High hopes…….

Last week, Joseph Rowntree Foundation published 3 papers exploring the role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviours (AABs) in educational outcomes. We have already blogged on this subject a couple of months ago, following a seminar led by Professor Liz Todd, the lead author of one of the JRF reports. This post aims to provide an update following the publication of the JRF reports and attempts to demonstrate why this issue is so important to policy and practice around improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people.

As part of a piece of work looking at how local authorities in the North East fulfilled the ‘local duties’ of the Child Poverty Act, I looked at a  number of their Child Poverty Needs Assessments and strategies. Four authorities (out of 12) highlighted ‘raising aspirations’ as a priority for them. Below are a selection of quotes from these documents:

Raise aspirations and expectations of deprived children, families and communities Transforming the aspirations and ambitions of children growing up in poverty and their families is essential if we are to tackle child poverty. Parental aspirations and ambitions for their children can have a significant impact on life chances

There are parents who have had bad experience of schooling and do not see the benefit of education; this attitude perpetuates the continuous cycle of low aspirations.

Research carried out in 2010 … revelaed low aspiration levels in some areas, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment. Further work in other areas has also shown low aspirations to underpin many ‘negative outcomes’, such as poor attainment, teenage conceptions and anti-social behaviour.

Raising aspirations in our children and young people is important because they influence outcomes.

Some of the most disadvantaged children in the borough suffer from low aspirations and limited ‘mental geography’

Local authorities are not the only organisations in the region who believe that young people (and parents) from poorer backgrounds may need their aspirations raising. Each of the 5 Universities in the region have participated in programmes designed to raise aspirations amongst local children and young people. Newcastle University advertised for a manager for the ‘NE Aspiration Raising Partnership’ in March of this year. For those interested in finding out more about these, using a search engine brings up results for each of the universities but the language is very similar to that which local authorities use:

helps to raise educational aspirations among ‘harder to reach’ groups

We are delighted to be working in partnership … to raise the aspirations and opportunities available for people in the region

There are more examples. The school where I am a parent governor has ‘We seek to raise aspirations…’ as the first words of it’s Vision Statement and a regional conference was organised in 2009 focusing on ‘Raising and Realising Aspirations’. In summary, there appears to be strong consensus that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations which need to be raised and, given the involvement of the universities, one would expect some good evidence to support these policies.

However, the JRF reports offer up an alternative view, with one of the main issues being around the quality and quantity of evidence available in this area. Below are some quotations from the 3 reports that were published last week:

If attitudes and aspirations do cause higher levels of attainment, then appropriate interventions can be developed. But if they do not, then money and effort is being wasted on approaches that may even have damaging side effects. (1)

 The review confirmed the association between children’s expectations/aspirations and their attainment. However, the evidence falls short of that needed to assume that it is a causal influence, because no relevant rigorous evaluations of interventions were found. There were no good indications that a child’s aspirations could influence later participation (1)

Our research reinforced the insight that children and parents from low income families have high aspirations and value school, and that parents by and large try their best to support their children’s education. There is evidence that teachers and other professionals may underestimate the aspirations of socio-economically disadvantaged children and parents and not appreciate the importance with which school is viewed. (2)

 The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice (2)

 Teachers and other professionals may need to revise upwards their estimation of the aspirations of parents and children. (2)

The immediate focus should be on rolling-out and monitoring the implementation of interventions where there is already good evidence, particularly in the area of parental involvement. Interventions in this area should have a clear focus on providing information, support and advice to parents and children, rather than continuing to seek to raise aspirations which are already generally high (3)

It is worth repeating what the Todd et al report says:

The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice

For what it’s worth, I have yet to come across a parent who didn’t want the best for their child or children and I have not come across many young people in the region (or elsewhere) who have wanted to ‘under-achieve’. Our previous blog highlighted that ‘aspirations’ is used in many different ways and to mean different things and it perhaps isn’t helpful to look at them as linear (low- high). People have very different aspirations for themselves and/or their children, many of which don’t relate to educational attainment or going on to higher education.

As this has been identified as such an important area for tackling child poverty and improving educational attainment amongst poorer children in the North East, it will be very interesting to follow how their policies unfold and develop and whether the JRF research has any ‘impact’. It is worth noting that JRF have already been very supportive of getting this work disseminated in the region and supported the event that Liz Todd presented at recently.

I’ll end by recounting what a prominent and well-respected academic in the North East told me when I broached this subject with them a few months ago:

‘Frankly, some of the stuff I read about young people’s aspirations makes me want to puke.’

What do you think?

Best wishes,


What do people think?

(1) http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/aspirations-educational-attainment-participation


(3) http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/aspirations-attitudes-educational-attainment-roundup


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