Aspirations! Are they a barrier to educational attainment?

‘The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations’

Adam Smith

(Image produced by Ros Asquith and taken from The Guardian on o3/05/20111 –

A couple of weeks ago we held an event looking at the role of aspirations in educational attainment. Professor Liz Todd from Newcastle University discussed some of the policy assumptions around this area and touched on some findings from her forthcoming research with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This post will, hopefully, provide attendees and others an opportunity to comment on this area of work.

Liz’s work and other reports from JRF challenge a lot of the assumptions that ‘raising aspirations’ – mainly amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – can lead to an increase in attainment. There is remarkably little evidence that such an approach is likely to succeed or, indeed, that poorer families have lower aspirations than more affluent families.

And yet, this lack of evidence does not stop newspaper articles like this one in The Telegraph, policy initiatives such as this one from the previous government highlighted in The Guardian under the headline ‘Government plan to raise aspirations of millions of children’ or political speeches like this one from Andy Burnham which include the lines:

All across England, you can hear the sound of falling aspiration. And it’s terrifying. Tony Blair said his priorities were education, education, education. And because of what he did we can now go further: aspiration, aspiration, aspiration.

A separate JRF report on achievement and aspirations by Goodman & Gregg found that:

The evidence on school and local-based interventions to improve young people’s social and emotional skills, behaviour, and participation in positive activities needs to be strengthened. In particular, there is very little evidence on whether these eventually lead to improved school attainment

Liz asked during her presentation ‘what do we mean by aspirations?’ and a recent study by researchers at Leeds University suggested that aspirations amongst parents from different backgrounds were not necessarily linear (low-high) but that they were qualitatively different. They suggest that different parents attach greater or lesser importance to the role of formal education in their child’s development and this was dependent on many factors. A number of parents wanted their children to be safe, to be happy or to know the difference between right and wrong, whereas other parents talked about their children’s development in more academic and educational terms

Many working-class parents were strongly exercised by their children’s formal education, saw it as necessary to a good start in life, and manifested a strategic orientation towards their children’s educational success. Other working-class parents manifested a more limited sense of efficacy in influencing their children’s educational future. This was more typically associated with greatest disadvantage, although a range of factors were evident, and disadvantage in itself did not undermine hopeful action in respect of education.

Liz also asked, with the aid of Charlie Brooker (bad language and extreme cynicism warning) at one point what kind of education system we wanted and what kind of society we wanted to live in. Another research project, looking at white middle class parents (typically those characterised as having ‘high aspirations’)who sent their children to urban ethnically diverse schools  found that:

These (pro-welfare, left-leaning) parents are also playing the educational market and capitalising on educational investments. Whilst most would claim they want a good education for all children, their actual social practices in the educational arena are still primarily about competition and trying to generate a greater profit than other parents. This paucity of aspiration comes as something of a surprise. The irony here is that it has traditionally been the white working-classes who have been judged for a paucity of aspirations: perhaps it is just that the circumscribed range of aspirations differs for different classes

So, what do you think – and how do we begin to change the tone of the discussions around aspirations? Can we get policy makers and politicians to start talking about ‘realising aspirations’ or, as Liz suggested ‘keeping aspirations on track’? Or do you have any unanswered questions regarding what you heard at the event or what you have just read above?

Kind regards,


Liz’s forthcoming work with JRF is likely to be published in March or April, along with another report exploring evidence around the role of  aspirations in educational attainment. JRF recently published a report called ‘The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations’ and also have a wide ranging area of work looking at the links between education and poverty that can be found here:

If you would like a copy of the presentation that Liz gave at the event, please contact me at


6 responses to “Aspirations! Are they a barrier to educational attainment?

  • Nick Brereton

    Blaming the victims?

    On reflection after Liz’s presentation and the discussion I was asking myself the question ‘what is a high aspiration’. Presumably it is not considered a good idea to have or encourage unrealistic expectations – in my youth work days I was often involved in discussions about the need to avoid raising expectations among young people. The diagrams of the levels of aspiration by income group in the presentation seemed to reflect outcomes very clearly. In other words young people’s aspirations accurately reflect their likely outcome, and an understanding of what that is.
    If young people aspire for roughly speaking a similar level of achievement to their likely end point, that makes their level of aspiration appropriate, not low, in and of itself. The real issue is how does society improve the liklely outcomes for those young people who didn’t have the good fortune to be born to wealthy families. The work of the ‘Think Tank’ group (the young people who spoke at the event are involved in this piece of work) is looking at making sure life chances are as available as possible irrespective of income level. If we were to be successful in delivering some change around that it could contribute to young people getting and taking chances to achieve good educational outcomes.
    So before we blame young people and families for holding themselves back by not aiming high we need to remember that by definition not everyone can be or achieve above average. We will still have pay differentials and higher and lower status jobs needing people to fill them and take the pay and conditions attached. Perhaps the astounding and growing level of inequality between the richest and poorest in the country is the issue that should be under more scrutiny. And lets celebrate all our young people and their achievements and dreams in the meantime.

  • Stephen Crossley


    many thanks for the comment. I completely agree. Not everyone can be a lawyer or an executive of some sort and it would be a pretty awful world if they could. The world needs people to fulfil lots of roles that are not valued particularly highly by society at present and I think the high levels of inequality are definitely a part of the problem.

  • Selena

    Thanks for tweeting me. I’ll check out the JRT report.
    I’m very surprised to hear what the evidence is suggesting.

    At school my friend who had no career aspiration decided at 15 that she wanted a baby before she was 18. That was her goal and she achieved it.
    She left school with a few GCSE’s and has spent most of the past 15 years on welfare. A good friend of mine has a teenage son who has no career aspiration for his future and this lead to his decision two weeks ago to leave school without completing his GCSE exams.
    On the other hand, my teenage brother is full of aspiration. He is doing well as school and is taking one or two GCSE’s two years early.
    The only reason he is working hard is because he dreams of getting into a top university. In my community aspiration and educational achievement seem to go hand in hand.Young people need an incentive to work hard at school. It appears that without any aspiration for the future very few see the point. I agree with Nick that everyone isn’t the lawyer type but it would be nice to see more diversity within the law profession that’s for sure.

  • Katie Scott

    Hi there, I too attended the event and felt it was very thought-provoking. What kind of society do we live in, when ‘low ability children from wealthy families still overtake high ability children from poor families during primary school”? Outrageous inequality! Alan Milburn writes “The goal I believe we should be aiming for is to reduce the extent to which a person’s class or income is dependent on the class or income of their parents”. Nick’s comments are slightly worrying when we think about this, don’t you agree? Another point I would like to make is that I believe we should be encouraging ALL young people to aspire to be moral, independent, reliable, happy and healthy citizens.

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