Why ‘the place of aspirations’?

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.


Attaining privilege: the geography of admissions to elite universities

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.

Reflections on 10 years of ‘Access to Medicine’

Last week the Extended Medical Degree Programme [EMDP] at King’s College London celebrated its 10th anniversary with a ‘Celebration of Success’ event.  Before becoming an academic geographer, I was centrally involved in the King’s Access to Medicine scheme, of which the extended degree is part, setting up and running the widening participation outreach element of the project from 2001 – 2007.

I want to use this opportunity to congratulate the students who graduated as doctors last week and to celebrate their achievements.  Many of them I supported through the process of applying to medical school and the early years of their studies.  One or two of them are quite exceptional, and I am proud to have helped them towards achieving their aspirations to becoming doctors.

But I also want to use this tenth anniversary as an opportunity to critically reflect on the work of this widening participation scheme.  In doing so, I accept my own complicity in some of the problematic dynamics I want to highlight.

The Access to Medicine project (now called Outreach for Medicine) was originally established to enable talented young people from ‘widening participation backgrounds’ attending non-selective state schools in inner London to train as doctors.  The scheme ran an extensive programme of outreach activities as a means of talent spotting, assisting young people who aspired to become doctors to achieve their ambition, and encouraging talented young scientists to consider careers in medicine (and related health professions).  Those students engaged in the programme who didn’t achieve the grades to enter a conventional medical degree could apply to the six-year Extended Medical Degree Programme, which recruited with lower entrance requirements and provided additional support to students during the pre-clinical phase of their degree.

One of the key motivating factors behind the establishment of the scheme was the recognition that the King’s College School of Medicine (along with its partner NHS Trusts and the other health-related schools in the College) constituted one of the largest providers of medical education and training in Europe, was located in three of the most socially deprived local authorities in Britain, and yet recruited virtually no students to medical degrees from that locality.  The project has changed that for the better – but, even from the start, it needed to recruit from a wider area of London to meet its entrance targets (and has since expanded its provision into Kent and Medway, as well as across all those London Boroughs with low progression rates into higher education). 

I still believe that there is a valid social justice argument for diversifying the demographics of future doctors, and recruiting talented young people from a wider range of ethnicities and social class backgrounds.  Here, the Access to Medicine project has been successful up to a point – the young people trained through the EMDP come from a far broader range of ethnicities than the those recruited to more conventional medical degrees in London.  However, unless the EMDP cohort has changed significantly in the four years since I left the project, King’s have not been particularly successful in recruiting white working class students or young people of Black Caribbean heritage.  This lacuna highlights a complex and problematic class dynamic amongst the students recruited through the scheme – although many do come from low-income households, many also come from highly educated migrant and refugee families, and that confounds a simplistic identification of them as ‘working class’.  Similarly, there were sufficient loopholes in the project’s selection criteria that more than a few students from professional, gentrifiying families have been recruited to the scheme over the years.  So, while it is easy for the project to continue to justify its widening participation credentials according to many of the benchmarking criteria set by HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access, I question how successful the project has been in widening access to medical education in other ways.  It seems to me that the project continues to fail young people from those social groups that are most under-represented in medical schools (and higher education generally).  To some extent, its real success has been in helping to consolidate a Bangladeshi and Nigerian middle class in inner London (and spurring a similar dynamic amongst some numerically smaller minority ethnicities in the capital).  There is not necessarily anything wrong with that per se, but it is not what the project set out to achieve.

In many ways, this situation also reveals some of the problematics of an approach to widening participation that emphasizes raising aspirations as a route to social mobility.  Although, of course, the irony here is that I don’t think the Access to Medicine project really did much to ‘raise’ young people’s aspirations.  Where its success lay was in supporting young people who already aspired to become doctors and enabling them to act on their aspirations and stand a fighting chance of entering medical school.  Again, that’s no bad thing – within the remit of widening participation initiatives, furthering fair access to medical education is important.  But I think, as the very obvious gaps in which social groups have benefitted from the scheme shows, even after ten years of work, Access to Medicine has had less success in recruiting students for whom the aspiration to become a doctor is completely off their radar.  It takes more than a single project (however well-intentioned or resourced) to have that kind of impact on the social and cultural capital of some working class communities.

Although I am not sure I agree with all of their arguments and analysis, readers might be interested in the following to papers from a few years back that examine the work of the Access to Medicine project and the EMDP:

Garlick, PB and Brown, G (2008), “Widening participation in medicine: reflections on the first six years of the Extended Medical Degree Programme (EMDP) at the King’s College London School of Medicine”, British Medical Journal, 336: 1111 – 1113.

Brown, G and Garlick, PB (2007), “Changing Geographies of Access to Medical Education in London”, Health and Place, 13 (2): 520 – 531.

Forthcoming event: seminar with McNair scholars at UEL

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.

Request for information: aspirations and student protests

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.

The phenomenology of aspirations

I’ve recently been reading Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness and this has set me thinking about the phenomenology of aspirations.  In her book, Sara makes some references to aspiration and social hope, but doesn’t dwell on the effects (and affects) of those social policy interventions that have sought to work on young people’s aspirations in Britain over the last fifteen years.

