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Examining the importance of early intervention in school widening participation practices

“I’ll probably just go to [insert local university here]….” – Alex, aged 11.

Alex is a year six student in a primary school in Hartlepool who, after reading different university prospectuses, claimed she would most likely go to a university in her locality. When I was eleven I wanted to be a pop star, specifically a Spice Girl and later a member of S Club Juniors. This perhaps was not the most realistic of aspirations but arguably not too detrimental to my future career options. Alex on the other hand had already decided at age eleven that she would not be attending a university further than 30 miles away from her current home.

Alex is not alone in her limited aspirations. Research by Moulton et al (2015) suggests that students as young as seven make realistic decisions regarding future career aspirations with very few aspiring to “fantasy” careers (p.117). Furthermore, it is suggested that while students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not necessarily have lower aspirations than their wealthier counterparts, these students are not as able to “navigate the paths to their goals” (Kintrea, St Clair & Houston, 2011) with their families lacking the cultural capital required to help support their child in their endeavours (Khattab, 2015).

At Dyke House, we recognise the importance of supporting student aspirations from an early age. Our primary intervention programme iAspire is a coherent and holistic programme that runs from Year 4 to Year 6 across our feeder primary schools to introduce the concept of higher education and careers with the core aim of challenging our students’ current aspirations. In Year 4 participants work on skill-based learning tasks that highlight four values integral to a successful career: excellence, commitment, integrity and cooperation. In Year 5, students learn about four different types of career pathways and the skills specific in each area needed to be successful. In Year 6, participants learn about higher education including academic courses, extracurricular activities and student life. As part of this programme, students also visit a Russell Group university to gain first-hand experience of university life.

The programme is rigorously evaluated to ensure that it fulfils its core purpose to raise students’ aspirations. Pupil questionnaires are completed before and after the programme where question topics range from enjoyment of the programme to future career aspirations. Echoing recent research into children’s aspirations, the most popular careers aspired to by participants were sportsmen/women, social media celebrities, healthcare professions and teachers (Chambers et al, 2018). Last year, 64% of Year 6 students after completing the iAspire programme said they would like to go to university compared to 52% before the programme. 72% of students also said they knew what skills they needed for their future career choice. Staff are also requested to complete a questionnaire to provide general background of pupil aspirations and to ensure that the programme continues to be of value to our primary colleagues.

Complementing our iAspire programme, a select number of Year 5 pupils took part in The Brilliant Club’s The Scholars Programme, working with their PhD Tutor on the philosophical course ‘What is Fairness?’ A first for Dyke House, we were extremely interested to see how this younger group of pupils would respond to a tricky subject and how they would manage with the 1000-word final assignment required to complete The Scholars Programme. Credit goes to their PhD Tutor Sondos who managed to introduce sophisticated philosophical debates into the group. All students submitted and passed with outstanding results and my proudest moment seeing a year five student successfully reference their information in-text with accompanying sources in their reference list. Although these students did not directly learn about careers or talk much about their own aspirations, by taking part in the programme they learnt what it might be like to study at university, a necessity for many career pathways. On a national scale, 82% of Ever6FSM KS2 and KS3 students said that they planned to attend university in the future after taking part in the programme compared to 58% of students before the programme (Cheung, 2017).

Whether students spoke about their aspirations in iAspire or through the informal discussions in The Scholars Programme, each student was encouraged to aim high and think about their own career goals. It is easy to become cynical about the prospect of asking our younger children to state their aspirations considering that we know they will change their minds regularly. Nevertheless, what is important is that we have these conversations early so that whether pupils want to become engineers, dolphin trainers or slime makers (all real aspirations from our current iAspire Year 4 students), they can learn about the skills required to be the best they can be and to keep the necessary doors open.

 

References

Cheung, C. (2017). Starting young: improving university access through early in-school interventions. The Brilliant Club. Retrieved 1st February, 2018, from https://thebrilliantclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Impact-Case-Study-Early-Intervention.pdf

Chambers, N et al. (2018). Exploring the career aspirations of primary school children from around the world. Retrieved 31stJanuary, 2018, from https://www.educationandemployers.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Drawing-the-Future-FINAL-REPORT.pdf

Kattab, N. (2015). Students’ aspirations, expectations and school achievement: what really matters? British Educational Research Journal, 41(5), p.731-748.

Kintrea, K., St Clair, R & Houston, M. (2011). The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations. Retrieved 29th January, 2018, from https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/influence-parents-places-and-poverty-educational-attitudes-and-aspirations

Moulton, V et al. (2015). Fantasy, unrealistic and uncertain aspirations and children’s emotional and behavioural adjustment in primary school, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 6(1), p.107-119.