Friday, November 17, 2006

Re-post: What exactly is 'poverty of aspiration'? - Oct 06

From Saturday, October 21, 2006

I've spent this morning reading more about the term 'poverty of aspiration' in my attempts to find out where it came from and what it really means.

I've read papers, essays, speeches and forums from a variety of different aspects of society - health, education, public culture and heritage, public spending, local government, even race relations - which all made use of the term and I think they do all ascribe to it the same basic meaning, even though it's stretched and skewed to suit their own particular interests and the points they're trying to make (usually pleas for more funding for their thing, whatever that may be).

The service providers are all struggling with a fundamental lack of response from a significant sector of their target market - a sector big enough to cause them concern and to prevent them from achieving whatever they're supposed to achieve. People are not really, genuinely, spontaneously interested in what the various publicly funded bodies are trying to do for them, with them, about them. They switch off, look blank, try not to get involved.

On the one hand, government has realised that to have a true mandate for power over anything, or to be a key influence of change ( - another new phrase that pops up with increasing frequency,) at the very least they need most people to be interested in what's going on. And the problem is that most people just are NOT interested in what's going on.

It starts in education, with talk about the difficulty of engaging pupils' interest and then it extends into further ed, higher ed, parenting programmes, SureStart programmes, parks, museums, libraries, public health consultations - they can't get people interested.

They're blaming it on lack of ambition. Some people don't want 'progress', seems to be the prevailing view. "Lack of aspiration leads to underachievement and underachievement breeds lack of aspiration – a downward spiral of increasing aspirational poverty to the detriment of our economy." is how one university vice-chancellor described it in his annual lecture exactly two years ago.

More worryingly - and perhaps more interestingly, Tessa Jowell in her Public Realm essay explains it in the following terms: "Government action must rely on making the most of voluntary effort and civil society; on persuading people to make particular choices, and to amplify the value of those choices. In other words, across a wide range of policy areas that are of great public concern, government cannot succeed without engaging people as citizens in creating the solution."

It does seem to be connected to globalisation. The vice-chancellor (whose name I couldn't find) goes on to say: "The next few decades of the 21st century will see our global economy reaching ever greater heights of competition as nations seek to increase the wealth of their populations. The new currency of prosperity will be innovation, creativity and skills. Economies that neglect investment in these vital areas will decline. To ensure that our nation is competitive in this new global economy we need long-term investment in education – it is the greatest asset of our nation."

One of the solutions they've come up with is 'personalised learning' in schools and I've read an interview with David Milliband on this subject. In it he talks about "national [education] standards [being] important to combat poverty of aspiration and poverty of expectation," and Labour MP Jim Murphy, in a speech on Poverty and Aspiration notices that "In an era of declining voter turnout we need to inspire as well as reassure. People are not inspired by the safest option. We should not simply be about consolidation. We need to maintain a sense of new Labour radicalism in finding new ways to tackle poverty and stay in tune with voters aspirations.”

Tessa Jowell again, in a May 2004 paper on Government and the Value of Culture: "Sixty years ago Beveridge set this country a challenge: slaying the five giants of physical poverty – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. At the beginning of this century, in a country hugely richer than it was at the end of the second world war, it is time to slay a sixth giant – the poverty of aspiration which compromises all our attempts to lift people out of physical poverty. Engagement with culture can help alleviate this poverty of aspiration – but there is a huge gulf between the haves and have nots. Government must take this gulf as seriously as the other great issues of national identity, personal wellbeing and quality of life," before she goes on to make a call for more funding in her then current area of administration.

When you strip away the buzz-phrase funding-key utilitary use of the term and try to get down to its real meaning, I think they're all actually talking about public apathy, which seems to be perceived as the current major threat to the established seat of power. We don't care. We're not interested. But why? What switched off our interest in such matters?

I first came across this phenomena face-to-face when I started home-educating my children and I can understand why the powers-that-be are finding it so difficult to deal with, because I exhausted myself trying every single thing I could think of to get around it. Here's what happened:

They weren't interested in school learning, so I thought if they had more control over what they learned and more individualised tuition, they'd regain their interest in learning. Because young children are all naturally curious and hungry for knowledge and the mastering of new skills, but my children - in common with many others - seemed to have lost this curiosity and hunger after just a few years at school. I wanted to help them to get it back, because I knew they needed it.

Fresh from a Cert Ed course, I had a full range of new and exciting teaching methods to try and set about 'finding the right ones for my children' to try to rekindle their curiosity.

Their complete lack of response was heartbreaking. There was no spark of interest whatsoever in anything at all. Their eyes were dead. Not interested. Brain closed. And before their school days these had been intelligent, curious little people, excited about the world around them and keen to learn about it. It was only when I realised how completely, absolutely closed they were to any kind of educational input that I realised how much damage school had done and how difficult this damage would be to heal. The shutting-down was a form of self-defence to whatever had happened in school.

So what had happened in school that had been so bad? The answer is nothing. Nothing quantifiable. Nothing openly cruel or abusive or even unusual. Nothing that doesn't happen to every other child in a forced, externally-prescribed education system. Their natural curiosity had been trampled on and repeatedly extinguished by the curriculum, the timetable, the teachers' agenda, the standards and settings and tests - by the system itself. The system did not care what my children were interested in, so by means of defence they became interested in nothing at all.

Or at least, in nothing the state could touch and manipulate. They were interested in kid-domain stuff - Pokemon, Power Rangers, that kind of thing. But if a school teacher (or me, or anyone else) had tried to teach Pokemon or Power Rangers they'd have shut down to that too, straight away. They needed to completely own their own minds, their knowledge, interest and learning. Nothing else would do.

I don't know if this is an evolutionary phenomena - were pre-1960s, non-indigo children less vulnerable in this respect? Or has The System changed to the extent that children now have to defend themselves from it in a way they never did before? Certainly when I talk to my parents' generation about their early educational experiences, they seem completely different from those of myself and my children's generations. Like two different worlds. I'd be interested in knowing whether the change was 'bottom-up' or 'top-down', to use some other current buzz-phrases.

But however it happened, that's what the Establishment is now up against in the people whose interests it increasingly feels the need to engage. Our minds are closed. We will not let them in. We are not interested. Just as they weren't interested in whatever sparked our curiosity when we were little children, we're not interested in their agenda now, whatever it may be, however exciting they try to make it, whatever creative methods they employ to try to coax our responses. We're not interested.

In the end, government and its agents (sorry, its partners) may have no choice but the one that I was left with in dealing with my own children's educational apathy. Give up. Back off. Stop trying. Put the ground back in possession of those to whom it actually belongs. There should be no fight over other people's hearts and minds, because they're not public property for fighting over. They're personal possessions and should be treated and respected as such.

We do get the government we deserve, but government also gets the public it deserves.

posted by Gill at 11:43 AM 2 comments


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