Breaking the cycle of disadvantage

This policy brief from the RAND Corporation examines the impact of child-targeted interventions in early childhood education and care (ECEC) as well as initiatives to widen access to higher education in Europe, and their impact on social mobility in later years. It provides an overview of research on the topic, discusses various policies, and describes a number of case studies on different programmes and practices.

One example presented is the UK Aim Higher initiative, which focused on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds living in areas characterised by low participation in higher education. The aim of the initiative was two-fold: first, to raise the aspirations of potential candidates, and second, to develop the abilities of under-represented groups so they could apply to college. According to the brief, research suggests that the programme appears to have delivered some improvements in exam results, retention, and progression to higher education. However, there appears to be little evidence that it was successful in influencing participants’ attitudes towards higher education.

Overall, key conclusions of the brief include:

  • In the context of economic uncertainty, investing in high-quality ECEC appears to be an effective evidence-based social policy tool, although it should not be considered a panacea.
  • The level of ECEC provision is very unequal across the EU: to be effective, it needs to be of high quality.
  • One way to break the cycle of disadvantage would be to develop ambitious indicators and policy goals that link ECEC provision for under-represented groups to access to higher education.

Source: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage: Early Childhood Interventions and Progression to Higher Education in Europe (2014), RAND Corporation.

How are schools and colleges raising aspirations?

New research commissioned by the Department for Education has reviewed the strategies used by schools and colleges to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education. It comprised a nationally representative telephone survey of 400 schools and 100 FE and sixth-form colleges, and ten case studies drawn from institutions identified as exemplifying good practice.

Aspiration-raising activities with high-achieving disadvantaged pupils were reported in 50% of 11-16 schools, 39% of 11-18 schools, and 40% of colleges, although nearly all reported at least some activities to raise aspirations more generally. 32% were using Pupil Premium funding specifically to raise aspirations among disadvantaged pupils, and 75% were using it to fund aspiration-raising activities with all pupils. However, concerns were raised that Pupil Premium funding did not adequately replace the support offered by the previous Aim Higher programme.

The report identified key issues that aspiration-raising activities needed to address. These included financial concerns; feeling that higher education was not “for them”; attainment levels; and pupils favouring other opportunities such as work or vocational qualifications. However, the findings challenged the assumption that parents or family constitute a significant barrier to higher education.

Recommendations for best practice include a whole institution culture of raising aspirations; a combination of universal and targeted approaches; staff with specific responsibility for higher education access; early intervention from KS3 onwards; information and guidance on financial issues for both pupils and parents at an early stage; immersive, subsidised, university experiences; and systematic monitoring of applications and destinations.

Source: School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education Investigation: Research report (2014), Department for Education.