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Navigating the aspiration trap: white working-class students and widening access to higher education

Navigating the aspiration trap: white working-class students and widening access to higher education


By Alex Blower, Further Education Project Leader, Southern Universities Network


In October 2017 I met Mr Davis, a teacher at a school located within a small town in the Black Country in the West Midlands. I had recently begun the process of data collection for my PhD research. The research itself set out to explore how white working-class boys drew upon social, cultural and economic resources to form expectations for their future in education and work.

As we talked about the plans for the research, which involved some observations and interviews with white working-class students and their family members, Mr Davis mentioned that he had attended the school himself. Having grown up in a working-class town, with working-class family and friends, it could be argued that Mr Davis’ attendance at university and eventual entry into the teaching profession, was an example of successful upward social mobility. As the study progressed Mr Davis became a central figure within the research and we spent a good deal of time talking about how his own educational experiences shaped his career trajectory.

However, evidence suggests that Mr Davis’ experience of such mobility may be the exception rather than the rule.

The disproportionately low number of white working-class students accessing higher education in comparison to their more affluent counterparts has been discussed amongst educationalists and policy makers for a number of years. It was cited in the government’s 2015 Higher Education Green Paper, and again more recently in a 2018 speech by then Education Secretary, Damian Hinds:

“the latest statistics on destinations of sixth form and college students have shown that disadvantaged white pupils are less likely to be studying in higher education the next year than disadvantaged pupils of any other ethnic groups.

And, even though disadvantaged black pupils are almost twice as likely to go to a top third university as white disadvantaged pupils, they are both similarly underrepresented at the most selective universities, including the Russell Group.”

However, during the intervening period very little has changed. More recent figures from UCAS state that the percentage of young white working-class students continuing to higher education in 2018 was just 12 per cent for males and 17 per cent females respectively, amongst the lowest in the country.

Alex Blower

During this time a guiding tenant of much of the work undertaken by policy makers and educators to redress the disparity in university access has been aligned with activity to raise student aspiration. In a 2018 article on BBC news Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector for OFSTED, stated that in her view white working-class communities ‘lacked aspiration and drive’. Such an assumption of so called aspirational defecit has been a pervasive influence in both the search for an explanation of low higher education participation among working-class students, and for a potential solution through educational outreach activity.

But is it an explanation that really rings true for white working-class students? Is a simple ‘lack’ of aspiration a sufficient explanatory model for the stark disparity in university access? If so, does it constitute a robust enough foundation on which to build programmes designed to widen higher education participation?

Recent research has critically examined a perceived ‘aspirational defecit’ amongst such students as an explanatory model. Academics such as Neil Harrison and Richard Waller argue that aspiration could, at best, constitute a small part of a much more complex, relational negotiation between aspiration, expectation and academic attainment. A relationship in which all elements need to align in order for higher education to be perceived as within reach. Indeed, when assessing the effectiveness of interventions centred solely on aspiration, in 2018 the Education Endowment Foundation rated them as having ‘very low or no impact’.

At worst, a model of university outreach based around aspirational deficit may constitute a mechanism by which experiences of educational inequality are individualised. In such circumstances, responsibility for a ‘lack of aspiration’ is placed squarely on the shoulders of the student for whom ‘aspiration raising’ activity is purporting to benefit – something which it could be argued, may end up doing more harm than good.

When reflecting on the socially-mobile trajectory of Mr Davis, his journey constituted a slow and gradual transition. He stayed at home, attended a local university and maintained close links with his family and friends from school. For Mr Davis, it was not exceedingly high levels of aspiration which facilitated his study at university, rather it was the accrual of social, cultural and economic resources within his local network. Something which allowed him to conceptualise higher education as a destination in which he could reasonably expect to engage.

In the de-industrialised West Midlands community where my research took place, a community with a largely white working-class population, the availability of such resources depended not only on the geographic location and socio-economic context of the study’s participants, but also that of their social networks, spanning multiple generations. As leading educational sociologist Diane Reay posits, experiences of unequal access to educational opportunity are held within a ‘collective memory’ among the white working-class. A memory which reaches far beyond that of the experiences of an individual student and is intimately tied to a region’s industrial legacy.

If, as illustrated within my research and studies by academics such as Stephen Ball, Diane Reay and Louise Archer, future educational decision-making is decidedly more complex than a simplistic explanation of low aspiration would allow for, we need to equip ourselves with a more nuanced toolkit. To make a dent in the entrenched disparity in access to higher education for white working-class, it is not enough simply to promote narrowly defined criteria by which their social mobility may occur. In an effort to make students ‘suitable’ for study at particular universities, we run the risk of alienating the very students we wish to engage.

Instead, we need to work to build a landscape whereby all trajectories into Level 4 qualifications hold parity of esteem, whether this be higher education provision in colleges, study at a local university, or a residential experience of higher education at a Russell Group institution. We need to build activity which celebrates who the students are and where they are from, using knowledge embedded within communities as a means by which to enrich learning experiences; equipping students with the tools to study at university should it be the right option for them.