Communities: The omitted third dimension?

April 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

Here is an interesting Guardian piece on a transnational YouGov-Cambridge study. The research compared attitudes towards responsibilities of the state versus those of individuals in the UK, US, France and Germany.

To summarise, when it comes to the role of the state on issues like ‘a decent minimum income for all’ or ‘helping poor children get ahead’, British views are significantly more continental than atlantic. With the exception of company pay – on inequity of salaries, Britons are more liberal than Germans and French, if not as liberal as Americans – the results put the US on the individualist side, and UK, Germany and France broadly on the statist side; which highlights once again that the conversation on public services in the US is a very different one to this side of the pond.

What is just as interesting as the results, however, is the way the study is structured. It takes a classic two-dimensional approach: state versus individuals.

What about views on the responsibility of, and for, communities?

They are a pillar of social power just as much as the other two dimensions. And given fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasing amount of challenges will need to be dealt with via this ‘third dimension’ (e.g., as my colleague Matthew Parsfield pointed out recently, in Mental Health, or as our CEO Matthew Taylor has argued, in Care).

But as so often, communities get left out of the equation – what statisticians would call an omitted variable. Arguably, without taking this third dimension into account, there is a lack of depth in the insights generated.

My hunch is that we would see a picture emerge that is more complex and informative than the binary US/Europe divide. But perhaps there is already some comparative data out there, maybe even longitudinal – might a reader point me in the right direction?

The RSA is well positioned to work across all three dimensions internationally, as we have strong Fellowships in all four countries (altogether we have Fellowships in 101 countries, the US being the largest one with almost 800 Fellows), as well as Fellow- and staff-led projects in the US and Germany. I will elaborate on these in my next blog posts.

Also, I am looking forward to the upcoming RSA Lecture with Tim Smit, CEO and Founder of the Eden Project, who asks the very question:  ‘Where does responsibility for community lie’?

The richest 3 hundred people in the world are as wealthy as the bottom 3 billion

April 11, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I just watched a Flabbergastingly good four minute video, written, directed and narrated by LSE’s Jason Hickel and wanted to share my reaction immediately.

Global wealth inequality matters for all sorts of reasons- economic, social, environmental and political, so it worth taking the scale of this issue fully on board. The video is full of great graphs, striking statistics and vivid visuals. From reliable UN sources, statistics like the following are beautifully illustrated:

  • The richest 2% have more wealth than half of the rest of the world.
  • The world’s total wealth is about 223 trillion US dollars.
  • The richest 1% have 43% of world’s wealth.
  • The bottom 80% have just 6% of world’s wealth.
  • The richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).
  • Enjoy the video!

the richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).


Disabled? Say hello to hard times

April 8, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain 

Today marks the beginning of the end of Disability Living Allowance. As of now, new applicants in the North East and North West will be assessed for the coalition government’s replacement for the non-means tested benefit, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Anyone whose award is up for review will go through the PIP assessment process, and the plan is that by 2018, more than 400,000 people who currently get DLA will not get PIP. This means that around 20% of people who currently receive DLA will lose the benefit all together.

Image via

Image via

The narratives attached to the need for welfare reform and benefits cuts are powerful, and the government has done a reasonably good job of convincing the nation that it is essential to reduce spending on welfare if our economy is to recover. The particular focus on disabled people, and DLA especially plays into our distaste at the idea of anyone languishing on a ‘lifetime’ benefit with no checks to see if they continue to be disabled ‘enough’ to deserve it.

DLA is also ripe for being framed as unpalatable because of the fact that it isn’t means-tested. It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same. This was designed to reflect the fact that being disabled is expensive, whether you have a visible, physical disability like multiple sclerosis, an invisible, chronic condition like lupus, or an intermittent, unpredictable illness like schizophrenia. In any of these cases, and regardless of a person’s income, DLA can make the difference between being able to work or not, eat properly or not, get around or not.

It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same.

This excellent personal account shows how DLA has made it possible for Mark Harper to continue working and illustrates the many small ways in which it enables him to have a better quality of life in spite of living with a painful neurological condition. As Mark points out, the obsession with employment as the panacea for all our nation’s economic ills is actually undermined by removing the sorts of benefits that make it possible for some people with disabilities to work at all.

DLA certainly wasn’t perfect, and the one-size-fits-all approach to assessing disability has always been ludicrously inflexible. For example, one of the measures of disability the distance a person can walk. Under the old DLA structure, 50 metres was the crucial distance that determined whether or not a person was eligible for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The PIP framework is more than halving this to 20 metres, and there’s plenty to say about the arbitrariness of this heavy handed and unfair change, but to focus on that would overlook the ridiculousness of using the ability to walk a certain distance as a key way of assessing a person’s mobility.

