In 2008, JK Rowling gave the Harvard Commencement Address. There, in front of the graduating class of that year, she talked about the power of imagination. She said to those listening, ‘we did not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.’ The more I thought about this statement, the more fascinated I became about its truth. I have returned to this speech frequently over the past few years, as I started work at Dyke House, joined the team setting up the Sixth Form and latterly, working across the school to build progression pathways for our pupils. Was JK Rowling right? Can we all imagine? Can we all imagine better?
JK Rowling made her speech to a group of immensely privileged young people. Whilst I am not ignorant enough to assume that all Harvard graduates have had an untroubled path to success, I think it is safe to say that they are now in an immensely fortunate position. They embody her statement and in that particularly unique setting, I am sure it is a truth. But I do not believe it is universally so. In order to harness the power of which JK Rowling spoke, we must have the capacity and crucially, the stimuli to imagine. I am not convinced is quite as she portrays. Furthermore, defining better poses an additional, separate challenge.
For some there may be a tension between imagination and betterment. We are keen to define disadvantage and poverty as those less likely to progress to university, to professional careers. Statistically, these people also equate to those likely to earn less and be economically humbler in later life. Some are uncomfortable with defining this sector of society as in some way ‘worse’ than those who have pursued a pathway of Higher Education, a high flying role and the pay check which accompanies it. When we are asked to imagine, must we always imagine better to be this latter image? Is there an inherent problem with ‘intergenerational stability’; the perpetuation of low paid work between generations within the same area, in the same industries, as part of the same communities? Or have we decided that is the case and in our neoliberal society, the drive for maximum productivity and economic betterment is our defining paradigm?
Maybe this is so, but for me, betterment is about choice. The choice to work in the same area you grew up in or equally to relocate to a new area; regional, national or international. The choice to progress to university or to an apprenticeship, or to enter paid employment after finishing compulsory schooling. The choice to enter a profession or to work in a job which does not require specific additional qualifications. In order to make these choices, you must be able to understand and imagine them.
For our disadvantaged students at my school; the 53% of our cohort who are eligible for Free School Meals, the 59% of our pupils who fall into the least likely quintile to progress to university and the 70% of pupils in the poorest sector of our society, how and what do they imagine about higher education?* What is their experience, or that of anyone around them? POLAR data suggests that very few of our pupils have immediate contact with a university graduate.** There are exceptionally few pupils with parents in professional careers. Can you truly imagine that which you have never experienced, never encountered or discussed? Can you imagine the utterly foreign, the different and outside of your world? And if you cannot imagine… how can you make that choice?
I do not think that you can. If you have never left the area in which you grew up, if your parents, friends and family have no experience of education, university and a career, I do not believe you can really imagine what it may be like to do so. In a school where 50% of households are on benefits, 39% of work age adults are unemployed and 35% of pupils come from the 10% most deprived wards in the country, I do not think our children can truly imagine what this choice might look like. And that is what it is; not betterment, but choice. Those who have the information, who have experienced and who therefore can imagine – they can make those decisions. Far too many children make decisions without truly realising the choices they have. That is disadvantage and it leads to a lack of intergenerational mobility for all the wrong reasons; not through information, understanding and choice, but through a blindness and the inability to imagine.
Our challenge therefore, is to imagine for them, to provide the opportunities to visit, learn and understand a world which they have no experience and persuade them to take this momentous step to imagine with us. When this happens, it is then that our pupils can make choices. Real choices. Then they can imagine better… whatever their better truly is.
*Accurate for Dyke House College 2015-16.
** The POLAR index measures progression to Higher Education by postcode.