Category Archives: Policy

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.

Opening doors, breaking barriers

With the publication yesterday of the Coalition Government’s new strategy document Opening doors, breaking barriers, we now have a clearer picture of how the present goverment will approach social mobility.  They claim that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Government’s social policy” and that their vision is of “a socially mobile country”.

In many ways, this strategy could have been written by New Labour.  Perhaps this is not surprising given that former New Labour Minister Alan Milburn remains the current government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility.  His previous (2009) report, published under the auspices of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, is heavily cited here.  Of course, that report was published with all party support.  It seems there is still political consensus that social mobility is an unambiguously good thing.

As ever in government discussions, social mobility is promoted as a social good for individuals and for the nation:

The lack of social mobility is damaging for individuals.  It also leaves the country’s economic potential unfulfilled. (pg 5)

The promotion of social mobility ties the interests of individuals, in this case children and young people as future worker-citizens, to the interests of the national economy.  Every individual is expected to take responsibility for playing their part in helping the national economy fulfil its potential.  But, almost by definition, the imperative to be socially mobile rests most heavily on the poorest, most precarious sections of society.  In this way, they are expected to do even more to strengthen the economy in the national interest. 

Where there is a distinctive stamp of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies on the political rhetoric contained in this report is in its approach to ‘fairness’.  Fairness is presented as a state where the individual receives the just rewards for the amount of effort they put into education.  Nick Clegg is quoted in the Government’s press release as saying:

Fairness is one of the fundamental values of the Coalition Government. A fair society is an open society where everybody is free to flourish and where birth is never destiny.

As the strategy document makes clear, this ‘fairness’ is the promised reward for hard work.

What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to of the jobs your parents did. (pg 5)

With this emphasis on fair reward for hard work, it is not surprising that many of the policy recommendations contained in the strategy document relate to raising young people’s attainment throughout their schooling. Nevertheless, a concern for young people’s aspirations and an imperative to intervene to ‘raise’ them is still present in this document.  Aspiration is central to social mobility.  It is the specific form of neoliberal social hope that locates a happy future as the reward for taking individual responsibility for one’s social and economic well-being through social mobility.

The educaton system should challenge low aspirations and expectations, dispelling the myth that those from poorer backgrounds cannot aim for top universities and professional careers.  Our schools reforms are intended to raise standards across the system, narrow gaps in attainment and raise aspirations.  …  This is not just about schools or government.  We can all make a difference to raising aspirations and helping people make informed choices about jobs and careers. (pg 6)

Intervention to raise young people’s aspirations becomes a national mobilisation – not just the responsibility of schools and government.  There seems to be a shift in emphasis contained in this report concerning who is best placed to shape and influence young people’s aspirations.  Although schools and universities are still seen as having a role to play here, the Coalition envisage a greater role for businesses in this task.  Whilst the state is taking responsibility for mobilising these interventions, it is distancing itself from the delivery of aspiration-raising initiatives.  Politicians will lead by example, but the state will not be seen to provide these interventions.  Apparently every member of the Cabinet has pledged to join a national scheme to mobilise 100,ooo people to speak about their successful career paths in schools.  Promoting an aspirational orientation to the future is all about encouraging the individual to take responsibility for themselves, so what better way to promote it than through ‘successful’ individuals rather than faceless institutions.  More so than under New Labour, it seems education is being promoted, not as an end in itself or a social good, but as an instrumental stepping stone to a highly skilled professional career for the individual.  Looking out for number one is everything.

The revolt of aspirations

The recent protests by school and university students (November/December 2010) about the Coalition government’s proposals to raise university tuition fees in England from 2012 and abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance for sixth form students demonstrate the extent to which many young people’s aspirations have been raised to the point where they expect to undertake higher education, but also the limits of realizing those aspirations in a time of austerity.  

I would suggest there were two main groups of students who were enraged enough to participate in those protests 1) those from middle class families on modest incomes (‘the squeezed middle’, to use Ed Milliband’s favourite phrase) who have come to take a university education for granted, but whose parents may now have to make hard decisions about which of their children to educated to university-level; and 2) working class students (especially those from aspirational BME families) who have been consistently told that a university degree is their only viable route to social mobility and a comfortable life.  Both groups have had their aspirations (and expectations) viz-a-viz higher education ‘raised’ over the last decade.

Of course, for all of New Labour’s talk of ‘raising’ people’s aspirations, as Mike Raco (2009) has articulated, the aim of the political discourse of ‘aspirations’ was meant to lower people’s expectations of what the state could and should provide for them.  This neoliberal reconfiguration of welfare provision (and the consequent shift in the terms of debates around ‘social justice’ to promote individual rather than social responsibility for change) underpinned many aspects of education and youth policy under the New Labour governments.  However, I would suggest that the student protests reveal just how persistent people’s expectations of the welfare state have been (even as they have taken on board much of the individualised aspirational message promoted to them). It also exposes the contradiction that so many families have been reliant on state support in order to enable them to engage in this individualised culture of aspiration.

