Emerging themes and findings

Now that I have had a chance to analyse much of the date collected through the various components of this research project, I am developing a clearer idea of the key themes that have emerged through this research.  For now, I want to flag up three of the main strands of my analysis.

  1. Aspirations-talk and scale: there are clear differences in the tone of the language used by ministers (and in official Government publications) depending on the scale in relation to which they are discussing young people’s aspirations.  When young people’s aspirations are mobilised to talk about the potential for developing and maintaining the global competitiveness of the British economy in the decades to come, the language tends to be optimistic and highly ‘aspirational’ (if that’s not a tautology).  In contrast, more and more, when ministers talk about the aspirations of young people themselves (especially when they are deemed not to be high enough to meet the needs of the national economy), the tone is far more one of regulation and control.
  2. Orienting young people’s aspirations.  There are two thread to this set of findings: the first relates to the different spatial metaphors enroled to talk about young people’s aspirations – whether the role of widening participation is to ‘raise aspirations’ or to ‘broaden [young people’s] horizons’.  The use of these two metaphors by ministers and Government agencies has varied over time, and to some degree between different bodies.  My findings suggest that these metaphors matter and they shape widening participation practitioners’ understandings of their work and the form that their professional practice takes.  The second thread here relates to the issues [discussed above, in relation to the recent Cabinet Office findings] about the extend to which young people’s orientation to the wider world shapes their aspirations and ambitions for adult life – and what the consequences of this might be for widening participation practice.
  3. Emotional geographies of young people’s ambitions.  This strand of my work draws on an understanding of ‘aspiration’ (and ‘ambition’) as an emotional sensation, that is deeply entangled with a range of other emotions and affective states.  This analysis approaches young people’s ambitions (and the barriers to their realisation) as often being intimately linked to place (or a desire to escape certain places). Finally, this aspect of my analysis considers the various ways in which widening participation practice seeks to provoke particular emotional experiences for young people – whether that is through attempting to increase their confidence, self-esteem and resilience, or creating ‘wow!’ moments during widening participation events and interventions.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll share more thoughts about each of these issues.

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