Governments urged to rethink policy on young people’s aspirations

Published: 5 October 2011

A new University of Glasgow study challenges widely-held assumptions about the aspirations of young people from deprived backgrounds.

A new University of Glasgow study challenges widely-held assumptions about the aspirations of young people from deprived backgrounds.

The report, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggests a fundamental flaw in government policy that was aimed at tackling inequality and increasing social mobility by boosting what was thought to be low aspirations among young people.

The team, led by Professor Ralf St Clair and Keith Kintrea, found that levels of aspirations amongst young people surveyed in areas of deprivation in Glasgow, Nottingham and London were consistently higher than expected.

Although the specifics of the aspirations varied from place to place, many expressed the desire to attend university and find work in professional and managerial fields. However, the interviewees lacked a clear understanding of how to achieve their goals, suggesting policymakers should shift to their focus to better informing young people as to how their goals can be achieved.

Prof Ralf St Clair said: “What the study shows clearly is that government policy needs to go beyond long-held assumptions about low levels of aspirations in certain communities and instead address the barriers which are preventing young people from achieving their ambitions.

“By the time they reach 15, most young people aren’t consumed with thoughts of being pop star or footballers. Instead, they have fairly realistic ambitions about their careers but don’t feel they are receiving adequate support to help them get on the right path.

“The full range of possibilities for educational outcomes and jobs is unclear or confusing, particularly when there is little experience in families of higher education and professional jobs. This means that young people need informed and detailed help to take the pathways that are likely to lead to the longer term ambitions. This requires better career advice and more access to work experience.

“There is a need for continual support at every stage of young people’s development, and there have to be mechanisms to ensure that young people who do not take advantage of opportunities at traditional school age are not marginalised for life.”

The researchers interviewed 490 young people aged 13 between 2007 and 2008 and followed up with 288 of them in 2010.The interviews were supplemented by focus groups with young people and further parents, teachers and community representatives.

Grahame Whitfield, Policy and Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Aspirations were a key theme of many of the Labour government’s policy papers on children and young people, and the current coalition at Westminster has continued to examine ways to raise aspirations based on the assumption that aspirations are too low among marginalised groups.

“The survey results were different in each area. The young people in Glasgow also had high aspirations that reflected the mixed background of pupils attending a comprehensive school. Over time the young people from the most deprived backgrounds did raise their aspirations under the influence of this social mix.

“In London, a high proportion of the young people we interviewed had very high aspirations, while in Nottingham our interviewees had low, stable and highly traditional aspirations.”

 “Policies need to recognise that aspirations may be influenced by social class, culture, and history or people’s direct experience of the place they live in.

“It is not correct to characterise deprived neighbourhoods as places where aspirations are always low, and it’s vital for governments to realise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to encouraging young people’s development. Information needs to be appropriately tailored to reflect the diversity of young people across the UK.”

The study, called ‘Shaping Educational Attitudes and Aspirations: The Influence of Parents, Place and Poverty’, is available from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website at



For more information contact Ross Barker in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 3535 or email

First published: 5 October 2011

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