Ideas for raising students' motivation and aspiration


While his school’s results have transformed in recent years, the aspirations of students remained a challenge. Andrew Davidson describes the strategies he is using to encourage them to aim higher.

I joined Oasis Academy Brightstowe as assistant principal in September 2012 as part of the Future Leaders programme. Based in north west Bristol, our students are predominantly White British and around 50 per cent receive free school meals, putting the school in the highest quintile for this measure.

The indicator for social deprivation is significantly above the national average and many students face substantial challenges at home. 

I was made responsible for student aspirations, which was an exciting prospect, as the academy had just secured results of 63 per cent five A* to Cs including English and maths – a figure more than twice that of the previous year. Since being in special measures in 2008 the school has undergone a transformation.

A focus on motivation

While results had improved substantially, student motivation to pursue more aspirant educational futures still remained quite low. 

As well as low motivation to make use of work experience opportunities, students lacked a general appreciation of the value of further and higher education and many were not making the most of the results they were achieving. While the vast majority of students successfully moved on to a post-16 place, many were choosing courses below their capabilities.

This was largely down to a lack of understanding about possible careers, but low confidence and self-esteem were also significant contributors. Students were reluctant to proactively approach employers and tended to take rejection very hard. 

Unemployment in the area is very high, with very few of our students’ parents having been in higher education. This resulted in many focusing on securing employment as quickly as possible, without the appreciation that a stronger education will enable them to achieve a greater level of success in the long term.

After the headteacher identified the importance of tackling aspirations, the school refocused and created a number of events to celebrate students’ successes. After this came the need to develop a greater connection to higher education, improving its visibility and accessibility within school life. 

At the same time, students needed to become much more aware of the types of employers that exist and the different types of careers available. Developing the link between school, university and career was essential, as well as making sure students were much more confident about themselves and aiming high. This became my challenge.

A challenging target

Having reviewed some data from the previous year, I set myself the target of having 70 per cent of students in years 9 and 10 express an interest in attending university for a specific purpose. The identification of a purpose was important because I wanted students to visualise the reasons that it would be important for them. I wanted 100 per cent of year 10 students to secure a valuable work experience placement, improving on 55 per cent in the previous year.

Creating a desire to attend university for a purpose and raising aspiration is not a simple task – it’s not the individual steps that are difficult, but rather seeing the whole picture so that you can try and change the school culture.

Picking up the phone to a local business is straightforward, and inspiring them about how they could help us to improve students’ aspirations not particularly complicated – but creating a whole strategy that encompassed work experience, sport, mentoring, and university hopes takes a lot of time and effort. 

Therefore, devising a clear strategy to encompass all the smaller elements of the aspirations programme prior to September, as well as making sure all staff were on board with the new drive, was crucial.

First thing’s first

The first task in September was to increase the number of aspirational opportunities available to students. Working with the Students in Schools programme offered by Bristol University and the University of the West of England, university student mentors and students working in subject areas improved both the visibility and exposure of university study to our students. 

Pupils who were not meeting their potential either through lack of direction or who were identified as under-performing Pupil Premium students were assigned a university mentor.

In weekly meetings of 30 minutes the university mentors developed an individual development plan, setting personal targets for improvement as well as creating a positive picture of the student’s future. We also introduced to the students a large programme of speakers covering a multitude of different industry sectors, as well as a comprehensive series of immersive workshops from both universities and industry employers.

Employer links

Developing a greater number of links with the corporate sector was crucial and I invested time in developing a number of important relationships. These resulted in opportunities including corporate mentoring programmes, workshops and a variety of speakers and presentations. 

Through these I was able to develop students’ understanding of career possibilities but also the academic requirements needed to access them. 

Much of this work was achieved by taking advantage of opportunities to speak directly to representatives of each business, outlining our challenge and the number of ways that they could become involved with the school.

We had to make sure local business people understood the importance of our vision, the impact they could have on students’ beliefs and the fit with their own company ethos. The academy now engages and partners with more than 30 companies that support our vision in some way.

Changing mindsets

The response of students to the increasing range of opportunities being offered was tremendous, with many indicating a change in mindset and an improved level of confidence and self-belief. Many staff members were also drawn into the initiative and began to proactively arrange and organise aspirational opportunities for students. The snowball effect really took hold once staff understood they would be supported in planning these activities.

Presenting the idea of attending university will always be difficult for the few students who are resistant to considering new possibilities for themselves. To tackle this, I made sure more information was available by having them speak with representatives of universities or by giving them access to mentoring. 

Parents were also not always supportive either – in many cases they were concerned about children leaving home, about the financial implications, or in some cases a lack of belief in their child’s ability or suitability for university. 

By positively challenging beliefs about higher education we engaged them and could then provide information to reduce their anxieties in a way that could be clearly understood and change long-held perceptions. We used parent surveys and included university information in newsletters home, while I made myself available for conversations and spoke at parents’ evenings and other parent-related events. The aim was to ensure that our vision was communicated and explained on many occasions in different ways.

Ultimately, students, staff and parents have become supporters of the aspirations initiative, and students have benefited measurably, each in their own way. 

One particular student was on a downward spiral at the beginning of year 10, locked into destructive friendships and with academic grades a long way off his potential. He had very few positive role-models with whom he really connected. I offered him a place on a structured corporate mentoring scheme and he developed a personal development plan with a professional lawyer and has been inspired to proactively apply and then secure a work experience placement at the same firm.

Now nearing the end of year 11, his grades read like those of a completely different pupil. He is motivated to aim for an exciting professional career and I know he will secure a number of A and B grades. 

Results in an end of year survey demonstrated that 64 per cent of students in identified year groups aspired to attend university for a purpose, a significant increase on the previous year’s data of just under 30 per cent. And it is not just about the statistics – feedback about the year 10 students on work experience from employers and students was incredibly positive and this was a big feature in celebration assemblies.

My work over the last two years on aspirations has been incredibly rewarding. It has been difficult at times, but I can see that each success paves the way for other students to follow in their footsteps, building a culture where it is good to be aspirant and to achieve highly. There is now a real momentum in the programme and this year’s applications for A level courses appropriate to student attainment are more than twice that of last year. 

Students are now seeing the benefits of taking control of their futures and making them the best they can be rather than settling for anything less. The work on aspirations will continue to be an important part of our academy and as I consider the next steps in the programme it becomes increasingly clear that parents will be an essential element in the programme’s sustainable success.

As we grow up our aspirations are woven into the fabric of our life experience. Some people are fortunate to have easy access to aspirational role-models, almost being unaware of their influence.

Others have the confidence to seek out those individuals, believing in something better and striving for it. There are those less fortunate however that just need a helping hand, need help in making those contacts, in identifying with a brighter future.

I ask myself: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” 

  • Andrew Davidson is assistant principal of Oasis Academy Brightstowe in Bristol.

Future Leaders
The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support. To apply or nominate a colleague, visit


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