Is there a culture of low aspirations among low income young people and families?

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21 March 2013 by Wanda Wyporska
Politicians and the media repeatedly cite low aspirations as a major barrier to young people achieving in education. A programme of research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined the role of children and parents’ attitudes, aspirations and behaviour in shaping their educational outcomes.

If found that aspirations are high across all social groups. When children are born 97% of mothers want them to go to university. The big difference between those from richer and poorer backgrounds is their belief that they will be able to achieve such goals. By the time young people are 14, only 53% of low income parents believe their children will go on to university, compared to 81% of higher income parents.

The research found the same high aspirations in relation to jobs. In a large study across three deprived areas, most young people aspired to professional or skilled work; far more than the current labour market could provide. However, they had a striking lack of knowledge about what paths they needed to follow in order to fulfil those goals.

Two major international reviews examined the evidence for interventions raising attainment through addressing attitudes, aspirations and behaviour. These showed that many have very little evidence to back them, but a few are fairly well supported. The work with the best evidence is parental involvement; building parents’ ability to support their children’s education. Specific types of mentoring and extra-curricular activities also show some promising results, but are not yet proven to be effective.

The new toolkit from the Education Endowment Foundation provides broader evidence of what works in raising attainment for low income pupils. It shows that raising aspirations per se does little, but there is a lot schools can do to help students maintain and fulfil their goals.

Finally, a fascinating ESRC study examined changes to the payback from higher education between 1993 and 2008. It found that a degree will still bring higher pay for most young people, but this is now more variable and dependent on areas of work. Worryingly, the recent select committee report on careers advice pointed to diminishing quantity and quality of careers advice in schools. But making the right choices is becoming ever more important.

Guest blog by Helen Barnard, Programme Manager at JRF.

Helen Barnard is Research Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), managing programmes on child poverty, education and poverty, ethnicity and poverty and future labour markets (with Chris Goulden).

Follow Helen's blog or Twitter feed @Helen_Barnard.

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