“I want to get a good degree and get good A-levels and I want to live in a nice big house, get my own business going and get married.” It was after school and the bell had just rang to mark the end of the school day as we continued to talk to pupils in West Norfolk about their lives, their worries, and their hopes about the future. Another pupil said, “The next year there will be exams. I have to revise. Then I will do three years of college, then I will choose my job. I want to be a referee. I have to be fit and healthy.”
Their aspirations were varied, interesting, modest and well within their reach. Yet some young people fall along the wayside, struggling to negotiate their way through the choices and the exams they have to pass.
Do the words and aspirations of young pupils hold a clue to understanding which of them will achieve their goals and which will feel like they have left school empty-handed and ill-equipped to fulfill their potential?
The attainment gap is increasingly evident in rural areas like West Norfolk. One of Ofsted’s recent reports, “Unseen Children“, addresses this problem. The Chief Inspector for Ofsted shifted the focus away from the ‘deprived inner city areas’, and called attention to the challenges facing young people in coastal towns and rural areas. According to Ofsted,“These are places that have felt little impact from national initiatives designed to drive up standards for the poorest children.”
Our research asked children and young people from two secondary and two primary schools to comment on their experiences. This work was commissioned by the West Norfolk Partnership who have embarked on an ambitious programme to raise the skills, aspirations and attainment of young people. The Young Foundation conducted focus groups and ethnographical research with these young people, spending time with pupils and inviting them to comment on their lives.
Talking to young people in their schools, walking home with them and then talking to their parents gave us an interesting insight into the range of influences, choices and transitions points that shape their aspirations. Their views are set out in our recently published report, ‘Nice house, good job’.
The link between aspiration and attainment is far from conclusive. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) produced a comprehensive review of the evidence on how attitudes and aspirations influence educational attainment. Nonetheless, the underlying implication is that aspirant young people are better able to make good choices at important junctures and fully engage with their teachers, leading to better educational and occupational outcomes. This relies on resilient behaviours and attitudes such as optimism, deferred gratification, and developing a future time perspective, all of which support attainment.
The young people we spoke to generally do form a clear vision of their future lives. However, the choices they are presented with and information available to them, particularly at Year 9 and Year 11, can make fulfilling this vision difficult. Some of the young people did not appear to make fully informed choices about the subjects they opted for or what to do when they left school. For instance, one year 11 pupil spoke of regretting his choices: “I don’t like to think about it to be honest, I just chose some subjects.” This can leave young people confused, apprehensive and less confident about how they achieve their goals. Young people are also aware that upon leaving school the road to employment may be difficult. One Year 10 pupil stated, “If I don’t get the right grades I need, with the economy going up and down, jobs are rare. I want to have the best choice. I have learnt a lot in business about how bad the economy really is and how serious it is and just how bad it really will be.”
Interestingly, the JRF review also looks at the impact of parental attitudes, aspiration and behaviours on educational attainment. This approach resonates strongly with our findings. The influence of not only parents but their social networks featured as a strong influence on the hopes and expectations of young people in West Norfolk. Our research points to the fact that young people draw from a range of sources to help shape their decisions. The wider these networks are, the more likely young people will have a richer source of information to draw from.
Our research points to two areas to help young people, which are providing young people with better information at key transition points, such as Year 9, and helping young people and their parents access much richer, more diverse social networks to give young people better choices. The West Norfolk Partnership are now exploring the best ways to support this.
For L, choosing options had been easy. Each teacher told her what their subject would be like at GCSE level and how the subject could support her aspirations in the future. She chose her subjects after she had talked to nurses, local business owners, and a local journalist who, in turn, told her about the subjects they had chosen. All of this had helped L map out her future life, see it as an adventure and avoid unnecessary diversions along the way.