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The Limits of Aspiration

A version of this article first appeared in the TES magazine print edition in October 2016.



Aspiration has become quite the fashion in education. It appears to be the solution to everything from social mobility to boys’ underachievement, from poor discipline to dreary school culture. And we might say that, in so far it is willing to draw distinctions between good and bad choices, it has value.

It soon gets a little more complicated, however. Because as aspiration is often presented, one discerns at its heart the presumption of a certain set of outcomes, which broadly align with the goals of social mobility in general. Why else would one school announce that it aspires for all its students to enter university?

I do not intend to argue against that ambition, and I instinctively wince when I hear the suggestion that not all kids should aspire to further learning. My concern is more elsewhere: that our accounts of aspiration exclude too many, making pupils choose between occasionally contrary impulses, at times incentivising against itself whilst simultaneously denigrating that choice.

The Messiness of Life

We rarely allow to intrude into our definitions of aspiration those accounts which speak of technical or vocational flourishing; successfully attaining status within the knowledge economy is generally what counts. Whilst government figures might look at income patterns to explore changes in social mobility, it is difficult to deny that the concept also contains a cultural edge. For our politicians and our thinktanks, social mobility means being inducted into the middle-class – for the working-classes, it is the ability, often the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from.

Which means that for our children, it is the reality that you must do so, if you wish to enjoy this thing known as success. Here, perhaps, the root of that long-observed fear within working-class communities in particular, that education does not expand minds but sows prejudices, turning children against an upbringing rather than building upon it. Put simply, for a young person from certain parts of our country, pursuing the social mobility dream can feel irreconcilable with background: from accent to habit, one feels compelled to choose between the two.

But life is messier than this. Whereas as some might see a background that needs to be overcome, others might see an upbringing that made us who or what we are, a web of connections and relationships that sustain us. Virtue and sound sense might well find expression in the decision to leave home and pursue these accounts of success, but it does not exist there exclusively. For others, it can also exist in becoming a full part of that web of life and community that has maintained and sustained, that gives meaning and identity, an affirming rite of passage all the more powerful in tight-knit communities. The social mobility narrative has neglected to recognise the virtues and good fortune in precisely that upbringing which it deems students must overcome. In so doing, it creates false opposition, consigning our children to a choice between success and perceived stagnation, entrenching the notion that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, rarely when we stay.

Which can put us in a difficult position. We want our children to be successful, but if our only account of success is exclusively tied up with social mobility, and the designated pathway for achieving it, then we risk disenfranchising those who decide that the costs of pursuing such accounts are too high. Making success and rootedness a zero-sum game will only lead to alienation of the rooted, of those whom Jon Cruddas has called ‘the Settlers’ in contemporary society, calling into question the value, and dignity, of their own shot at the good life. It feels instinctively unwise to set the price of aspiration as something seemingly in conflict with those virtues embodied in the decisions of those who choose other paths – family, friends, duties, commitments, obligations, love.

This is particularly acute when one takes physical geography into account, the issue which really does confound the meritocratic ideal by introducing a variable which is much harder to circumvent. It might be straightforward if you live in a big city or within easy range of a good university, but if you’re from (say) Workington, how do you become ‘socially mobile’ without first leaving all your family and friends behind? The nearest Russell Group university is 100 miles away: might social mobility, and the esteemed universities deemed most likely to deliver it, be as much about physical geography as it is a deficiency in the virtue of aspiration?

Entering the professions presents the student with a similar dilemma, whilst practising within them might render you better off elsewhere, too. Factor in the debt (which, despite people pointing at graphs and insisting otherwise, really does influence the decision-making of the working-class), and the living costs: if some decide this too high a price, are we to decide they simply lack aspiration?

Which leads to the question: have we painted ourselves into a corner where aspiration, and by extension social mobility, are for too many deemed antithetical to their background and upbringing and the human relationships which reside there? And if we have, then are we really happy with that?

All things considered, maybe we should be less surprised if a cohort decide that the orthodoxies of ‘aspiration’ aren’t for them, and by extension the academic pathways that they have been lead to believe are irrevocably tied up with it. Not because they are not aspirational, but because the way that term is configured in educational discourse leaves untouched their own accounts of flourishing. Because of this, maybe we should concern ourselves less with defining the pathways of aspiration, and worry more about our core aim – to deliver excellent education to all, and to make all believe that it really is important for them, whatever future paths they choose.

