One of the key features of New Right approaches to explaining social class differences in educational achievement is the attempt to frame the debate in terms of the qualities possessed by individual actors.
This reductionist approach – reducing complex social processes to their apparently simplest and most basic forms – sees success or failure (as measured by exam grades and entrance into the most prestigious Universities) as a consequence of how individuals apply – or fail to apply – themselves to their studies.
All things being equal within a “broadly meritocratic education system”, therefore, how do we explain the fact that social class has a strong correlation with exam success or failure: the lower the class, the more-likely the individual is to leave school with few, if any, qualifications?
While for some New Right theorists (such as Murray in the USA or Saunders in the UK) the answer is found in “natural” IQ class differences, for others the answer involves different orientations to education and, more specifically, the claim that those with higher educational and work aspirations are far more educationally successful than those with low educational and work aspirations.
The basic argument here, therefore, is that those who “aim high” for high-pay, high-status employment are much more likely to work hard in the education system to fulfil those high aspirations. Those, on the other hand, who have no great aspirations to, desire for or expectations of achieving, such work, see no great incentive in trying to achieve the required qualifications.
In both instances a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy takes hold: high aspirations lead to a strong desire to work towards and achieve high qualifications; low aspirations results in a lack of effort and a consequential lack of educational success.
On the face of things, this argument seems to make some sense – if you want something badly enough the chances are you will work diligently towards trying to achieve it – and, as St Clair et. al. (2011) note, there has been a great deal of social policy interest in the possible relationship between aspirations and achievement:
“Politicians and policy-makers are very interested in aspirations. The strong assumption is that raising aspirations will increase educational achievement, while contributing to greater equity and the UK’s economic competitiveness, and that public policy has a key role in ensuring that these ends are attained. Aspirations were a theme of many of the Labour Government’s policy papers on children and young people. They were a key component of The Children’s Plan (2007) and in Aiming High for Young People (2007), and the concerns raised helped to shape the 2009 Inspiring Communities programme. The coalition Government (2010) has continued this interest in raising aspirations, again based on the assumption that aspirations are too low among disadvantaged groups”.
Sociologically, however, taking the theorised relationship between aspirations and achievement at face value is rather more problematic and one way to evaluate it is to examine the key question of “aspirations”.
• The good news here is that there has been a lot of research focused specifically on the role of “aspirations” in educational achievement, particularly as it relates to social class.
• The bad news – at least as far as New Right approaches are concerned – is that this research has found little or no evidence to suggest that aspirations play any significant or meaningful role in explaining social class achievement differences. St Clair et. al. (2011) for example, summarise their findings with the observation that:
“Low aspirations among young people and their families in disadvantaged areas are often seen as explaining their educational and work outcomes. This study challenges that view. It demonstrates that barriers to achievement vary significantly among deprived areas as different factors combine to shape ambitions, and shows that the difficulty for many young people is in knowing how to fulfil their aspirations”.
Both the full report and a handy summary of its findings are available from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website.
In addition, if you want to dig a bit deeper into areas like aspirations, attitudes, behaviour and educational attainment there are three further Research Reports and Summaries you might find helpful:
Carter-Wall and Whitfield (2012): The role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap.
Goodman and Gregg (2010) Poorer children’s educational attainment: how important are attitudes and behaviour?
Hirsch (2007) Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage.