If at first you don’t succeed… Do you ever?

By Krystal Douglas FRSA

In 2015, Warwick University and RSA Academies created a PhD research post focusing on young people’s peer networks and their relationship to higher education aspiration. This four-year studentship was awarded to Krystal Douglas. Since undertaking her research, Krystal has worked with RSA Academies to disseminate her findings to educationalists and young people. In this guest blog, Krystal reflects on her own aspirations throughout her education journey.

If at first you don’t succeed… do you ever?

It’s over twenty years since the Learning Works report was published in 1997 by Baroness Helena Kennedy. Having read it at the start of my PhD, it made for pretty damning reading. Throughout, Baroness Kennedy draws on data of dwindling Further Education budgets and national literacy and numeracy rates which have plateaued. She reiterates evidence to support this stark reality: in the UK, “if at first you don’t succeed… you don’t succeed!”

However, it is not all doom and gloom. To challenge these harrowing statistics, Baroness Kennedy places her wholehearted support (expertise and action!) behind the Further Education sector and life-long learning, with its ability to transform lives.

12 years on from Learning Works

Unbeknownst to Baroness Kennedy, 12 years on from her Learning Works report, I turn up at an FE college with my mum. I’m a 17-year-old black teenager, who is four months pregnant, with a string of A and A* GCSE grades. Having been strongly nudged out of my all-girls grammar school – today, we would call it off-rolling – I entered, reluctantly, what would become my educational home for the next two years.

It was our fourth visit to an educational establishment that morning and we had lost count of the number of sixth form colleges we’d called. Hardly any would comfortably enrol me two weeks into Year 13. But this place was different and from the moment we walked through the huge automatic doors, the staff can’t help us enough. Without any further delay, I’m enrolled and speaking with my tutors about the content I have covered so far! I’ll be expected at college on Monday afternoon, timetable in hand.

Success isn’t always linear

This was the start of two further years at college. In that time, I faced some of the hardest challenges of my life – top of the list being becoming a mum. But beyond my A-Levels, my time at college taught me an invaluable lesson about educational success: it isn’t always linear. Armed with this knowledge, alongside the confidence, hard work and support from a multitude of friends and family, I completed my A-Levels and my degree in “quick” succession.

By graduation, I’d become intrigued by this idea of Education. This intrigue quickly developed into a vocational passion, and my first role is working for an education charity which provides tutors to support young people in their exams. I combine this with time as an advocate, where I offer guidance on accessing social services and direct service-users to vocational and educational training to develop their independence.

Juggling those two roles, I also set up a tutoring school… with a difference! A space which promotes a love of learning, develops young people’s empowerment and their inquisitive minds by giving them the opportunity to construct their own learning activities with their tutors, in and out of the classroom. I get involved in my daughter’s school as a member of the Parents, Teachers and Friends Association and I soon secure a graduate position in the Department for Education.

“Raising aspirations”

But everywhere I turned, educationalists are talking about aspiration. They talk of investing time and money in “raising aspirations” for “disadvantaged groups”. Much of the language I hear in my roles about young people’s aspiration, suggests that they are intrinsically lacking in some way and inadvertently blames the individual.

The reports and the media suggest that individuals are deficient, at fault or are failures if they do not flourish in education. However, along my journey through formal education, I’ve met, supported and sometimes had to watch, many of my fellow young parents scramble to get out of a cycle which constantly hinders their undoubtedly high aspirations for themselves, and their children. They continue to be some of the hardest-working and resilient people I have ever met.

The mantra, “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try and try again!” just does not quite fit with what I’d experienced. Furthermore, every lay-person knows about Education and Aspiration. I begin to take a more critical approach to these topics that everyone knows about… to ask what young people really aspire to do!

Changing the narrative and hearing new voices

By the time I start my PhD, ’m thinking less like a practitioner and more like theorist. I’ve started to ask questions like what actually is aspiration; what can young people themselves tell us about what individuals might want to do when they leave school; and do many individuals really have “low” aspirations?

Rather than just conducting a survey asking “Would you like to go to university?”, I laid the groundwork for exploring new ideas about young people’s aspirations. I observed how they construct these in everyday life and in conjunction with their peers. The detail was important, as we know relatively little about what shapes them in areas of high poverty rates and low pupil progression to university. The young people have a lot to teach us. I used my PhD research as a space for young people to shape knowledge of what aspiration is and challenge what it is not.

Looking back on it now, while my mum and I sat in the office of the Head of my Sixth form, where she told us that “…girls at our school don’t have babies…”, I wonder what her aspirations were for me and how those clashed with those I had for myself. She almost certainly thought you have one shot at your future, and “if at first you don’t succeed… you don’t succeed!” I wonder what she’d say if I ever saw her again to tell her that ten years later, I’ll be defending my thesis on what shapes young people’s ideas of the future.

Related project: PhD on friendship and HE aspirations