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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.