Authors Professor Paul Croll and Dr Carol Fuller are at the University’s Institute of Education, which has recently moved onto its new campus in London Road, Reading. Professor Croll’s interests are, among others, the sociology of education, inclusion and special educational needs. Dr Fuller’s research focuses on educational engagement, gender and ethnicity in education, attainment and aspirations.
The aspirations young people have for their futures are an important influence on the directions their lives actually take. In order to succeed in terms of education and employment, young people need to have aims which will guide them into appropriate choices about educational participation, obtaining qualifications and taking educational and career routes which are right for them.
Ideally we would like young people to have aspirations which make the fullest use of their capabilities and which are matched to the opportunities available to them. It is widely accepted that a lack of suitable aspirations is an important factor in the under-representation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education and in desirable and well-rewarded occupations.
Over the past five or so years we have carried out a number of research studies, both together and individually, into aspects of school-age young people’s educational and occupational aspirations. We conducted a national survey of pupils as they were starting secondary school and have recently talked to some of these young people again as they were coming up to their GCSEs. For her PhD, Carol Fuller studied the differing levels of aspirations of young women in a secondary school serving an area of social deprivation. And we have also conducted secondary analyses of large data sets such as the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England.
We found that, even at the age of 11 and 12, most children could express educational and occupational aspirations. Typically these aspirations were ambitious in that well over half were sure that they wanted to go to university and the majority of those expressing occupational ambitions wanted professional and managerial jobs.
There were differences between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds but, nevertheless, many children from relatively disadvantaged homes were hoping to go into higher education and the desire for a ‘good’ job was almost universal. Where children differed considerably was in the extent of alignment between different aspects of their hopes and plans for the future. Some children were clear about a trajectory that involved, for example, staying on post-16, taking a degree course in an appropriate subject and moving into a professional career. But others had little sense of the routes they would need to take to fulfil their ambitions; planning, for example, to leave school at 16 but also wanting a professional occupation or seeing higher education as an alternative to the sixth form.
The degree of alignment was closely related to the extent to which they reported discussing these issues with their parents. It was also very clear that, although most young people said that their parents had not influenced their choices, ambitious and well-aligned plans were almost always matched to the ambitions their parents had for them.
An important theme to emerge from Carol’s work was that of trust. The young women who were aiming for university (and who, in nearly all cases, achieved this ambition) differed from other students in that they explicitly believed that effort and commitment would pay off for them. They thought that if they achieved at school then opportunities would be open to them and that the school and teachers would support them.
Linked to the idea of trust is that of personal efficacy. Young people need to believe that the educational system is fair but also that they have the personal capability to achieve in it. Some of our large scale statistical analyses have shown that this sense of efficacy and the capacity for personal attainment differs across children from different backgrounds. At similar levels of ability young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than others to believe that they can be successful educationally and in the world of work.
Our research suggests possible ways in which schools can intervene to both raise and equalise aspirations and achievement. Guidance on available educational routes and their consequences for future careers needs to start at the very beginning of the secondary school so that all children can align different aspects of their ambitions. And schools need to be very alert to the possibility that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may under-estimate their capabilities and the possibilities open to them. Additionally of course, all of us in education need to ensure that the trust in the fairness of the educational system, which is so important for young people, is well placed.
Some of the research discussed here is reported in:
Croll, P., Attwood, G. and Fuller, C. (2010) Children’s Lives, Children’s Futures. London: Continuum.
Fuller, C. (2009 Sociology, Gender and Educational Aspirations. London: Continuum.