Submission to Education Committee on the Poverty of Aspirations

At the invitation of the convenor of the Education committee of the Scottish parliament the following research evidence was submitted today, 1 February 2018, for their consideration.

Poverty of Aspirations

Introduction

It is important to note that schools do not hold all the levers to improve the lives of children living in poverty. It is important to note too that what affects families’ socio-economic circumstances, namely the labour market and the social security system (among other areas), as controlled by UK central government and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish government, are outwith the control of educators. However, with a stronger understanding and appreciation of how these impact on families living in poverty, and how they serve to present difficulties and barriers to children living in poverty fully participating in education, educators can do much to support the education and aspirations of children living in poverty.

Research on poverty of aspirations

A recent briefing paper I wrote called “Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now?” discusses how 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.
The paper uses approximately 3,500 responses from Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) data. Parents’ responses to questions on the aspirations they hold for their children and their confidence in their ability to influence their children’s schooling were analysed. Children’s experiences of education in relation to enjoyment of learning, and of school itself, for different lengths of time lived in poverty, were also explored.

Research results

For children there were no statistically significant differences in their enjoyment of learning or of school by the length of time they had lived poverty. This means that children at this age (7/8 years old) do not experience different enjoyment of school based on their socioeconomic background. That is not to say that their ability to participate fully in school, or their ability to make equal use of what is available to them, or indeed their response to or conduct in school will be the same. Rather it shows that in spite of differences perceived by teachers or felt by children in the classroom, children in poverty value school as much as their better off peers.

For parents, there were statistically significant differences in the types of aspirations parents hold for their children according to their experience of poverty. However, there was no ‘lack’ of aspiration per se. The evidence shows that poorer parents are more likely to aspire to apprenticeships/training/further education and less likely to aspire to higher education for their children. Parents’ aspirations may differ by poverty experience, but can only be thought of as ‘high’ aspirations.

So what does influence aspirations?

Aspirations are a construct of parents’ own knowledge, understanding and experience. 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. That 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.

So what is happening with aspirations if not a ‘lack of’?

Previous evidence shows that children 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 suggest parents have 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.

Previous research shows that education staff lack knowledge about the causes and consequences of poverty, often conflating the two. Education staff often see the diminishing of aspirations, the difficulty in expressing an aspiration, the lack of knowledge and lack of confidence, and mistake it as an absence of aspirations per se.

As a former teacher myself, and with 17 years’ or work with people living in poverty, I have never come across parents without aspirations for their children, but I did come across acute and chronic shortages of knowledge and confidence.

So how does this affect what happens in schools?

1. Educators are not familiar with the difference between the causes and consequences of poverty and so can sometimes hold inaccurate, and even pejorative, views of poor parents.
2. This affects what is done in schools. It can adversely affect relationships with parents living in poverty. More importantly, it can negatively affect relationships with children living in poverty. With children living in poverty often feeling ashamed and stigmatised, sometimes looked down upon, and often out-of-place in the school environment, they cannot begin to engage effectively or participate fully in their education.
3. While educators believe in the poverty of aspirations they will try to fix the wrong thing. Rather than work with children and parents to develop, understand, support and maintain aspirations, they are assuming deficiency and, therefore, risk the non-engagement of parents and pupils.

So what can be done?

1. To close the attainment gap, schools should improve and enhance the everyday experience of school for children living in poverty.
2. This would begin by educating teachers and other school staff on the risks, causes and consequences of poverty (as per Edinburgh’s 1 in 5 project), which are often conflated and misconstrued. There is also a gap in the initial teacher education in the area of poverty which could be rectified.
3. The attainment gap will be neither narrowed nor closed so long as policy focuses on children’s educational outcomes rather than the factors that affect their outcomes: value, respect, dignity, understanding, inclusion, appreciation, and participation within school.
4. Schools should make careful use of the Pupil Equity Fund, for example for Home/School development/support staff.

Policy implications:

1. Policy will be strengthened if policy makers have a more sophisticated understanding of how their own views of aspirations and those of others are shaped by their socio-economic circumstances.
2. It is important to promote policies which open up knowledge of the whole range of opportunities available to parents and children in poverty including routes into higher education.
3. Parents and children need knowledge of both the opportunities and the route to achieving their aspirations.

Practice recommendations:

1. Support parents and children to understand the opportunities available to them and give them the knowledge necessary to achieve them.
2. Focus on the mechanisms by which aspirations can diminish over time for young people.
3. Focus on keeping young people’s aspirations on track rather than just ‘inspiring’ them.
4. Dismantle the local and structural barriers to high aspirations.

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