Volume 41, Issue 5 p. 731-748
Original Article
Open Access

Students’ aspirations, expectations and school achievement: what really matters?

Nabil Khattab

Corresponding Author

Nabil Khattab

University of Bristol, UK and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, 11 Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK; Email: [email protected]Search for more papers by this author
First published: 21 January 2015
Citations: 172


Using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), this study examines how different combinations of aspirations, expectations and school achievement can influence students’ future educational behaviour (applying to university at the age of 17–18). The study shows that students with either high aspirations or high expectations have higher school achievement than those with both low aspirations and low expectations. Furthermore, complete alignment between high aspirations, high expectations and high achievement is the most important predictor of future educational behaviour among students. However, it is also found that low expectations do not negatively impact students’ future behaviour when they have high aspirations accompanied with high school achievement. Additionally, the study finds significant ethnic differences in favour of white students at GCSE level, but that these differences are reversed in relation to applying to university at the age of 17–18.


In the past two decades or so, many scholars have questioned the causal relationship between aspirations and school achievement. It is no longer possible to predict school achievement on the grounds of aspirations or vice versa. Many students from different ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds are likely to develop high educational and occupational aspirations that are unrelated to their present or future school performance (Mickelson, 1990; Hanson, 1994; Schneider & Stevenson, 1999; Goodman et al., 2011; Carter-Wall & Whitfield, 2012; Cummings et al., 2012; Gorard et al., 2012; St Clair et al., 2013).

This paper contributes to the literature and helps to better understand the relationship between aspirations, expectations and school achievement in three ways: (1) examining the impact of mismatched aspirations and expectations on school achievement; (2) combining educational aspirations, expectations and school achievements into one typology to better account for and understand situations of aligned and misaligned aspirations, expectations and actual achievement; (3) using this newly constructed typology to predict the future educational behaviour of students (the likelihood of applying to a university course at the age of 17–18), which in turn will help assess its utility and importance.

Previous (including recent) studies on aspirations and school achievement have primarily focused on the question whether or not aspirations can be used as a vehicle to raise school achievement (Goodman et al., 2011; St Clair & Benjamin, 2011; Gorard et al., 2012; Gutman & Schoon, 2012; Rose & Baird, 2013; St Clair et al., 2013). The conclusion of most of these studies is that the evidence to link raising aspirations with improving school achievement is either very slim or highly questionable. Some of these studies have pointed out that some students (e.g. working class) tend to hold high aspirations even beyond what the labour market can support (St Clair et al., 2013), which has led the researchers to question the assumption among politicians and policy makers that raising aspirations will enhance educational achievement (St Clair & Benjamin, 2011; Carter-Wall & Whitfield, 2012; Gorard et al., 2012). Additionally, having high aspirations without being able to achieve them would negatively influence students by causing disappointment, frustration and arguable social withdrawal, or at least would result in a ‘lost talent’ (Hanson, 1994). The misaligned aspirations or the aspirations–achievement paradox has been previously discussed by various studies within the US context (Hanson, 1994; Kao & Tienda, 1998). These studies have suggested that the aspirations–achievement paradox can be somehow understood by looking at expectations as well. Because aspirations, on the one hand, at least as have been defined in these studies, reflect hopes and dreams, they are likely to be disengaged from the socio-economic and school reality of students. Expectations, on the other hand, are more likely to be associated with the socio-economic circumstances, and as such a better predictor for school achievement (Beal & Crockett, 2010). However, neither the US studies nor the more recent UK studies explain how aspirations impact on future educational behaviour in conjunction with different levels of expectations and current (or future) school performance. These studies do not show or explain what happens in situations where expectations are high, but aspirations are low, or expectations are high, but do not lead to high achievement, or even when both aspirations and expectations are high but fail to result in high achievement. These misaligned situations between aspirations, expectations and achievement are yet to be fully uncovered and analysed. This study aims to analyse the influence of the whole range of aligned and misaligned aspirations on students’ future educational behaviour.

The results of this study show that compared to students with low aspirations and low expectations, having higher aspirations improves school achievement even if expectations are low. Furthermore, complete alignment between high aspirations, high expectations and high achievement is the most important predictor for future educational behaviour among students. Compared with students with low aspirations, low expectations and low achievement, those with high achievement who had expressed high aspirations, but low expectations were more likely to apply for a university course. The latter group of students also had better chances than students with high aspirations, high expectations but low achievement.

Thus, I argue that students’ aspirations and expectations per se, cannot be used as predictors for future educational behaviour in isolation from each other, or indeed from the students’ own school achievement. Aspirations can arguably help students improve their achievement, but they will be much more influential if they are accompanied with high expectations as well. However, these aspirations if supported by high achievement can erode the importance of expectations for predicting future educational behaviour. The paper proceeds as follows: in the next section I discuss the literature followed by a discussion of the methods and data. The third section presents the analysis and will be followed by some conclusions.

