The Education Research Network (ERNie) Upcoming Events

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The Education Research Network (ERNie) has forthcoming interesting and varied events that will be of interest.  They include talks, discussions, a book club meeting, and a writing café.  Further details will follow in due course.  Many of these events are at lunchtime and ERNie would encourage you to bring your lunch and take time out from more mundane duties!

Please feel free to circulate this information more widely.  Suggestions for other events are very welcome, as are offers of talks and other kinds of knowledge-sharing.


Book club

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, Convened by Dr Richard Waller, Wednesday 27 Feb 12.00 – 1.00 pm Room to be confirmed. Paper to be discussed:

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), 9-4 – 938

Writing cafe

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, further details to follow. The Writing Cafe is convened by Dr Jane Humphreys, Wednesday 27 Feb 3 – 6.00 pm, Room
Frenchay 2D67. 

The Characteristics of Expertise in HE Teaching

This event is run by Dr Helen King, Associate Director of Academic Practice, Academic Practice Directorate, Monday 4 March, 1 – 2.00 pm,
Room Frenchay 3B46. 

Educational Equity: Do single-sex classrooms help to close the gender-achievement gap?

This event is led by Dr Charlotte Pennington, Lecturer in Social Psychology, Department of Health and Social Sciences, Tuesday 30 April, 1 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 1K2. 


On-campus Bystander Behaviour 

This event is led by Dr Helen Bovill, AHoD Research, Dept of Education and Childhood,  Thursday 11 April , 12.30 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 3B46


This is posted on behalf of Dr Jane Humphreys. 

BRIDGE Paired Peers Twilight Event

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BRIDGE is pleased to invite you to the Paired Peers Twilight event. This event is on 14 Feb, 16:30-18:30, Room 2S704, Frenchay Campus, the University of the West of England.

Critical perspectives on transitions into, through and beyond university: Learning from the Paired Peers project

Dr Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education, Dept of Education and Childhood.

The phenomenon of people’s access to and experience of higher education being informed by their social class position is by no means new. Yet despite numerous policy initiatives and interventions in the last few decades, significant inequalities remain between working and middle class young people regarding their chances of progressing to higher education, the type of university attended, their student experiences and their graduate outcomes. The Paired Peers project was a two part longitudinal study (2010-2103 and 2014-2017) funded by the Leverhulme Trust which followed an initial cohort of 90 undergraduates studying at either of the two universities in one English city. The University of Bristol is an ‘elite’, research intensive institution and a founding member of the Russell Group. The University of the West of England is an ex-polytechnic, a post-1992 institution generally lying around the middle of HE league tables and which prides itself on the quality of its teaching as evidenced by the recent Gold TEF award. The project matched pairs of students by social class, gender and subject discipline both within and between the two institutions, and followed them from induction to graduation and for several years beyond into their post-university lives and careers. The project explored not just what class based inequalities existed in terms of access to university, the experience of going through higher education and the transition into the workplace, but also the processes by which these significant inequalities were established and maintained.     

The presentation will be followed by a discussion of the implications of the project’s findings for the practice of academics and university professional services staff alike.

This event is free. However, registration is required. To register click here. Refreshments will be served. 

Please share widely. 

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.

The Learning Adult Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis

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 Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education at the Department of Education and Childhood,  has just published a co-edited book ‘The Learning Adult: Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis’ with Routledge. Peter has been one of the most influential figures in adult and lifelong education for several decades, and is a leading and original theorist of learning.

The book is a collection of sixteen chapters by authors from across the world, and explores the breadth and significance of Peter’s work in a number of contexts. The chapters explain and engage critically with his theorisation of learning, and with his extensive writings on the sociology, politics, ethics and history of adult education, and on professional education, lifelong learning and the learning society. The book is co-edited with Richard’s three other co-editors from the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

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