Championing Aspiration



“Aspiration is the educational fashion” according to Lindsay Patterson (Sunday Times 15 January 2016). However might it be used to effectively reconceptualise education at this time of turmoil, bad news and ongoing reform?

At present government ministers and civil servants as well as leaders in school education are scrambling about trying to steer the education system as international league tables show a sinking position in the education standards against international comparators. Pressure is mounting throughout the good ship Vital Spark, not least around closing the attainment related poverty gap, where edu-neers are being instructed, “full steam ahead” despite some well publicised reservations around the policy potential.  I have written before on the need for a multi-faceted approach to alleviating or, moreover ending, poverty which includes education inputs.  This area will require many more inputs across public services before reduced poverty gap outcomes are achieved.   Leaving this only to schools is irresponsible, although schools have a vital role to play.

During this debate ‘aspiration’ has entered the policy narrative although only around the edges. Some might cast aspiration into, at worst, a neoliberalist campaign aligned with grit and resilience, and, at best, American psychological approaches creeping into every day UK and Scottish education.  However there are some things worth considering.  As with everything in education:- do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

A campaign run by the Royal Society of Edinburgh Young Academy of Scotland over the past two years revealed a showed a wide range of aspirational advice being shared with young people across Scotland and indeed across the world. The campaign also revealed a broad range of views on advice for young people but also some indications on what education is really all about and might look like.  Whilst UNESCO offered four purposes for school education (to know, to do, to be and to be together) not all of these have been taken up with gusto by Scottish education.  Then again its own four capacities have never been reviewed so the chances of UNESCO aims being looked at are perhaps limited.

The #aspirationaladvice campaign gathered a range of views from creativity to motivation to being true to oneself. Moreover, it showed that having a dream, having goals, having role models and having purpose meant something.

Education is for many more things than government hard statistics. We should be finding out what the aspirations are of our young people.  Moreover we should be learning from them. Furthermore, are we meeting the aspirations of our children?  That study might reveal that the education system is achieving much.  At an individual level self-actualisation and at a national level something defined from within rather than international comparators or even a middle class view of what the world should be like layered onto communities.

Naysayers and would-be soothsayers will say that not everyone is going to become a rocket scientist. This is true however one might recall the story of the janitor sweeping the floor at NASA.  “What do you do?” he was asked by the President.  “I help send people to the moon” was his famous reply.

On the other hand some might suggest that aspirations to “a trade” or vocational work are not enough. One might look at the economy for some answers to the questions emanating from that one.

Many similar stories of aspiration and self-actualisation and aspiration can be told. What is more gratifying when progress made as a result of that dream.  I know of one doctor who did not get the Higher grades to get into Medicine during her pretty unsuccessful time at school. However her keenness to serve others as a doctor saw her achieve the grades there through alternative means.  An alternative but still a robust root.  Today she is one of the key servants on the NHS supporting us all.  What about her aspiration? Was it just fashionable?  God help us and all the patients who benefit from her expertise if she did not have aspirations.

As a teacher I recall taking over a new a class in a new school. I was going through the class list with the previous teacher.  He told me one student was a “7/foundation” (the lowest grade you could get at Standard Grade).  I made it my mission to make sure she got a higher grade than Foundation Standard Grade.  With my aspiration for her and her aspiration we achieved a “1/Credit” (the top grade you could achieve in Standard Grade).  Was aspiration just fashionable there?

More needs to be investigated about aspiration before we write it off as trendy and fashionable. If it were the case then those Lindsay Paterson notes ‘without talent’ and born into ‘the wrong families’ would fail completely.  Is that the aspiration we have for Scottish education?



Neil McLennan is the co-author of Determined to Succeed, The Art of Achievement and Speaking of Values. He was the founder and curator of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland #aspirationaladvice campaign, and organisation where he was also Co-Chair.


About neilsgleeeclub

Educator, writer, speaker and leader. Views are my own and not those of the organisations I work for or represent.
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