“Let’s raise the aspirations of our children”. As School Research and Delivery Lead for Children North East, this is a phrase I hear again and again.

It is embedded within the mission of many schools, features in the headlines of pupil premium statements and is on the lips of many school leaders we engage with through our Poverty Proofing the School Day work.

The problem I have with this idea is that there is an innate sense that children who are suffering the effects of poverty do not have aspirations - as if their parents do not want the best for their children.

There seems to be an inference that if only disadvantaged families had greater aspirations then there would be greater social mobility.

I have seen those inspiring videos of soccer players who talk about overcoming all the odds to become a professional footballer, as if all you had to do was work hard and try your best.

It does make me wonder how many other young boys or girls worked incredibly hard, had innate skill yet still didn’t get the opportunities to succeed.

The reality is that children and families who are living in poverty are no less aspiring then those who have more money. The difference is simply that the more money you have, the easier it is to achieve your dreams. It means you can afford to attend work experience; pay for extra tuition; enjoy more cultural experiences and visit more of the world. Plus, the costs of further education won’t be as much of a barrier to you.

When we communicate to ‘disadvantaged children’ that they ‘need to raise their aspirations’, we are also communicating that the issue is with the individual children, rather than with the existence of disadvantage, and the structural or societal issues that create and deepen inequality.

Try, try, try again and you will succeed?

The reality is that when we talk about aspirations, we tend to be assuming that anyone can be what they want to be through sheer effort. But even when young people dream big, their ability to realise their dreams hugely connects to their economic resources, social confidence and social capital - their connections with people who can mentor them in achieving their goals.

This is the double punishment of poverty which the discourse rarely acknowledges: at every stage of life, our privilege affects our chances of success. Even with the same qualifications and experience, an individual’s background can continue to impact on their ability to thrive and succeed.

For instance, in recruitment, interviewers typically look for a ‘good fit’ to the team – which means that anyone who looks or speaks differently – is generally less likely to be employed.

This is why we welcome moves to open jobs to people with more diverse educational backgrounds such as Children England's Open to All initiative * 

What is an aspiration?

We need to pose the most fundamental question: what is an aspiration? I have worked with schools whose clear focus is that a high proportion of students go on to university as that is the expectation that is put on the school.

Society tells children that the only aspirations worth having are those synonymous with status, power and wealth. But we want all children to be healthy and happy, and grow into healthy, happy adults.

Every child is unique with different skills and interests. We must first and foremost encourage them to discover what they love and care about. Our motivation is what helps us pursue our dreams through challenging times – and it’s hard to be motivated by something that doesn’t interest you. So we must start by democratising what counts as worth aspiring to. Surely any career is worth aspiring to as long as you’re healthy, happy and expressing your potential?

And all aspirations should be accessible, achievable and acceptable. What we really require is a shift in thinking so that we do not think of some careers as more important than others but instead celebrate what each career brings to making us an effective community, and maybe consider the gaps in pay between these different professions.

It is as aspirational to be a retail assistant as it is to be a lawyer; and as aspirational to be a beauty therapist as it is to be a doctor. Yet society tells us again and again that the only aspirations that count are the ones that attract more money. Yet we need cleaners, retail assistants and beauty therapists to make society work.

If you grew up in abject poverty you should be able to be a doctor, and if you have graduated from Oxford University then you should be able to become a midday supervisor if that's what you believe will bring happiness.

To be clear – children need to dream and believe that anything is possible, children also need support and opportunities that reflect this and aid them to overcome barriers, mirrored with widespread efforts towards valuing diversity.

In light of the scale of this challenge, we need to be careful in communicating to children that their lot in life is all and only about their aspirations. We need to ensure that no matter what your background and socio-economic status, this should not impact on what you dream you can be and do. This is both obvious and radical.

So next time you are about to deliver an activity in your school or in your workplace to ‘raise the aspirations of disadvantaged children,’ then consider what you really want to communicate.

* For more information about Open to All, visit the website here: Children England's Open to All initiative