The general election is over but politics returns to business as usual as we now go through five more years of Conservative government. Educators, including ourselves, will continue to press for changes to policy and practice, particularly in relation to wellbeing.
As each of the political parties has its debriefings and post-mortems, one word keeps cropping up – aspiration.
The Conservatives “aspire” to become the party for working people. Where that leaves people who, for one reason or another, are unable, not old enough or too old to work is an issue worthy of consideration. Cameron says he’s now a One Nation Tory and ‘compassionate’ again, but he’s said similar things in the past. How many hoodies or trees did he get round to hugging? How many benefits did he slash?
The Liberal Democrats “aspire” to regain the considerable amount of seats they lost on Thursday. Together with the Greens and others, they also aspire to have a new electoral system that would be more representative of the electorate – through proportional representation.
Blairites have said that the Labour Party didn’t appeal to the “aspirational” – those who aspire to achieve more in life, and say that it was this that caused them to plummet in the election.
So we need to consider this word “aspiration” and what it actually means.
The dictionary definition says – “a strong desire to achieve something” or “a hope or ambition of achieving something”.
Both in politics and in education this definition has been dramatically narrowed.
According to the Conservatives and to the faction of the Labour Party that wishes to apportion blame for the losses at the General Election, aspiration appears to be a word associated with people who want to better themselves financially – the aspiration to earn more money, buy a house, have better cars and more expensive holidays, and become better consumers.
Naturally people want to be more financially comfortable and to aspire to this is understandable. But is it the extent of their aspiration? Don’t they also want to live life well?
In education, the aspiration over the past few decades has been all about “attainment”. Our children are told that they should aspire to “be their best” – which in practice means attain as many exam passes as possible.
Doesn’t “being the best” amount to more than the grades and the qualifications you can muster?
On BBC’s Newsnight on Monday evening, Neal Lawson of Compass talked about the word “aspiration” and suggested that it needed redefining.
(29 minutes in)
“We have to show that everyone with aspiration in Britain is going to be better served through collective aspiration. We have to change the terms of aspiration. Aspiration is not just about materialism. It’s about time to do the things you want. It’s about time to be with the people you love. It’s about air that you can breathe. It’s about a country full of compassion and love. That’s the kind of aspiration that we should talk about, not just about middle class, how big is your television kind of aspiration.”
Clearly the common definition of aspiration is too narrow. If we aspire to live well, we need to consider the needs of others as much as our own. We need to spend time with people that we care about and who care for us. We need to consider the huge impact of climate change on our lives and on the lives of future generations. But we can’t restrict our aspirations to ourselves and our immediate family and friends. It has to be bigger – more collective.
The same redefinition of “aspiration” is equally required in education.
Our aspirations for education have to be broader, more inclusive, more individualised, more communal, and more focused on wellbeing and the potential to live life well.
Learning is vital. One of the greatest gifts an educator can give a child or a student is a desire and an enthusiasm for learning. One outcome of this love of learning is high academic achievement and qualifications – but in current education policy it’s the expected and the accepted outcome. Anything that isn’t quantifiable is deemed insignificant. A child’s ability to communicate, to empathise, to express themselves creatively, to use their hands as effectively as their heads – all of these allegedly immeasurable outcomes from learning are equally valid and highly aspirational.
In Sir Ken Robinson’s new book, “Creative Schools” he says,
“If you run an education system based on standardisation and conformity that supresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”
Do we really aspire to standardisation and conformity?
Our own aspiration for learning and for education is summed up through this next quote from Sir Ken’s book.
“[The revolution in education] is based on a belief in the value of the individual, the right to self-determination, our potential to evolve and live a fulfilled life, and the importance of civic responsibility and respect for others . . . The aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.”
If a child has no understanding of higher aspirations that include the wellbeing of themselves and others then how is this significant and holistic aim of education ever going to happen?
Our system needs to be aspirational for all, and within that there’s a recognition that we all have specific needs in order to evolve and grow.
Sir Ken says,
“Education is really improved only when we understand that it too is a living system and that people thrive in certain conditions and not in others.”
He outlines an organic approach to education as follows.
“Health. Organic education promotes the development and well-being of the whole student, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially.
Ecology. Organic education recognizes the vital interdependence of all of these aspects of development, within each student and the community as a whole.
Fairness. Organic education cultivates the individual talents and potential of all students, whatever their circumstances, and respects the roles and responsibilities of those who work with them.
Care. Organic education creates optimum conditions for students’ development, based on compassion, experience and practical wisdom.”
How can any of this be deemed as lacking in aspiration?
Education still needs to change but so too does the notion of aspiration.
One can aspire to achieve academic qualifications but one has to ask why that is, and to wonder whether that in itself is a definitive and sufficient aspiration for schooling and for educating.
As we enter into the time of examinations, when young people and teachers seemingly have their success measured by what happens over the next month, we need to reconsider our aspirations for education and for children, and then broaden our focus to the ultimate aspiration of living life well.
Here’s another aspirational report on education that is a must read.