Fostering aspirations for all students

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

It is not a lack of aspiration in working class families that prevents their children from achieving, but a lack of knowledge and access. Karen Sullivan explains

Education in England, a somewhat damning report from Centre Forum, highlights concerns that children from poorer White British communities are falling behind other ethnic groups, suggesting that inadequate parental engagement could be at the root of the problem.

Jo Hutchison, Centre Forum’s associate director for education, said: “We are talking about things such as parents attending parents’ evenings at school, talking to their children about subject options, supervising homework, ensuring the family eats together and has regular bedtimes.

“Most parents actually want their children to continue in education and be successful in education. What sometimes differs is the extent to which they have the knowledge and the tools and resources to help them to make that aspiration real.”

Underpinning this is the suggestion that the parents of the underperforming students do not have appropriately high aspirations for their children, nor do they support and/or encourage them to aim and achieve high. But is this really the case?

While researchers have regularly distinguished ethic minority children and families with “high” aspirations from White working class families with “low” ones, there is some evidence to support what Ms Hutchinson says – that the aspirations of working class parents are not low, they simply don’t have access to the necessary information, knowledge or resources to support their children’s learning.

On study in particular, Learning in the Home and at School: How working-class children “succeed against the odds” (Siraj-Blatchford, 2009), suggests that the “quality of the home learning environment (where parents were actively engaged in activities with children) strongly promoted intellectual and social development in children”.

The study mentions Peters et al’s survey (2007) that suggests that most disadvantaged parents don’t really need to be persuaded to provide additional support for their children, and are “actually even more positively disposed towards involvement than their middle-class and professional peers”.

Another research review, Effective Classroom Strategies for Closing the Gap in Educational Achievement for Children and Young People Living in Poverty, including White Working-Class Boys (Sharples, Slavin, Chambers & Sharp, 2011) suggests that parents and carers should be actively engaged by schools to support their child’s development and learning.

They note: “Promising school strategies to engage parents that we reviewed included: providing regular communication with parents (particularly targeting so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ families); use of ‘parent forums’ as a means of gaining parental feedback; and encouraging parents to join their children’s learning through initiatives such as Family Reading Projects and booster classes.”

The review also noted that successful school leadership is integral to ensuring that all students perform to the best of their ability, regardless of ethnicity or class.

In particular, Demie & Lewis (2010) and Mongon & Chapman (2008) found that successful approaches include: building a vision of success and setting clear direction; cultivating values of respect, good behaviour and caring (supported by a clear approach to discipline); understanding and developing staff and pupils with personal and professional support; having clear lines of authority, responsibility, accountability and autonomy; and collecting, monitoring and using information on student progress and teaching standards.

On a more general basis, researchers have found that rewards can be an effective way to encourage and empower all students.

A case history outlined in Aiming High: Supporting effective use of EMAG (Department for Education and Skills, 2004) describes a school that discovered that most of their rewards were for academic achievement, and dominated by one particular ethnic group.

They decided that all achievement should be recognised and introduced a system that highlighted: academic excellence, improved performance (including behaviour), contribution to the school community, and consistent effort. At the end of each term, every teacher nominated three students in each of the different categories, and students who received a number of nominations were invited to afternoon tea with the head, where they were told who had nominated them and why.

The report notes: “Students were often surprised at who had nominated them. One student said, ‘I thought he didn’t like me’. This inexpensive system of rewards allowed a range of achievements to be acknowledged and certainly improved teacher-pupil relationships as students realised that teachers were aware of their achievements and were willing to reward their efforts.”

Ultimately, however, a wealth of research points to the fact that more affluent parents can make up for a paucity in parental support and raise their children’s aspirations by paying for a multitude of extra-curricular activities, such as music, art and sport (all of which have been proven to improve achievement) and even tutoring – something that cash-strapped families cannot.

And if the fundamental problem is that the poorer, less-educated parents don’t know how to support, even if they do have aspirations for their children, this is the area that we need to address.

In my next article (on April 28), I’ll look at how to target parents who require the most help, providing them with the tools to create a strong home learning environment, regardless of ethnic background, education or income, and look at ways to provide opportunities for children whose families cannot afford the “extras”. Most importantly, however, we will look at ways to inspire students themselves – giving them goals and the self-belief and work ethic they need to achieve them.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

Selected further reading

  • Education in England: Annual Report 2016, Centre Forum, April 2016:
  • Learning in the Home and at School: How working-class children “succeed against the odds”, Iram Siraj-Blatchford, June 2009:
  • Effective Classroom Strategies for Closing the Gap in Educational Achievement for Children and Young People Living in Poverty, including White Working-Class Boys, Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services (C4EO), January 2011:
  • Aiming High: Supporting effective use of EMAG, Department for Education and Skills, 2004:


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