Saturday, 25 October 2014

Raising aspirations: selection for the non-selective state sector?

Children from poorer families leave school with lower educational attainment than children from richer families.  The attainment gap widens particularly in the primary school years.  It appears that this gap is at least partly explained by differences in the aspirations of parents and children from poorer and richer backgrounds.  So it follows that investment in interventions which raise aspirations has to be the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  Raising aspirations without a concomitant investment in raising attainment is at best a wasted opportunity and at worst ethically...misjudged.  Think about it: if you raise the aspirations of children from poorer families (with lower educational attainment) and then fail to raise their educational attainment you'll have children with unrealistic aspirations.  This is further complicated by the Education Endowment Foundation conclusions that "the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex and not fully understood" and that "interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little to no positive impact on educational attainment".  

The links between aspirations and attainment are indeed tangled.  It might make sense to think that an intervention aimed at raising aspirations leads to a change in attitude which in turn leads to raised attainment.  But the intervention might instead trigger raised attainment and it's this which leads to higher aspirations.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), in its review of interventions, questions research which suggests that there is any causal relationship between interventions focusing on raising aspirations and statistical evidence indicating a closing of the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds.  

The JRF review cautiously suggests that interventions which focus on behaviours rather than attitudes might be the way to go.  "Promising" interventions appear to involve:
But some data which appear to indicate success are undermined to an extent by questions around selection. Take the Aimhigher project, for example, which sought to widen participation through mentoring, university visits, and summer schools.  The data suggest that these interventions had a significant impact, with 60% of mentees achieving five grade A* to C GCSEs compared with an average of 31% of all students in partner schools.  But as Smith notes in her evaluation report, 58% of mentees were female and schools were more likely to select female mentees because of "their attitude (more open and positive to new experiences) and the likelihood that females would positively engage with mentoring provision".  Were these students already more likely to achieve five grade A* to C GCSEs regardless of the Aimhigher opportunities?

Of course, these interventions are driven by a desire to widen access.  But if they focus on children who are already "high performing", the aspirations, and the capacity to meet them, may already be in place. Here's a child, you might say, who's doing better than everyone else - let's send her to a residential summer school, or take her to visit a Russell Group university.  That's fine, but maybe she's succeeding because she's already getting that kind of investment at home. This echoes some of the problems that lie in identifying and investing further in children identified as gifted and talented.  Do interventions which focus on raising aspirations simply provide additional opportunties for pupils who already have additional opportunities?  Ultimately, is this just selection (with an apparently inclusive tagline) for the non-selective state sector?

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