Children’s less successful progress in education is often blamed on their, and/or their parents’, poor aspirations. This has become known as the ‘poverty of aspiration’. Aspirations have become a key educational policy driver in Scotland and the rest of the UK and are seen as critical levers for closing the attainment gap between children and young people of high and low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Yet children living in poverty do have high aspirations for themselves. Children and young people do not start off with low expectations. When they are younger they have the same hopes and dreams as all children, however, their confidence in their ability to attain their aspirations becomes diminished over time. Aspirations, even in communities struggling with poverty, are very high—the missing element is the knowledge of how to make these aspirations real and obtainable.
Parents living in poverty also have high aspirations for their children but feel unable to engage with their child’s learning in the home and feel inadequate in their knowledge and experience to help their children. There is no crisis in aspirations but rather difficulty for poor parents ‘to sustain those aspirations over time or turn them into reality‘. Yet, it is not only politicians that charges parents with having low aspirations for their children. Teachers too cite low aspirations on the part of parents for children’s poorer educational attainment. This has an effect on how teachers and school staff engage with children and parents living in poverty.
The analysis in my recently published briefing paper ‘Can we put the poverty of aspirations myth to bed now?‘ finds that parents living in poverty do not lack aspirations for their children but their aspirations are a construct of what is familiar and known to them. Each of us is a creation of our past and present experiences as well as our acquired skills, knowledge and education. Those of us with no experience of sailing in the Mediterranean do not aspire to yacht ownership on the Côte d’Azur. This does not make us deficient in aspiration; rather, we aspire to what we have experience of, what we know we can influence, and what we believe we can achieve. While the poverty of aspiration myth is allowed to perpetuate, even gain in momentum, it will continue to distract from the ways in which children living in poverty are failed by the education system.