Aspiration is not the problem, advice is

It's not lack of ambition that keeps poorer pupils behind their peers. What their parents need is practical help

Adi Bloom

Schemes designed to improve disadvantaged children's educational aspirations have little effect on their actual levels of attainment, new research has found. In fact, poorer families often have positive attitudes towards education already. But, researchers say, they lack the practical knowledge to realise their academic aspirations.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a social justice charity, commissioned three pieces of research, looking at whether schemes intended to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged pupils and their parents had any impact on their ultimate attainment.

Disadvantaged pupils, the researchers acknowledge, are not a homogenous group. However, children who grow up in poorer families tend to achieve less at school than their more privileged peers. By the age of 3 - before they even begin primary school - there is a significant gap between the performance of children in the poorest fifth of the population and those from more affluent backgrounds.

By age 11, three-quarters of the poorest children reach the expected level at key stage 2, compared with 97 per cent of children from the richest fifth of the population. Pupils eligible for free school meals are half as likely to achieve five or more A*-C grades at GCSE as those children not on free school meals.

Successive British governments have announced their commitment to close this attainment gap. The result, the Rowntree researchers say, "has been a proliferation of hopeful or innovative approaches, based on the widespread belief that raising aspirations, changing attitudes to schooling and addressing 'disengaging' behaviours will result in improved educational outcomes for children from low-income households".

Evaluating the different schemes, the researchers found that interventions that emphasised parental involvement in children's education had a definite impact on those children's attainment. These schemes focused on involving parents in their children's schooling, and in their own learning. They encouraged parents to put in the necessary time and effort to support their children's learning.

More to the point, the aim of these schemes was not to change parents' attitudes, but to give them advice on how to support their children's education.

"Where parents are from poorer backgrounds themselves, or have not been successful in education, they may lack the practical knowledge that enables them to support their children, for example with homework or making plans for the future," the researchers say.

They are, in addition, scathing about the assumption that such parents may have "negative attitudes" towards their children's potential for success. In fact, this may merely reflect their lack of confidence "in a system organised around a middle-class ethos that they ... do not relate to. This does not mean that they feel education does not matter."

Interventions that simply focus on raising parents' aspirations for their children, therefore, are unlikely to have much effect on actual attainment. "High aspirations alone are not enough," the researchers say. "It is more likely that success will result from interventions than enable and encourage parents actively to engage with their child's learning."

By contrast, there is far less evidence for the success of interventions that emphasise the importance of extra-curricular activities, working with a mentor or holding positive attitudes. Such activities, the researchers point out, may have many benefits for children. It simply has not been proven that improving attainment is one of these benefits.

In order to realise politicians' promises to reduce the educational attainment gap between rich and poor, therefore, the researchers suggest that money should only be spent on schemes with proven benefit.

"It is essential that what is done with schools is based on the best available evidence," they say. "This will ensure that government gets the best return on investment in education, and that young people are helped to achieve their full potential."


Carter-Wall, C. (Transform Education) and Whitfield, G. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation). The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing the Educational Attainment Gap (2012)

Gorard, S. Huat See, B. and Davies, P. The Impact of Attitudes and Aspirations on Educational Attainment and Participation (2012)

Cummings, C. Laing, K. Law, J. McLaughlin, J. Papps, I. Todd, L. and Woolner, P. Can Changing Aspirations and Attitudes Impact on Educational Attainment? (2012). A review of interventions

All available at


The Family Literacy initiative

This involved several literacy programmes in England and Wales. Children aged 3-6 took a 12-week course in early literacy, while their parents received instruction in basic skills. The scheme also included parent-and-child sessions. After two years, the children's vocabulary, reading and writing had improved notably and parents were better equipped to support them.

The Houston Parent-Child Development Center Project

This two-year project targeted Mexican-American parents. Beginning when children were a year old, it involved home visits, family workshops and childcare and child-development classes for parents. By the age of 2 or 3, children showed significantly better mental development than the control group.

Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters

This US programme aimed to help parents prepare children between the ages of 3 and 5 for school. For 20 minutes a day, parents and children role played, read books and did maths and science activities. At the end of the programme, children's maths scores were significantly higher than those of a control group. However, the scheme did not have the same effect on reading scores.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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