I originally set up this blog as a space in which to share my thoughts, as they emerge, about a small research project I was working on at the time. The project was called ‘The Place of Aspirations: emotional geographies of young people’s ambitions for their adult lives‘. It was funded by a Small Research Grant from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
The main objectives of this project were:
- to analyse how policy discourses about young people’s ‘aspirations’ explicitly or implicity relate to space and place
- to examine how aspiration and ambition are expressed as spatial practices.
- to explore what other emotions and affects attach themselves to thinking about (and doing) ‘aspiration’
The project involved a critical evaluation of the policy documents driving widening participation policy (and related interventions in young people’s lives) in a UK context; as well as interviews with widening participation practitioners working in local education sectors in inner London and the East Midlands. A small number of focus group workshops were carried out with current undergraduates, who had participated in ‘aspiration raising’ activities organised by their schools, universities and local Aimhigher partnerships.
The research sought to broaden understandings of the emotional consequences of widening partcipation policy interventions. As a result, this work contributes to, and extends, theoretical debates at the intersections of geographies of education, geographies of childhood, and emotional/affective geographies. In carrying out this project, I explored how these discrete research agendas could be pushed further theoretically, in dialogue with each other, whilst also producing findings that could contribute to policy development and widening participation practice.
Although the RGS small grant officially ended in 2009, I continue to write and think about these issues. This blog charts the development of my ideas in this area.
The report published today by the Sutton Trust starkly demonstrates how class privilege not the power of aspirations determines entrance to elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Here’s what the Trust’s press release has to say:
Four schools and one college sent more students to Oxbridge over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the UK, reveals the latest report on university admissions by individual schools by the Sutton Trust.
Between them, Westminster School, Eton College, Hills Road Sixth Form College, St Pauls School and St Pauls Girls School produced 946 Oxbridge entrants over the period 2007-09 – accounting for over one in 20 of all Oxbridge admissions. Meanwhile just under 2000 schools and colleges with less than one Oxbridge entrant a year produced a total of 927 Oxbridge entrants.
This report not only demonstrates that where a young person goes to school shapes their chances of attaining the high grades required for admission to highly selective universities, it also demonstrates that not all students from high achieving schools stand the same chance of gaining admission to such universities. High grades in and of themselves are not enough – the subject choices at A levels (and equivalent exams) make a big difference. But, clearly, so too does the social and cultural capital that is reproduced in those schools with a history of ensuring the progression of their students to elite universities.
It is worth taking a look at the summary table that accompanies the Sutton Trust’s report. This looks further beyond the easy headlines of admission to Oxbridge colleges to examine patterns of progression to the top 30 highly selective universities in the country. It makes fascinating, if infuriating and depressing reading.
The promotion of aspiration may be about many things, but it has clearly had virtually no impact in changing who gains admission to the most elite universities in England.
I’ve been invited by John Storan of Continuum – the centre for widening participation research at the University of East London – to speak to a group of McNair scholars on Wednesday 6th July.
The McNair Scholars Program is part of the federally-funded TRIO programme supported by the US Education Department to prepare low income students who are first generation graduates in their families (or come from other under-represented social groups) to prepare for doctoral studies.
I understand that this group of students are on a bespoke study visit to the UK, hosted by Continuum. They will be participating in the 2011 FACE Conference, undertaking an independent research project while they are here, and engaging in a series of seminars with academic researchers and policy makers. It will be interesting to see how they respond to my critical take on recent ‘aspiration-raising’ policy in the UK.
I am working on a short intervention piece for ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies about the successes and failures of recent initiatives to widen participation in higher education, including work on ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations, in relation to the student protests of late last year against the three-fold increase in tuition fees.
I would be interested to hear from any readers who can point me in the direction of examples of student protestors actually talking about their aspirations (for life, for higher education etc) in relation to the protests. I’ve found some examples from media coverage, but would welcome new leads.
Please leave a comment if you know of anything relevant.
In the last few days there has been a lot of media coverage about David Cameron’s ‘gaffe‘ about the number of Black British students at Oxford University. The Prime Minister claimed that Oxford had only recruited one Black British student in 2009. The University have countered this by claiming that they actually recruited “at least 26” Black British students that year.
There is, of course, much that can and should be said about the failure of 15 years (plus) of widening participation initiatives to alter the unequal access to elite universities by students from certain ethnicities in the UK. The fact that for so long there were more Black British students of Caribbean heritage enrolled at London Metropolitan University than all of the Russell Group institutions put together speaks volumes. Similarly, there is the ghettoization within certain subject areas of those Black Caribbean students lucky enough to be admitted to these elite universities – for many years almost all of the Caribbean heritage students enrolled at Kings College London were studying nursing.
But my interest in this story lies elsewhere. Why does David Cameron care so much about the number of Black Caribbean students admitted to Oxford. It is possible, of course, that he is embarrassed and shamefaced by the admissions practices of his alma mater, but I think it is more than that. I suggest that Cameron’s concern here has political motivation – it helps him to articulate and justify the Coalition Government’s favoured discourse of ‘fairness’ in education. As last week’s Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy document on social mobility states:
Fairness is a fundamental value of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society. A society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise. Where birth is never destiny. (pg 3).
The promotion of fairness by the Coalition allows them to distinguish their education policies from those of New Labour, whilst effectively pursuing more of the same (only more intensively). Fifteen years of aspiration-raising interventions and outreach activities by universities have not increased the number of Black Caribbean students and a new round of aspiration-raising interventions sponsored by business will do no better. These young people’s aspirations are not the problem – racist recruitment practices by universities and a school system that consistently fails Black Caribbean students, amongst others, are.