I’ll be posting further reflections on recent policy changes, the impact of higher tuition fees and student protests in the weeks to come.

Thoughts on social mobility and the Milburn Report

Alan Milburn’s report Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, produced for the Cabinet Office, has received a huge amount of publicity over the last couple of days. 

It’s been personally really rewarding for me to see some of my former students from the Extended Medical Degree Programme, recruited to train as doctors through the Access to Medicine Project at King’s College London so centrally involved in the launch event for the report and featured in so much of the publcity surrounding it.  It was also a pleasant surprise to see a paper I co-authored with Pamela Garlick ( cited, as evidence in the report.

I’m looking forward to making the time to read the report in full over the next few days, and no doubt I’ll be posting further thoughts once that done.  But, for now, here are some very preliminary reactions to the report and it’s recommendations:

  1. This report recognises the limits of widening participation initiatives over the last twelve years in significantly improving the life chances of young people from working class families.  Certainly, widening participation initiatives have helped widen and increase participation in higher education generally.  But, despite some small scale exemplar projects around the country, widening participation has largely failed to achieve fair access to elite universities and the professions. 
  2. The report acknowledges that the chances of working class young people getting into the upper echalons of several professions are getting worse, not better.  Of course, despite many potentially useful recommendations around educational process and the provision of appropriate careers advice, the report fails to challenge the power of the middle classes to control education as a means to safe-guard and reproduce their privilege.
  3. Although the report contains a whole chapter on ‘raising aspirations’, its title (Unleashing Aspirations) really indicates something of a shift in a way this Government thinks about young people’s aspirations.  The implication is that many young people from all social classes have high aspirations for themselves.  They don’t need their aspirations ‘raised’, they need support realising them, and that entails action to tackle deep-seated structural inequalities in society.
  4. Too many of the report’s recommendations rest on the assumption that the best way to tackle these inequalities is to enable working class teenagers to participate in the type of activities that many of their middle class peers take for granted (e.g. join the Combined Cadet Force to learn how to be a team player) and become more ‘like us’, rather than asking more fundamental questions about the reproduction of privilege, and the social value of generalising the aspirational, middle class cultures promoted here.

Overall, I find myself quite conflicted in my reactions to this report.  I value the social justice argument that it is important to enable all young people to achieve the best that they can, no matter what their social background.  But I also recognise that many of the recommendations in this report (and the ways in which it envisages them being enacted) both re-privilege middle class cultures andstrengthen the neo-liberal forms of governance and educational provision that have exacerbated these growing social inequalities over the last two decades.  I am left asking more fundamental questions about a division of labour that privileges professional careers over other forms of work – and these, in turn, prompt me to think quite critically about the contradictions of ‘social mobility’.

Cabinet Office think more spatially about aspirations

I recently discovered a briefing presentation from the Cabinet Office (published in January 2009), Aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities, which begins to add a new level of spatial sophistication to the Government’s analysis of how place impacts on young people’s aspirations.  The key findings from this report state:

Communities matter. Young people in certain types of neighbourhood are less likely to develop ambitious, achievable aspirations.  These neighbourhoods tend to have high levels of deprivation. (pg 2)

Nothing new or surprising there.  However, the next sentence takes the analysis in an interesting new direction:

However deprived communities are not all the same.  Young people in some very deprived communities have high aspirations (pg 2)

The Cabinet Office team have used MOSAIC geodemographic classifications to analyse the progression rates to higher education from different postcodes that figure highly on the Index of Multiple Deprivation.  They recognise that deprived inner city neighbourhoods with high concentrations of (certain) minority ethnic groups have significantly higher progression rates than many predominantly white working class neighbourhoods that have been blighted by deindustrialisation over the last 30 years.  They recognise that dense social networks may offer valuable mutual support in some circumstances but can lead to an isolated and insular local culture that mitigates against high aspirations for young people growing up in those areas.

This research has clearly fed into the development of the Government’s latest policy initiative to address young people’s aspirations at a community level.  The Inspiring Communities  programme was also announced in January and will be formally launched in the summer.

Interestingly, the socially deprived MOSAIC categories that the Cabinet Office identify as producing young people with high aspirations (Counter-Cultural Mix, Metro Multiculture, and South Asian Industry) are precisely the same types of neighbourhood that Pamela Garlick and I found large numbers of medical students from ‘widening participation backgrounds’ had been recruited from in our 2007 paper ‘Changing Geographies of Access to Medical Education’ published in Health & Place.

Despite these similarities, I think there is a danger of over-relying on geodemographics.  More work needs to be done to analyse what it is about the attitudes of these young people and their families that makes a difference.  The Cabinet Office identify that many deprived white working class communities tend to be isolated and inward-looking.  In this respect, I think they might be on to something – that the stance of a young person (and, by extension, that of their family and social network) in relation to the world may be crucial.  If you have an outward-looking orientation, looking to what Doreen Massey has called ‘place beyond place’, then you are more likely to have extensive social networks to draw on for support and inspiration, and you are more likely to be able to see opportunities for yourself beyond those that are immediately to hand in your locality.

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.