There are many serious physical disabilities which don’t affect one’s ability to walk. There are many disabilities which threaten people’s mobility even though they might be assessed as being physically the same as a non-disabled person. For someone with a learning disability, for example, being able to get around the world safely is not necessarily about moving one leg in front of the other so much as understanding dangers posed by traffic, navigating confusing routes through cities, and social vulnerability. What about a person with agoraphobia or extreme depression?

The transition from DLA to PIP is happening in phases, so those who were once promised ‘lifetime’ DLA support, or who are in the middle of a fixed term award have another couple of year’s grace before the major changes kick in, unless they experience a change in their disability. But the process has begun, there is no stopping it, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people are fearful for their futures because of it.


A high employment-low wage society: a deal with the devil?

February 22, 2013 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy 

And so the ‘productivity puzzle’ continues. Earlier this week the ONS published new figures showing that employment rose by 154,000 in the last quarter of 2012, taking up the total increase over the year as a whole to half a million. This is despite growing expectations that Britain will slide back into recession for the third time since the economic downturn. Indeed, the size of the economy in the last quarter was the same as it was a year beforehand. So what’s going on?

Up until fairly recently, most commentators have put the low growth-high employment phenomenon down to the increasing number of part-time positions made available, at the expense of full-time ones. The argument runs that the number of people in work may not have fell so sharply as expected, but the number of hours worked certainly will have done. This may have been true at the outset of the recession, but the latest tranche of ONS figures now seems to contradict this claim. The number of full-time workers increased by 197,000 in the last quarter, whereas the number of part-time ones fell by 43,000.

The real reason why employment rates have remained so buoyant is rather down to a squeeze on wages, particularly for those in lower skilled jobs. Average earnings have risen by only 1.3 per cent since a year ago, whereas inflation is more than double this. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for instance, reported that in the 3 years leading up to 2010-11, average household income (pre-tax and benefit) fell by 7 per cent in real terms. Wages now only represent 53 per cent of GDP, down from 65 per cent in the mid-1970s.

This begs the question of whether low wages are a price worth paying for low unemployment. Or to put it a different way, can we live with inequality, if it means having more people in work? Speaking yesterday at the RSA, the economist and author Stuart Lansley reported that this is exactly the trade-off that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair contemplated during their time in office in the late 90s. Either they were to create high-skilled economies and societies based on efficiency, or they deregulate, pare back the state and settle for a highly competitive market economy grounded in flexible labour (with inevitable by-product of inequality). The rest is history.

While some may view this as a necessary deal with the devil, in reality it is no such deal at all. The benefits have been revealed as a myth, the silver linings of inequality as an illusion. Take poverty, for instance. As a result of the squeeze on wages, it is now the case that there are more children in poverty who are living in working households than there are living in workless ones. The damage being inflicted on families was masked throughout the early 2000s by an increasing reliance on credit. The consequence is that now something like a third of family income among low earners is spent on debt repayment.

As Lansley pointed out yesterday, this is not just bad for the individuals directly concerned, it is also for the wider economy. Demand contracts, the economy grinds to a halt, and we ‘lose’ a decade or more of prosperity through stasis. Moreover, the inequality created by low skilled, low wage jobs induces societal fragmentation, distrust and intermittent bursts of anger from the most dispossessed.

So what is the way forward? High quality jobs that pay a decent wage is a good starting point. For those who say that businesses can ill afford it, the Resolution Foundation has argued persuasively that average wage bills for the larger companies would increase by only a few per cent. By implementing a system along the lines of the Living Wage, they may even benefit by way of increased productivity and retention rates. Indeed, this is the rationale for the ‘Living Wage City Deals’ being proposed by some.

Yet we have to do more than just fiddle with wages. We need a root and branch rethink about the kind of society we want to live in, and the type of economy and workforce we want to build. Some like Will Hutton, for instance, have mooted the idea that we should follow a model of ‘flexicurity’, whereby flexibility for employers is matched with high quality jobs that are backed by a strong system of education and welfare protection. Labour’s announcement today that they are considering implementing a ‘contributory principle’ for unemployment benefits suggests this is finally being taken seriously.

Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

Performs inconsistently

February 3, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

If I had to define myself professionally, I’d say that more than anything else, I’m an educationalist. I have my PhD supervisor to thank for pointing it out to me – before he told me as much, I was a bit adrift in terms of knowing how to explain my status.

So, although I work on the Social Brain project at the RSA, my heart really lies in the field of education. In light of this, yesterday’s triumphant event, which saw Becky Francis discuss her excellent report on Satisfactory Schools with Sir Michael Wilshaw, was a great thing to witness.

