Evidence for Learning: Aspiration interventions

Aspiration interventions

Unclear impact for very low cost based on insufficient evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

By aspirations we mean the things children and young people hope to achieve for themselves in the future. To meet their aspirations about careers, university, and further education, students often require good educational outcomes. Raising aspirations is therefore often believed to incentivise improved achievement.

Aspiration interventions tend to fall into three broad categories:

  1. interventions that focus on parents and families;
  2. interventions that focus on teaching practice; and
  3. out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities, sometimes involving peers or mentors.

The approaches used in these interventions are diverse. Some aim to change aspirations directly by exposing children to new opportunities and others aim to raise aspirations by developing general self-esteem, motivation, or self-efficacy. For interventions that focus on self-efficacy and motivation specifically in a learning context (for example, growth mindsets interventions) please see metacognition and self-regulation.

1. The current evidence base on aspiration interventions is extremely weak. The lack of studies identified means than an impact in months progress is not communicated. Schools should carefully monitor the impact on student outcomes of any interventions or approaches.

2. The existing wider evidence suggests that the relationship between aspirations and achievement is not straightforward. In general, approaches to raising aspirations have not translated into increased learning. Approaches linked to gains in achievement almost always have a significant academic component, suggesting that raising aspirations in isolation will not be effective.

3. Most young people have high aspirations for themselves. Ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills to progress towards their aspirations is likely to be more effective than intervening to change the aspirations themselves.

4. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse, so avoid generalisations.

The lack of studies identified that tested aspiration interventions mean that there is not enough security to communicate a month’s progress figure.

It is important to acknowledge that wider evidence indicates that the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex, and there are many reasons why aspiration interventions may or may not impact upon attainment.

Some studies have shown that most young people already have high aspirations, suggesting that much underachievement results not from low aspiration but from a gap between aspirations and the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required to achieve them. Where students do have lower aspirations, it is not clear whether targeted interventions have consistently succeeded in raising their aspirations. Also, where aspirations begin low and are successfully raised by an intervention, it is not clear that an improvement in learning necessarily follows.

There are no Australasian-based studies examining the impact of aspiration interventions on student learning and achievement. However, a few studies have examined growing aspirational thinking as one of several intervention outcomes of community engagement programs in Australia and New Zealand that focus on family engagement and building family aspirations.

Whilst less advantaged students are likely to have lower academic achievement compared to their more advantage peers, the assumption that disadvantaged students have lower aspirations for their education and adult life is less clear.

Studies in England suggest that different socioeconomic groups have similar levels of aspiration for their future outcomes and that differences in participation rates in higher education are largely driven by academic attainment. Given the broad range of attitudes, behaviours and beliefs surrounding aspirations in communities with higher rates of disadvantage, schools should avoid generalisations.

Aspiration interventions without an academic component are unlikely to narrow the disadvantaged achievement gap. Teacher expectations play a role in shaping student outcomes and teachers should aim to communicate a belief in the academic potential of all students.

Aspiration approaches are diverse and may focus on parents and families, teaching practice or out-of-school interventions or extra-curricular activities involving peers or mentors. When implementing aspiration interventions, schools might consider including:

  • Guidance on the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required to achieve future goals.
  • Activities to support students to develop self-esteem, motivation for learning or self-efficacy.
  • Opportunities for students to encounter new experiences and settings.
  • Additional academic support.

Given the limited evidence base, it is particularly important to monitor the impacts where aspiration approaches are used as a method of improving outcomes.

Aspiration interventions range in duration and may include within class approaches delivered by teachers, after school clubs, out-of-school programs, or mentoring led by paid staff or volunteers. Mentoring and parental interventions are typically delivered over an extended period of time (often at least the length of an academic year) in order to build effective relationships.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Costs vary widely and are hard to estimate precisely, but overall, they are estimated to range between very low and moderate depending on the approach. The median costs of implementing parental engagement programs are estimated as very low to moderate, with greater costs where schools cover additional staffing costs.

The median cost of a mentoring intervention is estimated as moderate. The costs to schools are largely based on mentor training, salary costs (for non-volunteer mentors) and resources. Some programs also include continuous training and support for mentors which may increase costs. Mentoring approaches in Australia are estimated at around $1,500 per student per year but can be provided by volunteers at lower or nil cost to schools.

Alongside time and costs, school leaders should consider how to maximise the effectiveness of approaches by including a significant academic component and avoid approaches that aim to raise aspirations in isolation which may not be effective.

The security of the evidence around aspiration interventions is rated as extremely low. For topics with extremely low evidence, a month’s progress figure is not displayed. Only 3 studies were identified that met the pre-specified inclusion criteria.

Evidence strength
Number of studies3
Review last updatedJuly 2021