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.

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Aspiration and its discontents

I have recently submitted a bid for a new research project with Peter Kraftl and David Harvie as part of a broader application to the Leverhulme Trust for a programme of research on A fair share or an accursed share? Generating a just common future. Our project, Aspiration and its discontents in modern Britain, if successful, will critically investigate the emergent ‘politics of aspiration’ in Britain over recent decades. It will trace how these individualised forms of aspiration superseded forms of social hope based upon collective experiences of hoping/planning for the future, and examine their implications for social justice. As well as examining these changing social policy discourses, our research will study groups whose aspirations for ‘fair shares’ differ from contemporary (individualistic) norms.

Aspirations and social hope

There is an interesting article by Nic Beuret in Issue Minus 1 of The Paper .  In this piece, “Hope Against Hope: a necessary betrayal“, Beuret makes a number of very poignant observations about how ‘aspiration’ functions as the dominant form of social hope in neoliberal economies.

“There are competing versions of hope in a given society, but there is also a hegemonic form to hope. For us, living in a becoming- neoliberal world, that hegemonic form is aspiration. Not aspiration in the sense to aspire to greatness in some heroic Greek sense, or something romantic and colourful. No, for us aspiration has a particular hue and tint – it means social mobility. It means a better job, more money, more things and a higher rung on the career ladder. Hope is individual in our world, never collective – the hope of entrepreneurs dreaming of making it big. Not just climbing the ladder but also winning out over all others. We hope for social mobility. … Hope, the dominant form of hope, is to do better than your parents.”

I agree.  As I have argued in my recent writing, over the course of New Labour’s period in government, the central aim of widening participation policy shifted from a focus on promoting social equity to a more explicit attempt to discipline the hopes young people developed for their adult lives.  The aim of ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations was to instill in them a desire for social mobility and the drive to take personal responsibility for achieving this.  In the process, all other hopes for the future came to be dismissed as inappropriate – as ‘low aspirations’.

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.

Book chapter

I have a chapter included in a new book Critical Geographies of Childhood and Youth: Policy and Practice edited by Peter Kraftl, John Horton and Faith Tucker, and due to be published later this year by the Policy Press.  My chapter,  “The place of aspiration: moving up or moving beyond?”, provides a broad overview of the work developed through this project.  Here’s a snapshot of what it contains:

“I begin with a short overview of the history of British widening participation policy since 1997, suggesting that there have been three distinct phases in the implementation of this policy over this period.  This chapter focuses on the second of those phases, in which the emphasis was on interventions designed to change the aspirations of young people from low income families so that they could contribute to future national economic competitiveness.  In the second section of this chapter I examine how interventions around young people’s aspirations during this period (2001 – 2010) simultaneously operated in relation to multiple spatial scales.  In the third section I examine the spatiality of specific interventions by widening participation practitioners to influence young people’s aspirations in practice.  Through understanding how these interventions developed and are practiced, it is possible to formulate more critical approaches to developing young people’s aspirations (that are all the more important given the Coalition government’s cuts to widening participation funding).  In the final section of the paper, I offer an alternative spatial language to describe widening participation interventions.  I conclude by considering the political and ethical value of enabling young people to broaden their horizons by developing an outward-looking orientation to the world beyond their home neighbourhoods.” (Brown, forthcoming)

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.

Public appearances

I’ve allowed this blog to sit fallow, without updating, for a little too long.  To get me back into the swing of posting here, I thought it would be useful to provide an update on what I’ve been doing over the last year or so.  The Place of Aspirations project has had a number of outings since I last posted.

In March 2010, I gave a paper entitled “The place of aspirations: targeting widening participation initiatives in policy and practice” at a workshop on Educational Diversity: difference matters and matters of difference organised by Yvette Taylor at the University of Newcastle-Upon_Tyne.  The day contained a fascinating range of papers addressing issues of gender, (dis)ability, class and ethnicity in education.  I found Sylvia Walby’s paper on “Intersectionality and the equality architecture” particularly fascinating and she provoked me to think further about the role of widening participation practitioners as key intermediaries in providing (some) working class students access to higher education and social mobility.

More recently, I was invited to present a research seminar in the School of Environment and Technology at the University of Brighton.  My paper was called “Orientating young people’s aspirations” and explored how work on young people’s aspirations attempts to orientate their lives along particular, socially valued life trajectories, but also how those young people who develop and are able to act on ‘high’ aspirations frequently have particular orientations to the world beyond their immediate home environments.