Category Archives: geographies of education

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.

Children’s Geographies Special Issue

Along with Sarah Holloway  and Helena Pimlott-Wilson (both at Loughborough University), I have recently edited a special issue of the journal Children’s Geographies on the theme of Education and Aspiration.

The papers in this special issue originated from the Geographies of Education conference held at Loughborough in September 2009.  In addition to my paper on the “Emotional geographies of young people’s aspirations for adult life”, the issue contains papers exploring importance of discourses around aspiration in higher education (see papers by myself; and Hinton); in the compulsory years of schooling (see papers by Bright; Butler and Hamnett; Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson; and Purcell); and in diverse forms of family-based learning (see papers by Wainwright and Marandet; and Pimlott-Wilson).

As we state in the editorial piece (Holloway, Brown and Pimlott-Wilson 2011: 3), the special issue has three aims:

“Firstly, we want to explore the roles of different institutions and actors in shaping and implementing neo-liberal education policies which affect the lives of young people and their families.”

“Secondly, we are hoping to further incorporate young people and their families into geographies of education by producing class-differentiated and regionally-specific analyses of parents’ and young people’s aspirations for education.”

“Thirdly, we hope to show how young people’s and their families’ aspirations exceed the limits of the discourse on aspiration identified in neo-liberal policy discourse.”

We conclude the editorial introduction stating, optimistically, that

“Our hope is, that as geographers expand their studies of education and aspiration, they will not only extend emerging critiques of how young people’s aspirations have become the object of neoliberal policy interventions, but will also delink the strong association of aspirations with material wealth, educational qualifications and professional employment to explore the range of potential futures that children aspire to realise.” (Holloway, Brown and Pimlott-Wilson 2011: 4).

We welcome feedback on the special issue.