Determinants of the relationship between aspirations, expectations and achievements

Are aspirations and expectations distinguishable?

The answer is yes, they are distinguishable. According to Reynolds and Pemberton (2001), educational expectations and aspirations reflect a fundamental difference between what one wishes to achieve and what one realistically expects to achieve. Aspirations, as such, are abstract statements or values and beliefs regarding future plans (educational or/and employment plans) made by young people, i.e. the educational level a student wishes to achieve. According to Marjoribanks (1998), aspirations are defined as idealistic values that do not necessarily reflect specific socio-economic realities that might be relevant in determining future mobility. In this study I define educational aspirations similarly to Gorard et al. (2012) as ‘what an individual hopes will happen in the future’ (p. 13) in terms of staying on in full-time education after the age of 16. This is also the way the term ‘aspirations’ has been defined and measured in the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE):

When you're 16 and have finished Year 11 at school what do you want to do next?

A number of recent studies have adhered to this definition and have utilised the above question as a measure of future aspirations. For example, Strand and Winston (2008) and Strand (2011) used the same question to measure educational aspirations (p. 256). Rose and Baird (2013) have used the same question to measure future educational and employment aspirations (p. 163), and Gutman and Schoon (2012) have used a similar question to measure uncertainty over career aspirations (p. 612).

However, expectations involve an element of assessment of the likelihood that an event, behaviour or an outcome will occur. For example, Gorard et al. (2012) define expectations as ‘what an individual believes will happen in the future’ (p. 13). According to Mickelson (1990), expectations are concrete values indicating the empirical realities faced by students, i.e. how students think they will perform in reality given their socio-economic background in addition to their past and current academic performance.

The questions on educational expectations in the LSYPE were asked in line with the above definition of expectations:

How likely do you think it is that you will ever apply to go to university to do a degree?

How likely do you think it is that if you do apply to go to university you will get in?

One might argue that many students, especially working-class or migrant students, do not possess all the information required to accurately assess whether a future behaviour will occur. While this is not unlikely (and might also be the case for the more advantaged students) they will likely have some information based on their parents’ and their own educational performance and experience. These experiences and information might be partial or subjective, but can still be used by the students as a basis for making future predictions and assessment.

Thus, expectations and aspirations mean different things and no doubt measure different attitudes. For instance, Bohon et al. (2006) have pointed out that aspirations and expectations are empirically and cognitively different. Aspirations and expectations are not different sides of the same coin, and are not conceptually similar. Aspirations could be said to be rooted in the cultural sphere of society (within common shared values), whereas expectations are determined by the perceived structure of opportunity within society. In some cases and under certain conditions they might converge with the actual attainment, but in many other cases they are likely to diverge and have a different relationship to future achievement.

Social capital and the formation of aspirations, expectations and achievement

Family and community social capital can emerge as an important resource in raising educational aspirations, thereby upholding student beliefs in their ability to realise their aspirations and, eventually, reach their goals (Schneider & Stevenson, 1999). The parent–child relationship provides a transmission of the family cultural values and norms to children that is both positive and smooth. It shapes the child's aspirations, career choices and their propensity to pursue additional education (Gibbons, 2002; Watts & Bridges, 2006). However, the parent–child relation is highly sensitive to the social and economic status of the family (Hill & Craft, 2003). Different classes emphasise different values, possess different levels of resources and human capital and have different parenting styles. Thus, it is not usually enough to have a good parent–child relationship in order to raise students’ aspirations. In order for parents to sustain and help fulfil their child's high aspirations, they must provide them with the required resources and skills. Disadvantaged parents (e.g. working class) do not always possess the knowledge or resources to help their children convert the high aspirations into actions and future achievement. This implies only that in more economically affluent families, family social capital and relationships play an important role in enabling students to benefit from family human, economic and cultural capital (Marjoribanks, 2002), which further aligns the combination of aspirations, expectations and achievements.

However, it is asserted that different ethnic groups socialise different levels of motivation to achieve certain educational achievement (Modood, 2004), attitudes toward schooling (Shah et al., 2010), and importance of education and hard work as a means of social mobility (Zhou, 2005). Within these groups, children are able to compensate for their socio-economic deficit through strong parental involvement, aspirations and hard work (Modood, 2004; Shah et al., 2010). For instance, Modood (2004) (see also Zhou, 2005; Shah et al., 2010), who draws on Coleman's notion of social capital, argues (through his definition of ethnic capital) that ‘economic disadvantage can be compensated by social capital in the form of family norms, values and networks, as well as a broader set of community values and networks that promote particular educational goals’. Additionally, Shah et al. state that ‘ethnic social relations and ethnic institutions can be conduits of cultural and social capital and therefore become constitutive of class positioning’ (Shah et al., 2010, p. 1111). Thus, parental aspirations and expectations that can be channelled to children via strong social relationships would play a key role in determining the ways in which aspirations, expectations and achievements are associated.

