The evidence for raising aspirations

Feb. 2, 2018
Katy Theobald

Katy Theobald

Associate Director, Research and Evaluation

This month, Ambition:Feed is focusing on raising aspirations. Although this is an issue many school leaders will recognise, it’s also a complex area as far as evidence is concerned.

Although there is a correlation between aspirations and attainment, the nature of the relationship is still unclear. The EEF, for example, finds that “On average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little to no positive impact on educational attainment.”

If this is the case, why is Ambition devoting a term to sharing leaders’ strategies for raising aspirations in their schools?

I want to answer this question by posing three more: What do we mean by aspirations? Why do they matter? And what is the value of the strategies our leaders have used?

What do we mean by aspirations?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines aspiration as: “a hope or ambition of achieving something”. A bit non-specific, I’ll admit. Then again, one of the reasons aspiration raising gets controversial is that the moment we define ‘something’ more specifically, we’re making a value judgment.

For example, a lot of research on aspiration is focused on access to higher education. In these papers, ‘high aspirations’ are aspirations to go to university. But not every child wants to do that, and not every child should.

For many school leaders, aspiration has a broader meaning, which I could best summarise as ‘aiming for the best outcome I can reach’. If I think back to focus groups we ran before Christmas with school leaders in the North, one leader explained that when he joined the school, his pupils didn’t want to get the best possible grade at GCSE, they just wanted to get a C.

The pupils didn’t understand why they would aim for more than the minimum standard. He thought those pupils should have higher aspirations.

The strategies we’re showcasing this term address everything from raising teachers’ academic aspirations for their pupils, through encouraging participation in higher education, to showing pupils that they can reach out to figure-heads around the globe.

I’ll readily admit, some of them don’t fall into an academic definition of ‘aspiration’. But they reflect a broader sense of the importance of showing children what’s possible and helping them believe that they can achieve it.

ambition reportage 1

Why do aspirations matter?

I’m going to steal another sentence from the EEF: “the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex and not fully understood”.

What we know is that there’s a correlation between what children aspire to and their educational outcomes. For example, looking back to the days when pupils could leave school at 16, one study found that pupils who aspired to stay in education after 16 were more than three times as likely to achieve five A*-Cs at GCSE (accounting for Key Stage 3 scores and background factors)[1].

And if two pupils have the same GCSE grades, a child who thinks they’re likely to go to university is twice as likely to go on to take A-levels[2].

However, this is not the same as a causal link between aspiration and attainment. Aspirations reflect a breadth of influences including parent, peer and school expectations and children’s individual experiences. That means it’s hard to disentangle why children hold certain aspirations and whether it’s the same underlying factors influencing their aspirations and outcomes.

We also know having ‘high aspirations’ isn’t enough to ensure young people fulfil their potential. For example, young people can have high aspirations without knowing how to fulfil them[3]. In other words, young people need a combination of aspiration, knowledge and attainment to fulfil their ambitions.

All of that said, we know that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to aspire to go to university and less likely to believe in their own academic abilities, which means there is still a gap to be addressed.

"The EEF evaluated an intervention called Children’s University , which provides learning activities outside of the school day, and found a positive impact on attainment and non-cognitive outcomes including aspirations."

What is the value of the strategies our leaders have used?

Each of our leaders has explained the value they see in the strategies they have used to raise aspirations. I’d like to link a few to the wider literature (although I’m not saying they’re directly comparable).

First, let’s look at coaching staff to encourage them to have high aspirations for their pupils, as Stephen Garvey mentions in our [Raising Aspirations podcast]. Children who think their school places a strong emphasis on learning are also more likely to believe in their own academic abilities[4]. Differences in teacher expectations are also predictive of differences in pupil outcomes[5]. So there’s a clear logic to focusing on raising staff aspirations for pupils.

Second, let’s think about extra-curricular activities as spoken about by Rowena Kidd in the podcast. We know that children from less advantaged homes have less access to extra-curricular activities and academic enrichment[6]. The EEF evaluated an intervention called Children’s University , which provides learning activities outside of the school day, and found a positive impact on attainment and non-cognitive outcomes including aspirations. Rowena used a different approach, but we can again see her logic.

“On average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little to no positive impact on educational attainment.” 

It’s true that there is very varied evidence about the impact of interventions which aim to raise aspirations and how they link to outcomes. However, what we do know is that schools play a vital role in ensuring every child recognises their potential, and has ambitions that reflect it.



[1] Rothon, C., Arephin, M., Klineberg, E., Cattell, V., & Stansfield, S. (2010). Structural and socio-psychological influences on adolescents’ educational aspirations and subsequent academic achievement. Social Psychology of Education, 14(2), 209-231. doi:DOI 10.1007/s11218-010-9140-0

[2] Believing in Better, How Aspirations and Academic Self Concept Shape Young People’s Outcomes, Sutton Trust 

[3] Atherton, G., Cymbir, E., Roberts, K., Page, L., & Remedios, R. (2009). How Young People Formulate their Views about the Future (Research Report No. 152). Department for Children, Schools and Families. 

[4] Believing in Better, How Aspirations and Academic Self Concept Shape Young People’s Outcomes, Sutton Trust

[5] Papageorge, Nicholas W. and Gershenson, Seth and Kang, Kyungmin, Teacher Expectations Matter. IZA Discussion Paper No. 10165. Available here at SSRN.

[6] Extra-curricular inequality, Sutton Trust

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