Book Review: The End of Aspiration? by Duncan Exley

Subtitled Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects, Duncan Exley’s book explores the facts and myths around aspiration. Referencing many studies, linked with real-life stories of people who have moved from rag-to-riches, Exley asks how far the UK is from being an ‘opportunity’ society and whether social mobility should be a priority of policy-makers.

Duncan Exley is the former Director of the Equality Trust. In his book, he delves into issues of equality and poverty, probing the real factors behind people not being able to attain the life they would like to live.

Recently, I toured a secondary school in North Devon with the headteacher. I asked her what the biggest issue was for the young people there. She told me, without hesitation, lack of aspiration. She explained that many of her pupils came from families which could not afford to travel outside of the town, not to mention the county. Pupils stayed in school as long as they were required to and then left for local jobs. She had started taking groups of pupils to Oxford open days and was proud that several now were at Oxford and other universities. But she said one of the hurdles she faced was lack of funding for school trips so that young people could experience the bigger world outside of their own community.

This is one of the many themes Exley tackles – how to give young people from more deprived circumstances the opportunities to explore, experience and participate in the bigger world.

Creating opportunities, however, is not enough. Exley looks at the biology of poverty and cites studies which link the nutrition of grandparents to the birth weight and health of babies. Low birth weight has been linked to poorer attainment. A healthy population is one which can thrive, and child poverty must be tackled. Exley notes the effect of health on career progression:

The health-damaging effects of being in a job with low pay and low esteem don’t just affect workers’ ability to thrive and be promoted in a workplace; they can also damage the career prospects of their children, even if those children grow up to be in well-paid and well-respected jobs.

You will have to read the book to find out why – the interlink between health, social mobility, career opportunities and life chances is fascinating. I’ll include one more sentence:

This corrosion of self-esteem, combined with financial insecturty, is so powerful that low-paid, low-status work has been found to be worse for mental health than being unemployed.

Exley talks about the hierarchy of the class system, of people wanting to move up, though some move down. A point he makes which should be more widely accepted is that rather than people from working classes having to adopt middle or upper-class accents and mannerisms, they should be accepted for who they are. Rich cultural diversity should be celebrated, not hegemonised into a bland whole.

I personally think society should move from classes being a pyramid structure of layers toward a circle holding hands: the doctor, welder, teacher, cleaner, lawyer, plumber and politician all in the same circle, around a common centre of community.

Getting back to the book, Exley tackles the dreaded tuition-fee and access to higher education issue in a brilliant chapter. He says

Tuition fee debts can reduce the incomes of graduates in later life, but they do not prevent anyone from accessing higher education. And until all students are allowed to compete for entry to higher education on fair terms, cutting tuition fees will be a subsidy that disproportionately goes to the privileged, for a service to which they have preferential access.

Exley advocates that the first priority should be making sure loans and grants to cover living costs for those from a poorer background are high enough to cover the real cost of living.

It’s a great book, with more information and insight than I can possibly review here. I’ll leave you with one more quote:

There is good reason to believe reducing inequality (and reducing poverty) would improve the UK’s rates of social mobility.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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