How do we raise parents’ aspirations for their children?

By Eleri Burnhill, King’s College London |

Widening participation initiatives aim to raise the aspirations of students from underrepresented backgrounds to progress to higher education, support students to recognise the value and importance of higher education and, more recently, to support attainment raising. Alongside this work, the proportion of underrepresented students (POLAR3 quintile 1) entering higher education continues to steadily increase[i].

Notwithstanding this success, a fundamental piece of the puzzle which remains largely ignored is the involvement of parents in widening participation and the importance of supporting parents to encourage their children to go to university[ii]. Some fantastic work is already being done, at King’s and across the sector, to engage parents[iii] . A prime example of this work is Parent Power. Launched back in 2017 by our Widening Participation Department, Citizens UK and parents from Lambeth and Southwark[iv], Parent Power mobilises parents to tackle the barriers holding their children back from accessing elite universities. Despite the success of the initiative[v] and others like it, there is still more that can be done to engage parents in their children’s progression to higher education.

Research [vi] suggests that 97% of parents aspire for their children to attend university when they’re born. However, by the time their children reach the age of 14, only 53% of parents from low-income families expect their children to attend university; highlighting that the aspirations of some parents decrease dramatically by the time their children reach Year 9. This coupled with the fact that parents have a powerful influence over the aspirations of their children[vii] reinforces the need to engage and inform parents to truly widen participation in higher education.

The Parents’ Aspiration for their Child Trial, which we are conducting with colleagues from the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), casts the net further as it looks to engage parents through schools across the country.

Each year the Behavioural Insights Team hosts an immersive field course for graduate students at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. As part of the 2016-17 course, Harvard students worked with our Widening Participation Department to develop behaviourally-informed solutions to parental engagement. The students delivered a report outlining two behaviourally-informed interventions which we are now seeking to test in partnership with secondary schools across the country.

The project will test whether these low-cost interventions can positively influence parental aspirations for their children’s prospects of attending and succeeding at university. The interventions to be tested are:

  • Enhanced school/parent contracts: Some schools begin the academic year with contracts outlining the responsibilities and commitments of the students, parents, and teachers at the school. The project will test the effect of a ‘standard parent contract’ versus a ‘university parent contract’ which includes additional messaging to encourage parents to support their children’s university aspirations and preparations.
  • Enhanced school reports: In addition, termly school reports will be used to reinforce the messaging in the parent contracts. Again, parents will receive a ‘standard’ or a ‘university’ school report. The latter will include additional information, which will confirm that their child is ‘on track’ for university, provide examples of courses they could pursue at highly selective universities, and highlight possible career pathways.

During the 2018/19 academic year, we are collaborating with BIT to test these interventions using a randomised controlled trial (RCT). Both the contract and the report will be sent to parents of students in Years 7-9, and we will measure changes in parental aspirations using surveys. At the end of the project, each participating school will receive a bespoke summary report that provides insight into the attitudes of their parents towards higher education, as well as how their school compares to other participating schools in terms of parental aspirations.

If you work at, or know of, a school which would be interested in taking part in the trial, get in touch with us at

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[i] UCAS (2017). End of cycle report 2017. Patterns by applicant characteristics [online]. Available at:

[ii] Zimdars, A., Sullivan, A., & Heath, A. (2009). Elite higher education admissions in the arts and sciences: is cultural capital the key?. Sociology43(4), 648-666.

[iii] Mulcahy, E. & Baars, S. (2018). Partners in Progression Engaging parents in university access [online]. Available at:

[iv] May, A. (2018). Parent power! Community Organising for better access to higher education [online]. Available at:

[v] BBC (2018). ‘I missed out on university but my son won’t’ [online]. Available from:

[vi] Kintrea, K., St Clair, R., & Houston, M. (2011). The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[vii] Goodman, A., & Gregg, P. (Eds.). (2010). Poorer children’s educational attainment: How important are attitudes and behaviour? (p. 6). York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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