Aspirations, expectations and rethinking outreach

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This post was originally published on The British Educational Research Association on 18 December, 2018.

‘Aspirations’ are a wonderfully simple concept. The problem is that it’s becoming increasingly clear they are of little worth in terms of understanding pathways towards higher education, as we argue in our new article in the British Educational Research Journal (Harrison and Waller, 2018).

In it we explore how higher education outreach activities are conceived and delivered through the eyes of two generations of practitioner-managers: those leading the national Aimhigher programme (2004–2011), and those now working in English universities. The first group, comprising 10 former directors of the programme, participated in extended telephone interviews, while data from the second group was collected through an online survey.

One notable theme within our data is the ubiquity of the discourse of ‘aspiration-raising’. While the Aimhigher generation were generally critical of it, contemporary practitioner-managers are much more committed to the idea. It’s where they feel their work is successful, and it underpins many of the activities that they manage.

‘Aspiration-raising is touted as the silver bullet for social mobility. The problem is that it simply doesn’t stack up, as the evidence demonstrates.’

Indeed, this discourse of aspiration-raising has long pedigree. The argument runs that many disadvantaged young people don’t participate in higher education because they lack ambition: they seek careers that don’t match their academic potential, and they are satisfied with less. Aspiration-raising becomes the silver bullet for providing social mobility – a commonsense ‘quick win’.

What do the data say?

The problem is that it just doesn’t stack up, as has been demonstrated by several recent large-scale studies that explored the aspirations of young people. Firstly, disadvantaged young people do not have notably lower aspirations that others (Baker et al, 2014). Secondly, if anything, some young people’s aspirations are unrealistically high (St Clair, Kintrea & Houston, 2013). Thirdly, there is no strong evidence that aspirations drive motivation or attainment (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012).

Turning to expectations

So, where does this leave us? We argue that we need to refocus our attention on young people’s expectations. Contrary to aspirations, there is good evidence for a link between expectations and disadvantage (Archer, DeWitt & Wong, 2014).

This is not just a semantic turn. Expectations are substantively different to aspirations. They embody not just what a young person wants to be, but also a subjective assessment of challenges and constraints. Many young people aspire to be professional sportspeople or entertainers, but few expecttheir lives to turn out that way.

Young people’s expectations are forged through the people who surround them – the everyday messages about what they can or should do, or what they cannot or should not. Teachers and parents exert a strong influence on how young people see the world, yet outreach programmes rarely engage extensively with these influencers.

An agenda for policy and practice

Higher education outreach needs a rethink. It needs to abandon the vapid discourse of aspiration-raising and consider expectations instead. We make three broad suggestions.

  1. Work with young people earlier, while expectations are still forming. We found a shift towards a recruitment-friendly focus on the over-16s, but the previous generation of practitioner-managers felt the most transformative work stretched down, even into primary school.
  2. Work more directly with teachers and parents to challenge their own expectations and those they transmit to children. In some communities, the link between educational success and life chances has been eroded by limited opportunities and needs rebuilding.
  3. Work to realise aspirations, shifting away conceptually from assuming that aspirations are low to acknowledging that young people may need help in meeting them, through rethought careers activity, work experience programmes and mentoring, allowing them to explore what they might want to be and, crucially, how to get there.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, by Neil Harrison and Richard Waller, published in the British Educational Research Journal. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Archer, L., DeWitt, J. & Wong, B. (2014). Spheres of influence: What shapes young people’s aspirations at age 12/13 and what are the implications for education policy?. Journal of Education Policy, 29(1), 58–85.

Baker, W., Sammons, P., Siraj‐Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C. & Taggart, B. (2014). Aspirations, education and inequality in England: Insights from the effective provision of pre‐school, primary and secondary education project. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), 525–542.

Gorard, S., See, B. H. & Davies, P. (2012). The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved from:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018). Challenging discourses of aspiration: the role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 44(5), 914–938.

St Clair, R., Kintrea, K. & Houston, M. (2013). Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education, 39(6), 719–738.

Neil Harrison (@DrNeilHarrison) is deputy director of the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests are focussed on social justice issues in secondary and higher education, especially for marginalised groups such as care-experienced students. He is the co-editor of Access to Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges, published by Routledge in 2017.

Richard Waller has worked in further and higher education for over 20 years, and is currently associate professor of the sociology of education at the University of the West of England. His research interests focus on the intersection of education, identity and social justice, and he has published widely in the area.

