How schools and parents can work together to keep poorer pupils’ aspirations high

It’s not a lack of aspiration that prevents poorer pupils going to university, it’s giving up on their original aims. How can schools help keep aspirations on track?

It is often argued that education needs to tackle a “deeply embedded culture of low aspirations” but it is time to challenge this myth. When their children are born, 97% of mothers say they want them to go to university. But by the time children are 14, only about half of the poorest parents think they will make it there.

Aspirations are not low to start with - they fall because they start to seem unrealistic.

This trend can be seen amongst both parents and their children. However, many schools are showing that they can address this problem and raise attainment by engaging with parents and helping keep aspirations on track. In the new JRF report published today, we look at the good practice in schools which helps achieve this. The research shows that engagement with parents works best when schools meet parents on their own terms and tap into their interests.

The best way to approach parents varies. In communities where families have been established in the area for several generations, the challenge can be overcoming parents’ negative school experiences. Some school leaders therefore invite parents into lessons to show how things have changed since they were at school. In contrast, for schools serving more mobile, immigrant communities, language can be the biggest barrier. The literacy co-ordinator in a school in Tower Hamlets decided to turn this to her advantage by inviting parents in to tell stories in their native language.

Some schools arrange opportunities to interact away from the school, others by employing members of the local community to help build bridges. In one school with a challenging intake, a member of the senior management team visits every family at home before they begin Year 7. These visits are focused on learning and involve discussions about realistic ways parents can help their children to learn. The school also asks parents to read out a home-school contract.

This may go further than some would feel comfortable with, but I certainly like the sound of the “getting to know you” meal which each class organises for their families during the autumn term. As an ex-teacher, I know how much easier it was to engage with parents I met and built a rapport with. An increasing number of schools are making this easier by organising pupils into “small schools” which mimic primary school structures.

But as the report shows, there are policy challenges. Careers education frequently kicks in too late, with pupils not realising the implications of their decisions. The government has shifted responsibility for face-to-face careers advice to schools and it is important that this support is monitored to ensure equitable and high quality provision. Similarly, with the end of the requirement for work experience in secondary school, it will be important to track how schools help pupils learn what is involved in the career or education they aspire to.

When we focus too much on ‘inspiring’ pupils and ‘raising’ their aspirations we risk overlooking this side of progression. That’s why it’s time we shifted our emphasis to keeping aspirations on track.

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