Makes no difference who you are?

For ages, in idle moments, I’ve amused myself by wondering whether one of Disney’s self-declared truths holds up to scrutiny: when you wish upon a star, does it in fact make no difference who you are?

Obviously, if every child wished for a pony, it’s not random chance that dictates which children will get one: it’s privilege. But do chidren (let’ stick to chidren for now) tend to wish for the same things, no matter who they are? Or are their dreams constrained by their circumstances? Will those for whom a sqare meal is a just-feasible luxury wish for that, while the well-fed wish for toys? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would seem to predict that, yes, aspiration is progressive rather than absolute. Until you are fed, you don’t feel the need for shelter so keenly. Until you are respected by others, you aren’t going to be motivated towards your full creativity.

But research published this week indicates otherwise. Poor 13-year-olds are just as likely as rich ones to aspire to go to university, despite that not being an aim they see others who share their experiences achieving, and despite their often not having other Maslowian pre-requisites for seeking self-actualisation*. What stops those aspiring graduates from poor families from achieving their dreams is lack of a “clear understanding of how to reach their goals”, leading more to fall away at each of the hurdles.

So there you go – when you wish upon a star, it does make a difference who you are. If your wish is for a cap and gown, the stars shine brighter on you if your parents have worn one, or if your parents can help you to get one debt-free.

It’s not poverty of aspiration. It’s poverty of example, expectation and education. As the summary to the research itself says, “policy to increase social mobility needs to go beyond assumptions about certain communities having low aspirations – it needs to tackle barriers to fulfilling them.”

Interestingly, the Joseph Rowntree research found that the likelihood of sharing high aspirations was greatest among teenagers in economically mixed environments, particularly schools. Comprehensive education really does have a measurable positive effect for poorer kids. So we need to defend comprehensive education, particularly comprehensives drawing from an economically mixed catchment. Then we need to resource and equip schools, families and communities to recognise academic and employment ambition and inform and educate young people about how to achieve it. Well, that’s straightforward. Isn’t it?

Obviously security, “morality”, family ties and intimacy are things that poor families can supply just as well as any other, but some of Maslow’s other base-of-pyramid needs are less evenly spread across layers of privilege.


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