The emancipatory promise of education

The OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation, John Blake, argues that raising students’ attainment is about supporting young people to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Three students walking outside, talking to each other

I don't know if I've mentioned it, but I used to be a teacher. I used to teach history. As everyone knows, a staple of the English history curriculum is World War II, and a staple of teaching about World War II is propaganda posters. Those of the totalitarian world have an awful fascination – stern-faced dictators pointing in various directions, promising utopia at the end of a long and bloody road.

How naïve we all were to imagine those days were over. I offer my thoughts and best wishes to all our academic and teacher colleagues in Ukraine seeking to keep alive the promise of education in a land under siege, and to our friends in Russia, especially from academia, who have protested about this terrible war and paid for it with their freedom.

It is always a privilege to spend time with colleagues. The struggles of our academic partners in Ukraine, and the fate of those others who speak out in Russia and other authoritarian states around the world, reminds us what a real privilege it is to live and share our ideas in a free society.

Whatever else can be said about Britain – and we're here today because we believe our society is not yet as equal and open as it should be – it affords us the rights to discuss, criticise and campaign for change. That should be cherished.

It is, of course, the case that the liberal democracies also generated propaganda during the war. Some is uncomfortably close to that of the dictatorships, but much of it seems almost banal now: stuff about vegetable gardens and fence railings.

The poster I confess it genuinely took me years to understand is the famous one of a glamorous young woman, curled up on a couch, staring at the viewer, whilst being very obviously chatted up by representatives of the armed services, above the slogan ‘Keep mum, she's not so dumb’. For a not inconsiderable amount of my childhood, well into my adult life as a teacher, I could not understand why her having children made a difference to whether you should talk to her or not.

The group of Year 12s to whom I posed that question eventually explained the joke to me once they had stopped laughing hysterically. The Americans avoided this potential idiom confusion to deliver a similar message with the shorter, and more pleasingly alliterative, ‘Loose lips sink ships’. This theme rings true within access and participation, or rather, a slightly less elegant version of it: ‘loose language invalidates interventions’.


I have now been the OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation for six months. It has been an enormously rewarding time. The opportunities I have had to discuss participation, access and equality with people across and beyond the sector, including students, teachers and parents, has been both a treat and an education.

Two words have dominated those conversations – not to the exclusion of all else, but often as the baseline assumptions to which we have frequently returned.

The first – ‘aspiration’ – is a word I try to use much less now than I did. The second – ‘attainment’ – I have used a lot, and intend to continue to do so. Both words admit of a huge variety of meanings. I fear it could destabilise our work on equality of opportunity if we – the sector, the OfS, me – aren't clearer about what we mean.

On aspiration, I would note that there is very little evidence that aspiration varies between different groups of young people.

By and large, young people aspire to the same outcomes in life. Therefore, if ‘aspiration raising’ is undertaken like a Victorian philanthropist, ostentatiously wandering amongst the ‘lower classes’ with a look of pity and a chalkboard with the words ‘hope harder’ written on it, it is both ineffective and profoundly patronising.

It is for that reason I have been so focussed on ‘attainment raising’ in my work on refreshing the OfS’s access and participation plan regulation.

It doesn't matter how enthusiastically a young person is dragged around the most Hogwarts-esque of university quads, or the most Google HQ-est glass-and-pine learning hub: if they do not learn both the pre-requisite knowledge in their subject and how to use that knowledge to solve problems and pose new questions, when they apply to university or college, they face either not getting in at all, or getting in and finding themselves in danger of falling behind and falling out of higher education.

As I have argued before, closing that knowledge gap – and the attainment gap it leads to – is the most powerful tool we have for promoting equality of opportunity in higher education.

But. (There’s always a ‘but’.)

If it is so obvious that aspiration is not useful, and that improving attainment, ideally long before people are eligible for higher education, is at least a strong part of the answer, why does ‘aspiration’ persist and why is attainment raising so difficult?

Many of the teachers, school leaders and even students I have spoken to have used ‘aspiration’ in describing their views on higher education. The students are not patronising themselves, and by and large the school leaders and teachers concerned are themselves from the same or similar backgrounds to the students they serve.

This is not the high-handed condescension of wanting to force these young people to ‘be more middle class’. Rather, it is a genuine effort to align their expectations with their aspirations.

Many people engaged in widening participation work will already be more comfortable with ‘expectations’ than ‘aspirations’. But it is not universally accepted that we should simply abandon the one word and take up the other.

I would suggest this is because aspiration is one of our most recognised cultural currencies. To expunge rather than make more complex our idea of ‘aspiration’ means we are fighting a hard battle against the grain of our collective imagination.

