JRF report says aspirations among young are realistic but poor knowledge of pathways into work


Social mobility is high on the political agenda of all parties now. One charge made against some state schools, particularly those serving the most disadvantaged communities, is that there is a poverty of expectations, sometimes termed ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. With such low expectations pupils aspire to not very much and this mind set becomes embedded.

There is a basic assumption, informing public policy, that aspirations are low among disadvantaged communities and, so the argument goes, if you raise aspirations educational achievement will therefore increase. This will deliver in turn greater equity and  make the UK economy more competitive. Public policy has a key  role in ensuring that these ends are attained.  However, recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation places a large question mark over these assumptions. Its report ‘The influence of parents, places and poverty on  educational attitudes and ‘aspirations-October 2011) finds that ‘Young people had high aspirations; they wanted to go to university and attain professional and managerial jobs in greater numbers than the labour market could fulfil. There was little evidence of fatalism faced with depressed labour markets, or of a belief that not working was acceptable.’ The report examined the educational and career aspirations of young people growing up in diverse areas of disadvantage in Nottingham, London and Glasgow. The period between ages 13 and 15 was critical, and the importance of place was underlined by changes in ambitions in the three areas over this time.  The report found that Young people’s aspirations were not predominantly unrealistic. At 13, the ideal occupations of many were drawn from sport or celebrity, but this had waned by age 15. It was not the case that large numbers of young people wanted to become pop stars or Premiership footballers. However, among young people and their families with high aspirations, knowledge of the pathways through education and employment to realise these ambitions was limited. The data showed that places with a shared status of deprivation could be quite different in their social makeup and how this played out in people’s life experiences. Generalisations about attitudes, beliefs and behaviours surrounding aspirations in disadvantaged communities are unhelpful, and need to be avoided.  Factors affecting aspirations, whether deriving from school, place or family, tended to be consistent and reinforcing, pushing young people towards or away from fulfilling high aspirations. In Nottingham and London, they emerged at school level because the school was so strongly rooted in the community. The more economically diverse school in Glasgow showed these patterns at a smaller scale. But the overall consistency of factors was striking across all three settings.  However, patterns of forming aspirations are likely to vary widely across the UK. Areas of greater and lesser deprivation, and with different demographical and social factors, would potentially have other, quite specific outcomes in terms of aspirations. This study deliberately looked at distinctive areas, expecting them to have specific characteristics. But it was not exhaustive, and other challenges could be found in places with different characteristics.  The authors conclude ‘that policy to increase social mobility needs to go beyond assumptions about certain communities having low aspirations – it needs to tackle barriers to fulfilling them. Policies also need tailoring to the specifics of areas. Better information is required to support young people in understanding how schooling, post-compulsory education and work fit together.’

Again there is a clear message here about how important attitudes and choices are aged 13 and how limited, as things stand, is  the knowledge  among aspirational young people  of the pathways through education and employment. We come back again to the crucial  importance of good quality, independent, professional advice and guidance as well as targeted mentoring of  our most disadvantaged pupils at this crucial age. Many schools, however, will in the future, only be giving very limited face to face advice to pupils at this age, opting  instead for the cheaper, less effective web based advice .

If the Government is serious about its social mobility agenda and improving access for our most disadvantaged to our best universities then it will have to change its approach  and radically improve the support and guidance afforded to young pupils at the age of 13


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