Cultural capital and the convergence of aspirations, expectations and achievements

Cultural capital is a home-based resource through which dominant classes tend to influence the socialisation process of their children including a certain work ethic and orientation toward education and employment (Bourdieu, 1984). Classes or groups who have different levels and types of cultural capital would shape child-rearing differently, and, consequently, facilitate different levels of educational success. For example, Sullivan (2007) has suggested five different ways in which these differences might occur: First, parents who expose their child to culture, such as theatre or art, introduce them to abstract ideas. Second, parents transfer their values towards education when they actively read to their children or help them with their schoolwork using their own knowledge. Third, there are passive transfers made by parents, where students acquire certain ways of talking and thinking, as parents discuss with them, or hear them discussing various topics. Fourth, attitudes and beliefs are important for parents to instil a certain work ethic and orientation toward education and employment—an ‘ethos’ that coincides with what is fostered in schools. Finally, ‘social styles’, or modes of parental engagement with the school, actively engage and support the education of their children beyond time spent in school.

The consequences of these differential socialisations are that students from dominant classes possess an abundance of what the school claims to create, but also gain extra intellectual nurturance outside of its walls. These students are likely to be high achievers and, needless to say, have high aspirations and expectations as part of their cultural capital. Parents of lesser means and who lack cultural capital will find it more difficult to help their children develop a different and a better social and economic destiny than their own. In many cases, their socio-economic disadvantages pass onto their children. Most children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are likely to develop a profile in which their aspirations, expectations and their actual academic outcomes are either misaligned or aligned at the lower end.

Constructing the new typology

To develop the typology, the paper uses data obtained from Wave 1 and Wave 3 of the LSYPE.

Stage one

This uses binary variables for aspirations and expectations (high vs low) as have been measured in Wave 1 of the data. The cut-off point for educational aspirations was educational plans at the age of 16. Students with high aspirations are those planning to continue to full-time education after the age of 16. Those with no such plans have been referred to as having low educational aspirations.

With respect to educational expectations, students who stated that they are fairly or very likely to apply and get into university have been classified as having high expectations. Otherwise, students have been deemed to have low education expectations.

The combination of the two variables has resulted in the creation of four categories of match/mismatch between them: high aspirations—high expectations, high aspirations—low expectations, low aspirations—high expectations and low aspirations—low expectations. This makes two match categories and two categories where aspirations and expectations are being mismatched (Table 1). This variable of aspirations–expectations combinations (mismatch) will be used as an independent variable to predict school performance, which will enable us to test its utility and relevance. The variable that will be used here for school performance is the number of GCSEs at grade A*–C that a student has achieved.

Table 1. The combination of aspirations and expectations across the achievement levels: N = 14,758
Aspirations–expectations mismatch % within each category N Students with less than 5 GCSEs at A*–C Students achieved 5 GCSEs at A*–C or more
(%) (%)
High aspirations–High expectations 58 8559 32 1.6 68 8.4
Low aspirations–High expectations 3 483 65 1.1 35 7.6
High aspirations–Low expectations 25 3730 64 1.2 36 7.5
Low aspirations–Low expectations 14 1986 83 0.78 17 7.0
Total 100 14,758 48 1.2 52 8.2

Stage two

In the second stage, I will combine the above variable of aspirations–expectations (mis)match with a binary school performance variable (high vs low) as has been measured in Wave 3 of the data. The school performance variable is the same dependent variable in Table 2, namely the number of A*–C GCSEs. However, here it has been recoded into two standard categories. All students who achieved five or more A*–C GCSEs have been recoded into one group, whereas all other students have been recoded into a second group. In theory, eight different categories are created when the three variables are cross-tabulated as seen in Figure 1 below. In what follows I provide a very brief description of these categories. A full detailed discussion of the typology can be found in (Khattab, 2014). The focus here is not on the construction of the typology, but rather on its utility:

