Tudor Griffith, headteacher of Wortley high school in Leeds, is frank about his situation. "We are a Bash Street school," he says. "It's a difficult neck of the woods."
About a quarter of the pupils from the nearby estates and terraced houses claim free meals, and Mr Griffith suspects many more are eligible. Hardly any of their parents have been to university.
But there are encouraging signs that some students are breaking down the barriers.
About 15 pupils a year go on to higher education, out of a growing sixth form of about 80 students.
Two boys visited colleges at Oxford and Cambridge after their GCSEs as part of a gifted and talented programme and came back fired up with enthusiasm.
Many more students have visited local universities or met graduate mentors.
One boy, predicted straight As at A-level, wants to be a lawyer.
Mr Griffith said: "He's a real success story, but it's difficult because his father can see it means four years of university and having to fund it.
"We try to get parents to realise that in the long term, graduates will earn more and be more successful, but they weigh that up against the fact that children could be earning money in a job tomorrow."
He said students have been helped by the introduction of the education maintenance allowance of up to pound;30 a week for post-16 students, but the rising cost of university tuition is another significant obstacle.
Many take jobs during gap years to save money, including one former pupil who now works as a learning-support assistant at the school.
"It's a sorry state of affairs. People like myself went to university from fairly middle-class backgrounds with full grants. Now, youngsters have to manage long-term debt," Mr Griffith said.