Don’t Talk to me About Aspirations; The language of disadvantage.

This blog is based around a 2-year research project working with young men engaged with statutory or community provision during 2018 and 19 who accessed youth provision via the ‘Children and Young Peoples Partnership’ at Lancaster University. 

“Don’t talk to me about aspirations, who says what I should or shouldn’t be lad, mi dad’s a plasterer and he earns loads”

This quote is taken directly from a conversation I had with a young lad during the summer of 2018, this conversation was during our dinner while taking a break from a district wide inter-estate football tournament held at Lancaster Uni. Myself and a group of young lads had been talking about their plans once they had finished school, whether that was college, a job or otherwise. I’d been working with this group for 2 years and had a good relationship with them, to the point where I had told them about my own problems in education and my route to higher education as an adult. We talked at length about “people who go uni” and their perceptions of higher education in general and how they believe it (HE) perceives young lads like them. 

One of the lads asked me what I had wanted to be when I was their age, to which I replied, my options were pretty limited such were the problems I’d caused at school. I had wanted to follow in my old man’s footsteps and be a plumber, that’s all I’d ever known, and any other doors were effectively closed to me due to school exclusion. We talked at length about the jobs “lads like us do”.

The conversation rumbled on to the idea of aspirations, this group of lads were particularly good at expressing themselves, good with a turn of phrase and full of dry north west humour. The talk of aspirations clearly got up their nose and prompted the snappy bite about aspirations being judged as low or deficient. I thought back to my own experiences and how I’d have gone absolutely ballistic if someone had told me that what I saw as a valuable career was substandard. A career that had put food on the table and increasingly as we got older put food on others’ tables through the company’s success.  

I have mused over this point a great deal over the last couple of years, the ideas of ‘raising aspirations’, ‘transformative experiences’ and becoming ‘socially mobile’. All these terms, (which we as practitioners are guilty in perpetuating and allowing to go relatively unchallenged), are couched in terms of the working class being substandard, in need of repair, below par, lesser than their middle-class counterparts. 

Until we as a sector challenge the deficit approach inherent in every area of widening participation toward working class young people we are doomed to failure. We need to be able to show the richness of the working-class experience, not as a problem that must be fixed but as a different viewpoint or experience that is as rich as any of their ‘more advantaged’ peers. Until we challenge the notion that the working-class experience is of lesser value then we must always be seen as in need of repair, exposure to the finer things in life, the correct way to be. 

PURSUE offers a prominent vehicle to champion and challenge this change by bringing a richness of experience and voice to the sector. Championing the experiences and strengths of working-class young people and the divergent thought and knowledge they bring to the table. PURSUE is designed to champion these voices and experiences as part of an inclusive and diverse sector, which values the voice and experience and all and does not pit one demographic against another in a zero-sum approach to education. One child must not fail in order for another to succeed. 

It’s time to start talking with and not about; challenge, champion and change the way we work with young people, starting with us.

Nik Marsdin

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