Learning and Teaching Toolkit

Aspiration interventions

Very low or no impact for moderate cost, based on very limited evidence.

What is it?

By aspirations we mean the things children and young people hope to achieve for themselves in the future. To meet their aspirations about careers, university, and further education, learners often require good educational outcomes. Raising aspirations is therefore often believed to incentivise improved attainment.

Aspiration interventions tend to fall into three broad categories:

  1. interventions that focus on parents and families;
  2. interventions that focus on teaching practice; and
  3. out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities, sometimes involving peers or mentors.

The approaches used in these interventions are diverse. Some aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities and others aim to raise aspirations by developing general self-esteem, motivation, or self-efficacy. For interventions that focus on self-efficacy and motivation specifically in a learning context please see Metacognition and self-regulation.

How effective is it?

The relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex but, on average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little or no positive impact on educational attainment. This may seem counterintuitive but there are three main reasons why this might be the case.

First, evidence suggests that most young people already have high aspirations, suggesting that much underachievement results not from low aspiration but from a gap between aspirations and the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required to achieve them. Second, where learners do have lower aspirations, it is not clear that any targeted interventions have consistently succeeded in raising their aspirations. Third, where aspirations begin low and are successfully raised by an intervention, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows. As a result it may be more helpful to focus directly on raising attainment. In aspiration programmes which do raise attainment, additional academic support is generally present.

How secure is the evidence?

The evidence base on aspiration interventions is very limited. More rigorous studies are required, particularly focusing on learner-level rather than school-level interventions. There are no meta-analyses of interventions to raise aspirations that report impact on attainment or learning. There are two relevant systematic reviews. These indicate that the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex and that the evidence for a clear causal connection between learning, changing aspirations, and attitudes to school is weak.

This lack of strong evidence does not mean that impact is not achievable, but schools considering aspiration interventions cannot assume that raising aspirations will be straightforward or will necessarily increase attainment.

The majority of studies come from the USA.

What are the costs?

There are a wide range of available interventions, including after-school extra-curricular activities, parental engagement programmes, and one to one mentoring. It is therefore difficult to give a precise estimate, but overall costs are estimated as moderate.

What should I consider?

The relationship between aspirations and attainment is not straightforward. In general, approaches to raising aspirations have not translated into increased learning.

Most young people have high aspirations for themselves. Ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills to progress towards their aspirations is likely to be more effective than intervening to change the aspirations themselves.

The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse, so avoid generalisations.

Effective approaches almost always have a significant academic component, suggesting that raising aspirations in isolation will not be effective.

Challenge questions to support collaborative self-evaluation

  • How well do we use current available data about levels of poverty in our community to help us target interventions?
  • How well are families included in developing strategies and approaches which lead to positive relationships, better learning and better behaviour?
  • To what extent do all staff understand GIRFEC, the wellbeing indicators and how these can have a positive impact on children and their families?

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