Raising Aspirations for Primary School Children: A mixed-methods analysis of Education Policy and Its Impact

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Education


Calls to raise children's aspirations are current and frequent in political rhetoric and educational discourse, often advanced as a mechanism to improve social mobility and attainment for disadvantaged children. Over at least the past forty years, education policy in England is replete with similar examples.

Aspirations are defined as an individual's future hopes and can often pertain to occupational and educational domains. Although adolescent children have been frequently studied by different disciplines, including from psychological, social-psychological, economic and sociological perspectives, there are relatively few studies looking at aspirations of children in English primary schools. This research takes the latter perspective, considering social influences, assumptions and experiences as an impetus for education policy making and resulting programmes, agendas and initiatives for raising aspirations. It considers whether this desire is an effective focus for intervention to address the intended social and educational issues.

The research uses advanced quantitative analysis of national longitudinal data sets alongside other sources to examine related current education policy - how it has developed and connected with various policy initiatives and agendas over four decades, and its impact on schools and upper primary school children's aspirations. It examines attempts to raise aspirations in English education policy from James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin speech (seen by many as a seminal moment for deeper political influence of educational policy, which included discussion of parental aspirations for their children aligning with those of the state) onwards. It highlights links and tensions between previous and current policy' and its application, in primary schools through an analysis of available data including documents and first-hand accounts. National longitudinal data on children's aspirations, educational performance and eventual early careers provides empirical context, informing consideration of links between policy action, rhetoric and outcomes for young people. Policy is examined through document and discourse analysis with further depth from semi-structured interviews with policy makers and associated actors. Quantitative data is analysed from interview and longitudinal data. This is scrutinised to highlight contact points between children's aspirations and policy intentions\actions identified.

The research then continues by studying current primary school children's aspirations and influences of educational performance, self-concept and learner identities. It looks at teachers' and school leaders' understanding, and their implementation, of policy-related interventions and the impact on their pupils. Data on children's aspirations, self-concepts and any intervention impact are collected through an online survey and semi-structured interviews alongside existing school data of pupil's cognitive\educational performance. A separate survey\interviews are conducted for teachers\school leaders. A nationally representative sample of children and their leaders\teachers in years 5\6 is used. The sample is weighted to ensure that schools with high levels of disadvantage are represented. Structured equation models are developed from analysis of the data to indicate whether there is an association between aspirations, cognitive ability, self-concept, education performance and with strategies used to raise aspirations. Current and historic connections are then highlighted from the data obtained.

In sum, education policy for raising aspirations, its connections with related policy agendas and its impact on primary school pupils, is current, significant, pressing, yet an under-researched area. This project will draw conclusions which are relevant to and inform education policy and primary school practice.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2239336 Studentship ES/P000711/1 01/10/2019 17/09/2024 Lloyd Hopkins