One of the greatest challenges to the quest to raise attainment in our schools is the lack of aspiration in some children – particularly those from lower socio- economic groups. Educators and policy makers have continually initiated and implemented a myriad of projects and strategies to raise attainment including through tackling low aspiration. These initiatives have yielded mixed results probably because the root causes and perpetuating agents of low aspiration may be more complicated than is realised.
It is therefore important to consider the potential impact of popular media, particularly the section that is popular with people from the lower socio-economic group, in entrenching such low aspiration. This paper is drawn from my experience as a primary school teacher and my thoughts about how the media could potentially, yet unwittingly hamper all efforts at raising attainment through raising aspirations.
In the UK and probably in many other Western countries, there is a so called ‘poverty gap’ in academic performance of children – children from poorer areas perform worse than children from more affluent areas. That there is low aspiration among children in lower attaining schools is a recognised fact. For instance, Gorard, See and Davies, (2012) found an association between low aspiration and lower attainment. Consequently, the raising of self-perceptions and aspirations have become a major focus in the UK and in 2004, the Government rolled out ‘Aimhigher’, a national programme operating at national, regional and area levels that incorporate a wide range of activities/courses aimed at increasing participation in higher education. One of the national objectives of Aimhigher is to “improve the attainment, aspirations, motivation and self-esteem of gifted and talented young people aged 14-19” (Aimhigher, 2007).
The government and education policy makers have attempted to address the issue of low aspiration in many ways but with varying degrees of success. My argument is that the issue cannot be tackled in the schools and classrooms alone. They have an important and crucial role to play but whatever good that is achieved in schools may often be unravelled by the negative influence of media portrayals on the target children.
Influence of TV
According to researchers Heather L. Kirkorian, Ellen A. Wartella, and Daniel R. Anderson , (2008) “Early exposure to age appropriate programs designed around an educational curriculum is associated with cognitive and academic enhancement, whereas exposure to pure entertainment, and violent content in particular, is associated with poorer cognitive development and lower academic achievement.”
Unfortunately, children most vulnerable to poor academic attainment are exposed to those programs that contribute to poorer cognitive development. I surveyed a primary school in a low socio-economic area where a large percentage (51%) of children were on FSM. I found out that about 90% of children in years 5 and 6, N=60 watch EastEnders, a TV soap, every day. They will watch a catch up programme if they missed an episode. Other favourite TV programs were BGT, X-Factor or I’m a celebrity. The boys were also heavily steeped in video games such as: call of duty, manhunt and GTA. All of these programmes fit into the category identified by Kirkorian and her colleagues as being detrimental to cognitive development and academic achievement.
In my opinion, British society is structured in a two tier culture. Inherent in this dichotomy of cultures lie the challenges of raising aspiration in the country.
There are those who belong to what I call the ‘EastEnders’ subculture. They identify with the dross and stagnancy of the soap – a view of life where effort to make progress in life is not worth it because eventually, no good thing happens in life. Like life on the soap, aspiring to such as becoming a doctor or city worker doesn’t belong. The soap has to kill off every character who achieves at something or aspires to and strives to achieve in life. Doctors are written out even portrayed in a bad light, city worker characters are killed off, and in the recent past, the only character to make it to Oxford University – Libby – had to be given a reduced bit part role in the soap.
The people who belong to this subculture watch ‘EastEnders’ religiously and more importantly, identify with its view of life. Such low aspiration is entrenched and normalised in them. What I find tragic in all this is a tax payer funded organisation such as the BBC spewing out and perpetuating such low aspiration in the masses. Sometimes it looks like a deliberate ploy to entrench low aspiration in this subculture. I say this because the producers have had several opportunities to introduce a glimmer of aspiration into the plots and story lines but never have they followed that path. The opposite always seem to be the case.
Another way in which I see the subculture dichotomy being entrenched by society is in the portrayal of people who have attended good universities and are in middle class jobs. The media constantly portrays them as if they were all born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They are portrayed by politicians as if it is a bad thing to achieve that status. Rhetoric around the amount of tax they should be paying, their earnings, and their comfortable lives are commented on with a negative slant that makes them not to be role models, but as characters to be reviled. An instance is the rhetoric espoused by the leader of the labour party in the build up to the last general elections. His constant calls to tax the rich, attacks on what he called the ‘friends’ of the Tory party, among others must have left a sour taste for aspirational voters.
The public is never given the story behind some of such people – how hard they had to work, make sacrifices to get themselves to where they are. For instance, it would be highly unfair to portray Piers Linney – one of the millionaire ‘dragons’ in the TV show (dragons den), in a negative light simply because he is wealthy. I think such an individual’s biography and success story must be celebrated because his life wields immense potential to inspire the present generation. Society in general, and the ‘eastenders’ subculture need role models – coping models – as the psychologists call them. They need role models in people from similar backgrounds as theirs and the stories of their journey from the ‘bottom’ to the top. I am certain there are lots of individuals who fit this profile but the media and society don’t seem to be interested.
The only way a lot of such children see themselves as bettering their lives is through singing or one of such celebrity led futures. There is nothing wrong with them having such aspirations, but feeding children into seeing such a narrow range of options stunts their aspirations and dreams.
Improving educational attainment of working class children is a complicated process. Changing or adapting curricular is great; improving pedagogy and quality of provision is another important element. Nevertheless, society in general and the media in particular, has a role to play in raising aspiration, and perseverance in working class children.