Makes no difference who you are?

8 October, 2011

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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Working at home

25 September, 2010

I’ve just started back at university, doing a postgraduate diploma in Occupational Therapy. Which is overwhelming, mindblowing, and hard work. I will have to process it more (and manufacture some extra time) before I write about it, but meantimes, here’s something about school, parenting, and where each belongs in a child’s life.

So, last week I went to Firstborn’s school for a “consultation evening” on homework. I’m not a big fan of homework. Firstborn is five, just starting her second year at primary school, and can’t reliably put her shoes on the right feet. She needs to work on eating without becoming the centre of a Saturnian ring of debris; she needs to spend time processing the complex emotional transactions of friendship; she needs to build stuff with Lego. And I need to chat with her, cuddle, cook, sing, argue, read, bounce, tidy, garden, build dens, prod worms, and rattle sticks along railings.

This is really what I wanted to say to her headteacher. But when all the other parents laughed at the idea that “some parents think there should be no homework at all,” I realised that it wasn’t going to be the place or time. Instead, it was the place to discuss what parents can doat home to “support” what their children were doing in school. We can let them handle the money while out shopping, to support numeracy work in school. And here I was thinking they did numeracy work in school so they could operate in the outside world (among other things).

But who could possibly argue against reading with your child in the evening? Who could say it’s bad to make musical instruments out of plastic bottles? Well, me. Because, for a start, I find it pretty difficult to comply with Firstborn’s homework regime all the time. We can’t read every night with her – sometimes she’s throwing a tantrum, sometimes she’s too tired, sometimes we’re in the middle of an awesome book that doesn’t feature bloody Biff, Chip and Kipper, and we’d rather get on with that. And sometimes I’m exhausted or busy or dealing with her small brother. Sometimes I’m handling both of them creating drama and Partner is out; sometimes we’re having a great evening singing together (scatting is their most favourite thing at the moment). Sometimes I’ve dumped them in front of the TV and gone to my bedroom to read so I don’t thump them. And we are a pretty well-functioning household: two parents, both literate and healthy; two children, both without particular additional difficulties. So what happens to homework when things aren’t so straightforward?

But the point is that this is life and school is part of it. And I am their mother. I’m not an adjunct to their teacher. Yes, I could get their teacher to use her clout to make Firstborn comply with her homework better,as someone suggested at the consultation. But I don’t actually want to. I don’t want her to be compliant with the orders from her workplace even when she’s at home. I want her to know that life is about a million different things. And, maybe in the school-centric, achievement-focussed world all those other parents inhabit, I’m selfish, but I also want to be just simply her mother, not her teacher’s enforcer.

Besides, I’m raising rebels. They shouldn’t assume I’m on their side without question and reservation.

In the end, I wrote on one of the bits of paper with the carefully-framed questions: “sometimes it’s just parenting, you know?” and felt like I was on the wrong planet.