Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Do We Deal With The Aspiration Gap?


The Prince’s Trust has just highlighted the problem of a ‘youth underclass’. A new report from the organization identifies a number of areas where there is a clear ‘aspiration gap’ between the UK’s richest and poorest young people. Amongst other figures, 16 per cent (more than 1 in 6) say their families and friends make fun of them when they talk about finding a good job; more than a quarter (29%) had few or no books in their home; more than a third (36%) did not have anywhere quiet at home to do their schoolwork. The net effect of such conditions has been to drastically reduce the aspirations of young people from the poorest areas. They believe they will never have a decent job and that their future is likely to be a dead-end one, probably on benefits.

The report, produced in association with RBS, also suggests a decline in aspirations amongst poorer young people, who see their hopes slide as they get older. Prince’s Trust chief executive Martina Milburn said “Our research suggests that all young people start off with similarly high aspirations. However, those from poorer homes are significantly more likely to lose confidence in their own abilities and ambitions as they approach adulthood.”


As David Cameron and the Coalition Government look beyond taming the deficit to the business of policies that improve people’s lives, they could do worse than consider the challenges posed by the Prince’s Trust Report to both their own Big Society vision, and to the more substantive area of education policy.


The Prince’s Trust itself is a classic example of effective Big Society engagement, albeit with impressive personal and financial backing. They aim to help 50,000 “vulnerable young people” find jobs and start to have confidence in their future this year. They have, over the years, notched up an impressive record of engagement in some of the country’s most deprived areas, moving in to fill the vacuum of state aid and support. And it is arguable that, as a charity, freed from the shackles that seems to inhabit so much state sponsored support, they have been able to act with greater freedom and dynamism. But not every charity working amongst the urban poor can boast the backing and clout of an heir to the throne, and even the Trust only seems at times to be scratching the surface of the poverty problem. Smaller charities and community based initiatives are likely to be far more stretched, and could just benefit from a dose of state aid to keep them and their works going. If the Big Society is more than just a call for volunteerism to step in and make good the state’s deficit, it would be good to see a more defined way being articulated from Number 10 about just how the state and charities can work together to alleviate urban and rural deprivation, lack of aspiration and a host of other problems associated with poverty. A dynamic fusion between state and charities could accomplish much, and would begin to make the Big Society look a lot more substantial.


Beyond the need for good, well supported charity involvement however, lies the need for more impressive state action in the area of education. There is no mystery to the fact that education catalyses and inspires aspiration, and that one of the biggest failings in the state system’s education provision to its poorest citizens lies in the very figures produced by the Prince’s Trust. What is lacking in the home, in terms of books and an ethos of achievement, could be provided by a school.


But where do we find such schools? Could they be Michael Gove’s Free Schools? Hardly. As of May the Department for Education had received a mere 323 applications to set up such schools, of which 10 – 20 are expected to actually start in September. Bear in mind, too, that these are schools set up by already motivated individuals, catering to a relatively small potential clientele of similarly motivated families. So what about the Academies? They may have been part of the answer, when they were focused on re-vamping existing poor performing schools, but the current programme amounts to little more than offering a financial incentive to successful schools to opt out of local authority control. Not exactly a vision for aspirational attainment in the poorest areas of the UK.


In fact, of course, the answer lies in an idea far too radical for any party to apparently want to commit to. It lies in providing well funded and well supported schools in the most deprived boroughs of the country, which can cater directly to the pupils’ own education needs and work as mini-communities to quickly and collectively raise the aspirations of their students. It would involve placing young people of similar academic abilities together, thus allowing them to move at a faster pace through their curriculum, as well as playing off each other in their learning, and giving a sense of competition to their academic progress. With teachers able to direct their teaching more selectively, and students able to share a common ethos of attainment and aspiration, it would be the fastest method of promoting social mobilization and dealing with the aspiration gap that we could have. Unfortunately, the name of such a system is the grammar school system. And it’s enough to send every elitely educated member of the cabinet running for cover. Pity. Because it could just work – again.

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