Table 2. A mixed linear model to predict GCSE attainment
Model 1 Model 2
Parameter B Std. Error B Std. Error
Intercept 3.03 0.25 1.69 0.25
Males (base = females) –0.60** 0.05 –0.53** 0.05
Ethnicity (base = White)
Indian 0.17 0.12 –0.03 0.12
Pakistani–Bangladeshi –0.49** 0.11 –0.65** 0.11
Black–Caribbean –1.40** 0.15 –1.45** 0.14
Black–African –1.26** 0.15 –1.43** 0.15
Mixed & Other –0.21* 0.10 –0.31 0.10
Family composition (base = single parent families or with no parent at all)
Lives with two biological parents 0.71** 0.06 0.69** 0.06
Lives with one biological and one step parent –0.03 0.09 –0.05 0.09
Highest parental qualification (base = no qualification)
Degree or equivalent 1.79** 0.11 1.63** 0.10
Higher education but less than a degree 1.06** 0.10 0.97** 0.10
Low to high secondary education 0.62** 0.08 0.57** 0.08
Parental class (base = routine and manual occupations)
Professional and managerial class 1.05** 0.07 0.96** 0.07
Intermediate class 0.75** 0.07 0.72** 0.07
Never worked or long-term unemployment –0.17 0.11 –0.20 0.11
Cultural capital 0.95** 0.07 0.73** 0.07
Social capital 0.09* 0.04 0.05 0.04
Parental involvement 0.77** 0.08 0.74** 0.08
Parental expectations 2.84** 0.06 2.13** 0.06
High aspirations–high expectations     1.89** 0.09
Low aspirations–high expectations     0.57** 0.15
High aspirations–low expectations     0.77** 0.08
Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) 68, 321.18 67, 826.17
Residual 7.96 (< 0.01) 7.66 (< 0.01)
Level-2 variance 1.30 (< 0.01) 1.25 (< 0.01)


  • *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.
Details are in the caption following the image
The distribution of students across the typology, N = 14,758

I. The Confident: Complete consistency at the highest levels, where educational aspirations, expectations and achievements are all positive. This category is likely to include middle-class students where high aspirations are the norm and, most importantly, the resources to achieve these aspirations are available.

II. The Deceived: This category consists of students who have high aspirations and genuinely believe they will achieve their aspirations, but, in reality, end up with low achievement. This might be due to a lack of financial or educational resources, lack of information about or unfamiliarity with the ways systems work or how standards are attained.

III. The Contestant: This category includes students who develop high aspirations, have low expectations, but obtain high achievement. These students are likely to be raised in families valuing education, but are faced with harsh socio-economic conditions, either in terms of material resources or in experiencing a competitive environment (for example at school).

IV. The Conformist: This category refers to students with high aspirations, low expectations and low achievement. These students act in line with the societal norms (e.g. education is important), but are aware of their disadvantageous material and economic position, which might lead them to lower their expectations and, as a result, to poorly perform at school.

V. The Insecure: This category consists of students whose aspirations are far removed from their expectations or achievements. They have low aspirations, but high expectations and high achievement. Students in this category might be unsure yet about their educational future plans or do not want to commit themselves to such plans.

VI. The Fortuitous: This category represents students who have succeeded in obtaining high achievement in spite of their low aspirations and low expectations. This group of students strongly challenge the relationship between aspirations/expectations and actual achievement. The school performance of this group cannot be predicted by their aspirations and expectations. It is possible that these students might have been targeted by special programmes, institutions or community initiatives designed for underachievers from underprivileged families.

VII. The Expectant: This category includes students who have low aspirations, high expectations and low achievement. These students might have been receiving incorrect signals on their actual ability by attending low quality schools where academic ability is lower than average, and competition is rare, which could give them a false perception of their ‘real’ qualities.

VIII. The Disengaged: This category includes students with low aspirations, low expectations and low achievements. These students tend to be disengaged from schooling or education, often consciously and by being involved in activities other than academic or educational activities (Archer et al., 2007).

The new typology can be used as a dependent variable in order to examine when and under what socio-economic conditions students are likely to develop misaligned aspirations and expectations. Additionally, it also can be used as an independent variable to predict future achievements and related behaviour. In this paper, I will demonstrate the latter situation (the typology as a dependent variable is addressed in another paper (Khattab, 2014).

Data and methods

The data used in this study were obtained from Wave 1 and 3 of the LSYPE with linked data from the National Pupil Database (NPD). The first wave of data were collected in 2004 from a sample of 15,770 young people (students) aged 13–14 attending 647 different schools. Most of the measurements of this study have been derived from Wave 1, whereas the information on achievement was derived using administrative data on GCSE examinations completed by the end of Year 11 (age 15–16). An additional variable has been derived from Wave 5, which measures whether the student has applied to a university course or not. This variable will be used as a dependent variable to demonstrate how the typology can be used as a predictor for future educational behaviour.

Dependent variables

Number of GCSEs at grade A*–C: This is a numeric ratio scale that ranges from 0 to 15. It measures the number of successfully achieved GCSEs at grade A* to C by students (including Maths and English). The variable is used in this format in the first regression model to illustrate the utility of combining aspirations and expectations in one variable to predict school achievement. As already mentioned, this variable has been recoded into two categories in order to be used as the third dimension of the typology, by recoding students who have achieved 5 or more A* to C GCSEs as one category and those failing to do so into a second category.

Applying to a university course: This is a binary variable that measures whether a student has applied for a university course or not (based on actual application rather than on the intention to apply). This variable has been derived from Wave 5 of the survey. It will be used to illustrate the utility of the full typology to predict future educational behaviour.

Independent variables

Gender: Gender coded as (0) for females and (1) for males.