At the same time as feeling very pleased that such an excellent piece of work has been conducted by my colleagues at RSA, and that it has led to a powerful shift in rhetoric on the part of Ofsted, I also felt kind of sad on account of the small battle that has been lost.

Becky’s report recommended that ‘satisfactory’ schools be recategorised as ‘performing inconsistently’. Ofsted responded positively to this, but didn’t embrace it fully, instead opting to describe these schools as ‘requiring improvement’.

For me, the most interesting part of yesterday’s discussion between Becky and Michael was around this issue of semantics. Becky pointed out that many schools graded as ‘satisfactory’ often have good or even outstanding features in certain departments or across specific domains. Although overall, ‘satisfactory’ schools are patently not good enough, there’s more often than not a lot of good work going on within them.

Those squeezed schools in the middle are very often up against the wall, poorly resourced, with over-stressed and undervalued leaders doing their best against the odds. No wonder that individual performance is inconsistent. But, if you’re an individual working in that sort of culture, and you’re good at your job, performing outstandingly on behalf of your pupils, how much more galling that your efforts are not recognised.

like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently

And, anyway, (for fear of revealing my terrible weakness for pedantry) surely every single school in the country can only really accurately be described as performing inconsistently. Even Eton lets down its pupils in just as many ways as it serves them. Education should not primarily be about exam results, or the ability to bamboozle those less articulate than oneself. It should be focused on enabling everyone, no matter what their background, to grow into the best version of themselves. The skills required in the 21st Century are different to those that were important even a generation ago. Not everyone needs to be numerate (in the old sense) in order to be a fully functioning member of society. But, I think everyone does need to have as much capacity for empathy, for solidarity, and for coping with change as they can muster.

So, although Becky’s report and the impact it has already made are a triumph for our education system, I’m disappointed that the accuracy of her categorisation has not been fully taken up. The nuance it conveys is precisely the kind of nuance that our society needs to grow its capacity to appreciate if we are to survive the 21st century. But, I suppose, like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently.

Why Stigma Has Had Its Day

January 17, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

In all honesty, I had never heard of The Society for Curious Thought until last week. It says it exists to foster curiosity and intellectual discovery in pursuit of a better future, which sounds good to me. On closer inspection, it turns out to host an eclectic and fascinating collection of articles and contributions covering arts, science, politics, personal experience, the environment and fiction.

As a result of my call-out last week to Fellows and others about mental health and employment, I was contacted by the Society’s Director, Simon Marriott FRSA, and asked to submit an article further exploring the issues I had written about. I was very pleased to be asked, and my piece, Why Stigma Has Had Its Day has just been published.

My article attempts to summarise an issue adjacent to those I raised last week in my two blog posts about mental health and employment – the problems associated with using ‘stigma’ as a conceptual framework for talking about the social exclusion of people with experience of mental illness.

Here’s a taster:

Discrimination and social exclusion are very real aspects of living with the experience of mental illness and the consequences can be grave: loss of opportunity in education, employment, housing and civic participation. Thirteen years ago, the disability rights campaigner, Liz Sayce did her best to change the way we deal with discrimination against people with experience of mental illness. She wrote an important article explaining why using the notion of ‘stigma’ to describe what is actually discrimination is in itself dangerously marginalising. Disappointingly, no one took very much notice, and these days, ‘stigma’ is still the primary conceptual apparatus used to describe what happens when people who have experienced mental illness are unfairly treated. 

Sayce’s key point was that the notion of stigma is problematic because it locates the problem within the person with the mental illness. This has the effect of individualising what is really a social problem. It amounts to a kind of victim blaming. Stigma (literally, mark of shame) carries with it the implication of there being something inherently discreditable about the person being stigmatised. Sayce argues that the ‘mark of shame’ should not be attached to the person with the mental health problem, but rather with the person who is behaving unjustly towards them.

It might be tempting to cast aside such issues as being merely semantic trifles. You might think that anti-stigma campaigners are fighting a good fight, and we all know what we mean when we talk about the stigma of mental illness. In fact, the reasons why discrimination against people with mental health problems continues, may well be partly down to the persistence of a damaging conceptual framework. Conceptual models carry enormous power. The implicit assumptions about where responsibility lies, or whose is the problem, determine to a large degree how we approach the issue as a society.

If you want to read more, please visit The Society for Curious Thought.

Networking by numbers

December 5, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.

What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.

A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.

Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.

We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.

And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.

Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.

We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.

You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers

Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.

It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.

This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.

Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.

So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?

If you focus on the average, you miss the majority

November 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I picked a copy of the Guardian out of a (relatively clean) bin on Saturday, and immediately congratulated myself on the discovery. The highlight was the science column by Alok Jha which gives some mathematical insight into the ‘We are the 99%’ mantra of the Occupy movement.