The Caveat

And yet…

I live in an area that might be considered prime target for those pious lectures from chief inspectors and politicians being fabulously successful down in London with all the advantages that come with it – the provinces, if you will. I am animated by a desire to expand horizons and bring a world into the classroom the better to convince the kids within it that it is worthy of exploration. I try to challenge insularity and lack of intellectual curiosity, and was quietly delighted when some of our students entered into top universities this year. I have come across students who genuinely do not see the allure of visiting Rome, or watching theatre, or appreciating art, and it leaves me disheartened. It is a lamentable fact that lack of access can lead to lack of interest, and lack of interest can lead to refusal to access. Yet the fundamentals of a good education require us to overcome that, to persists in trying to show our students why these things matter. In other words, something in the aspiration vision does indeed chime, even if (for me) it is not quite what its adherents generally think it to be.

Whilst conceding the point, we must nonetheless remain alert to arguments that go too far in the opposite direction. For example, the claim that aspiration and social mobility is just middle-class imperialism, followed by the argument, no doubt well-meaning, that we shouldn’t impose middle-class normativity on to working-class kids and judge them deficient for not having met the ambitions and values of a different social class.

Whilst there may be the grain of benign instinct buried away here – it at least acknowledges that we need to think about different social realities and not just insist we can bootstrap folk out of their origins – it nonetheless patronises. Why would we want to tell working class kids they needn’t worry about doing the kind of things some middle-class people do, when our real concern is them not having to shed heritage and identity as an entrance fee?

This is where the danger lies. Entwining aspiration solely with university can and does convince some that education is only valuable or worth persevering with if your life decisions align with that view of post-school life. Don’t want to be a doctor? Prefer to be a mechanic? Fine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn your Shakespeare or know your Windrush. The moment we tell ourselves that it does – the moment we assign aspiration and education excellence to a particular pathway – is the moment we deny our children their shared rights and privileges of a cultural inheritance.

This is why our configuration of education around aspiration might need to be detached from professional outcome – not because aspiration is a middle-class thing, but because in tying it to a certain pathway we have decided that it can never be a working-class thing. The result? A disjointed philosophy which divides students between the practical and the scholarly, bustling them off into the vocational or the academic, according to which aspect of the market they might best serve.

It cannot be emphasised enough that this is a modern ruse. An educated, articulate and learned working-class is not at all a contradiction in terms. Our history, and no less our cultural heritage, screams this at us. It might be tempting to assign openness to scholarship as the product of a more enlightened era when education was seen as food for the soul, though perhaps that is to sentimentalise what was as likely to be the interplay of pragmatism and ingrained wisdom – it is through education that we best resist oppression, through education that we best discern and assert our interests, through education that we give ourselves the best chance of succeeding in the art of living well.

Working-class kids want to study for a degree? Brilliant. All the better. But they should not have to leave who they are and where they are from behind at matriculation. Nor have ingrained into them the insidious belief that those who chose otherwise – those back home – are somehow failing in life.

That we have come to accept otherwise can only be the consequence a utilitarian estimation of education: if some kids work well with their hands, why do they need their heads? Why aspire? And all the while, a group of middle-class pupils corralled toward university, regardless, as aspiration fails to present itself in any other socially acceptable form.

Inclusive Aspiration

The opposite to aspiration is not and need not be stagnation, and yet we seem to have made it so. In so doing, we unwittingly reaffirm the idea that a good education is for those who seek to follow that pathway into undergraduate study and beyond, and not really for anybody else. But the price of pursuing that vision remains high enough – with both economic and human costs – that some decide the normative routes are not for them. This is not because they are not aspirational, but because their aspiration expresses itself in ways more closely aligned to their values and obligations, duties and desires. In short: if given a choice between abstract ideas of success and social mobility on the one hand, and concrete realities of rootedness and (hopefully) flourishing on the other, some choose the latter of the two. Not every bond is a tie that binds – some become the ladders that help us soar.

And so the questions present themselves: what do we have to offer these children beyond a disappointed sigh and sometimes a sneer? Can we rescue working-class culture from the clutches of those who think it is only ever something that must be abandoned or overcome? How do we convince our students that an excellent education is a gift for all, wherever your ambitions lie?

Either way, it seems to me important that we do. Lest we continue to scratch our heads and wonder why so many of those who sit before us continue to feel uninspired, alienated, by what we offer, by what we say, and by what we tell them they should aspire toward.


