Sutton Trust blog by Chris Ramsey: Aspiration must be more than a bolt on

In a guest blog on the Sutton Trust website, 19/08/13, Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of The King's School, Chester and Co-Chair of HMC/GSA Universities Committee,  argues that aspiration needs to be an integral part of the daily diet of every school.

Asking my mobile phone provider this summer about charges for overseas use, I was referred to various ‘bundles’ which could be purchased as a ‘bolt-on’ to my monthly payment. ‘Bolting on’ has become a bit of a policy given these days, with all its clumsy overtones of the garage and the factory. Rather than rebuild or put right, we ‘bolt on’ convenient, temporary solutions, but not addressing fundamental need. So, we bolt after hours care on to general practice, rather than revisit policy vision, though the current Health Secretary is now talking of major reform.

And we bolt things on to education sometimes too.  Things that should be permanent parts of what we do: pastoral care, for example, is in some schools a bolt-on, rather than what every teacher does all the time; the same is true of careers and HE advice. Yet, in the best schools, these are integral parts of the process, and good schools know that’s how it should be.

Bolt-on aspiration too is sometimes sadly necessary. Speaking last weekend (just before A Level results), OFFA’s Director, Les Ebdon, spoke in defence of the student opportunity allocation – the Government funding which aims to boost the HE chances of underprivileged students. As a small piece of emergency funding, targeted at supporting those in financial need, it’s an important part of the jigsaw. But too many see it – as they saw the late-lamented Aim Higher scheme - as part of ‘bolt-on’ aspiration. A Government quango, runs this thinking, can provide aspiration, the spur for underprivileged youngsters to attend top universities. There are not enough of them, so let’s bolt on to standard education provision some support for them.

As with bolted-on after-hours medical care, those who provide this support do their best. In answer to the real problem of an under-representation of underprivileged youngsters at top universities, and doing tough subjects, we all do have a role to play. Independent schools should – and do – do their bit. So, at my school we recently hosted an Aspiring Medics conference – not for already-focused sixth formers, but for year 9 boys and girls from all over the city, who might want to go in this competitive direction.

We’re lucky at my school to have parents who work in health care, a terrific clerk who is Company Secretary for the local NHS Trust, former students who could come back and give advice, and I think we did a good job of informing youngsters from the area about what they should be doing, what subjects they should be opting for, what thinking and reading they should be doing, how to further their aspirations. But if I’m honest, having analysed our 200-strong audience, I have to say most would have got there anyway. We had contacted all our local schools and asked them to encourage any youngsters who might find some advice helpful to come along. But my strong suspicion is that most didn’t. Those who did come were pretty well informed already: as one of my passionate governors is fond of saying, ‘if you can apply for a Bursary, you don’t need a Bursary’.

So the conclusion I come to is that aspiration cannot be easily bolted on as an afterthought. It is scandalous to learn from the Sutton Trust (who do their fantastic best too) that half of all teachers in state schools do not think aspiration to Oxbridge is for their students. It is appalling that 70% believe Oxbridge interviews will be unapproachable for their students (and it must make those noble admissions tutors despair).

Aspiration used to be the clarion call of the last administration, and it is still what teachers should be in their profession for. Able students of potential are present in all parts of the country and all sectors of society, and every true educator should wish them to come forward and take their places at the very best institutions of learning. But for them to be admitted, they have to come forward, and for them to come forward, gain admission on their own merits, and achieve the outcome noble politicians and commentators wish for them, they need to be made aware of the possibility. And this aspiration cannot be bolted on like European coverage on to a mobile network: it has to be part of their secondary education.

In other words, and put bluntly, if comprehensive schools are truly comprehensive they must shoulder the responsibilities of raising and encouraging the aspirations of all their students. Worthy initiatives such as our Aspiring Medics event, worthy funds such as the student opportunity allocation, worthy add-ons like Aim Higher are red herrings. Aspiration is the job of schools, and they should do it better.

Click here to read the blog.