Ethnic origin: The variable has been coded into six categories: Indian, Pakistani–Bangladeshi, Black–Caribbean, Black–African, Mixed and Other, and White. The latter has been used as the reference. Students of Pakistani origin and those of Bangladeshi origin have been re-grouped into one category (Pakistani–Bangladeshi) owing to small numbers. The group of Mixed and Others have been re-grouped in the same way.

Marital status of parents: Coded into three categories: student lives with both biological parents, lives with two parents, but one is step-parent. The last category comprises students living in single-parent families or with no parents at all. The latter category was used as the reference.

Social capital of family: This is derived using three related pairs of ordinal variables measuring the quality and quantity of within-family relations: quantity of disputes between a student and their parents, quality talks and the third pair reports the student's response to the question ‘how well do you g et al ong with their parents’. A CATPCA (Categorical Principal Components Analysis) solution has been used, which resulted in one continuous measure of social capital. All items were unidirectional with a loading coefficient of between 0.62 and 0.83 (Cronbach α = 0.570).

Cultural capital: The variable was derived from activities such as learning a musical instrument, participating in community work or reading for pleasure. Additionally, satisfaction with school facilities was taken into account as this can help convey the fit between the habitus of students and the cultural capital present in the field of education. These measurements are combined using the CATPCA solution. All loadings ranged 0.624 to 0.685 except for ‘activities’ that had a low loading of 0.23.

Parental involvement in school life: The parental involvement has also been created as an index using a factor analysis with a relatively low Cronbach α of only 0.431. Because of the low Cronbach α, the impact of parental involvement should be taken with the required caution.

Parental expectations: These are measured as a binary variable. Parents who had estimated that their child was (fairly or very) likelyto attain higher education have been coded as 1, and those who had estimated that their child was not likely to attain higher education have been coded as 2.

Parental occupational class: This was measured using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC). The original scale's s eight categories have been re-grouped into four in order to minimise the risk of a large number of empty cells, as follows:

  1. Higher and lower managerial and professional occupations have been collapsed into one category of ‘professional and managerial class’.
  2. Intermediate occupations, small employers and own account workers have been collapsed into one category of ‘intermediate occupations’.
  3. Lower supervisory and technical occupations, semi-routine occupations and routine occupations have been re-grouped into one category of ‘routine occupations’.
  4. The category of never worked or long-term unemployment remains unchanged.

This is a common way to re-group these categories and its utility has been illustrated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2010).

Parental highest qualification: This has been recoded into four categories of ‘a degree or equivalent’, ‘higher qualification but less than a degree’, ‘low to high secondary education’ and ‘no qualification’ as a comparator.

Because the students in the sample are nested within schools, the assumption of independence between observations (students) might be violated. In order to address this issue, all the models will control for the sample design by including schools as a second level in the analysis. This means that the models presented here are mixed-models (Hox, 2002).

The analysis

The aspirations–expectations mismatch and achievement

Table 1 shows that the majority of students (58%) hold high aspirations and high expectations. However, only two-thirds of them seem to convert their high aspirations and high expectations into high achievement. On average, they achieved 8.39 GCES at grade A*–C, whereas the remaining one third of them achieved on average no more than 1.6 GCSEs at grade A*–C. Around one out of seven students expressed low aspirations and low expectations (14%). This group of students seem to have achieved the lowest number of GCSEs at grade A*–C. However, 17% of them have achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A*–C (on average seven GCSEs) despite their low aspirations and expectations. This suggests that having high aspirations and high expectations does not always guarantee high achievement. Likewise, developing low aspirations and low expectations does not dampen the achievement of all students.

A quarter of all students (25%) combined high aspirations with low expectations, whereas a minority of students (3%) held low aspirations in conjunction with high expectations. The latter two groups of students seemed to achieve on average a similar number of GCSEs at grade A*–C. Around one third of students within these two groups achieved five or more A*–C GCSEs (with a mean of 7.5). The remaining two-thirds have achieved less than that with a mean of 1.15 and 1.1 respectively. These results suggest that although holding misaligned aspirations and expectations is likely to result in low achievement, for some students having either high aspirations or high expectations might just make the difference between success and failure. In order to examine the net impact of the different aligned and misaligned situations of aspirations and expectations on achievement, the next regression analysis controls for other possible explanatory factors. This analysis is presented in Table 2.

