Do low aspirations hold back low-income students?

All parents are ambitious for their children. We now have more evidence of successful ways to support their educational success.

Man helping boy with homeworkMany policy makers and commentators claim that low aspirations are a key barrier to attainment by low-income young people. The problem, they say, relates both to young people’s lack of aspiration and to their parents’ low ambitions for their children.

This is a seductive idea: it suggests that changing the aspirations and attitudes of young people and parents could be the silver bullet that enables us to close the attainment gap between those from richer and poorer backgrounds. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation‘s education and poverty programme spent the past four years finding out if it is true (see summary of our findings).

Our research shows that:

  • There are differences in attitudes and aspirations between higher and lower income families. But there is little evidence that these are a main factor driving attainment.
  • Aspirations tend to be high across all social and income groups. When children are born, 97 per cent of mothers in low-income families want them to attend university.
  • The key differences are in how likely parents and children think it is that they will be able to fulfil their goals, and in their knowledge and opportunities to do so.
  • There is very weak evidence behind many initiatives which are claimed to raise attainment through changing attitudes and aspirations.

Our international reviews of evidence find that only one set of interventions relating to attitudes and aspirations currently has a solid evidence base behind it: parental involvement. Several parental engagement programmes have very good evidence of impact, and a larger body of evidence suggests how schools can best engage parents to improve young people’s attainment.

Engagement with parents is most effective when it focuses on children’s learning and builds strong relationships, and when schools meet parents on their own terms in comfortable environments, and pay regard to parents’ own needs and interests.

Two other types of intervention in this area also have promising, but not fully convincing, evidence: mentoring and extra-curricular activities. But it is important to be very careful about the type of mentoring that is used. Done in the wrong way, it can be actively damaging. Mentoring can succeed when it does not aim to ‘inspire,’ but instead focuses on learning-related skills, understanding pathways and decision-making, and connecting young people to new networks or opportunities. Mentors need to be skilled and supported, not just well-intentioned.

We did not look at careers advice in detail, but this research highlights its importance. It demonstrated the very poor understanding that many young people had of the pathways that they needed to follow in order to fulfil their goals. Many were making decisions (about subjects, exams and other issues) without realising that these could prevent them from realising their ambitions. A recent House of Commons Select Committee report raised serious concerns about the amount and quality of careers advice now being delivered. The increasing complexity of options available to young people and the tough labour market they are entering make this particularly worrying.

Finally, our programme raised serious concerns about the state of evidence in education. In many areas, there are major gaps in our knowledge about what is effective and who it works for. Additionally, many educators do not yet make full and intelligent use of the evidence that does exist. The Education Endowment Foundation is funding research to try to plug these gaps, as well as the Toolkit to provide access to current evidence. But this is only a start. School leaders, teachers and others need to get much more involved in generating high quality evidence. They need to work together to use evidence thoughtfully to support their practice and increase their impact. In times of diminishing resources and increasing pressure, good evidence can enable confident decisions, and fundamentally change outcomes for young people.

Helen Barnard is Poverty Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Share this page