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, pupils often require good educational outcomes. Raising aspirations is therefore often believed to incentivise improved attainment.
Aspiration interventions tend to fall into three broad categories:
- interventions that focus on parents and families;
- interventions that focus on teaching practice; and
- 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 (for example, growth mindsets interventions) please see Metacognition and self-regulation.
1. The current evidence base on aspiration interventions is extremely weak. The lack of studies identified means than an impact in months progress is not communicated. Schools should carefully monitor the impact on attainment of any interventions or approaches.
2. The existing wider evidence suggests that the relationship between aspirations and attainment is not straightforward. In general, approaches to raising aspirations have not translated into increased learning. Approaches linked to gains in attainment almost always have a significant academic component, suggesting that raising aspirations in isolation will not be effective
3. 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.
4. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse, so avoid generalisations.
The lack of studies identified that tested aspiration interventions mean that there is not enough security to communicate a month’s progress figure.
It is important to acknowledge that wider evidence indicates that the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex, and there are many reasons why aspiration interventions may or may not impact upon attainment.
Some studies have shown 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. Where pupils do have lower aspirations, it is not clear whether targeted interventions have consistently succeeded in raising their aspirations. Also, where aspirations begin low and are successfully raised by an intervention, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows.
Overall, the relationship between aspiration interventions and attainment in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has not been clearly established. There is some evidence from SSA countries that practical science teaching can motivate students and nurture their personal development and life skills. Findings from a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) in Zambia suggest that enhancing the negotiation skills of girls in 8th Grade can increase school enrolment and reduce school dropout at the transition to secondary schools.
A study from Burkina Faso finds that community participation in school management may positively impact 6th Grade learners compared to other Grades due to parents’ increased aspiration to see their children succeed in graduation exams which in turn supports pupils to access to higher levels of education.
It is important to note that factors may reduce the aspirations of learners, particularly in inclusive education settings, which schools should look to identify and address. For example, a study on the experience of children with disabilities in six SSA countries indicates that girls with disabilities may have less ambition in terms of education and career aspirations compared to boys with disabilities due to negative societal perceptions of girls as having limited educational potential.
Aspiration approaches are diverse and may focus on parents and families, teaching practice or out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities involving peers or mentors. When implementing aspiration interventions, schools might consider including:
- Guidance on the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required to achieve future goals.
- Activities to support pupils to develop self-esteem, motivation for learning or self-efficacy.
- Opportunities for pupils to encounter new experiences and settings.
- Additional academic support.
Given the limited evidence base, it is particularly important to monitor the impacts where aspiration approaches are used as a method of improving attainment.
Aspiration interventions range in duration and may include within class approaches delivered by teachers, after school clubs, out-of-school programmes, or mentoring led by paid staff or volunteers. Mentoring and parental interventions are typically delivered over an extended period of time (often at least the length of an academic year) in order to build effective relationships.
The cost of implementing aspiration interventions is expected to be moderate. Costs may include teacher professional development and teacher time to plan and deliver interventions aimed at supporting parents and students to consider what they hope to achieve in the future, and to understand the knowledge, skills and experience needed to get there. Some costs could be incurred by encouraging take up of extracurricular activities within schools, though these are relatively small.
Alongside time and costs, school leaders should consider how to maximise the effectiveness of approaches by including a significant academic component and avoid approaches that aim to raise aspirations in isolation which may not be effective.
The security of the evidence around aspiration interventions is rated as extremely low. For topics with extremely low evidence, a month’s progress figure is not displayed. Only 3 studies were identified that met the pre-specified inclusion criteria.
Research evidence on aspiration interventions in SSA is limited although some of the existing studies were conducted as RCTs. There is need for in-depth research on the impact of various components of aspiration interventions on the academic achievement of learners in SSA, particularly out-of-school interventions or extracurricular activities involving peers and mentors.