Teachers on Treadmills

Playing the Good Game

I used to love football as a kid. The camaraderie was a key part of it, of course, but I also genuinely enjoyed the technical aspect of the game: I learned my craft through endless rounds of heads and volleys, of one-man knockout, of ‘wall-y’, of kick-ups and curby, of round-the-world and, of course, during games with my mates at the weekends. Having a kickabout, trying new stuff, getting better, getting stuff wrong and it not being the end of the world.

When I left school at 16, I left home and signed for Norwich City. Within a year, I hated football. No longer could I simply enjoy: everything was about improvement. About getting better. About doing things differently. About analysing the minutiae of performance and never quite being satisfied with this aspect, or that outcome, about examining this, reflecting on that, getting better. And always high-stakes. I was captain of the U19s from the age of 17 onward, but the added responsibility made little difference: football had become a technocratic process, leached of the very thing that, for me, ever gave it sparkle. Or put another way, one could no longer savour and enjoy the very thing that first inspired my commitment to the game: it had now become little but an endless process of CPD.

Of course, some thrived in that environment, and a few of my team mates from those days have gone on to have successful careers. But many more didn’t. And, to cede the point, maybe we can agree that that is how it should be in an elitist environment: football can afford to have tremendously high attrition rates, since supply vastly outstrips the demand. Football, in other words, can afford to be picky, to risk losing some gems, in the name of improving its stock.

But not every employment sector has that luxury.

Talking a Good Game

There is a tribe of educationalists who have discovered that issuing pious platitudes and talking tough about education can do wonders for career advancement. They have chosen the broad path: elevating easy analyses to the universal whilst ignoring contextual details consigns them to forever fail at bringing about the transformation they desire. Cries of sanctimony, of moral judgment, might impress rightly-concerned outsiders, but it rarely acts as a magic wand for reality.

One conduit for this tough-talking has been the transformation of the term ‘professionalism’, which now acts as a kind of educational Sorting Hat for those of a particular mindset, a particular educational philosophy, wherein doing your job well is not really what matters, so much as doing it a certain way, and from within the realms of a certain educational perspective. Armed with weak analogies and apparent status-anxiety, they seem to want teaching to imitate the rest of the ‘professions’: slick suits and industry jargon, research papers and data analyses, and a constant focus on improving practice, improving procedure, improving outcome.

And in this, they’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not entirely right, either.

Being Good Enough

Placing oneself on an endless treadmill of reflection and improvement is exhausting. Having no time to stop, to rest, to consolidate, is exhausting. Always being never quite as good as one could possibly be is exhausting. There is a sort of spiritual violence in being convinced that, wherever you’re at, whatever you’re doing, you could (for which read ‘should’) be doing it better. And at times that can cut deep.

Some people might thrive off that – indeed, they might even make a decent career telling everyone else that they, too, should thrive off that, just like they do. And that they should be undertaking CPD in their evenings, their weekends, goodness, even during their maternity leave. Because, we are told, that’s what good teachers, professionals, do.

But here’s the thing we must always remember, for our sanity as much as any shred of work-life balance – most good teachers, and many of the best, really don’t do that. Or, perhaps more accurately, most do some of the time, but at others are quite happy just getting through. Just managing. Just doing enough.

This is not a spiritual or moral or professional failing: it is real life. Sometimes we feel on top of our work, expansive, ready to learn new things, take on new projects. Sometimes we don’t. Or sometimes we can’t, because just getting through to the end of each day is a struggle.

Getting through to the end of each day. Intact. Our results broadly on track. At some point, we are going to have to recognise the value in that, and stop treating it as a minimum and barely-worthy-of-recognition expectation, rather than the important achievement it really is.

Because as things stand, it really is an important, if increasingly difficult, achievement. And the sense of gratitude that should flow from it from those who benefit, much like the sense of pride that should flow from it from those who deliver, is not helped by driving a culture in which one always harbours the feeling that it could, should, must be better. And that failing to be perpetually devoted to this act of self-flagellation is a weakness, a failing, a lack of professionalism.

Of course it could be better. All know that. But sometimes it is good enough. And sometimes, good enough should mean precisely that. Or else more and more folk might well decide that, by the rules of the game, they can never be good enough, or, worse still, are not prepared to be.


The Ordinary Teacher

The Myth of Maximal Efficiency 

The Dignity of Being a Teacher

The NeoTraddie Revolution