Sian Francis-Cox
Poverty - but not as we know it

By gap-year student Sian Francis-Cox (19)
Claims of ‘social cleansing’, appallingly low wages and ‘Foodbank Britain’ – you only have to read the headlines to see that poverty is an increasing problem in the UK today. What some people don’t realise, though, is that poverty isn’t just about what we own or how much money we have.
‘Aspirational poverty’ potentially affects thousands of people in the UK, such as many of the 943,000 young people currently not in education, employment or training. It can be defined as lacking meaningful goals for the future, or being powerless to change your circumstances – this kind of poverty can leave people feeling trapped by their upbringing or circumstances, leading to disaffection and hopelessness. Because it’s concerned with people’s mindsets, aspirational poverty can be much harder to measure than material poverty.
One researcher from King’s College London has claimed that this type of poverty is nothing more than a myth, arguing that many children have support and ‘capital’ from their parents and the ability to pursue a reputable career. Yet the research showed that 91 per cent of children from families classed as having very high levels of ‘cultural capital’ (parents who have been to university, books in the home, regular visits to museums, etc) said they were expected to go to university, compared to 47 per cent of those with low cultural capital. Similarly, twice as many of those with high cultural capital aspire to be doctors and scientists as those with low cultural capital.
By comparing trends in Free School Meals (FSMs) and Higher Education applications, we can see a link between material poverty and aspirational poverty and how this has affected certain parts of the country. Until legislation introduced last year entitled all infant children to FSMs, children receiving them were considered to be living in economic poverty (below 60% of the average national household income). Involvement in Higher Education, on the other hand, suggests that an individual has developed goals to pursue a particular career. Additionally, young people moving away to university can choose to live in areas that are more affluent than their home town, so it can indicate upward social mobility.
The latest research from the Department for Education (DfE) suggests that FSM pupils are far less likely to go on to study at a Russell Group university in the UK: fewer than 1,000 FSM pupils from state schools attended one of the 24 institutions last year, compared to more than 25,000 state school pupils who had never received the benefit.
Additionally, according to research from the DfE in 2011/2012, the area with the highest proportion of FSM entitlement was Inner London, where 40% of pupils were eligible. This year, their research shows that “students at state-funded sixth-form colleges in Inner London are the least likely to go to a Russell Group university”, suggesting that the areas with the highest FSM entitlement (which, by implication, are the most deprived) have the lowest output of teenagers going to a top university.
In 2013, Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, told The Guardian newspaper: “Young people from the most advantaged areas are still two and a half times more likely to apply for higher education than those from areas where participation is low. The gap hinders efforts to increase social mobility and addressing it must remain a priority.”
It’s clear that children who have received FSMs are less likely to go on to Higher Education than their more affluent peers, indicating that wealth can be a contributing factor to aspirations across the nation.
However, aspirational poverty isn’t only experienced by young people who are also facing economic poverty. There is evidence to suggest that students in the south-west, which had one of the lowest FSM entitlement rates nationally (only 16%), have low aspirations too. In the 2014/15 academic year, the place in England with the lowest number of teenagers applying to university was Swindon (a town in the south-west): only 28% of its students applied this year, compared to the national average of 34%.
Since it’s a national issue and is not limited to those facing economic poverty, it’s useful to ask ourselves where the problem of aspirational poverty starts. One factor may be geography: Swindon, for example, is the largest town in England not to have a university within a 30-mile radius, which could affect the way that its residents think about their future prospects.
It can also be argued that the structure of the education system may lead to aspirational poverty. Due to recent reforms, such as the removal of January exams, removal of exam re-sits and reductions in non-exam assessments in some A-Level qualifications, some teachers report a detrimental effect on their students, complaining that their teaching methods have been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. They argue that the extra pressure on both teachers and students has put some students off going to university.
A Swindon lecturer agrees, also commenting on the way that economic circumstances, particularly the rise in tuition fees, has affected the way that young people think about the future. He said: “The thought of leaving university with a huge debt and no guarantee of a graduate job seem to be making up the minds of several young people.
“I also understand that recently improved local job opportunities, local apprenticeships and the possibility of joining a company and earning while learning and progressing, have all contributed to what I’m told are declining university entrant numbers from the town.”
Given that there are other ways of achieving social mobility, such as apprenticeships, university applications alone don’t reflect the full picture. However, the benefits of gaining a degree include higher quality jobs, health benefits, an active engagement in future generations’ education and greater activity in the community, so naturally the influence of a university education is much wider and apparently more beneficial than other routes.
A recent example from Hastings gives us a glimpse into how aspirational poverty affects young people today. Sarah Owen, a Parliamentary candidate in the recent General Election who also worked with Lord Alan Sugar for the past four years, was asked to speak at a secondary school assembly. First of all, Sarah asked who had heard of Alan Sugar – all of the students’ hands shot up. She then asked how many were planning to go to university or college: about 70% of the hands remained up. However, when Sarah asked her final question – how many of the pupils believed they could ever work with Lord Sugar or be an entrepreneur like him – all of the hands went down.

Although linked with education, geography and the economy, aspirational poverty is fundamentally rooted in what a person thinks about their situation and their future opportunities. If a significant number of young people in the UK don't believe that they can achieve social mobility or attain some of the opportunities they see others taking, then this kind of poverty will remain a national problem.
However, there is hope for those affected by aspirational poverty. Some argue that it’s the Government’s responsibility, but we can all play a part in making sure that people realise what they are really capable of. Whether you can provide opportunities for those who feel they have none, or you join an education charity such as TLG that offers coaching to children struggling in education, or you simply encourage a child, teenager or adult you know that they can achieve their goals, we all have a responsibility to remind others of the inherent worth they carry as an individual and the dignity and fulfilment they can find in having aspirations.
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