Skip to content

Blog post

Aspirations, expectations and rethinking outreach

Neil Harrison Richard Waller

‘Aspirations’ are a wonderfully simple concept. The problem is that it’s becoming increasingly clear they are of little worth in terms of understanding pathways towards higher education, as we argue in our new article in the British Educational Research Journal (Harrison and Waller, 2018).

In it we explore how higher education outreach activities are conceived and delivered through the eyes of two generations of practitioner-managers: those leading the national Aimhigher programme (2004–2011), and those now working in English universities. The first group, comprising 10 former directors of the programme, participated in extended telephone interviews, while data from the second group was collected through an online survey.

One notable theme within our data is the ubiquity of the discourse of ‘aspiration-raising’. While the Aimhigher generation were generally critical of it, contemporary practitioner-managers are much more committed to the idea. It’s where they feel their work is successful, and it underpins many of the activities that they manage.

‘Aspiration-raising is touted as the silver bullet for social mobility. The problem is that it simply doesn’t stack up, as the evidence demonstrates.’

Indeed, this discourse of aspiration-raising has long pedigree. The argument runs that many disadvantaged young people don’t participate in higher education because they lack ambition: they seek careers that don’t match their academic potential, and they are satisfied with less. Aspiration-raising becomes the silver bullet for providing social mobility – a commonsense ‘quick win’.

What do the data say?

The problem is that it just doesn’t stack up, as has been demonstrated by several recent large-scale studies that explored the aspirations of young people. Firstly, disadvantaged young people do not have notably lower aspirations that others (Baker et al, 2014). Secondly, if anything, some young people’s aspirations are unrealistically high (St Clair, Kintrea & Houston, 2013). Thirdly, there is no strong evidence that aspirations drive motivation or attainment (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012).

Turning to expectations

So, where does this leave us? We argue that we need to refocus our attention on young people’s expectations. Contrary to aspirations, there is good evidence for a link between expectations and disadvantage (Archer, DeWitt & Wong, 2014).

This is not just a semantic turn. Expectations are substantively different to aspirations. They embody not just what a young person wants to be, but also a subjective assessment of challenges and constraints. Many young people aspire to be professional sportspeople or entertainers, but few expect their lives to turn out that way.

Young people’s expectations are forged through the people who surround them – the everyday messages about what they can or should do, or what they cannot or should not. Teachers and parents exert a strong influence on how young people see the world, yet outreach programmes rarely engage extensively with these influencers.

An agenda for policy and practice

Higher education outreach needs a rethink. It needs to abandon the vapid discourse of aspiration-raising and consider expectations instead. We make three broad suggestions.

  1. Work with young people earlier, while expectations are still forming. We found a shift towards a recruitment-friendly focus on the over-16s, but the previous generation of practitioner-managers felt the most transformative work stretched down, even into primary school.
  2. Work more directly with teachers and parents to challenge their own expectations and those they transmit to children. In some communities, the link between educational success and life chances has been eroded by limited opportunities and needs rebuilding.
  3. Work to realise aspirations, shifting away conceptually from assuming that aspirations are low to acknowledging that young people may need help in meeting them, through rethought careers activity, work experience programmes and mentoring, allowing them to explore what they might want to be and, crucially, how to get there.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, by Neil Harrison and Richard Waller, published in the British Educational Research Journal. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Archer, L., DeWitt, J. & Wong, B. (2014). Spheres of influence: What shapes young people’s aspirations at age 12/13 and what are the implications for education policy?. Journal of Education Policy, 29(1), 58–85.

Baker, W., Sammons, P., Siraj‐Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C. & Taggart, B. (2014). Aspirations, education and inequality in England: Insights from the effective provision of pre‐school, primary and secondary education project. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), 525–542.

Gorard, S., See, B. H. & Davies, P. (2012). The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved from:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018). Challenging discourses of aspiration: the role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 44(5), 914–938.

St Clair, R., Kintrea, K. & Houston, M. (2013). Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education, 39(6), 719–738.