Report Overview

This report explores recent evidence about young people’s views and the importance they attach to going on to university, their beliefs about their own academic ability and their experiences of school to see how far these influences shape differences in A-level outcomes at age 18.

Written by Pam Sammons, Katalin Toth, and Kathy Sylva, this report is the third in a series drawing on the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) cohort. It explores students’ aspirations in relation to their views on the importance of getting a degree, their own university plans and their beliefs about their academic performance and abilities, described in this report as their ‘academic self-concept’.

More specifically, the research questions addressed are:

  • What are the individual, family, neighbourhood and school predictors of general academic self-concept in Year 11, at age 16?
  • What are the individual, family, neighbourhood and school predictors of aspirations in Year 11?
  • What is the relationship between academic self-concepts, aspirations and A-level entry?
Key Findings

The results show that students’ aspirations, in terms of the importance they attach to getting a degree and their plans to go to university, are shaped from an early age by background, neighbourhood and educational influences. Nonetheless, academic self-concept and aspirations both play a significant part in students’ A-level outcomes, over and beyond the important influence of background.

There are important differences among students in the general aspirations in terms of the importance they attach to getting a university degree and these are already evident at age 14. Around 61% believe it is very important to get a degree, and only 13% think it is of little or very little importance. In Year 11, 56% thought that it was very important to get a degree, while 20% did not attach much importance to it. Year 11 students also differ in how likely they think it is that they themselves will go on and get a degree. Only 27% of disadvantaged students compared with 39% of those not experiencing disadvantage thought it likely they would go on to university for a degree.

  1. Support to encourage reading for pleasure, educational trips and out-of-school studying opportunities should be provided to promote attainment for disadvantaged students at all ages, and especially those who were found to be high attaining at age 11. Enrichment vouchers should be funded through the pupil premium for both primary and secondary pupils.
  2. Disadvantaged students should have more opportunities to go to the best schools – those rated outstanding – by Ofsted with fairer admissions policies linked to free school transport.
  3. Disadvantaged children should be given the opportunity to attend good pre-school settings with qualified staff.
  4. Disadvantaged students should have additional encouragement and support to enable them to engage in self-directed study, do sufficient homework and read more books, the activities that provide extra academic dividends and are linked to aspirations and self-belief. Schools should provide such opportunities where they are unlikely to be available at home.