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.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones