Students’ university aspirations and attainment grouping in secondary schools

  • Anna Mazenod
  • Jeremy Hodgen
  • Becky Francis
  • Becky Taylor
  • Antonina Tereshchenko


International evidence shows that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to attend university. We examine the potential link between university aspiration and secondary schools’ attainment grouping practices (tracking/setting). Modelling of longitudinal student questionnaires (N = 6680) completed in England suggests that there is a slight cumulative association between students’ university aspirations and their set placement. Interestingly, we find that students’ self-confidence predicts university aspirations over and above both prior aspirations and attainment. Our findings suggest that to improve our understanding of students’ university aspirations it is crucial to take account of factors other than just prior attainment. The concept of capacity to aspire emphasises the multiplicity of factors involved in enabling or hindering aspirations for university, and their interaction over time. We argue that universities have an important role in realising more socially just patterns in higher education participation through outreach work that can enhance students’ capacity to aspire to university.


University aspirations Capacity to aspire Setting Tracking Student characteristics Social inequality 



The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of the wider Best Practice in Grouping Students team and Dr. Richard Sheldrake.

We would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments.

Funding details

This work was supported by a grant from the Education Endowment Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Disclosure statement

There are no conflicts of interest relating to the research reported in this article.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 19 kb)
10734_2018_355_MOESM2_ESM.docx (21 kb)
ESM 2 (DOCX 20 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education, Practice and SocietyUCL Institute of EducationLondonUK

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