Education is essential to fulfil the aspirations of the individual, but unless we also educate each other about building a society in which we all have the chance to flourish, the education system will not be enough.
If the language of the labour movement had a dictionary, the entries for ‘desire’ and ‘aspiration’ would take up several pages. William Morris saw the work of the socialist movement as the “education of desire”1. Ernest Bevin argued that working people had “cultural aspirations” and a “love of the beautiful”2, which the harsh disciplines of work and poverty quashed or stunted. In this vocabulary, ‘desire’ and ‘aspiration’ were collective passions. They denoted yearnings for the kind of social change which could realise individual freedoms.
For New Labour, this was the language of the bad old days and it needed reworking. The meaning of aspiration shifted. Aspiration came to mean individual success, achieved through competition.
Conservatism took the process further, nowhere more clearly than in the rhetoric that accompanied its education policies. For the Tories, ‘aspiration’ linked together a series of arguments, in which the barrier to individual success was not the economic system but the state and the professionals that staffed it. The Conservatives, according to Cameron, were the party of the “want to be better off”3.They aimed to create an ‘aspiration nation’, but believed their efforts were frustrated by a “toxic culture of low aspirations.” This was the culture attacked repeatedly by former Education Secretary Michael Gove. According to Gove the educational establishment was standing in the way of aspiring parents by excusing low expectations and blaming social disadvantage for educational failure. “Some in this country,” said Gove, “still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors. They say that deprivation means destiny, that we can’t expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability, disadvantage.”
These were the arguments that underpinned Gove’s reforms to education. The relentless pressures on teachers to increase the test scores of their pupils were justified in terms of this wider social mission. The National Curriculum was redesigned to “drive up standards and fuel aspiration.” The introduction of free schools was explained in the same way. Those who pointed to the difficulties of these initiatives, and the distance that separated Conservative ambitions from social realities were dismissed as “enemies of promise.”4 Some schools were closing the ‘attainment gap’ between pupils of different social classes, and if this was not happening everywhere, then the fault could only lie with teachers.
Perhaps the major grievance that teachers had against Gove was the way that he sought to deny their commitment to the success of their pupils, at the same time as he dismissed the social factors that stood in the way of that success. In any constructive discussion of aspiration, they argued, these social factors would be registered, but in Conservative discourse they were not. Instead, teachers found themselves being warned not to make poverty an excuse. And yet in a polarised labour market, and a society marked by rising levels of child poverty, to talk of ‘low aspiration’ and ‘low expectations’ as the main obstacles to educational progress is fatuously one-sided. Most research confirms that most young people, and their parents, actually have high aspirations; underachievement resulted not from low aspiration itself but from a gap between the aspirations that did exist and the acquisition of the knowledge and skills required to achieve them – and social factors were crucial to such acquisition.
To hear Labour politicians endorsing a Conservative vision of aspiration is a dispiriting experience. Dispiriting because of what it promises to teachers – the prospect of unending blame for situations that are not theirs to control; dispiriting for students because the unyielding demand for high performance in test after test is not matched by any guarantee that effort and educational success will result in material security. Figures on the British left who make use of the current language of aspiration need to reflect on the oppressive practices that are perpetrated in its name.
Schools cannot change social structures; nor can they cancel out the effects of wealth and privilege. For that, a much broader programme of change is needed. In the meantime, teachers will lose no opportunity to promote the success of ‘disadvantaged’ students within the existing system: they have a practical understanding that imbalances in economic, cultural and social resources never entirely preclude individual success. But this is not to say that between waiting for systemic change, and nurturing the hope of small successes against the odds, no other educational project is possible. Despite all the constraints of recent decades, new approaches to education that are aspirational in a way Morris would have recognised continue to break the surface.
The wave of social movements that erupted since 2010, including student protests, Occupy and UK Uncut, have introduced alternative forms of education – such as teach-ins, teach-outs, classes in public spaces such as banks, supermarkets and railway stations – that sought to restore to education a public and critical character5. At the other end of the educational spectrum the teachers of very young children, perhaps more than any other group of teachers, have asserted a strong set of aspirations for the children they teach, based on the idea that education should be about the all-round development of children’s personalities and potentials – not just about the passing of exams. These ideas explain the strength of current opposition to the introduction of ‘baseline testing’ of reception-age children which goes against the wish for aspiration that is broader than academic ability. In contrast, the Welsh Government has announced a far-reaching reform of curriculum and assessment that will reduce the influence of tests, redesign the curriculum and ask teachers to play a major role in the shaping of educational change.
These movements differ greatly in their focus and scale. Yet they all respond to Bevin’s belief that children should not have their aspiration stunted by an education system that treats them as part of a production line. Education is essential to fulfil the aspirations of the individual, but unless we also educate each other about building a society in which we all have the chance to flourish, the education system will not be enough.
Two powerful questions remain: what kind of education do we want? For what kind of childhood and development? These are questions which require collective answers and a direct discussion about the conditions under which children and other students learn and develop most fully. No leading politician, Conservative or Labour, has yet addressed these debates, yet they are a crucial starting-point for opening up broader issues of aspiration and educational purpose. This is an invitation to re-educate desire and develop a different kind of aspiration.
1 Edward Thompson, Romanticism, Moralism and Utopianism: the Case of William Morris, New Left Review I/99 83-111, 1976.
2 Ernest Bevin, quoted in Alan Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Trade Union Leader 1881-1940, Heinemann 1969, p.126
3 David Cameron, quoted in Patrick Wintour, ‘Conservatives are not party of the better off, claims David Cameron’ The Guardian 10 October 2012
4 Michael Gove, I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education Secretary berates 'the new enemies of promise' for opposing his plans. Daily Mail 23 March 2013
5 Ken Jones, The Practice of Radical Education, from the Welfare State to the Neo-Liberal Order. In Cathy Burke and Ken Jones (eds) Education, Childhood and Anarchism: Talking Colin Ward. Routledge 2014.