Why are ‘raising aspirations’ on the education agenda?

Published 28/03/2018   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Aspirations are hopes or ambitions to achieve something. This “something” could be going to university, or setting up your own business, or being an apprentice engineer. Regardless, having aspirations is often seen as a marker for motivation and long-term success and has been the focus of research, think tanks and government policy.

The ‘raising of aspirations’ in education often features in efforts to boost academic achievement and social mobility, for example the narrowing of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. What is the evidence behind ‘raising aspirations’ and why do we use aspirations as a stepping-stone to academic attainment?

Raising aspirations in education has been on the Welsh Government’s agenda in both the current and previous Assemblies. In March 2014, the then Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, in the Fourth Assembly appointed Sir Alasdair MacDonald as a ‘Raising Attainment Advocate’ for Wales. As part of Sir Alasdair’s role, Huw Lewis outlined that he would engage with schools, local authorities and consortia on a number of different areas including to “promote higher aspirations for learners from deprived backgrounds.” Following this in the summer of 2014, the Welsh Government published, Rewriting the future: raising ambition and attainment in Welsh schools, its strategy for tackling the impact of poverty on educational attainment. The strategy highlighted why deprivation matters with one of the four main themes of the strategy itself being “High Expectations and Aspirations”. One of the Welsh Government’s flagship policies is the Pupil Development Grant (PDG), which targets additional funding at pupils eligible for free school meals (eFSM) with the objective of narrowing the attainment gap. The 2015 progress update (PDF 1.8MB) to the 2014 strategy said that one of the roles of the Schools Challenge Cymru programme, which targeted interventions at specific schools between 2014 and 2017 was “…to support learners from deprived backgrounds to do well at school and raise their aspirations for their future.” The Children, Young People and Education Committee is looking at how the PDG and Schools Challenge Cymru as part of its Targeted funding to improve educational outcomes inquiry.

In November 2015, the Welsh Government and Cardiff University jointly published Understanding the educational experiences and opinions, attainment, achievement and aspirations of looked after children in Wales. Aspirations were a common theme throughout this research, including looking into the future aspirations and goals that looked after children and young people had. Comment on prior research accompanying the document showed that “LACYP have similar aspirations to their non-looked-after peers.”

In the current Assembly, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams has her own aspirations regarding ‘Our National Mission’ to improve the Welsh education system. In her recent 27 February 2018 Plenary statement regarding increased funding for more able and talented pupils, she stated that “Further encouraging a culture that supports high aspirations for all learners, teachers and schools is crucial to the delivery of our national mission for education.” The Cabinet Secretary went further to say, “The Seren Network already makes a hugely positive contribution to raising aspirations, boosting confidence and encouraging post-16 students to be ambitious.”

Raising aspirations was key to the Cabinet Secretary’s message. Raising aspirations has also featured on the UK Government’s agenda. For example, in 2012, the UK Government had the ambition of ‘an aspiration nation,’ with privilege distributed across Britain.

It is commonly accepted that disadvantaged young people need encouragement and support to have raised aspirations for success in education but why is there such a focus on this?

In January 2018, Education and Employers published the report Drawing the Future which reported on the study Exploring the career aspirations of primary school children around the world. Primary school pupils world-wide were asked to draw their career ambitions, including 201 pupils from Wales. The study showed some evidence that pupils in schools with less than 20% eligible for Free School Meals (eFSM) pupils, were relatively more likely to have aspirations for higher-earning professions compared to pupils in schools with more than 20% eFSM pupils. This was not shown for all professions however. For example, there was evidence showing that aspiring to be a doctor was more popular in schools with 20% or more eFSM pupils and being a scientist was a similar aspiration across schools regardless eFSM percentages. As a result of this evidence, the report stated“- the overall picture remains more striking for its similarities rather its differences”.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the study Can changing aspirations and attitudes impact on educational attainment? in 2012. This study explored what factors were associated with attitudes and attainment. The attitudes considered were: aspirations, locus of control and valuing school. Three factors (extra-curricular activities, mentoring and parental intervention) were shown to be significantly related to both attitudes and attainment. The study also showed an association between extra-curricular activities, mentoring and parent intervention. It suggested that attainment was not explained by attitudes such as aspirations. This meant that for a young person who had access to extra-curricular activities or to mentoring or whose parent was engaged with their education (or all three), having aspirations did not contribute to improving attainment. The three factors were independently linked to increasing attainment and aspirations. There was no evidence to suggest that aspirations were required an impact on attainment.

Where studies suggest that raising the aspirations of disadvantaged children is not the only answer to improving educational attainment, it does suggest that aspirations do need to be a factor in the lives of disadvantaged children.

This is especially apparent in the UK as a nation.

The Millennium Cohort Study, including 19,000 children born in 2000-2001 from across the UK including Wales, published evidence in 2010 about maternal aspirations for their children. Evidence showed that 97% of mothers wanted their child to attend university. This was regardless of class-status and wealth. When mothers were asked how likely they thought their child would go to university, 53% of mothers in the poorest families agreed whereas 81% of the richest believed their child would reach higher education.

The State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain publication, reported that aspirations in many deprived communities were ‘narrow’ and failing schools were being turned around by ‘boosting’ aspirations. After the report was published, all four members of the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission decided to stand down from their roles on the Commission. Aspirations featured throughout the report in addition to the perceived discouraging lack of mobilisation throughout Britain.

A previous Research Service blog outlines the current state of social mobility in Wales. Further information about narrowing the attainment gap is outlined in our recent Key Stage 4 Attainment Data research briefing.

The Research Service acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Hayley Moulding by the Medical Research Council (MRC), which enabled this blog to be completed.

Article by Hayley Moulding, National Assembly for Wales Research Service