It is not uncommon for many schools to proudly promote on their website or literature about raising the aspirations of their pupils – I do it. And many schools are successful at it. Why would we not want to show pupils the potential good qualifications can provide for them in the future? It sounds like the right thing to do. It would be strange, if not scandalous, to say otherwise. Could you imagine the community uproar if your local school’s motto was: “The future is not here yet, so why learn?” I would probably be first to complain.
Yet, raising aspirations is a form of manipulation. It is a promise to aspire to something more than you or others believe is capable – not a bad thing but what is the buy in? A promise? A shortcut? A five step strategy for success?
In schooling that message is more than likely “getting the best possible grades to achieve your dreams” and WE are going to literally throw everything at you so that it can happen. In short, we are going to hold your hand to make sure it does happen. Sound familiar? This is honourable but the strategy usually includes a series of discount options for pupils to achieve it. These educational discounts may promise intervention classes, Saturday schools, rewards or booster courses. Moreover, it can turn into a rush of short term promises to fulfil the pupils’ aspiration.
Or in short we are yelling out “Hey, don’t worry about the everyday learning, we can provide you with an alternative – regardless.” What about Saturday school or a discount to prom to help motivate you?
In these cases, learning becomes a transactional process. You do this, you will get this and you will achieve this. And it may possibly work; if not then schools all around the country would no longer being do it – but the focus is too short term to actually uphold aspirations.
Two issues arise when raising aspirations becomes more focused on the short term:
First, pupils may become dependent on school offers of endless support, believing that exam grades can be solved by a quick fix programme. Raising fundatmental questions considering the true point of the everyday grind of learning? It becomes clear to the pupil that the everyday learning experience is easy and if you miss something the teacher will fill it, whereas in reality this is far from the truth.
The second is the impact on the school. The catalogue of discounted aspirational promotions may on the surface appear to be a highly successful strategy but underneath the surface teachers and school leaders are furiously kicking harder than ever to reinvent and make the offer even more appealing. They constantly have to up their offer to engage their customers – pupils and possbile school leaders.
Short-termism upon short-termism does not create a long term strategy. It simply means it’s a one year strategy continuously repeated. There may be little surprise for the ever increasing workload in schools. Every year the pressure on teachers and leaders is to apply the next best thing to get the best grades out of pupils which does not always inspire or intrinsically motivate.
The problem is that it can work; therefore short-termism becomes an addiction. Like any drug tolerance builds up and more and more is needed to achieve the desired impact. Another example is dieting. We are bombarded with ads and products that will help us lose weight in one week or drop ten pounds in a month or a five step programme for low body fat. Each strategy is aspirational, each can work but rarely does that positive affect often last. Most people start to lose motivation or the results disappear when they are left to their own accord. So the search for a new wonder diet begins.
Sound familiar in schools? How often do our pupils seek out the next intervention or we search for the next golden ticket for automatic student success? For a dieter the instant results are great but quickly fade but what may happen to a pupil? This is where my concern lays. If the pupil’s GCSE results were the result of quick-win strategies guised under the manipulation of raising aspirations, what happens at the next stage of their education? A dieter quits their diet after time and so do many pupils when they move to higher education.
First year pupil dropout rates at university in the United Kingdom are around 6% and within school variation swings widely. Cambridge’s has a 0.9% dropout rate compared to the eye-watering 18% at the University of Bolton. More worryingly is that the dropout rate for pupils from disadvantage backgrounds is roughly 8%. When pupils are left on their own, without the promotional support, they struggle at the next steps in education and they begin to quit.
Is this the result of a poor university experience or poor university preparation? I am not surpised that the top universities are least affected. It’s not because of the quality of teaching and learning but by their pupil population being drawn majorly from loyal learners. Cheap promotions and school gimmicks rarely work with pupils who understand that learning is not a quick win or a weekend booster intervention session. Spoiler alert – learning is the result of dedicated time, continuous effort and pupil’s seeking necessary support.
What loyal pupils most likely possess is a set of habits steeped in a long term understanding to how to meet their goals. Developing concrete habits for learning is fundamental. A dieter knows that a gym membership or a food club is pointless if they do not develop the right habits to embed good eating and exercise into their everyday life. If not, they gain weight. For our pupils, they drop out of education.
Raising aspiration is necessary and critical but to deliver it, schools need to move away from manipulating pupils with shortcuts offers for success. Instead schools should promote true habits necessary to help pupils become successful, loyal learners so that they are able to achieve then sustain their aspiration.
Otherwise, pupils will be sold a short term aspirational fix which helps nobody.