Great Expectations or Low Aspirations: High Hopes are the key to Academic ambition

'Do you know what value-added is....Pip?'
Is it just me, or was Charles Dickens an education prophet for our times? Watching the BBC’s latest tent-pole master theatre for sleepy middle-class people slumbering their way through a period of feasting that for most represents a mere acceleration of over consumption rather than the commencement of anything unusual, I would say yes.

It’s rather good though, isn’t it? I say that as a man who has never seen Downton Abbey, or indeed ANY period drama outside of a cinema in recent years. It doesn’t appeal; inevitably it appears to be an endless Brownian motion of the same features, remixed into new forms, built with the same bricks of letters, engagements, prospects, tall, vicious suitors, inhospitable luxury and morally diseased, dysfunctional aristocracies. I suppose you could say as much about any genre; all sheep look the same to me, but to the eye of the experienced I imagine they’re as distinct as children.

It offered a rich vein of reflection.

Pip comes from an extended family of convenience. Had such things existed at the time, he would qualify for Free School meals so securely I imagine his face would feature in a DfE guidance pdf. Of course, schooling in a formal sense was impossible; even if such a facility existed within daily walking distance (which it wouldn’t unless he was fortunate to live near a large town with a charitable church) his family couldn’t spare him from the labour pool. That forge isn’t going to…er, whatever forges do…by itself, is it?

Of course, adult role models at home ranged from the sturdy, plain and reliable Joe, to the shrieking, anxious cruelty of his sister, permanently howling about the poor lot life has dealt her. Get in line sister, take a ticket and shut the f*ck up. Then there was the sinister, pathetic Uncle Pumblechook, the lazy opportunist of the family. It’s a wonder Pip wasn’t hanging about bus shelters scoring his name (Pip 1812 LOLZ) in the Perspex canopy. Ah yes, of course.

Education, of course, begins at home, which for a boy like Pip meant learning the trade of the house. There are worse trades than smithing, after all. People will always need shoes on horses, manacles melted together, pins made for shackles. I wonder if, even then, there were excitable futurists loudly  yahooing the death knell for blacksmiths as they looked to futures of uncertainty and social mobility. ‘We need to teach skills for the late 19th century learner!’ They would cry. ‘By 1855 most jobs will be in industries that don't even exist yet!’

How to motivate young male learners
But hold! His life is transformed by the intervention of a rich sponsor, sort of like a private backer for home schooling. Pip becomes a fixture at Satis House, keeping company to the unlikeable, stuffed arrogance of Miss Havisham’s weirdo, home schooled child Estella. She insults Pip constantly, taunting him about his status in life in the first of a series of examples that seem designed to show us anyone richer than a blind beggar is a vile pervert. Of course, Pip falls in love immediately, presumably because Estella is the first woman he’s seen that isn’t covered in pig shit. Pip begins to learn about RP and fish knives to rub the edges off his common burr. Et becomes eaten, and ‘revolting, potty old woman’ becomes ‘lady’. Pip is encouraged to get in touch with his inner gentleman, which is in many ways a precursor of SEAL. His socialisation for greater things has begun.

Is this a bad thing? There are two reflections on children and human nature in general here: the first is that in my experience I have found that the doomsday device to education is when a child has no ambition for himself, or aspirations beyond the horizons of his eyeline. In one of my schools, the most kids expected was to get a job in ASDA if they were lucky, so why bother with Geography or Physics? Why indeed? Without Great expectations from child, parent and teacher, few will flourish beyond the demands of necessity. It is a fact, universally acknowledged, that a child in want of ambition must seek amusement elsewhere, and you’ll be lucky if it’s anything lovely.

On the other hand, another perspective would be to say, like Marcus Aurelius, that wisdom lies in being able to be satisfied by what you have. The market model of human beings as endless avaricious consumers reduces us to termites rather than men and women. As Buddha said, desire leads to dissatisfaction, which is the source of all misery. Maybe that was Yoda.

Either way, a seed has been planted in Pip’s mind. I’m not saying it’s a nice seed, as it seems to hover peculiarly around Estella’s knickers- sorry, hand in marriage- but there we are. The joys of the forge are no longer enough for the molten lava that bubbles and smokes in his britches. He will have Estella, or he will be damned, blast you.

What makes a man? This is one theme galloping through the whole text. Pip, raised at the forge, wants nothing beyond the bellows and steam of his role model. Given a glimpse of the ruined, delicate world of manners and fancy, his head is turned from the aspirations of his origin. But he has others teachers…

Magwitch, of course, his original benefactor. Like any child or man, Pip displays his true character under pressure; confronted with the slavering, ravenous old convict, he destroys hatred with kindness, and proves himself to be, in embryonic form, a creature of compassion and sympathy- unlike practically every other oddly-named  character in the story. Of course, this leads to his utter destruction at the hands of those more cruel, and therefore powerful than he, as is proper. Ask any new teacher.

Mr Guzzlepump
Magwitch, unbeknownst to anyone other than his  lawyers, has sponsored Pip in his elevation to the gentry. I can scarcely imagine any corporate fraud doing this today, when every charitable contribution is tax deductible and slavishly followed by kind publicity. Let no good deed go unrewarded, is the maxim that accompanies contemporary corporate largesse.

