Large socio-economic differences in educational attainment and participation in Higher Education (HE) are seen in the United Kingdom (UK). Furthermore, improvements in attainment and in rates of progression to university have been much faster for most ethnic minority groups than for White children. Political rhetoric explains these differences in terms of a lack of aspiration, particularly among White, working-class boys. This paper extends recent work by examining the intersection of gender, class and ethnicity in their association with aspirations for higher levels of education among teenagers born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We adopt a developmental-context approach using detailed information collected from teenagers and their parents within the United Kingdom Household Panel Survey. White boys from the lowest occupational class and from workless households have the lowest aspirations (around one-half have a positive aspiration for college or university) because the three elements – being White, male and working class – combine in an additive fashion to encourage lower aspiration. However, even though this figure is low, it is higher than the percentage of working-class boys who go to university. Thus, focusing on aspirations alone will not on its own reduce ethnic differences in HE participation. Class and ethnic differences in parental attitudes towards education, levels of parental engagement with their children's schoolwork, and in the quality of the parent–child relationship act as important mediating factors. Key Stage 2 scores from the English National Pupil Database demonstrate that attainment is also a key mechanism through which parental class influences teenagers' aspirations.