Low expectations and aspirations are a killer. Middle-class children often achieve better than their working-class counterparts with roughly the same talent, because their families expect them to do well. I was lucky because my working-class parents had an implicit belief that education was worthwhile.
One approach is to ask pupils what they expect to be doing when they are 25. Some may have over-modest aspirations, while others may want to play for England or be a millionaire. A 13-year-old girl told me recently that she wanted to be a psychiatrist. She had no idea, when I quizzed her about what she knew about the job, of the need for top grades at A-level, getting into university, going through medical school, and was spending most of her lessons messing around. In a middle-class family, professional parents would have rammed the career path down her throat from birth, or even in the womb.
Another ploy is to invite back former pupils who have made it from a poor background. Adolescents in particular will find a role model nearer their own age more persuasive than a, to them, priggish teacher.
Make sure that you give children insights into the many routes out of poverty, not just the obvious professional careers. Some might work for someone else and then start up their own business. Look for local success stories, however modest, and invite in a variety of older people to explain what they have done. This will also be good PR for the school.
Bring in some success stories
Yours is a worthy cause, and you are to be congratulated for challenging the culture of low expectations that beset some communities.
Your pupils have the proverbial mountain to climb. Who better, then, to show them the way than those who have climbed it before? Let role models be your Sherpas: ex pupils who have "made it" and who might be willing to come in and tell the kids how it is. They don't all have to be high-fliers in the traditional sense; there are a whole load of vocational as well as academic champions out there.
John Bateman, Worthing,East Sussex
Try interview role play
Challenge the students: what do they aspire to? How could they achieve their dreams? Explore an example, breaking it into feasible steps, working backwards until the step immediately in front of them seems attainable: something as simple as improving weekly test scores in mental arithmetic, for instance.
A careers talk, showing a few exciting jobs and emphasising the need for qualifications, will inspire some. Set up role plays and mock interviews with candidates with a variety of qualifications: those with few will be turned down. Put students in the roles of interviewer: who would they choose?
Collect biographies of successful public figures from difficult backgrounds and use them as texts in English lessons. Use inspirational films that show characters who have overcome difficulties and made good. Contact successful local businessmen and ask them if they would be willing to come in and talk about the qualifications they require for prospective employees. Don't give up on your students because of their circumstances; don't let them give up on themselves.
Angela Pollard, Guernsey
Don't patronise them, inspire them
Stop judging and imposing your class values and expectations on to these pupils. While being in poverty, they may be rich in other treasures that you don't know about: close friends, family members who do things together.
They may even encounter boredom and do something about it.
You need not feel responsible for getting these pupils out of their situations, but you can instil their self-esteem and faith in themselves.
Shift the responsibility. Empower them with responsibility for their own lives; its the best gift you can give them. The way they deal with it is ultimately up to them.
Melissa Christie, London