Ideas to raise students’ aspirations

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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There are lots of programmes, initiatives and ideas out there to help schools in raising the aspirations of disadvantaged students. Karen Sullivan reports

Following on from my recent articles on supporting the aspirations of White working class students, I’d like to look at initiatives that could make a difference.

One in particular caught my eye. St Joseph’s Academy in Kilmarnock went about organising its first ever “Festival of Ideas”, designed to provide “exciting, challenging, stimulating and provocative talks to change the way you see the world”. The students themselves sent out 150 invitations, resulting in a line-up of more than 30 high-profile speakers, who talked about a variety of inspirational subjects. The event was part of the school’s enterprise strategy. What’s yours?

In Scotland, “business enterprise” is providing opportunities for children who may not otherwise be encouraged to seek them or even know that they exist. Just one example is in Ayrshire, where David Ross, director of Keppie Design, an award-winning architecture firm, set up the Interaction programme to challenge young people to “design and build flexible, movable structures from which to sell products made by pupils” (see further information for a link to more examples).

There are numerous programmes across the country designed to engage the imaginations and talents of young people and it is becoming increasingly important that we make use of them or, where they don’t exist, create them. Why not set up your own day of ideas? Ask for the support of local businesses, and encourage the students to seek grants or consider crowdfunding. Sourcing finance is a skill that will set students in good stead in the future. This is key. If students are encouraged to believe that anything is possible, they can shake off the shackles that almost certainly define their future.

Task the students with writing up their own ideal future. What steps will it take to reach their goals, to achieve their dreams? What areas of education, what extra-curricular activities, what work experience or volunteer work will be necessary, or give them an advantage?

Can they find an example of someone who has defied the odds and made a success of themselves and their lives from a position of poor prospects? Ask them to interview their chosen candidate and compile a document as a printed or online resource for all students to access. Help them seek a mentor through one of the many programmes out there designed to bridge the gap between aspirations and achievement (see below). Put out a call on social media to find people with inspiring stories to tell.

Many universities have programmes in which current students are sent into local secondary schools to provide one-to-one mentoring or in-class support for pupils from backgrounds that are under-represented in higher education. Is there one near you?

There are also some exceptional support programmes for disadvantaged young people that supply the help that middle class children receive as a matter of course. This includes academic support (homework, coursework, literacy and numeracy), but also help with revision, exam and interview techniques, gap year possibilities, degree options and grant, UCAS and other applications. These programmes not only enable and inspire, but help to develop practical strategies that will make up for existing shortfalls.

Students with a more privileged background do benefit from extra-curricular activities that allow them to increase their skill-sets, widen their interests, and develop networks that will offer support in the future.

A wealth of research suggests that involvement in extra-curricular activities is just as meaningful as test scores when subsequent educational attainment and later earnings are considered. In fact, studies show that the skills, habits and knowledge acquired in these activities help them to develop self-esteem, problem-solving and resilience, and also reduce the chance that they engage in risky behaviours.

What can you do for students whose parents are unable to afford the fees? First and foremost, look into crowdfunding. You’ll be amazed by the number of people who are willing to help under-privileged students get a step up the ladder.

Talk to your local newspaper about creating a bursary programme to which businesses can contribute. Resources are always stretched in busy schools, and this is undoubtedly something that the students themselves can take on. Do you have an alumni association? Fundraising through this medium is ideal and you may also find some mentors and support through the same channels. Take advantage of the Pupil Premium. This may sound simplistic, but not every school has made use of the funds available. There are myriad ways to get kids back on track, and to make up for what their backgrounds fail to provide. Let me know what you are doing to bridge the gap.

  • Karen Sullivan is a psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, see

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