Research led by DMU highlights how postcodes impact children’s career aspirations

Research shows that children who go to school in deprived, inner city areas are less likely to pursue their dream jobs because they believe they are out of reach.

In a study led by Aaron Toogood, Associate Professor in Finance at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), findings indicate that a child’s first home postcode can have a significant impact on their career aspirations and can even leave pupils feeling helpless and hopeless when it comes to their education and job prospects.

As part of his PhD research, Aaron carried out a questionnaire with Year 4 pupils at several inner-city schools in Leicester, asking about their hopes for the future and what they would like to be when they grow up. He then returned in Years 5 and 6 to ask the same children the same questions.

To compare his results, he conducted the same survey with pupils attending village schools in affluent areas over the same three-year period.

“Inequality is having a significant impact on young children’s aspirations,” Aaron explained. “From a very early age, children are already starting to eliminate certain careers because they believe that pathways are already closed off to them.

“My research shows that there is a significant difference between the aspirations of children attending the village school and those in the inner-city schools.”

Aaron purposely selected schools from either end of the Multi-Deprivation Index (MDI), which identifies how deprived an area is based on three key factors: health, education and standard of living.

“Children who go to school in affluent areas are more likely to have parents or family members who have gone to university and pursued a professional career, whereas children attending school in deprived areas that fall into the lower end of the MDI often do not know anyone who has professional qualifications,” he said.

The research also highlighted how young children’s understanding of particular careers can often be fantasised and that children therefore make career decisions before high school with little knowledge of the roles.

“Primary school children lack understanding of what is needed to achieve their dream job and actually do the role,” he continued. “They look at scientists and pilots on the TV and they think it is unattainable for them.”

Other key findings from the research show that by the time a child reaches Year 4, they have developed gender appropriateness of particular careers (i.e. whether men or women would do a particular career), and that by Year 6, young girls felt they had a smaller number of roles available to them.

To help combat the issue and inspire more children to pursue their career aspirations, Aaron is urging universities across the UK to work with primary schools in deprived areas to give young pupils a chance to see what a university is – something DMU has been doing for more than a decade through its community outreach arm DMU Local.

“For the last 10 years we have been running voluntary projects which link DMU with local primary schools within deprived areas, inviting Year 5 and Year 6 pupils onto campus to visit our labs and meet with undergraduate students,” he explained.

“It’s about them coming away and believing in themselves and knowing that going to university is within their reach.”

DMU Local has committed to supporting schools across Leicester through a range of activities which inspire, raise aspirations and showcase the future options for the city’s young people, as part of the university’s Widening Participation agenda. Aaron’s activities are just some of those engagements with local schools.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Aaron over the years and the DMU Local team has enjoyed supporting the project,” said Fi Donovan, Head of Public Engagement at DMU.

“His research is important in understanding the challenges which many young people face in our local communities. Work like this, and other aspects of the DMU Local programme, articulates the impact of outreach for schoolchildren, and how it affects their long-term educational choices.”

Aaron’s research included children from inner-city Leicester schools who have participated in the DMU Local outreach programme, and he found that those who had access to the university showed stronger aspiration development than inner-city pupils that did not.

“The evidence is there. By having pupils participate in our outreach programme, we have helped close the gap,” he said. “Every child has the potential to achieve greatness and no child should feel helpless because of their postcode.”

Minaz Shaffi, Year 5 teacher at Shaftesbury Junior School – one of the schools Aaron works with through the programme – said: “The opportunities our pupils receive, through the different projects delivered by Aaron, are priceless.

“Whether it is the chance for them to apply their talents, experience new ways of learning or the excitement of visiting campus; children from Shaftesbury Junior School have benefited tremendously from these excellent initiatives.”

Upon completion of his PhD, Aaron plans to share his findings and recommendations to the Department of Education in the New Year for their consideration.

“This work could really lead to serious change in the way young children view their futures. It’s about opening up possibilities and universities can play a major role in that.”