The analysis in Table 2 is a normal linear regression, so the coefficients have to be read and interpreted in the same way used in linear regression analysis. The only difference here is that the analysis takes into account the school as a second level (random effect) in order to neutralise any autocorrelation bias between students attending the same school (Hox, 2002). When the analysis controls for students (Level-1) nested within schools (Level-2), it is common practice to refer to this analysis as multilevel or mixed effects model. In Table 2 I present two multilevel regression models. Model 1 controls for all of the independent variables except for the aspirations–expectations mismatch variable, whereas Model 2 controls for this variable as well. This analysis (Model 2) confirms that even when all independent variables are controlled for, the aspirations–expectations mismatch factor remains significantly important. Since the value of the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) measure in Model 2 is smaller than that in Model 1, this indicates that Model 2 is preferred (Burnham and Anderson, 2004). Compared with students who expressed low aspirations and low expectations, all other students, especially those with high aspirations and expectations, achieved better GCSE results. Those with high aspirations and expectations achieved on average almost two A*–C GCSEs more than the comparator group. Even students who only had one higher dimension (aspirations or expectations) were better off. Those students have achieved on average over half a GCSE more at grade A*–C than students with low aspirations and low expectations.

All other factors in the model tend to operate in the expected direction including class, parental expectations and cultural capital. Significant ethnic differences seem to remain even after controlling for the individual factors. In fact, the ethnic differences increased when aspirations and expectations were included in the model. With the exception of Indian students, minority students achieved significantly less than their white counterparts. These results are not surprising and are well in line with previous research (Rothon, 2007).

The distribution of aspirations–expectations achievement misalignment

Figure 1 shows the distribution of the sample across the eight profiles of the typology, which has been created by cross-tabulating the binary variables of aspirations, expectations and school achievement. It shows that the most frequent profile in the typology is the ‘confident’. Over a third of all students (39%) have a perfect alignment between their aspirations, expectations and school performance. Just below one fifth (18.9%) of all students cannot convert their high aspirations and high expectations into a high school performance—the ‘deceived’. The third largest profile is the ‘conformist’ (16.2%): students who develop high aspirations but fail to embrace high expectations and subsequently fail to reach high achievement. Just over one out of every 10 students (11.2%) fall within the ‘disengaged’ profile by having low aspirations, low expectations and low achievement. Almost one out of every 10 students tend to hold high aspirations combined by low expectations, but are able to reach high school achievement—’the contestant’.

The remaining three profiles together (the ‘fortuitous’, the ‘expectant’ and the ‘insecure’) make just 5.6% of the entire sample, which suggests that these are the least frequent and the most misaligned profiles. These profiles might be a result of a measurement error, especially of the aspirations and expectations dimensions. The GCSE results measure is likely to be more accurate and reliable. Since all three profiles are characterised with low aspirations and because their small size would increase the risk of too many empty cells (sample size), it is reasonable to combine them into one eclectic profile, which will be referred to here as the ‘hesitant’. Combining these small profiles will help reduce the risk of small cell sizes, but also allows me to keep them in the analysis as the gain from analysing this extreme misaligned group outweighs the gain, if any, from excluding them. Surely, including them as a separate category in the analysis would eliminate any noise or undesirable influences that can be introduced into the analysis as a result.

The original eight-profile typology has therefore been re-grouped as a six-profile typology, which will now be used as the main predictor of future educational behaviour, namely whether students have applied for a university course as measured in Wave 5 when they were 17–18 years old (two years after their GCSE results and four years after measuring their aspirations and expectations in Wave 1). Before presenting the regression analysis, a descriptive analysis of the relationship between the typology and the dependent variable can provide some initial answers as to how useful the typology is.

Figure 2 uncovers a clear pattern. As expected, students within the ‘confident’ profile were the group with the highest proportion (68%) of students who had applied to a university course at the age of 17–18 (68%). This proportion drops significantly to 43% within the ‘contestant’ profile and further down to 24% among students within the ‘hesitant’ profile. All other profiles have a very low proportion, which ranges between 16% within the ‘deceived’ profile, to 6% within the ‘conformist’ profile and finally to just only 3% among students falling within the ‘disengaged’ profile. These results have revealed that students with aligned aspirations, expectations and achievement are the most likely to apply for a university course at the age of 17–18. However, these results also suggested that having misaligned aspirations, expectations and achievement does not necessarily generate a hopeless educational fate. In order to uncover the net impact of these profiles, and to be able to draw unambiguous conclusions, I now turn to the analysis of the second stage.

Details are in the caption following the image
The percentage of students who applied to university at the age of 17–18 by profile, N = 9786

Table 3 presents two multilevel logistic regression models. The first model estimates the impact of the explanatory variables on the likelihood of applying to a university course without controlling for the typology. It shows some significant gender, family and class differences, mostly in the expected direction. Most interesting is the impact of ethnicity. The results suggest that most of the ethnic groups (Indian, Pakistani–Bangladeshi and Black–African) are significantly more likely than their White counterparts to have applied to a university course when they were 17–18 years old. The coefficients for Black–Caribbean and Mixed–Other students are insignificant. However, it seems that the most important determinant of applying to university is parental expectations as measured in Wave 1 of the survey when the children were 13–14 years old. Students whose parents have expected them to gain higher education when they were in Year 9 (age 13–14) were over five times more likely to have actually applied for a university course at age 17–18 than students whose parents did not expect them to do so.

