKMco. He was previously a teacher and is an ex-youth-worker as well as Associate Tutor in Canterbury Christ Church University’s Faculty of Education. You can follow him on twitter: @LKMco.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.