Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Unleashing Aspiration"

They would have to call it that, wouldn't they? Hyperbolic meritocratic language is quintessentially New Labour. Alan Milburn's report into social mobility touches on an area I actually know something about, widening access to universities. I have only read the press coverage rather than the report itself, and once I saw that it advocated vouchers for "children from poor backgrounds in areas of under-performing schools so they can go to more popular schools", without so much as a sideways glance at what this would do to the the children and schools left behind, I think I might give it a miss.

This argument is permeated by an old and lazy theme, that widening participation is a means of rescuing a few people from their class rather than a systematic attempt to address the social inequities embedded in our education systems.

Addressing social inequalities is a nice glib phrase, it trips off the tongue easily. Doing it is a little more troublesome. Even in a limited way, it demands an imaginative radicalism that seems in short supply at the moment. And that means making lifelong learning central. There are four broad issues that I think that policy makers need to consider.

1. Any attempt to select out "bright pupils" would instantly label the majority of those left out as incapable and unworthy - 'dim pupils'. It can be destructive.

2. That concentrating on schools and young people means ignoring the profound intergenerational effects of learning cultures. Not only do older people have a right to their own education, but they become powerful role models and advocates for learning throughout their families and communities.

3. There needs to be a recognition that people come to education at different ages and for different reasons. For example, some of the best work I have seen this year has come from prisoners who would never have dreamt of learning if it had not been for their incarceration.

4. And finally we come to that word 'aspiration'. Debate has been plagued by the lazy idea that people are deficient and need reforming by raising their aspiration. Credit where it is due, Milburn rejects this old turkey and is dead right when he says, "it is not that many young people do not have aspirations. It is that they are blocked".

There is plenty of aspiration out there, and not only in "young people", but it is coupled with a sense that higher education is 'not for the likes of us'. There is a reason for that. The cultures of some universities positively scream at people that it is not for the likes of them. It is universities that need to reform, to become more open, to involve themselves in the lives of everyone in their cities and regions. They have to meet the aspirations of people. They have to make dreams happen.

Simply opening the cracks into the elite so a few more of the hoi polloi can squeeze through achieves wonders for some individuals, but what of the others? A genuine commitment to lifelong learning, the engagement of universities with all their communities, the creation of open institutions that are easy to access in many different ways, creates possibilities for the many. And, as regular readers of this blog will now be tired of reading, it is this civic mission that is being strangled by stupid and destructive policies.


Anonymous said...

I can never hear the word aspiration anymore without wincing

Will said...

I can never hear the word tory without wanting to strangle the nearest cunT to me.

Anton Deque said...

As a school failure who has just given up teaching in HE I can only say I completely agreed with you Peter. It is as if we have gained nothing since 1945; or, 1845. We are no further on from that wonderful notion, rich in cynicism, of "the gifted working class child" who might be worthy of the attention of her or his 'betters'. I heard this in my one good ear when young and like Will made me detest the Tories thereafter.