National approach to nurturing higher education aspirations

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


The Australian Government has appointed a University of Newcastle (UON) research team to lead a national approach to teacher professional learning that will build teachers’ capacities to support students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds in aspiring to, and pursuing, a higher education.

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore

Awarded $600,000 through the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), UON will collaborate with researchers at La Trobe University to develop a suite of innovative professional learning modules to assist teachers develop their knowledge and skills in supporting students from low SES backgrounds on the path to higher education.

Project lead, UON Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, said that while many factors shaped aspirations, schooling was foundational to higher education participation and success.

“Teachers are often unaware of the extent and ways in which they influence students’ aspirations. Well-designed professional learning has the potential to enhance the quality of teaching in both formal and informal settings, to ensure teachers’ positive effects.”

Prof Gore said evidence showed the quality of teaching was the biggest ‘in school’ influence on student achievement.

“High quality teaching is critical to keeping students’ options open and supporting them to imagine and navigate fulfilling pathways,” she said.

“Simply imploring teachers to do better is not enough. This project recognises that teachers need and want help in delivering good outcomes for students from low SES backgrounds, but, in general, have not had specific professional learning opportunities to assist them in supporting students’ aspirations and higher education participation.”

Project co-researcher and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research at La Trobe University, Dr Andrew Harvey, said a national approach to teacher professional learning was critical to expanding higher education access.

“There are many university outreach activities, including visits, excursions, and mentoring, designed to encourage participation of students from targeted equity groups. However, universities must also work directly with school teachers to increase student capacities and understandings of higher education.”

Fellow co-researcher from La Trobe’s School of Education, Professor Jo Lampert, said the team would develop specific resources to support school teachers as they:

  • challenge and support students in learning;
  • nurture students’ self-belief and capabilities; and,
  • expand students’ access to relevant resources and information pertaining to higher education and occupations.

Each innovative module for professional learning will provide a suite of digital resources and be tailored for teaching Years 1-6, Years 7-9 and Years 10-12.

The Year 1-6 module will focus on ensuring a strong foundation for students from low SES backgrounds - including those who are Indigenous, from non-English speaking backgrounds, and from rural and remote areas - through high quality teaching, including high expectations, intellectual challenge, a nurturing environment and meaningful learning experiences.

“Given the significant drop in aspirations for university as students enter high school, the Year 7-9 focus will be on belonging, as teachers continue to motivate, challenge and support students and help them understand that university is not only for the academically highest achieving,” Prof Gore said.

“The focus of the Years 10-12 module will be opportunities and pathways, to ensure teachers are vigilant about the messages they convey that foster or crush students’ hopes; and active in helping students to explore and understand how to prepare for and successfully transition to university.”

The project is a collaboration between the School of Education and the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) at the University of Newcastle, and the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research and the School of Education at La Trobe University.

Securing this HEPPP project, one of only six commissioned by the Australian Government, is recognition of UON’s leadership in teacher development, via the work of Prof Gore and her Teachers and Teaching Research Centre (TTRC) team on both quality teaching and student aspirations, and equity work via the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) led by Professor Penny-Jane Burke, who is also a co-researcher on this project.

The commissioned projects are for research on issues the Department of Education and Training has identified as being nationally important in terms of equity and access to higher education.