Student–teacher rapport key to educational aspirations
A new study led by The University of Newcastle's Professor Jenny Gore has found that a student's sex and prior academic achievement may be the strongest predictors of participation in higher education. But the ways in which schools support students' aspirations can also have a major influence on their plans when they leave school.
The study, Choosing University: The Impact of Schools and Schooling, which was funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University, sought to identify factors associated with schools and schooling that impact on students' intentions to attend university, with particular emphasis on those from low socioeconomic areas.
The study drew on surveys of more than 800 Year 11 students from 15 NSW government secondary schools. Interviews conducted at four case study schools with current and past students as well as some of their parents, teachers, careers advisers, and principals, provided additional insight into the role of schools in students' intention to pursue higher education. All 15 schools were below the national median level of social and economic advantage in Australia.
"Much of what has driven policy in the nation's agenda for equity in education and access," observed Professor Gore, Director of Newcastle's Teachers and Teaching Research Program, "is the belief that students from low socioeconomic areas do not have high aspirations."
"But a substantial proportion of the students in our sample, all of whom attended schools in low SES areas, indicated a desire to study at university. We also found that this was more likely to be the case if the student was female and a high academic achiever – even when socioeconomic status was considered."
These results highlight the variation that exists among students within regions of low socioeconomic advantage and the role that schools can play in supporting students' aspirations. They also demonstrate the importance of designing outreach initiatives that take into account students' relatively high aspirations across SES categories.
"One of our key findings," continued Professor Gore, "is that strong relationships and positive interactions between students and their teachers have the potential to enhance engagement in learning, and subsequently raise academic achievement, a crucial factor in nurturing students' intentions to pursue further study."
The University of Newcastle researchers also identified a number of significant differences between students who were more likely to aspire to university and those who were less decided about their plans.
"Our study found that 'university aspirants' reported higher levels of participation in university open days," explained Professor Gore, "and were more likely to gather information about career and study options and seek out advice from family, friends, teachers, and careers advisers."
"We know that schools are already doing as much as they can with the resources they have to support students in accessing and navigating post-school pathways," said Professor Gore, "but our data signal that there is scope to continue developing new ways of engaging students, as well as their parents, carers, and teachers, in informed and meaningful conversations about their futures."
Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.
"This study highlights that current school initiatives are differentially taken up by students who aspire to university and those who do not or are unsure of their plans," Professor Sue Trinidad said.
"These differences among students signal the importance of continuing to refine school-level initiatives that support students' aspirations for higher education, especially those from low SES backgrounds."
"Ultimately, every young person should be given equal opportunity for education."
"I welcome this report and look forward to discussion of the findings."
Please note: The NCSEHE aims to inform public policy design and implementation and institutional practice to improve the higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people. The Choosing University report may be found at ncsehe.edu.au.
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