Lessons from Sway: What can DJ Sway teach us about ‘levelling up’ pupil aspirations

1st February 2013

I would argue that we can draw two lessons from Sway – firstly we can gain an insight into what counts as success and secondly, we can see how daunting the journey towards it can seem.

DJ Sway uses a reference to Oxford and Cambridge as an example of ‘levelling up,’ or succeeding. He can only do this because (rightly or wrongly), it is a commonly understood marker of success; when he talks about graduating this is a sure sign that he has succeeded according to a shared metric. This contradicts the commonly made claim that the UK is suffering from ‘poverty of aspirations’ and that this explains the achievement gap.


This “proof by metaphor” might not seem the most solid evidence for aspirations but it is backed up by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). The MCS shows that at their child’s birth, 97% of mothers hope they will go to university.


Yet when it comes to confidence about actually achieving this aspiration, by the time their children are 14, only 53% of the poorest parents think their children will make it. It might be responded that university just isn’t for everyone, but why is the picture so different across socio-economic classes? At the same age, 81% of the richest 5th of parents think their child is likely to go on to higher education. Richer families’ therefore feel they are on track to achieve their aspirations whilst poorer families do not.

The second lesson from Sway explains this:

DJ Sway tells us that “One moment your whole world re-arranges” – graduating from Oxford or Cambridge involves rearranging his whole world. In my ‘Viewpoint’ I argue that where pupils’ families (and friends) have little or no experience of university, they do not know the route-map from one world to another. By the time their child is 14 (and in fact earlier), poorer families see that their children are not on track to achieve their dreams andadjust their expectations accordingly. The aim of the report is therefore to share examples of how schools are engaging with parents to help map the route towards their and their children’s aspirations and to argue for a shift from ‘Model A’ to ‘Model B’. You can find a summary of key recommendations below.


Ultimately, it is telling that in DJ Sway’s, video, winning the lottery seems the most likely bet for re-arranging his world…

Examples of good practice in school include :

  • Having a carefully planned out induction process in which parents are given practical ways to support their child’s learning (a quiet place to do homework, limited television time, encouragement to read books around their favourite subjects.)
  • Responding to the local community’s needs and interests– addressing past experiences of education in communities where families may have had bad experiences at the same school or valuing parents’ native language in more mobile communities.
  • Using different spaces away from school where parents can come together with school staff- through home visits or events in community hubs.
  • Providing high quality careers advice focused on how to achieve goals. This should kick in well before pupils make big decisions later in secondary education.

Policy Challenges:

  • How will quality and equity in careers advice be monitored now that responsibility for face to face advice has shifted to schools? Will schools make it a priority?
  • As Local Authorities are weakened, what alternatives are there to take on the role of home school liaison officers/parental support advisors?
  • If schools are no longer required to provide Work Related Learning, how will schools be encouraged to  provide opportunities to learn about the workplace?

Challenges for those working with schools

  • It is not enough to provide “inspirational,” “aspiration raising” mentoring programs. Mentoring should be skilled and learning focused. Organisations therefore need to consider how they select and train volunteers.

You can download my full report here

And if you like the Sway track you should really check out this Harry Shotta remix too