Aspirations have been defined as future-oriented expressions of goals and hopes1 and they have long been a focus of UK policy relating to education and social mobility2. The belief that certain social groups ‘lack aspiration’ has been increasingly used to explain growing gaps in educational outcomes for young people, particularly those communities labelled as ‘disadvantaged’, and this has resulted in the production of numerous interventions designed to ‘raise’ them. Within these interventions, ‘acceptable’ aspirations can also be narrowly defined around going to University or getting a well-paid job rather than around visions for having a good life, such as being happy or raising a family3.
Children’s less successful progress in education is often blamed on their, and/or parents’ poor aspirations by schools and government reports, defined by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) as the ‘Poverty of Aspiration4. This deficit model tends to blame individuals and their families for their lack of ambition rather than challenge wider structural inequalities that shape their access to jobs, housing and education5. Children in stigmatised communities often have the same high aspirations as their peers in wealthier neighbourhoods, although their access to achieving their goals may be constrained by the conditions linked to poverty – stress, living conditions, and lack of resources6.
Parents are seen to be ‘valued socialisers’ in the shaping of their children’s perceptions on occupation or career related decisions, making them a key focus in the aspiration literature7. While the effects of income and educational levels of parents on aspirations has been debated, research states that varying parental situations do not affect their belief in their children and their aspirations for them, although parental circumstances may influence factors such as time to help with homework, resources for extra-curricular activities, knowledge and confidence in dealing with school matters8.
While our report will also challenge the myth of low aspiration, research does tell us that the places where young people live play an important role in shaping their life chances. In 2011, Kintrea et al9 investigated the influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations of young people. They found that although the young people in their study had ‘high aspirations’, these differed greatly according to multiple place-based factors relating to the everyday pressures of school, family, community and wider society. The authors concluded that place, family and schools tend to coalesce around particular views of future options that are mutually reinforcing.
Research also argues that adolescents tend to be affected positively when a relationship is sustained between their home and school environments, meaning parental involvement with school activities and a positive relationship between teachers and parents contribute to the behaviour and aspirations of students10. While the amount of parental involvement can differ with parents’ particular circumstances, it has been found that student perceptions of parental involvement is linked to academic performance as a positive relationship between home and school results in a more motivated child.
It is also important to consider the relationship between teachers and parents and the effect that relationship has on a child’s academic motivation11. Our research will also argue that relationships beyond the parent-teachers nexus also matter and that families/schools also benefit from supportive two-way relationships with the wider community. Strong and resilient relations also provide better social networks, social capital and opportunities for young people to realise their ambitions12.
In summary, our review of published research draws our attention to three important themes. Firstly, there is need to work with young people and their families, local schools and communities to understand the specific place-based opportunities and barriers in their neighbourhood. Secondly, although most young people have high aspirations these alone are not enough – young people need to understand and be able to charter the pathways to reaching their goals and this journey requires continual support. Thirdly, the relationships between young people, families, schools and the wider community are key to shaping local attitudes to, and outcomes arising from, beliefs around ‘aspirations’ - positive relationships are fundamental to shaping young people’s life chances.
1 Hart, C. S. (2016) How do aspirations matter? Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 17(3), 324-341.
2 Spohrer, K., Stahl, G. and Bowers-Brown, T. (2018) Constituting neoliberal subjects? ‘Aspiration’ as technology of government in UK policy discourse, Journal of Education Policy 33 (3), 327-342
3 Brown, G. (2011) Emotional geographies of young people’s aspirations for adult life, Children’s Geographies 9 (1), 7-22
4 Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, (2017) Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now? The University of Edinburgh. Available at: https:// www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/25787/CRF briefing91Treanor.pdf [Accessed 24 August 2018].
5 Macleod, J. (2018) Ain’t no makin it: aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood, Third Edition. Taylor and Francis
6 Wheeler, S. (2017) The (re)production of (dis)advantage: class-based variations in parental aspirations, strategies and practices in relation to children’s primary education. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 1 – 16.
7 Phukan, D., and Saikia, J. (2017) Parental Influence, gender socialization and career aspirations of girl students: A study in the girls’ colleges of Upper Assam. International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Studies, 4(2), 31–37.
8 Reese, E., Peterson, E. R., Waldie, K., Schmidt, J., Bandara, D., Atatoa Carr, P., Grant, C., Pryor, J., Morton, S. M. B. (2016) High hopes? Educational, socioeconomic, and ethnic differences in parents’ aspirations for their unborn children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(12), 3657–3674.
9 Kintrea, K., St Clair, R. and Houston, M. (2011) The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations. Joseph Rowntree Foundation: York.
10 DePlanty, J., Coulter-Kern, R., and Duchane, K. A. (2007) Perceptions of parent involvement in academic achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 100(6), 361–368.
11 Dotterer, A. M., and Wehrspann, E. (2016) Parent involvement and academic outcomes among urban adolescents: examining the role of school engagement. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 36(4), 812–830.
12 Fuller, C. (2014) Social capital and the role of trust in aspirations for higher education, Educational Review 66 (2), 131-147