When Pip arrives in the New World of London lodgings he is accompanied by another kind of teacher: Herbert, the dispossessed toff with romantic aspirations below his station. Penniless for love, it’s hard not to champion this rare inhabitant of lands less viciously mercantile. In many ways, he’s the entrepreneurial template, without the big idea and the talent. Still, in a world where lineage and loot are the only paths to social mobility, there are few avenues for the little guy with a crazy dream.

In that sense, much has changed from Pip’s world to ours. The major social and economic reforms sponsored by successive generations of liberals, unionists and reformers have been aimed  at varying definitions and styles of emancipation and enfranchisement. Can you imagine an inclusion manager in 1820? Alas, I certainly can these days, which just goes to show that history can be cyclical as well as linear. The value of your empire can go up as well as down.

It’s worth noting that Pip receives, at  Herbert’s hands, an education in…well, bugger all it would seem by our standards. Voice coaching, to shave the soil and hedge  from his vowels, to be replaced with the adenoidal , hesitant whine of Brian Sewell, where everything is just, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, how awful, how very, very awful. He also learns to dance, with Herbert revealing a hidden talent for dancing backwards (I suppose you pick up a few tricks when you’ve been cut off. Also: prison); he learns to pick a wine, join a club and cut his former father-figure off like a proper rotter. What, at this point, has he learned? In a formal sense, he’s had a seven year apprenticeship (sponsored and paid for by Ms Havisham, which had me thinking, who was getting paid there? Seems to me like Pip was on the job already) as a smith. Bet all that blacksmith training came in really handy in Rules, or trading bone-headed bon mots with the rogueish, dissipate Baron Von Cockensnarler. What a waste.

How far have we come? A 21st century Pip would be a comprehensive veteran, of course; his family would be classed as long term unemployed, the smithy ruined and cold. Unless his family were particularly aggressive, Pip would no more be learning the trade of his forefathers than any other child in his class. He would be learning about Arthur Miller, and Ecosystems, and the role of local government in the democratic process. It would be an act of peculiar obsession for any local dame, however grand, to devote decades of plotting to raise up, then ruin the aspirations of any young man, although I like to think that Ms Havisham’s brand of insane, maudlin self-pity is an immortal tumour in the human condition. She would wait forever if she had to. You’d certainly be hard pressed to find an escaped convict with a pot of buried gold that would sponsor any child, no matter how many mutton pies he offered. If so, it would be called ‘Convicts’ Cash for Kids’ or something satanic.

These days, children not only can, but must submit themselves to civil education, or their families must provide evidence that alternative equivalents are being provided; otherwise, the gaol beckons for them.
The question is, are our expectations for them any higher than they were in Dickens’ day? I would say sometimes, no.

In life, we often get what we expect, not what we deserve. We create cages within our own minds, and say that the horizon is as high as we lift our eyes. How many children sit in a school where the targets on their books say G, F or E? How many schools are judged by the damnable, damned engines of purported certainty that the Hellish FFT data suggests? How many teachers look at a kid and expects nothing from them? How many parents? How many schools? I set all my pupils two targets: one given them by the desiccated, blasted data that precedes them, and one of my own, which is far more important. And I let them know it.

 Rarely do I set anything other than an A. Why? Because I bloody well expect it. I don’t care how poor a kid is, and I certainly don’t give a damn what some hypothetical bell curve says a kid is capable of. If they have a sound mind in the most general sense, I tell them where they’re aiming- an A. I know how to do it. I know how they can do it.  If we don’t get there, then I don’t waste a tear on it if everyone tried their best, including me. Especially me, sometimes.

I despair of our contemporary insistence that children submit to market models of tagets, when they are human beings; that teachers kneel before the tyrant of the perfectly elastic, infinitely expanding mad universe of the stockbroker. I’m not a middle manager in a branch of Comet. I’m a Teacher.

Until we have a system that demands- and expects- all students to try their best and do well, rather than concedes that they can’t, and so the bars must be set lower and lower until they bury themselves in the ground, then we will get exactly the children we deserve. You want social mobility? You want an end to generational narratives of endless, empty poverty?

Expect more.

Expect Greatness.


  1. Upon my re-watching of 'A Christmas Story' I noticed that the nine-year olds are learning 'Silas Marner'. Bloody hell! That's a 1950s (American) education for you.

    I agree with your dual targets approach. I have students whose target is a D. Why?!

  2. Really interesting post! Totally agree that we should expect more. Now following :)

  3. Halleluyah (or however it's spelt).

  4. Teach a child to dream of a life beyond the one they are living now and give them the skills and self belief to make it happen. Those are great expectations.

    Pip's was drawn to beauty and craved recognition which were worthy aspirations but sadly thwarted in the world of Satis House. But then Dickens liked to look on the dark side.

    Yeats talked about the role of education being to light the fire not fill the bucket. Education as inspiration to make a worthwhile life despite tough economic times.

  5. Target setting is becoming a minefield at my school - we've been told 100% of kids should get their predicted grades, and to expect to be asked for an explanation if they don't. So everyone is having to be quite blunt in their predictions, but as you mention, it's hugely demoralising for some kids.

    Also, the data that grades are based on is often from primary schools, where for all we know the kids were heavily drilled and coached for the big assessments. Not to mention personal circumstances changing since then.

    I can imagine a Victorian inspector looking at the 18 year old Pip and saying 'I don't care if he left the forge and spent 10 years learning how to pass a decanter, his junior smelting assessment data means he should be a Level 7 blacksmith by now! I'm afraid it's Special Measures for you, Joe Gargery!'


Post a Comment