It has been accepted wisdom for many, including government, that low aspirations hold back the educational chances of the country's least advantaged pupils. But research published this month suggests the ambitions of young people in deprived inner-city areas are already much higher than expected.
The Glasgow University study looked at 13 to 15-year-old pupils in three secondary schools serving disadvantaged areas of east London, Nottingham and Glasgow. Contrary to popular belief, it found the students were ambitious to go to university and to get professional jobs. There was little evidence of "fatalism" or the "belief that not working was acceptable", researchers reported.
The findings are in stark contrast to government thinking. The Coalition's schools white paper last November said: "In far too many communities there is a deeply embedded culture of low aspiration that is strongly tied to long-term unemployment."
The previous Labour government also wrote of the need to encourage more pupils from poor homes to go to high-performing universities.
But the research found that 83 per cent of the pupils questioned - from "some of the most deprived areas of the UK" - want to go university. And five per cent at most, depending on the city, said they wanted to leave school "as soon as I can".
Professor Ralf St Clair, one the authors, said the findings showed the need for the Government to change its focus from raising aspirations to breaking down barriers that stop pupils achieving their ambitions. "By the time they reach 15, most young people aren't consumed with thoughts of being pop stars or footballers," he said. "They have fairly realistic ambitions, but don't feel they are receiving adequate support to help them get on the right path."
The researchers interviewed 490 pupils aged 13, with follow-ups with 288 of them last year when they were 15.
Asked at the Education and Employers Taskforce research conference in Warwick last week whether pupils understood what they needed to do to meet their aspirations, Professor St Clair said "absolutely not".
"There were kids who wanted to become lawyers who were going to take three GCSEs," he said. "And there were those who wanted to become hairdressers who were going to take 10."
Grahame Whitfield from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which commissioned the report, said it was important not to stereotype disadvantaged pupils. "It's vital for governments to realise there is no 'one size fits all' approach to encouraging young people's development. Information needs to be tailored to reflect the diversity of young people across the UK."
See cover story, pages 28-32.