Aspiration and Upward Mobility: The Lies Working-Class Students Are Told About Educational Inequalities

pink mug spilling pink liquid. In the liquid brown cereal spells 'doing my best'

By Amy Cayzer

Bimini: You just got to try’n have a PMA. 
Lawrence: Fuck’s a PMA? 
Bimini: A positive mental attitude.
Lawrence: Get fucked. 

This seemingly small exchange between two drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race speaks to a larger sociological issue found at the heart of the UK’s education system. Political discourse over the last two decades has been obsessed with the idea that hard-work, resilience, and aspiration are the only tools needed for disadvantaged students to overcome class-based inequalities. Former Prime Minister David Cameron articulated this line of thinking perfectly when he announced that the aim of his coalition government was to ‘build an aspiration nation’ (Cameron, 2012). If only it was that easy, right?

On the surface, it may not seem obvious to problematise distilling self-belief and confidence in young people who have previously been marginalised and pushed aside by the education system. Yet, when the notion of raising aspirations is not followed by raising state school funding or equal opportunities, the intersectional harms caused by this are brought sharper into focus.

The belief that a poverty of aspiration exists within working-class communities is a painfully familiar rhetoric. I went to a secondary school in an economically deprived area that was rated the lowest score possible by Ofsted whilst I was a student there. The school’s slogan was and still is ‘High Expectations, High Aspiration, High Standards, and You Will Succeed’. Despite the good intentions held by the teachers who were asked to reinforce this message daily, I believe slogans like this have a moralising effect on both the students and wider community.

Using aspiration as a means of raising educational attainment assumes that there is an absence of aspiration in the first place. This results in the psychology of students being dressed up as problematic and pushed into the public spotlight to be scrutinised. Meanwhile, the coalition government got away with allocating 23% of the education budget to private schools despite them making up only 7% of the student population in 2012 (OECD, 2009). As such, aspiration has inevitably taken on a victim-blaming function resulting in working-class students being scapegoated for their own economic, social, and cultural disadvantages. This is why I agree with Littler’s perspective that raising aspiration has become an ‘ideological whip in which to beat the working-classes’ (Reay, 2012).

In contemporary society, the educational success of socio-economically disadvantaged students is often measured by their ability to achieve upward mobility. This is in and of itself bad. Working-class students are often encouraged to climb the metaphorical ladder of social class until they reach the middle to upper rungs of society. Positioning the working-class identity as something to be escaped from has a widespread pathologizing effect on society as it devalues the wealth and diversity in working-class cultures and stigmatises the abundance of often vocational jobs done by working class people, that are vital to the health of the economy. Nothing showcased this more clearly than the need for keyworkers during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

The celebration of white, middle-class norms in education has also been found to disproportionately effect working-class students from a BAME background. There is already an overwhelming number of racial inequalities that are reproduced through the education system. For instance, Boliver’s study in 2016 found that Russell Group universities offered 54.7% of white applications a place compared to 21.9% of Black African applications who were as equally qualified (Boliver, 2016). These existing inequalities are only exaggerated when they are intertwined with class-based inequalities. This is because forcing middle-class identities onto children with different social identities inevitably creates long-term psychological damage and deep-rooted feelings of not belonging.  

As such, without the acknowledgment of material conditions, and funding to overcome this, aspiration is nothing more than a blunt instrument. Whilst the upward mobility of more and more working-class students is a welcomed breakthrough, a lot still needs to be done in education to reduce the number of class-based inequalities. That is why, like the drag queen Lawrence Chaney (and in these terms I’m sure queen Bimini would agree), we should push back against the hegemonic idea that anything can be achieved if you have the right mindset and enough aspiration.

  • Boliver, V (2016) ‘Exploring Ethnic Inequalities in Admission to Russell Group Universities’, Sociology, 50(2): 247- 266.
  • OECD (2009) PIsa Results. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Amy Cayzer is a student at the University of Liverpool. This piece was inspired from taking part in a Critical Education Studies module.

The image is by Estudio Bloom via Unsplash