Aspirations, attitudes, behaviour and attainment: a review of causality

rubbing out gradesAims

The aim of this project is to identify and assess available evidence for the causal impact of aspirations, attitudes, and behaviours of young people and their parents on educational outcomes such as attainment and post-compulsory participation. This is the most comprehensive review of this area that has been undertaken in the UK so far. However, the resources involved and the breadth of the topic mean that the findings must be read as strongly indicative rather than definitive.

The immediate background to the study was the report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Goodman and Gregg (2010). It showed that there is a considerable gap between the average recorded school attainment of children from richer and poorer families in the UK. It also showed reasonably substantive correlations between levels of attainment and pupil and family attitudes to education. This new review of causal evidence is to help decide whether such attitudes, aspirations and the behaviours that stem from them are a key link between socio-economic background and school outcomes. And, if they are, whether this knowledge can be used efficiently and effectively to reduce the poverty attainment gap in the UK.

There is already considerable policy and practice activity being undertaken on the assumption that aspirations, attitudes and behaviour can be influenced to improve educational outcomes. For example, in 2009 the UK government proposed plans to lift the aspirations of 2.4 million children. There is an ongoing emphasis on raising aspirations so that no one is disadvantaged by where they live (St Clair and Benjamin 2011). This is just one of many national, regional and local initiatives attempting to improve educational outcomes by changing aspirations, attitudes and behaviours of children and parents. To what extent are proposals like these, and the expenditure they entail, justified by the best available evidence?

The research question for this new review is:

  • Do AABs cause educational outcomes?

If so:

  • Is there one overall model or different ones for each AAB?
  • How do child and family background characteristics interact with any effects discovered?
  • Is it likely that intervening to change AABs will lead to improved outcomes?
  • And what are the most plausible and/or cost-effective interventions

Key findings

Parental involvement in their child’s learning was the only measure with sufficient evidence to meet the preset criteria for a robust causal model. There is a reasonable case that parental involvement is a causal influence on their child’s school readiness and subsequent attainment. The next step here is to identify the key levers, design suitable and cost-effective interventions for each age of child, and to monitor these in operation. A range of interventions would be needed for parents with children of different ages to enhance and incentivise their involvement in children’s learning. This would be what the US Institute of Education Science (IES) funds as Goal 3 (efficacy or replication studies) and Goal 4 (scaling up and implementation studies). See This is a model that could be usefully adopted by UK funders serious about making progress in discovering how to reduce the poverty gap in education. Once promise has been shown in an area then no more preliminary work is funded until an intervention has been trialled, and on the other hand no intervention can be trialled until the preliminary shows that it is feasible and ethical.

Suggestions for future research

  • design suitable and cost-effective interventions to enhance parental involvement in children’s learning
  • conduct efficacy trials of interventions that raise parents’ and children’s education expectations
  • design, develop, conduct closely controlled and independent trials on self-concept and self-esteem
  • conduct a review of intervention studies on self-efficacy and locus of control
  • conduct a trial to estimate the effects of extrinsic motivation, such as payment by results.
  • better quality randomised controlled trials with comparison groups are needed to confirm the causal influence of ECAs.

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