There is conflicting research into the aspiration levels of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that disadvantaged pupils often did have high aspirations, whilst recent research from the Sutton Trust has highlighted the link between family background and aspirations, and the effect of high aspirations on future career success. In our own work, we have found that levels of aspirations can vary significantly and that supporting pupils to raise their aspirations can be effective.
What is clear, is that even when children from disadvantaged backgrounds do have high aspirations for themselves, they often do not have the knowledge or support to achieve them. It is important that all pupils have effective careers guidance to help them achieve their ambitions.
It is important to recognise why pupils from more advantaged backgrounds succeed in realising their aspirations. Children who grow up in more affluent families benefit from their parents’ connections and knowledge of employment opportunities. Their parents are more likely to have gone to university and have a network of friends in a variety of careers. These parents, or Tiger Parents as David Cameron referred to them, help push their children to achieve and provide them with guidance on education and career paths.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted in their research, engaging parents to help them understand what their children’s aspirations involve and what will help achieve them is an effective way of raising attainment.
Careers guidance should include working with parents to increase their own knowledge of the opportunities available to their children so that they can provide guidance and support to their children to make the best decision for themselves.
Without this parental engagement, there is a risk that the effectiveness of careers guidance will be limited, as parents with limited knowledge may unintentionally hold back their children.
It is important that careers advice starts early to help build aspirations throughout school. This should begin in primary school and continue throughout secondary school. If pupils are only encouraged to begin thinking about their future careers at 14 or 15, the potential impact will be limited.
Schools should be encouraged to develop strong connections to local and regional businesses, statutory bodies and others and work with them to put on “aspiration” days, giving pupils and their parents an insight into potential careers. Clearly business also need to play their part, and government should work with them to encourage greater involvement in supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds to build careers in their sectors.