The vast inequality of wealth is related to broader natural patterns, described as power laws. Power laws have been simplified by trainers and consultants and turned into the so-called ’80/20 rule’ which looks less and less like a rule the more you think about it, and more like a rough and ready heuristic to explain something much more complex and important, which is what it is.

Jha writes: “The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.

The simplest version says that 80% of your company sales will come from 20% of your customers; that 80% of the world’s internet traffic will go to 20% of the websites; 80% of the film industry’s money gets made by 20% of its movies; 80% of the usage of the English language involves just 20% of its words. You get the picture.”

I could dwell on this for hours, but need to get back to serious work. Suffice to say that power laws are important correctives to the human intuitions on what is ‘natural’.

As Jha puts it: “The average height of the people in a room (following the normal distribution) might tell you a lot about the spread heights of people in that room, but the average wealth of a country’s citizens (which follows a power law distribution) tells you little or nothing about how rich or poor most people are.”

Lack of aspiration, or smashing of dreams?

April 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

We are constantly told by practitioners and policymakers that it is working class kids’ ‘lack of aspiration’ that explains their low educational achievement. But actually, the evidence points in other directions. All the ‘lack of aspiration’ discourse does is blame working class families for inequalities entrenched in our education system.

Ever since the New Labour administration finally began to acknowledge the size and immovability of the social class gap for educational attainment, we’ve been subject to the buzzword of ‘aspiration’. Apparently, the key explanation for working class kids’ comparative underachievement in relation to their middle-class counterparts is a lack of aspiration to achieve – at school and in future occupations – on the part of these kids and (especially) their parents. This notion of a ‘lack of aspiration’ among working class families was continually bandied at seminars, in speeches, and in policy documents (it can be seen running through the recent ‘Extra Mile’ initiative, for example), and continues to be regularly mobilised. The recent White Paper echoes the New Labour White Paper of 2005 in its demand to ‘raise aspirations’ as a means to narrowing the socio-economic gap for attainment.

‘Aspiration’ is being systematically killed by a schooling system which informs young people that they are failing

However, this view at best reflects ignorance (and a deficit construction of those in poverty as to blame for their own plight), and at worst suggests a deceitful skewing of blame for educational inequality away from the educational system, and on to the individuals within it. In fact the evidence points away from young people’s ‘lack of aspirations’. Our own recent scoping work for the social justice programme at RSA Education confirms this too (we have consulted with working class sixth-formers on our social justice programme, and with FE students and practitioners in focus groups to scope our ‘Furthering Education’ initiative).

Young people from working class backgrounds do not ‘lack aspiration’. Indeed, for many, their aspirations are often so high as to be potentially unrealistic. This ranges from the many working class young people in inner city schools that express a wish to be doctors and lawyers, to those who aspire to be professional footballers or X-Factor finalists (the latter much complained about by FE practitioners in our recent focus groups). Supporting the research in this regard, working class young people in our recent focus groups maintained universally that their parents desperately wanted them to do well in education, and to secure good jobs. However, what they also reported was their parents’ lack of knowledge and resources to be able to offer meaningful help and advice in this regard. This lack of information also applies to the young people themselves, who often have little idea as to the qualifications necessary, and routes (often involving significant financial cost) involved in accessing their desired occupations. What is urgently needed is better information and advice to these young people, who lack the knowledge, networks and other aspects of social capital so effectively deployed by their middle-class peers.

Moreover, for many other working class young people, ‘aspiration’ is being systematically killed by a schooling system which informs them they are failing. There is a raft of educational research to support this point, notably that of Prof Diane Reay (Cambridge). In an increasingly segregated education system, working class young people are concentrated in the lowest streams, and (as Dr Ruth Lupton shows), often in poor quality schools. Although they begin school at a disadvantage, the achievement gap widens as they proceed through the system. Young people are not slow to understand the messages of being placed in low sets and so on – and as they pick up the message that they are perceived as ‘slow’ and ‘not academic, unsurprisingly aspirations for ‘brainy’ professions and occupations fall. This is a logical response. The psychological impact of such understanding and self-perception is not to be underestimated. This also has a generational effect, as many parents who have had bad educational experiences wish to protect their own children from ‘unrealistic’ and painfully disappointing investment in education.

What I am arguing, then, is that the blithe bandying of the trope of ‘aspiration’, and the self-satisfied projection of deficit onto working class families’ ‘lack’, covers a British reality that comprises a systematic smashing of dreams for many working class young people, in an education system wherein still only half young people achieve the standard 5 A*-C including maths and English at GCSE.


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