If you’ve never tasted a banana, you’re unlikely to ask for one with lunch. That just means you haven’t experienced banana yet, not that you mightn’t love it once you have.
What does ‘low aspiration’ mean? Does it mean that I have decided what I want to do with my life, on the basis of rich, objective information, and that it isn’t ambitious? Or does it mean that my life so far has given me a narrower-than-average range of experiences to draw from in considering my future? In which case I might have decided what to do with my life on the basis of very little information. My plans may appear to lack ambition as a result. In which case my aspiration isn’t ‘low’ – it’s been limited by a range of factors.
Good schools provide inspiration and ideas. They expand horizons and fuel ambition. They support the development of confidence and skills to enable the young people they serve. Good schools do this irrespective of the backgrounds of their students.
Stretching young people with more limited access to role models, networks and opportunities en route to adulthood, to help them plan a future unbounded by the patterns they see in their own households, is crucial. It’s also a big conceptual leap for any student.
My sister and I were the first in my family to go to university or college. But my Mum read a lot (ranging from Philip K Dick to classics) and my dad was thought an oddity as a dairy farmer with a love for classical music. He was registered blind, could never read or write comfortably. His mum was a church organist. So he listened rather than read. Radio 3 bumped Radio 1 as his channel of choice in the milking parlour. My sister ended up at music college, and I ended up studying English. We are text-book studies of the power of parental modelling. My ‘careers’ development at school was a brown box file in the library. As a farmer’s daughter I was presumed to be preparing to become a farmer’s wife. My school didn’t help us make any conceptual leaps (they told my sister she’d never make it to music college for a start) – so thank goodness for the modelling we got at home.
For most of my early teenage years, my immediate aspiration was to make it to the Gardens Nightclub in Yeovil. It was an ambition I shared with my friends – and I can still remember how important it was. I did at least have the chance to meet farmers of marriageable age there. My school would have understood this desire. Expected it of me, I suppose.
I sat next to a charismatic, millionaire digital entrepreneur at an National awards ceremony earlier this year. Like me he was from the West Country – and he’s about my age. He had shared the same driving ambition to get through the doors of The Gardens. The sense of mutual validation was remarkable. We agreed that the club itself was a disappointment – a mirage of tacky tin palm trees, smoke machines and sticky coconut-based cocktails – and also agreed that it was a bonus that neither of us had got knifed. The parasol on the cocktail, as it were. Getting a pass to The Gardens was a part of my growing up. I didn’t learn everything from University. I didn’t find a husband there either, mind you.
‘High’ and ‘Low’ aspiration sound like value judgements rather than statements of fact. How about ‘narrow’ and ‘wide’ as more accurate descriptions of access and experience?
Good schools don’t knock ‘low’ aspiration out of you – they fuel ambition and unlock the potential of amazing young people by expanding horizons and by being surprised by nothing. They help young people work out what they are capable of and they don’t make assumptions. They give them a chance to demonstrate how they can contribute to their communities (often they already are, and don’t realise) and what their futures could be like because of who they are. They help them genuinely visualise an ambitious future for themselves, and show them exactly how to get there. We aren’t all the same. I was frightened of cows. I was going to be a wash-out as a farmer’s wife. But no-one ever asked.
My entrepreneurial dinner companion and I were briefly united by our background. Our enthusiasm baffled our table companions – and delighted us both – these connections with identity and personal history are important. Growing up on a farm, loving dancing, being from the West Country – they are all part of who I am. No exercise in ‘raising’ aspiration should turn us away from these experiences, nor should they limit where we go next. Our job is to stretch aspiration and include in that stretch all the experiences that make us unique. To dispense with any part of our heritage should be by choice. In this way, we strengthen communities and identity through our schools, and support genuinely comprehensive education.
My sister is a successful mezzo soprano now – but she’s still a dab hand at hauling bales of hay!
Honor Wilson-Fletcher, CEO of the Aldridge Foundation