As I’ve said before, aspiration (at least as it is understood and promoted in recent British social policy) is a particular expression of neoliberal social hope.  Widening participation interventions that seek to raise young people’s aspirations also function to orientate young people’s lives towards particular imagined life courses that are consistent with this expression of neoliberal social hope.  They are designed to instill in young people a wish for, and a commitment to, a future where they go to university, enter professional graduate employment and are able to be socially mobile and economically self-reliant, seeking privatised solutions for their well-being.

In practice, these widening participation interventions also seek to re-orientate young people geographically, in relation to their home neighbourhoods.  To have your aspirations raised is also to have your horizons broadened.  Young people living in the most socially deprived neighbourhoods in the country are encouraged to look beyond the places where they live to imagine how life could be different.  It is not enough to want to go to university, to have their aspirations (truly) raised, a young person is encouraged to aspire to a middle class habitus and dream of moving away to university.  Physical, spatial mobility is closely linked to the social mobility being promoted in these policies.  This is another way of denigrating (white) working class communities.  Young people from these backgrounds are being taught that there is nothing of value in their home communities.  To have one’s aspirations raised is to want to leave friends, family and home behind.  It is hardly surprising that widening participation initiatives have perhaps been least successful amongst those young people deemed most in need of intervention.

And this brings me to my final point (for now).  The effect of these attempted re-orientations differs depending on the relational geographies of the home neighbourhoods in which the young people they target live – how connected they are to other places – and on the life trajectories of individual young people and their families.  Not all socially deprived neighbourhoods, or the people who live in them, are the same.  It is possible to live on a low income, in an area that scores highly on the indices of multiple deprivation, and still have a wide range of connections with different people that extend across social difference and across space.  This is one reason why I think young people from some minority ethnic communities have done relatively well out of widening participation initiatives.  If your family experience is one of transnational migration; if you and your family sustain kinship networks that extend around the globe; or, if you attend a church, mosque or temple that brings you into regular contact with a group of people engaged in a diverse range of livelihoods, jobs and careers, you are likely to be aware that the way you live your life, here and now, is not the only option open to you. 

So, while I am suspicious about the ways in which the imperative for young people to ‘broaden their horizons’ has become enmeshed with the imperative to raise their aspirations for a privatised neoliberal future, I do also see value in having wide horizons.  Conscious experience of what Doreen Massey would call ‘place beyond place’ can serve to widen your horizon.  Wide horizons, although at times unsettling, can reveal new options and possibilities.  I am critical of how widening participation initiatives envisage only one course across that widened horizon; but I am interested in how widening our horizons may also hold the potential for fostering social relations and social hopes that exceed neoliberal aspirations.

Aspirations for all?

A close reading of the Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers strategy for social mobility reveals some interesting hints as to the limits of the aspiration agenda and raises questions about precisely whose aspirations the government hopes to influence.  As I have previously noted, throughout this policy document there are various references to the need to improve the attainment, skills and aspirations of young people from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ and promote ‘fairness’:

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 document sets out in great detail how social class and family income continues to impact on young people’s educational attainment, their access to higher education and their likelihood of achieving social mobility.  For example,

Children from the most disadvantaged areas are only a third as likely to enter higher education as children from the most advantaged areas, and are less likely to attend the most selective higher education institutions. (pg 19).

The report even notes that when people from state schools do attend university they often outperform their peers with similar levels of attainment who attended independent schools. So far, so good.  But then the report begins to look deeper at the trends affecting particular sub-groups of students and that’s where it begins to get interesting:

Participation in higher education by white British teenagers is lower than for many ethnic minorities, particularly the middle of the attainment range. (pg 21).

And, a little later, in relation to proposed improvements in vocational education:

There are already many excellent vocational training programmes but some courses currently offer little positive value in terms of earnings and career progression. This is particularly important for social mobility because young people who choose vocational routes come disproportionately from low income backgrounds and from areas of multiple disadvantage.  Where young people from low income backgrounds are choosing low value vocational routes, this may serve to undermine future social mobility rather than improve it. (pg 45)

It is all very well to develop educational interventions that are sensitive to where particular groups of young people are already at, but it seems that for all of the present government’s talk of fairness and the importance of social mobility, these interventions seem to take existing differential levels of attainment for granted and will serve to reinforce not challenge them.  The trajectory of the current policy proposals seems to offer different interventions for different groups of students that will reinforce existing classed and racialised divisions of labour, rather than offer equal opportunities for social mobility for all.  White British teenagers (from families on modest incomes) achieving results in the middle of the attainment range will have their aspirations worked on with the intention that they should progress to higher education.  Low achieving students from low income families in disadvantaged areas will continue to be encouraged to take up vocational training.  Although this approach might enable absolute social mobility to the extent that the present generation of teenagers might be able to do better than their parents, I see little evidence that this strategy will deliver the promised relative social mobility whereby the comparative chances of people from different social backgrounds achieving social mobility will be improved.

Cameron and Caribbean students at Oxford

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.