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Research challenges idea raising aspirations is key to education success

New research carried out by Newcastle University challenges the idea that raising aspirations is the key to improving the education of children from low-income families.

Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University, led a multi-disciplinary team that reviewed projects designed to raise aspirations and change attitudes as part of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded study.

The project looked at whether the issue of low educational attainment by children from poorer backgrounds can be solved by schemes that aim to change aspirations and attitudes.

The review found that while some interventions showed some change in attitudes and had an impact on educational attainment, there was no evidence that one led to the other.

Importantly, the review found that low-income families already have aspirations for their children to go on to higher education but often other barriers can get in the way of them realising these ambitions. Liz Todd also found that teachers, policy makers and other education professionals underestimate the ambitions of young people and the aspirations that families have for their children.

Professor Todd said: “For more than 10 years national and local policy has focused attention on raising aspirations. But there is no evidence that if you want to impact on the attainment of lower-income pupils that changing attitudes and aspirations is the way to go. There is an urgent need to change direction.”

She added: “It’s not that aspirations aren’t important. It’s not about turning them on but keeping them on track. It’s highly unlikely that any child starts school wanting to be unemployed.”

The research identified a number of programmes where there are strong indicators of success. It found that the most effective way of helping children from low-income households to achieve their ambitions is engaging parents in their children’s learning and in their own learning and in providing a range of support for children such as mentoring. Parents need to understand how the education system works and what choices are available for their children and, critically, how they can work with schools to help their children reach their full potential.

It also stated that we need to develop approaches that don’t blame families and children for the effects of poverty on their education.

Professor Todd said: “If our education system is to give children and young people the best chance of achieving their goals, it is essential that they and their parents are offered different kinds of support when needed and not simply encouraged to have higher aspirations.

“We know that most young people value their education and want it to continue in order to get a good job when they leave school. The barrier for many is realising their ambitions.

“Most parents from disadvantaged backgrounds have ambitious aims for their children, give importance to school and do what they can to support them.”

“The existing evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement in children’s education to improve outcomes. The immediate focus should be on rolling out and closely monitoring such interventions. Other promising interventions are mentoring, extra-curricular activities and peer education.”

This review also found the need for improvement in the quality of educational evaluations and the level of sophistication of research tools used in evaluations.

Professor Todd’s work, is one of three papers published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, all of which look at whether aspirations improve educational attainment.

The findings of this research have implications for educational policy making, practice and research.

Notes to Editors

The team working with Professor Todd included Colleen Cummings, Karen Laing, Prof James Law, Dr Janice McLaughlin, Ivy Papps and Dr Pam Woolner. They share expertise in health, education, educational psychology and economics.

Young people from the Durham-based Investing in Children project were consulted as part of the project.

published on: 27 April 2012