Six factors supporting success for care leavers in higher education

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There has long been a social policy concern about groups of young people who do not have ready access to higher education (HE).  Among the lowest participation rates are those for care-experienced young people – i.e. those taken into the care of their local authority, usually due to abuse, neglect or other challenges within their birth family.  Within this group, those still in care at 16 (broadly designated as ‘care leavers’) are the least likely to enter HE.

The publication of the ‘Moving On Up’ report in late 2017 was designed to fill a gap in our understanding about the pathways that care leavers and other care-experienced students take into and through HE in England.  It draws on both national educational data and the accounts of 212 current students.

The report identifies six factors that appear to underpin successful participation in HE – not all of these will apply to all care leavers, but they provide a useful framework for examining their experiences and evaluating policy and practice:


  1. Strong attainment at 16

 By some way the strongest predictor for success was attainment at 16 in the shape of GCSEs or other qualifications.  Once this was taken into account, the participation rates for care leavers were only slightly lower than for young people as a whole.  However, the challenges experienced by care leavers meant that they were significantly less likely to achieve highly – around one quarter were not even entered for examination.

This finding reinforces the importance of supporting attainment for children in care, whilst recognising that many will not be in the position to achieve what they are capable of at their first attempt.  What remains unclear is whether it is the embedded knowledge/skills within GCSEs that propel care leavers towards success or whether our education system simply uses (and overuses) them to filter and redirect young people onto the pathway deemed most appropriate for them – see 6 below.


  1. A managed transition from care to HE

 For many, the process of transitioning from care into independent living as a student is a significant upheaval.  Financial support needs to be negotiated, appropriate accommodation secured and new friendships forged.  While this is true of all young people, those in care are likely to have more complexity and greater needs, at the same time as less family support on which to draw.

The best accounts of transition were marked by pre-entry collaboration between local authority, university/college and young person, enabling them to navigate changes as painlessly as possible.  Conversely, some ended up having to find their own way in the face of indifference or negativity.  Many reported not being able to attend open days, having difficulty getting forms signed or being forced to move into new housing on their own.


  1. Membership of the HE community

 Following on, rapid integration into the HE community was seen as a key element in becoming a successful student.  Those care leavers who had not integrated quickly reported loneliness, isolation and a disempowering feeling of being unsupported.  This not only impacted on their mental health, but also undermined their ability to focus on their studies.

The barriers to joining the HE community were varied.  Some found themselves living too far from the university – especially those who were parents or had remained with their foster family.  Another group reported feeling different to other students and unable to talk about their childhood as part of friendship formation.  Others found that HE staff were uninformed or unsympathetic.


 4. Strong disability and mental health support

 The study found that two-thirds of care leavers were deemed to have special educational needs.  Unsurprisingly, emotional and mental health issues were commonplace – many wrote about the continuing legacy of childhood trauma.  Others had specific learning difficulties or other impairments that had influenced their ability to achieve highly.

 Those self-identifying as ‘disabled’ were significantly more likely to have used HE support services and to have considered leaving.  For those with long-term mental health issues, the transition into HE posed new problems, including the end of child-focused therapeutic support.  Several reported that their university/college was unable to provide the form of ongoing support that they needed.


  1. Resilience and determination

 A key element in many stories was a strong sense of determination to succeed – as they saw it – against the odds.  They saw HE as a stepping stone to increase their life chances and enable them to transcend the struggles they had undergone, either with their birth families or their later experiences in care.  For some, they saw it is as their only chance to do so.

The other side of this coin was the despair that some expressed.  They were conscious of still struggling through HE, looking to an uncertain future.  It was rarely clear why one student would be resilient and another, ostensibly similar, would be fragile.


 6. Recognition for alternative educational pathways

 A distinctive feature of care leavers’ routes into HE was that they tended to start later (around a year, on average) and to take longer to complete than other young people, with changed courses, retakes and periods of dormancy being common.  They were significantly more likely to enter with qualifications that were not A Levels, including Access to HE and work-based learning courses.

Many care leavers are not in a position to attain highly at 16 and they are therefore ‘filtered’ into pathways that led them away from HE – at least initially – including lower-level further education courses or entry into the unskilled labour market.  It was a testament to their resolve that some found their way back into HE; local authorities and universities could do more to valorise these alternative pathways and make them easier to find and traverse.


Dr Neil Harrison  , Associate Professor of Education Policy

Twitter: @DrNeilHarrison 


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