Are we really raising aspirations?

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In schools we assume a lot we probably shouldn't. One of the most damaging of these assumptions is that disadvantaged children want the sort of lives their teachers have but just don't know how to get them. When children make it clear, through bad behaviour or lack of work, they don't want to get qualifications and have professional careers we attribute this to a sort of false consciousness; disadvantaged children, the thinking goes, would want the lives we lead if they knew more about them.

I am not wholly against this. We do have a duty to show and help children access the widest possible range of opportunities. We are generally only really curious about things we know a bit about and, if a child knows nothing of university or professional work, they won't know enough to aspire to them.

Most schools serving disadvantaged communities work hard to try to familiarise poorer children with lives different to their own. We take them to universities, get professors in to speak to them and assign them degree qualified academic mentors. These strategies do some good. I'm sure some children who would not otherwise have considered further education do so because of such schemes.

But not enough do. Too often the seeds we sow are devoured by the fowls of the air.

I think this is because such strategies and schemes only work if they take place in the context of a meaningful academic ethos that helps children see that further education doesn't have to look dramatically different to their own everyday experience. The absence of this ethos can actually make such efforts counterproductive because the difference in culture presents children with an intimidating shock.

It is really very important to note that children who we may see as having low aspirations, quite rightly, don't view themselves that way. Few poorer children look to their teachers and think 'my life is lower than theirs. I want to work hard so I can be like them.' Instead, they are more likely to feel their aspirations are different to those of the degree-qualified professionals they encounter.

Poorer children often live in close-knit, caring communities in which success is defined differently. Being a loving, caring mother, a witty, fun-loving local character or a responsible, capable nursery assistant are seen, quite rightly and understandably, as positive and, crucially, realistic achievements.

Of course, not all the lives children might choose to pursue are as positive as my first set of examples. Some, feeling that success as it is defined by their schools is beyond them, are unfortunately seduced by darker lifestyles. In isolation, no amount of mentoring schemes or trips to university campuses can stop this. Children who don't believe they are capable of achieving the grades necessary for a life they don't really understand or want won't 'raise' their aspirations; indeed such efforts are more likely to make them further disengage. "This isn't my life and it never will be," they are likely to think, "and who'd want it anyway? It's boring."

I actually have huge sympathy for this view. As an adult I've become very interested in dinosaurs but I'm also aware, that at 36, it's probably too late for me to pursue this interest as a career. If I was selected to go on an elite "careers in palaeontology" course I probably wouldn't see the point, knowing that it'd be unlikely I'd ever end up being able to make a living hunting for dinosaur fossils.

Even when aspiration raising programmes are effective, once children are removed from them any benefits will quickly fade if the aims are not embedded and normalised by the schools that run them. If they aren't nurtured these shoots will scorch and, lacking roots, will wither away.

If their aim is to raise student achievement, such schemes put the cart before the horse. If we want poorer children to see exam success and further education as realistic and desirable then schools need to make sure they are doing well academically first. Thinking that underperforming children will improve because of such schemes is to miss the point because an underperforming child will see the goals as irrelevant.

If we really want children to have academic aspirations we need to immerse children in a rich, academic curriculum and ensure they are able to successfully access it. Visits to universities shouldn't cause culture shock; children should see them as natural extensions of their school lives, not a radical and fundamental change to them. If we want them to listen, we must give them ears.

Ben Newmark is a head of humanities and teacher of history. The original version of this piece appeared on his blog

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