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Raising aspirations unlikely to narrow the educational attainment gap

It has long been assumed that one of the reasons children from low-income households have poorer educational outcomes is that they have low aspirations. New research published recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation challenges that myth and gives a strong steer on what can be done to narrow the attainment gap.

The three reports challenge the view held by successive governments (and many educationalists) that raising aspirations and changing attitudes to school are a key way to improve attainment of poorer children. The research confirms that most young people (and their parents) attach great importance to education and want to go to University or to attain professional, managerial and skilled jobs. Most do not believe that not working is acceptable, and also have realistic ambitions and expectations for the future.

Researchers found that despite strongly held beliefs in the benefits of programmes which aim to raise aspirations, there have been very few interventions which have actually improved attainment. Many claims of efficacy have been misleading; most interventions have not been designed to raise attainment and very few have been evaluated robustly. Where evidence is available, it is clear that most interventions of this sort cannot be shown to have improved outcomes.

This does not mean that nothing can be done. 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 involving parents in school; engaging parents in their children’s learning and in their own learning; and aligning school-home expectations. 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.

Liz Todd, author of Can changing aspirations and attitudes impact on educational attainment? A review of interventions, said:

"There is no easy solution to closing the achievement gap for low-income children by focusing on change in aspirations.

"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. 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 helped to succeed and not simply encouraged to have higher aspirations. We know that most young people value their education and want to in order to get a good job when they leave school. The barrier for many is realising their ambitions."

The authors of the reports found that much of the research available on poverty and aspiration is too small-scale and insufficiently robust. This has resulted in policy being made, and programmes created, on the basis of poor evidence.

Professor Stephen Gorard, author of The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation, said: "There are some other interventions that look promising but they should not be rolled out until more solid evidence exists. Interventions should not simply be implemented on the say so of influential politicians', officials', or (head) teachers' preferences or beliefs. Continuing to do so will very likely further entrench disadvantage and, if not contribute to the gap widening, not help reduce it."

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

Alan Dyson, Programme Advisor, said: "For decades, people involved in raising educational attainment for children from low-income households have been guided by policy that is ill-informed, leading to programmes that do little to help those young people meet their aspirations in life. We need to make sure that future educational interventions are developed in light of the best evidence available so that policy-makers and teachers can put together evidence-based programmes that really work."