Raising aspirations for disadvantaged students: 6 inspiring examples from around the UK

We recently surveyed just over 3,000 teachers across the UK to understand the biggest issues keeping them up at night when it comes to their disadvantaged pupil premium 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%).

As most teachers have experienced first-hand, the issue of low aspirations is a particularly complex one – with factors including 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 potentially coming into play.

Despite this complexity, schools and teachers all around the UK are running a range of exciting initiatives to raise their students’ aspirations – here are 6 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 right 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 simple way they foster resilience is through an unconventional medium: the school walls themselves, 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 straight away 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.

This has helped Oasis pupils to get a better understanding of the career possibilities out there, and the qualifications needed to open up those opportunities – giving them an attainable goal and a clear roadmap to get there.

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 with corporates.

One great example initiative that has been championed by the former Headteacher of the Education and Leadership Trust, Patsy Kane, was the 2017 Inspiring Girls programme in Manchester, in partnership with Manchester Business School.

The programme saw 100 young women – from 6 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, academia and pharmaceutical sectors.

Kane considered just one day of this type of mentoring to be ‘extremely valuable’ for her pupils, with one student who attended, Sana Rafiq, saying:

“I really enjoyed meeting several women at the conference and listening to their stories. These stories really inspired me because I got to know a lot about them and how they became the women they are now. In particular, the struggles they faced – how they faced these and still reached their goals.”

4. Exposure to relatable role models – Oasis Academy Brightstowe, Bristol

Considering that 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.

At Oasis Academy Brightstowe, Assistant Principal Andrew Davidson has set up a mentoring scheme, where under-performing 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.

Another really effective way of developing role model relationships, while also giving pupils extra academic support and building confidence, is through one-to-one tuition. At MyTutor, we connect pupils with talented tutors who are either currently studying at university or recent graduates.

Laura Toovey, Interventions Coordinator at Tring School in Hertfordshire, who we’ve been working with since 2017 to provide online one-to-one tuition to their KS4 pupil premium students, commented:

“One of the real positives of MyTutor is that the tutors are actually young. They’re university students, which from a year 11 or 10 point of view actually means that you can relate to them.”

“They’re still younger than their teachers would be, which I think it a real positive. They’re also at the cutting edge of what the subject is because they’re doing a degree, so for example if you’re being tutored in maths, they’re at university living it day in, day out, and that’s really positive for the students.”

“I also think it’s been fantastic for raising aspirations among students, because they look at the university students and think ‘actually, they’re studying it, possibly one day I could do that too’, which I think is a real bonus from the programme and maybe something that we hadn’t considered previously.”

5. Teacher lectures and student journalism – Woldingham School, Surrey

Over in Surrey, Roy Peachey, Head of Higher Education and Careers at Woldingham School in Caterham, has spearheaded two really interesting approaches to raising aspirations: 25-minute lunchtime lectures from teachers and the launch of an online school journal with contributions from students.

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

The aim here 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 4+ years, with continued strong attendance from students and enthusiasm from staff.

In launching the online journal (creatively titled ‘Xenizonta’), the focus was on bringing together the worlds of school, university and work; inviting contributions from students, teachers, parents, governors and alumni.

Each edition delves into one specific topic – and the fact that it’s published publicly, with real readers and high-profile contributors, acts as a great motivator, as Peachey puts it, for the students to ‘raise their writing game’ and ambitions.

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.”

One tactic that Norham High has introduced to fight off these challenges from the ‘Dark Side’ is prestigious awards evenings to celebrate student progress and achievements. These evenings see nominated students presented with awards and gift vouchers by community leaders, including former pupils, community police officers, the chair of governors and representatives from local businesses.

Writing about 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 of his family at Christmas’.”

“Meanwhile, a former pupil turned professor was so inspired to be able to give the Award for Resilience to a Year 7 boy that she not only offered him a £50 gift voucher but invited him for a full day of work experience at a local university to raise his aspirations even further!” 

If you’re interested in finding out more about how MyTutor is helping schools across the UK to raise student confidence, attainment and aspirations, please do get in touch. You can reach us on 0203 773 6025, or email richard@mytutor.co.uk to get started.

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