Table 3. Multilevel logistic regression analysis of whether the student has applied to a university course at the age of 17–18, N = 9224
  Model 1 Model 2
B S.E. Exp(B) B S.E. Exp(B)
Males (base = females) –0.27** 0.05 0.76 –0.20** 0.05 0.82
Ethnicity (base = white)
Indian 1.05** 0.10 2.87 1.32** 0.11 3.74
Pakistani–Bangladeshi 0.36** 0.09 1.44 0.64** 0.11 1.89
Black–Caribbean –0.04 0.14 0.96 0.42* 0.16 1.52
Black–African 0.43** 0.14 1.54 0.89** 0.17 2.45
Mixed & Other 0.15 0.09 1.16 0.17 0.10 1.18
Family composition (base = single or no biological parents)
Lives with two biological parents 0.38** 0.07 1.46 0.26** 0.07 1.30
Lives with one biological and one step parent –0.14 0.10 0.87 –0.12 0.11 0.89
Highest parental qualification (base = no qualification)
Degree or equivalent 0.75** 0.10 2.12 0.27* 0.12 1.31
Higher education but less than a degree 0.45** 0.10 1.57 0.16 0.11 1.17
Low to high secondary education 0.08 0.08 1.08 –0.11 0.10 0.89
Parental class (base = routine and manual occupations)
Professional and managerial class 0.66** 0.07 1.94 0.41** 0.08 1.50
Intermediate class 0.42** 0.07 1.51 0.27** 0.08 1.31
Never worked or long-term unemployment 0.01 0.12 1.01 –0.04 0.14 0.96
Cultural capital 0.62** 0.07 0.54 0.40** 0.07 0.67
Social capital 0.07 0.04 0.93 0.07 0.04 0.93
Parental involvement 0.35** 0.08 1.42 0.16 0.09 1.17
Parental expectations 1.70** 0.06 5.47 0.86** 0.07 2.36
Aspirations, expectations and achievement typology (base = the disengaged)
The confident       2.99** 0.21 19.89
The hesitant       1.74** 0.23 5.68
The contestant       2.45** 0.21 11.64
The deceived       0.73** 0.22 2.07
The conformist       0.26 0.23 1.30
Constant –1.45 0.24 0.24 –2.84 0.33 0.06
The χ2 for the fixed part 2577.83 (< 0.01) 3828.05 (< 0.01)
Level-2 variance 0.001 (not sig.) 0.00 (not sig.)


  • *< 0.05; **p < 0.01. The model controls for schools as Level-2.

In Model 2 I included the new typology as one of the predictors of the dependent variable (whether a student has applied to a university course). The results suggest that, holding all other factors constant, this is the most important determinant of the dependent variable. The impact of the typology is greater than any of the other explanatory variables in the model, including parents’ expectations. The typology has mediated a large proportion of the impact of most of the other predictors. For example, parents’ expectations have lost over half of the original power (as presented in Model 1), parents’ highest qualification has lost most of its explanatory power and the impact of class has also dropped significantly. Moreover, cultural capital has lost about a third of its impact, whereas parental involvement has lost its significance altogether.

However, including the new typology in Model 2 has strengthened the impact of one variable, namely ethnicity. The odds-ratios of Indian have increased from 2.87 to 3.74, for Pakistanis–Bangladeshis from 1.44 to 1.89 and for Black–Africans from 1.54 to 2.45. Interestingly, now even Black–Caribbean students are significantly more likely to have applied to a university course than their White counterparts. In Model 1 they had similar chances, but once the typology was taken into account, a significant difference in the odds ratios between them and the White group was uncovered. Now, they are 1.52 times more likely to have applied to a university course at the age of 17–18 than the majority white group.

Turning now to the impact of the typology, the results in Model 2 show that students in the ‘confident’ profile have the highest chances to have applied to a university course at the age of 17–18. They are almost 20 time more likely to have applied than students in the reference profile of the ‘disengaged’. Interestingly enough, the group with the second highest chances are those in the ‘contestant’ profile (high aspirations, low expectations, high school performance). They are over 10 times more likely to apply to a university course than students in the ‘disengaged’ profile, followed by students in the ‘hesitant’ profile (odds-ratios of 5.68) and finally, but not less interesting, students in the ‘deceived’ profile (odds-ratios of 2.07).

The only group of students that had similar chances of applying to university to students in the ‘disengaged’ profile, are those with the ‘conformist’ profile (high aspirations, but low expectations and low achievement). This suggests that high aspirations that are not supported by school achievement are severely thwarted. They cannot be used independently to predict future educational behaviour 4 or 5 years down the line.

