In recent years, raising and maintaining aspirations among disadvantaged young people has become an almost obsessive focus for many people working in education, and in social policy more generally. Even George Osborne’s 2013 budget opens with the sentence: “The Government’s objective is to equip the UK to succeed in the global race, build a stronger economy and a fairer society and to support aspiration.” But is lack of aspiration really a problem? And what role does Information Advice and Guidance have in supporting young people to actually achieve their aspirations?
Are people making false assumptions about the poverty of aspirations amongst disadvantaged pupils?
A couple of months ago a modest Twitter storm was generated by this graph on Sam Baars’ blog, which questions current policy narratives surrounding a ‘culture of worklessness’. According to this data, young people whose parents have never worked are the most likely to voice ‘high’ aspirations for professional, managerial or technical occupations. “Whoa! How could this be?! That’s not what we were expecting!” were the calls of shocked educationalists up and down the country. But actually, it shouldn’t be that surprising at all. As one of Baars’ teenage interviewees explained: “My mum struggles to even survive. And I don’t want that life for my kids.”
Similarly, Carter-Wall and Whitfield found that parents and pupils from every socio-economic background have high aspirations and that “the real difficulty for many children was in knowing how to fulfil their ambitions”. As a result, Loic Menzies suggests that schools and policy-makers should move from ‘Model A’ to Model B’:
Moving towards this model will ensure that resources in schools are focused more effectively on enabling students to achieve their aspirations rather than simply raising them.
So what’s the role of IAG?
Parents have been found to have the greatest impact on young people’s decision-making processes. The graph below, based on data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), demonstrates that the strongest influences on a Y11 student’s likelihood of staying on in full time education are parents and friends, followed by teachers and the now largely non-existent Connexions Personal Advisors.
This is problematic for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, where reliance on family and peers for information and guidance may ‘close down opportunities and limit the possibilities of escaping the conditions of social exclusion’, for instance where family and peers may all have left school at 16 (Macdonald et al. 2005: 873). Moreover, young people from poorer households are more sensitive to the fact that whilst they are studying, they’re still not earning, or as Roberts puts it: “the costs of aiming high” (2009: 364). There is a risk, therefore, that these young people may hold high occupational aspirations on the one hand, but simultaneously choose to go straight into paid employment rather than further and higher education. This is an example of the important role that IAG from outside of the family can play in ensuring young people know which routes through education are most likely to fulfill their aspirations.
What sort of IAG helps pupils understand how to achieve their aspirations?
Rose and Baird (2013) find that young people’s aspirations tend to focus on future careers. However, when asked how the support provided by their school or college helped them ‘to be the kind of person they want to be’, the most popular response was ‘support with personal issues’ such as developing independence and confidence, with only a minority of students citing career-related IAG (2013: 168). Incidentally, these broader personal attributes – from cooperation to self-organising – are precisely those flagged up in a recent UKCES report as being “of equal or greater importance in the workplace” as literacy and numeracy.
According to a survey of 198 employers in which 30 competencies were ranked in order of importance, the CBI conclude that ‘employers prefer ‘soft’ skills in graduates’. For fresh employees being good at communicating, a team player, confident and analytical were all rated more highly than ‘technical knowledge’ (which came 24 out of 30). By the second year of employment the importance of technical knowledge rose to second place. Stuart Pedley-Smith, head of learning in the UK at Kaplan sums this up:
“There is a well-known saying within recruitment – recruit for attitude and train for skill”
All of which supports the argument for IAG focusing on students’ understanding of how to develop broader personal skills and attitudes as well as the routes to achieve their aspirations.
So how can IAG play a role in maintaining young people’s aspirations? Three main conclusions…
- Ensure that IAG is available outside the family and that it shows pupils the steps they need to take to fulfil their aspirations.
- Young people say that the support they value most is help with personal issues and developing the qualities and attitudes that employers value most. IAG in schools should reflect this.
- Change from Model A to Model B. If more effort is put into ensuring that students and parents understand how to realise their already healthy aspirations, then their attainment and motivation will improve.
(c) Flickr, Andrew Bowden