There is a reason every musical has a song in it where the lead sings about what they want from life, and how it is different from what they’re getting.

We expect our heroes to aspire to be better, to want to change the world and themselves. It’s what heroes are for. If Star Wars was just Luke Skywalker shooting womp rats from his hover car, it wouldn’t have spawned the largest media franchise in history.

For this reason, I suspect we need to seek to make our understanding of ‘aspiration’ more nuanced, rather than expect to see it erased forever.


At the OfS we are increasingly adopting the concept of ‘self-efficacy’ in our work on access and participation. By this we mean that young people have the capacity to exert control over their own motivation, behaviour and the environment they find themselves, and the confidence that they can do so successfully.

Young people should be enabled to be the authors of their own lives. They should be supported to develop a clear sense of what they want from life, and be taught the knowledge and skills necessary to go about achieving it. They should be able to believe those routes are open to be them, because we all have worked to ensure that they are.

This allows us to step away from a moral decision about the appropriateness or otherwise of a student’s desires, but not from our obligation to ensure they are aware of the diversity of pathways they could follow.

This allows us to step away from a narrow focus on a particular credential or provider for a student, but not from our obligation to ensure they have a holistic picture of what different credentials and providers involve and might lead to.

This allows us to be absolutely clear that no one should refuse to consider (or, worse, to have it presumed on their behalf that they have refused) a given pathway in life simply because of the community they come from but does not license us to judge students who do wish to pursue paths we ourselves might not.


This also explains why we must focus attainment raising not solely on improving statutory assessment outcomes, but on expanding the knowledge and skills of young people so that, whatever path they choose, they are ready and able to walk it. Raising students’ attainment is about supporting young people into ambitious and achievable routes that turn their aspirations into realistic expectations.

Statutory assessment is of course significant. It is both an accountability tool for schools and a passport for students to the next stage of their education. But it is possible to drive up exam outcomes without fundamentally altering the underlying knowledge and understanding of those taking the exams. We saw this in schools during the early 2000s. Maths and English GCSE scores went up, but the levels of literacy and numeracy they were supposed to be a guarantor of did not increase by the same amount. A tight focus on GCSE outcomes had yielded significant change. But regrettably, some of that was simply a growth in the numbers of people holding the qualification, not those who knew what that qualification was supposed to testify they knew.

That is why, as I invite higher education providers to focus on attainment raising in schools, I want to be clear that ‘attainment’ is drawn broadly. Just as I am arguing that aspiration must be seen broadly as both what young people desire and what they expect, so attainment should be both the qualifications young people get and the underlying knowledge and skills.

I would also invite higher education providers to look closely at how they can enhance the knowledge and skills of young people to help build their self-efficacy.  

Evaluating impact

When deciding how to evaluate this strand of their work and demonstrate impact, providers should focus on the changes they are intending to make in knowledge and understanding. They should develop credible strategies for understanding what happened to the subjects of interventions, how it happened, and why.

Of course, it is powerful and important that longitudinal data be kept so we can get a sense of whether and if so how a given intervention impacts on statutory assessment scores. But such a timeline would be too long for evaluation within the new access and participation cycle.

Further, it may be that an intervention succeeds on its own merits but does not shift statutory assessment scores. There can be many reasons for this. The credible evaluation strategies providers will need to offer alongside their access and participation interventions should allow them to explore and explain such discrepancies. But discrepancies should not – and will not, by me – necessarily be written off as failures.

Broad ideas float better interventions

I said my theme was ‘loose language invalidates interventions’. I have spent some considerable time trying to find a sufficiently alliterative phrase to tie these concepts together. The best I can manage is ‘broad ideas float better interventions’ which clearly doesn’t work, but hopefully gives a gist of the idea.

We are right to be cautious of a narrow meaning of ‘aspiration’. But we risk losing sight of the ultimate goal by becoming too tied up in trying to replace it.

We must be broad in our conceptualisation of ‘attainment’ to harness the creativity and inventiveness of the higher education sector.

Together we must build the tools of self-efficacy for our students, enabling them to know more, do more, and understand more, so that they can make real choices about their own lives.

That is the emancipatory promise of education.

To do our part, we must be open, honest and reflective about what is working and what is not. We must strive to improve equality of opportunity in our system. Finally, as I said at the beginning of this piece, we should be grateful that we are able to have these necessary conversations.

This is an edited version of a speech by John Blake to the Forum for Access and Continuing Education conference on 29 June 2022.


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Published 04 July 2022

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