The above analysis has illustrated the importance of combining these constructs (factors) into one single typology. This analysis has shown how high aspirations alone (as in the case of the ‘conformist’) do not allow us to predict future educational behaviour accurately. Similarly, it has demonstrated how even low school performance (e.g. at GCSE), as in the case of the ‘deceived’ profile or the ‘expectant’, does not alone accurately predict future educational behaviour. The fact that ‘deceived’ students were significantly more likely to apply for a university course than the ‘disengaged’ students illustrates the importance of taking all three constructs together. I propose that combining the three dimensions in the form of the typology used here could improve the accuracy of predicting students’ future educational behaviour and attainment.

Discussion and concluding thoughts

The main purpose of this paper was to introduce a new way of utilising educational aspirations, expectations and school achievements in predicting future educational behaviours and attainment. The first stage of the analysis has demonstrated how taking aspirations and expectations into account, while distinguishing between different aligned and misaligned situations, provides better understanding of their impact on school performance. This analysis suggests that we should take both aspirations and expectations into account when examining school performance. Both of them are important as suggested by previous studies (Alexander et al., 1975; Jencks et al., 1983; Marjoribanks, 1998). When both of them are low, students’ school achievement can be highly negatively affected (Portes et al., 2010). However, holding either high aspirations or high expectations seems to positively influence school achievement. This means that even if only one of the two constructs (aspirations or expectations) is high, the school achievement can still be positively affected. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that retaining high aspirations and expectations has the greatest positive impact on school achievement. This finding supports Bozick's et al. (2010) conclusion that the stability of student expectations is an important predictor of educational outcome. Furthermore, these findings challenge the conclusion that has been reached by a number of recent studies and reports in the UK in relation raising aspirations as a focus of policy in education (Strand, 2011; Carter-Wall & Whitfield, 2012; Gorard et al., 2012; Gutman & Schoon, 2012; St Clair et al., 2013). Most of these recent studies and reports found no solid evidence that raising aspirations can lead to higher school achievement, especially among the poorer and the most disadvantaged families. The data that have been presented here suggest that policy makers, teachers and other professionals in schools should encourage their students to raise and maintain high levels of aspirations. However, these high aspirations should be reinforced by equipping the students, particularly those coming from poor and disadvantaged families, with the necessary skills, addressing their learning needs and improving the information and the opportunities they receive as suggested by Cummings et al. (2012). These extra steps and interventions (beyond raising aspirations) can lead to higher level of expectations and self-efficacy, which in turn help raising school performance.

The second stage of the analysis has illustrated the role of past aspirations, expectations and school achievement in determining future educational behaviour and achievement, e.g. applying to a university course at the age of 17–18. There is no doubt that aspirations and expectations do matter in this regard. Likewise, past school achievement does matter as well. However, the impact of each of the above constructs (aspirations, expectations and achievement) can be significantly and positively amplified when all of them are aligned at the high end (Schneider & Stevenson, 1999). When they become misaligned, they generally matter less. In the case of the ‘conformist’ profile, high aspirations did not result in university applications, at least no more than by students in the ‘disengaged’ profile. Conversely, in the case of the ‘contestant’, the low expectations did not exacerbate the likelihood of applying for university courses. This suggests that in order for aspirations to influence future educational behaviour, they have to be combined with high expectations, or high school performance or, both. High aspirations per se do not seem to have any solid impact upon the future educational behaviour and attainment. However, the fact that aspirations do matter in conjunction with high school performance means they might have a distinctive value of their own in the form of a ‘steering wheel’ that it is imperative to have for school performance to get moving in the right direction.

Additionally to the importance of the typology, this study found that high parental expectations (as defined here) significantly contribute to school achievement and future educational behaviour (Marjoribanks, 2002). It is likely that high parental expectations operate through a number of mechanisms such as empowerment or development of self-efficacy among students, well defined targets and life goals. Ethnicity was also found to be an important factor. In fact, its influence has been augmented after controlling for the typology along with the other individual and parental factors (e.g. class, family structure and parental expectations). If most ethnic minority students achieved fewer A*–C GCSEs than white students as shown in Table 2 and as found in other previous studies (Rothon, 2007), those who did make it through the GCSEs were significantly more likely to apply for a university course at the age of 17–18. It appears that the ethnic differences were reversed in favour of the ethnic minorities at the end of sixth form. It is possible that the impact of parental expectations and the different profiles of the typology affect the future educational behaviour of various ethnic groups in different ways and at different levels. Further research is therefore required in order to expand our understanding of these issues.

Finally, this study may well have important policy implications in addition to its theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions. Policymakers and educational authorities will not be able to improve educational attainment of students from certain backgrounds (working class and minorities) by simply raising their aspirations and/or expectations. This study suggests that investing in raising aspirations and expectations of students might only work in some cases and among some students. Raising aspirations and expectations has to be accompanied by other activities at the community level, such as enhancing community bridging and bonding social capitals, enriching community ‘ethnic capital’ and providing greater resources to meet the basic educational needs of families so that they are able to uphold high expectations for their children, and most importantly to help fulfil these aspirations.