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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.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.