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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide