A fair chance in life

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Bill Law
31 August 2009

Unleashing Aspirations - commissioned by Gordon Brown - describes bad things happening in Britain’s opportunity structure.  We have a natural interest - it is about who gets to do what in society.  It is also about why it is so unfair.

The report documents how top jobs in law, medicine, politics and the media go to people who are privately educated.  ‘Privately educated’ is as much a marker for good life-chances as ‘free-school-meals’ is for bad ones.

We need to probe:

  • what's going on;
  • making sense of the findings;
  • what to do about them; and
  • where careers work figures.

Careers work figures.  No ethical careers worker can fail to wonder what careers work should be doing about it - and why we haven’t done it better.

There is a clue in a distinction that the report doesn’t make, between:

  1.  thwarted aspiration - which maybe we can help to unleash; but there is also
  2. suppressed aspiration - which somehow needs to be re-ignited. 

Neither is easy.  But if is we are serious about re-igniting squeezed off hopes we need to think again about the career-development models we use to shape our work.

Bill Law
www.hihohiho.com

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Tim Warren
9:57am 24 December 2009


If the aspirations of young people are being twarted during the secondary phase of their education, and evidence from the Sutton Trust seems to suggest that this may be the case, then those delivering careers work need to get past their Yr 11 fixation and work lower down the school. The RPA will surely call for new models of guidance work. The fixation seems as much a problem for LAs and school leaders. Surely we can use a range of  tools to indentify those in Yr 7 and 8 who would benefit from personal careers guidance?

David Winter
5:29am 28 May 2010 (Edited 12:32pm 28 May 2010)


It seems likely that some circumscription of career options is happening earlier than Yr 11 (Gottfredson anyone?).

I wonder how much impact a few isolated interactions by careers advisers would have on younger children compared to the images, expectations and role models they are constantly exposed to in their families.

Perhaps a more effective policy would be to target the parents in disadvantaged groups. Middle class parents provide various advantages to their children that parents from deprived areas don't: money (financial capital), connections (social capital) and impetus (motivational capital - they make them get involved in extra-curricular activities). Careers services can't do much about the first one but they may be able to impact on the last two. Getting parents involved in awareness raising and networking events as well as advising them on how to give their children the best start towards employability might have a deeper impact.

What do you think?

I like the distinction you make between suppressed and thwarted aspirations - that too mirrors Gottfredson's circumscription (limitations on what can be considered) and compromise (limitations on what can be accessed).

Bill Law
6:27am 5 June 2010 (Edited 6:31am 5 June 2010)


Thanks for these comments.  They move us on.

You are both rightly arguing for more attention to be paid to youngsters whose home life is less supportive of ambition.  I understand that to be a cultural influence. Each rising generation takes on board beliefs about what is going on, values about what is worth doing, and expectations about what is likely to happen.  As you say, it is deeply laden and unlikely to be much influenced by hit-and-run methods.

I had missed the link to Lyn Gottfredson.  I recall that her interest was in unfairness related to gender.  But the cultural analysis stands up (beliefs about ‘what women are like’, values about ‘what they are good for’, and expectations about ‘what they are likely to do').  These are stereotypes - enclosed ways-of-seeing.   Race, class and all other arbitrary discrimination rests on them.  The deepest and most intractable of all is self-stereotyping ('what I am like, ‘...good for’ and ‘...likely to do').

The reason why suppressed ambitions is such an important idea is because such enclosed ways-of-seeing form early in life.  It means that they are experienced as unassailable and universal truths (‘why would I say anything else?’).

Alan Milburn's report shifts focus away from identity politics and towards more generally shared experiences of unfairness.  But we really should be tapping into Lyn Gottfredson’s insights.

Paul Willis was also a trail-blazer.  I based much of my community-interaction theory on a secondary analysis of Willis’s ethnography.  It led me to conclude that we need a radically reformed curriculum in order to work with what he is describing.  It needs the kind of sustained stage-by-stage learning that a progressive curriculum can offer.  The end point would be 'however you see things to start with, you'll always - always! - be able to find another way of seeing it’.

I’m forced to wonder whether current reforms are going to take us in this direction.  They are a massive challenge to our innovative abilities.  I’ve blogged about this elsewhere in the this cloud  - on ‘civil society’.

Keep the ideas coming.

Andrew Manson
1:09pm 5 June 2010


After the siege of Turin in1536, battlefield surgeon Ambriose Paré ran out boiling oil to pour into soldiers’ gunshot wounds. Instead he resorted to making his own mixture of egg, rose water and turpentine and applied it to their wounds. The next day he found that those treated with boiling oil had mostly died, while those treated with the placebo were mostly alive with wounds showing early signs of healing.  Perhaps there is a useful analogy in careers teaching – yes we need to innovate, but what should we stop doing first?  

Bill Law
7:50pm 15 June 2010


I bet you’re right Andrew -  there are things we could usefully let go.  Any suggestions - anybody?

But I’m arguing here, not for fitting into available space, but for finding more space.  Career management calls for wider, deeper and more dynamic learning than conventionally enclosed and specialised careers work is in any position to deliver.

Indeed, in current policy conditions I don’t think that kind of elbow-room is going to be easy to find in schools and colleges. 

We must also look elsewhere.  I've made a Cloudworks a link to what that might be

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