Raising Aspirations for Disadvantaged Students: Examples from around the UK

by Richard Angus, Head of Education Partnerships, MyTutor

We recently surveyed over 3,000 teachers across the UK to understand their biggest concerns when it comes to the aspirations of their disadvantaged students. 

Our survey revealed that 57% of teachers pinpointed ‘low aspirations’ as one of the most difficult challenges they face, closely followed by ‘low parental engagement’ (55%) and ‘low attendance’ (39%). 

This is a particularly complex area, with high rates of local unemployment, a family environment that de-prioritises the importance of education, low self-esteem or confidence, and a lack of relatable role models all coming into play. 

Despite this complexity, schools and colleges around the UK run a range of effective initiatives to help raise their students’ aspirations. 

Here are six examples we found especially inspiring: 

1.    College and University Visit Days: 
       The Priory School, Hertfordshire

The Priory School in Hertfordshire has set up a dedicated Raising Aspirations Department, aiming to help students achieve their potential by preparing them for the world of work, and by giving them all the tools they need to make informed life decisions.

The department runs an extensive programme of events from Year 7 through to Year 13, including trips to sixth form colleges and universities, both local and Oxbridge/Russell Group. 

The importance of university visits in raising higher education aspirations among disadvantaged pupils was underscored in a 2014 Department for Education schools study, which found that visits were ‘universally felt to be an invaluable activity’, particularly when started from an earlier age. 

One participant in the study, the Midlands FE College Head of Careers, commented: “By far and away the most effective thing is the trips [...] I think it's because they challenge the students in different ways. They open their eyes; they dispel myths and so on.”

2.    Lifting Spirits through School Design:
       Kilgarth School, Liverpool

Steve Baker, Executive Headteacher at Kilgarth School in Liverpool, believes that building up students’ resilience - so that they’re better equipped to bounce back from a tough day or a lower-than-expected mock grade - is crucial for helping them raise their aspirations and ultimately achieve their goals.

One way they foster resilience is through an unconventional medium: the school walls, which are decorated with uplifting quotes, including this gem from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

3.    Partnerships with Corporate and Local Businesses: 
       Oasis Academy Brightstowe, Bristol

When Andrew Davidson joined Oasis Academy Brightstowe in 2012 as Assistant Principal, taking on responsibility for student aspirations, one priority he identified immediately was the need to develop links with the corporate sector and local businesses.

By investing time in developing those relationships, he’s been able to build links with over 30 companies, bringing them on board to deliver corporate mentoring programmes as well as hosting workshops and presenting to the students.

Besides direct outreach, another way for schools to get businesses involved is to contact Business in the Community (an organisation established by HRH The Prince of Wales dedicated to responsible business), which runs a range of regional initiatives to connect schools and colleges with corporates. 

One such initiative was the 2017 Inspiring Girls programme in Manchester, in partnership with Manchester Business School, which was championed by Patsy Kane, former Executive Headteacher of the Education and Leadership Trust. 

The programme saw 100 young women from six different high schools involved in a range of activities, including lectures and interactive workshops, which gave an insight into university life and various career routes for successful women across the construction, finance, academic and pharmaceutical sectors.

4.    Exposure to Relatable Role Models: 
       Oasis Academy Brightstowe, Bristol

As low aspirations can often be linked to a lack of a relatable role model, putting disadvantaged pupils in touch with university students can be a fantastic way to foster really valuable role model relationships - and to make going to university feel achievable.  

Back at Oasis Academy Brightstowe, Assistant Principal Andrew Davidson has set up a mentoring scheme, where underperforming pupil premium students are assigned a mentor from Bristol University or the University of West England. The students have weekly 30-minute meetings with their mentors, where they work on setting personal targets for improvement, and building a positive picture of their future. 

5.    Lunchtime Teacher Lectures:
       Woldingham School, Surrey

Roy Peachey, Headteacher of Higher Education and Careers at Woldingham School in Caterham, has spearheaded a really interesting approach to raising aspirations: 25-minute lunchtime lectures from teachers.

In developing this programme, volunteer teachers were given a wide brief to talk about any topic they were passionate about, without being limited to the curriculum.

The aim was to broaden pupils’ horizons, shifting the focus away from the short-term urgency of exams and helping them enjoy learning for learning’s sake. Peachey reports that the programme has now been running for over four years, with continued strong attendance from students and enthusiasm from staff. 

6.    Celebrating Progress with Student Awards:
       Norham High School, North Shields

In 2018, after watching the most recent Star Wars instalment, Sean Harris, Assistant Headteacher at Norham High School, wrote: “Teaching is an all-consuming job. It can feel like you are the only one in the intergalactic battle against low aspirations, socio-economic disadvantage and changing grade boundaries.” 

To fight off these challenges from the ‘Dark Side’, Norham High introduced prestigious awards evenings to celebrate student progress and achievements. Nominated students are presented with awards and gift vouchers by community leaders, including former pupils, community police officers, the chair of governors and representatives from local businesses.

Commenting on the impact of this initiative, Harris said: “Aspirations rocketed as pupils vied to get the awards. One parent recently commented to me, ‘My son has never received anything like this before. He is over the moon about it and we are desperate to show his award off to all his family at Christmas’.” 

MyTutor is one of the headline sponsors at the ASCL Annual Conference 13 – 14 March 2020. Richard will also be leading a workshop, Opening Doors for Tomorrow's Leaders: Strategies to improve opportunities for disadvantaged pupils, at 1.40pm on 14 March. 
Posted: 27/01/2020 11:20:03