When ‘average’ is not enough: On the relationship between prior achievement, self-perception and aspiration for higher education

Year: 2015

Author: Gore, Jennifer, Holmes, Kath, Smith, Max

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In the context of national and international efforts to widen participation in higher education, aspiration has been a key concept and a focus of both research investigations and university- and school-based interventions. Some studies have found that while higher education is seen as a natural progression by many middle-class students, it is seen as alien and “not for the likes of us” by working- class students (Reay, 2004; Archer, 2007). Other studies, including our own (Bowden & Doughney, 2010; Gore et al., 2014), have found that many students from low-SES backgrounds hold high aspirations. These studies draw attention to the relatively strong impact of prior achievement on shaping students’ plans for their educational futures. In this paper, we explore the educational intentions of approximately 6000 students in Years 3-11 in NSW public schools.

Our focus is on the intersection of students’ prior achievement (as indicated by NAPLAN results) with their sense of their own capabilities (their sense of their academic performance in comparison with their peers, on a scale from ‘well above average’ to ‘well below’) and their intentions to go to university, or not. We also investigate the relationship of students’ self-perceptions to other data on gender, SES, location and age. Survey data and statistical analysis are supplemented with data from focus groups and interviews to explore the complex relationships among these variables, students’ perceptions of universities, and our finding that ‘average’ performance in school was considered by many students, from a young age, to be ‘not good enough’ for making it to university.

In exploring these data, we tease out the complex ways in which ‘average’ is taken up and the conceptual and the methodological challenges embedded in this work. We also juxtapose enduring perceptions of universities as elite and unattainable with widening participation discourses and consider implications for schools and universities.