Inspiring students of the future

Dr Sheila Thomas writes.

As a fellow Psychology academic with a traditional working class background in Sheffield, I identified very closely with the sentiments expressed in the article by Ella Rhodes and Annie Brookman-Byrne, ‘Conversations on class’ (September issue). I remember very clearly feeling like a fish out of water when I first heard my Yorkshire accent clashing with the more clipped tones of fellow undergraduates at my all-female college in Oxford. Since then, I have taught in both state and independent education sectors, preparing students for university.

What strikes me as the fundamental difference between the working class and more middle class students I have taught is their level of aspiration. Whereas middle class students who are often not the first generation of their family to be university educated are used to the mantra of aiming high and fulfilling their potential, working class students, who are often the first generation of their family to even consider going to university, tend to have a much less ambitious approach and may often face the difficulty of potentially leaving a family who had always expected them to stay in the local area. In my experience, there seems to be no link between ability and aspiration – it is rather a question of confidence and a belief in what is possible.

I fully commend the suggestions made in the article that universities should focus on making working class students feel welcome, but in addition, we should seek to build confidence and high aspirations by presenting them with positive role models. One independent school I worked in had a whole programme of talks from high-achieving speakers with university backgrounds, the purpose of which was to encourage students to believe that they too could reach the same heights – indeed the programme was called ‘Inspire Me’.

Widening participation activities are all too often well-meaning and can be tokenistic, as stated in the article. What is needed is for schools to invite speakers in and for speakers to approach schools in working class areas, to show students what is possible if they aspire to high achievement. It is, after all, in everyone’s interest, to make better use of the pool of talent which exists in all classes.

Dr Sheila Thomas

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