The policy discourse around those young people who are the focus of the 14‑19 agenda in the United Kingdom is one of negativity which frames them as low achievers with low aspirations. In tension with this deficit model, policy offers these young people ‘opportunities’ in the form of a vocational education which, according to the rhetoric, will lead to high-skill, high-paid work and a lifetime of opportunities. Drawing on original empirical research, this article contests the assumption that these young people have low aspirations, arguing that constrained by discourses of negativity and lacking the agency for change, their chances of achieving their aspirations are almost non-existent. Further, it suggests that the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ is merely smoke and mirrors, a massive deception whereby young people are channelled into the low-pay, low-skill work market in readiness to fulfil economic demands for cheap labour as and when it is needed. It concludes with proposals for change in the 14‑19 and post-compulsory education and training systems which could provide a more equitable and effective framework for young people to achieve their hopes and dreams.