'Study hard, aim high' for working class British Asians
16 January 2013
By Susan Watt
Is encouraging your children to be top of the class just a white middle-class preoccupation? Not according to a recent ESRC study (Intergenerational Dynamics and Education amongst British Asian families), which found that many working-class ethnic minority families are inspiring their children to be high educational achievers – even if the parents have had very little education themselves.
Professor Tehmina Basit of Staffordshire University, who carried out the research, argues that the high value such families place on education provides 'educational capital' – a valuable asset they pass on to their children and grandchildren, in a similar way to economic and social assets.
"They see education as capital, as a catalyst for economic success, and they inculcate the value of education into the minds of their young people," says Professor Basit. In fact, educational capital was seen as the most significant asset a young person could acquire, because "education gives you options in life", as one participant commented.
Importantly, this means that many working-class ethnic minority families have the type of aspirational attitudes towards education that are more often associated with middle-class families. "There were very high aspirations across the generations," Professor Basit points out. "Despite the fact that the parents and grandparents were mainly working class, they had the kind of expectations that middle-class people have for their children."
The research, carried out in the West Midlands among the families of immigrants originally from India or Pakistan, employed a unique three-generational approach: the parents and grandparents of twelve children aged 15-16 years were interviewed, as well as the teenagers themselves. This revealed the compelling way in which first-generation immigrants were able to use their own life stories to persuade young people to take education very seriously. Perhaps surprisingly, there was as much emphasis on the importance of education for girls as for boys.
The adults typically employed a suite of positive and negative arguments to motivate teenagers to study hard and aim high - each of which emphasised the importance of education as a route to a better life and higher social status, as Professor Basit explains: "First, they impress on the young people the value of hard work and their own occupational struggles. Then, they keep telling them about big houses and nice cars and so on – the better life they can have if they are successful; and they also present alarming negative scenarios – for example, if you don't study, you will have to live in a council house and have a second-hand car and an unskilled job."
Education is not seen solely as a route to material success, but also because it makes people into good human beings and is something that can't be taken away. In fact, there was something of a 'pedagogy of contradiction' in terms of the messages from the older generations towards the younger. "They want their children to be like them in some ways – for example, as a moral and religious person – but to be unlike them in others: they don't want them to be uneducated people with poor job prospects living in poverty," says Professor Basit.
The study also identified some factors that act as barriers to the aspirations of the young people in the study. One factor was a lack of information about university careers and the qualifications needed to pursue them. Another factor - mentioned by every participant - was the high cost of university education since the introduction of fees.
"Immigrants definitely don't want to get into debt, and the second or third generations still have that mindset. Previously, as soon as people found a job, they got married, bought a house and had children. Now, the feeling is that they won't buy a house, and they will delay getting married and having children for many years," adds Professor Basit.
She recommends closer partnerships between schools and British Asian families, to support the deep-rooted educational aspirations found in the study.