3 Ways to Raise Aspirations

Schools recognise the part that parents play in setting children’s aspirations, and want to know that any effort they put into increasing the involvement of parents will be reflected in educational achievement. This article looks at the research and suggests that there are 3 main areas that schools can focus on, with examples of what some UK schools are doing.

Last month I was in the office of a Head Teacher of a large secondary school hearing him talk about the low aspirations of the students in his school. He felt powerless to do anything about this while his students’ parents “Sit around on the sofa watching TV all day”.

This morning a primary school Head was telling me how their school’s “Satisfactory” rating from Ofsted was influenced by the low standards of achievement. When I asked what would make a difference, she was clear: it was the low aspirations of parents that kept the pupils’ sights low. The Head spoke of “Grey girls, with young single mothers, who have little idea of future possibilities for themselves or their children”. We started to have a discussion about what a school could do to make a difference and she asked me to write a blog about the topic.

“It’s not who parents are, but what they do that matters”

A couple of years ago a colleague passed me a copy of a paper by Professor Charles Desforges,   which looked at the research around the effect of different kinds of parental involvement on children’s adjustment, development and educational achievement. He concluded that, “What parents do with their children at home through the age range, is much more significant than any other factor open to educational influence.” More to the point, it is the conversations parents have with their children around educational experiences that make the most difference.

I called Charles to ask him more about his research and to ask what he would suggest schools do about this finding. He said that he had come across schools that were now setting up trips and experiences with the sole objective of giving families quality experiences that they could then talk about together. He also said that if parents realised how important their conversations were, they would probably have these more often, as all parents want their children to do well at school, have a good job and contribute to their communities, but don’t always know how.

I have since been looking out for examples of what schools have done to help parents in this way and found some going on in the London Borough of Lambeth.

In Loughborough Primary School the learning mentor ran a coffee morning for parents at which she suggested that they read a book together. They read a chapter each week and read a bit at home too. One

parent stated:‘I’ve never read a book in my life before. I don’t like books. I didn’t think I’d like to read a book but I can’t put it down now, I never knew I’d like it.’ ‘It was so good for their children to see them reading. It offers them an alternative from going to bingo. This developed into a parents’ class, how to read with your children.’

Norwood Secondary School Art department sends home a Year 7 Summer booklet which suggests activities that parents and their children can do together e.g. crafts and visiting museums. The Learning Mentor said, “This is a way of getting them to realise the opportunities that exist locally, to expand their horizons. It’s all a case of how big is your world. One parent didn’t realise that it was free to go to a museum. I know that she has been back since with her son!”

University is not for the likes of us

From the time I was born, even earlier, I was on the fast stream to university. For 3 generations, people in my family have gone to university and I was given every opportunity to get the kind of education that would help me to get there. It would have been quite difficult for me to have avoided going to university as it was the default choice for me. I was

on the fast river to university right from the start. I was speaking at a Teach First conference 3 years ago and a fellow presenter was the Principal of a charter school in America where they were concentrating on putting pupils from deprived areas on that “fast stream”. They decided that the children and their parents needed to have their perceptions about university as a place they could aspire to. They named all the classes after top US universities: Harvard, MIT and so on, and took the children to visit these places and set up links between the universities and the school.

Another school in Lambeth, Johanna Primary School, has done something similar. Every Year 6 child at Johanna has a university student from King’s College London as a mentor, a role model. The students visit Johanna once a week and read with their mentees, talk with them and work with them in/out of the classroom. The success of the scheme lies in the fact that the children look up to the mentors: ‘They represent a different world, university, which many of our children would not know of, but they are  also cool, they might have a flash phone and trainers. It gives them aspiration. They might have more of an influence than us teachers.

My eldest daughter attended a secondary modern school which was a very good school but had a predominantly working class intake from families who did not have university experience. This rubbed off on her and although she went into the sixth form she did not see university as a place for people like her. She saw university as a place for people who like classical music and read fiction, two things she did not enjoy. It was not until we went with her to a Connexions evening and were shown a video of university life, by some students from Reading, that she realised that she had something in common with these people and started seriously to consider applying to university. She has recently been awarded a 2:1 Honours Degree in Art and Design Direction from Manchester Metropolitan University and says that she is very glad she went there. This experience made me think that the exposure to university students and visits to universities needs to start much earlier if it is to be a motivational influence on our children.

Careers Education for Primary School Parents

In addition to helping parents to enhance the educational opportunities and conversations at home, schools can also play a part in educating parents about the kinds of careers that they can hold in mind as aspirations for their own children. Many parents and children only know about jobs within their own direct experience or from the TV. My own choice of occupation was greatly influenced by the regular sessions my department held where a range of professionals were invited to come and talk to the undergraduates about how they applied psychology in their jobs.

Careers evenings held for parents to attend with their Year 5 and 6 children could be a start to raising aspirations.

Parents’ anxieties about losing their children

I heard David Blunkett MP talking on the radio about low aspirations of working class families. He raised an interesting issue. He said that some families actively discouraged their children from having high aspirations because they feared that if their children did very well and went to university they would lose them. They worried that their children would both move away physically and have less in common with them. My feeling is that unless parents feel involved on the journey they are actively taking with their children this threat will not be overcome.

So what does it take to raise aspirations of working class children?

  1. It seems that parental confidence and self worth is the starting point, including confidence about how to go about providing educational experiences and conversations outside school. Schools can let parents know about the real difference this will make to their children and be given guidance on how to do it.
  2. Schools can play a part in putting university into their pupils’ Quality Worlds. That is, make it something they want for themselves, a place they perceive will give them the opportunity to choose a satisfying and worthwhile job. Start with giving the message to parents that university is an appropriate goal for their children, alongside opportunities for youngsters to meet university students and realise that they are “people like us”.
  3. Organise events to expand parental knowledge of careers and university opportunities and invite parents to change their perceptions of what their children can aim for.

Now read: How We Learn

Relationships for Learning

A New Skill to Learn

4 comments to 3 Ways to Raise Aspirations

  • Julie

    Thank you, Geraldine. Much to think about.

  • Excellent…as a parent myself I am only too aware of the motivational power of modelling upon my son, each and every day.

  • Fiona

    I’ve 2 grown up children, both with A levels but neither chose University because of fear of debt. The also had bad role models of 2 parents both doing well in their chosen careers but with no univesity education. The eldest hopes to do distance learning when he is ready for it – why? – because he has just seen me do 6 years study in my spare time and graduation with a BA. Its never too late!!

    • geraldine

      Hi Fiona,
      I think that your comment highlights the narrow view of the concept of “aspiration” that we hold in the UK. High aspiration does not have to mean University, or even study! Perhaps the objective should be to consider what “raising” aspirations actually means. “Raising” to a more community-spirited level, “raised” in terms of adventurousness or personal challenge. Hey, that’s much more fun and valuable to society than simply aspiring to yet more exams passed!

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