Supporting students who are unsupported at home

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

How can we raise the aspirations of pupils when engaging with their parents is proving difficult? Karen Sullivan offers some practical ideas

In my last two SecEd articles, we looked at the suggestion that White working class children are faring worse at school because parents often do not have the tools they need to inspire their children, set goals with and for them, or to raise their aspirations.

Research supports the fact that many disadvantaged parents are positively disposed towards involvement, but what happens when parents are absent or uninterested in the concept of education and their children’s futures in the education system and beyond?

How can we even the playing field for students who do not have a critical level of involvement at home, nor, indeed, any opportunities for enriching activities that would affect their prospects? What do we do if parents are actually hostile to the idea of education?

These are very real problems. While it is obvious that explaining the basics – even something as simple as a healthy diet and sleep patterns, and their impact on attention levels and even mood – will be ignored in many cases, we can address this by making every effort to educate and provide information for parents but then focusing on the target – the students themselves. And we can do this by opening their worlds.

There is a wealth of fantastic information available for schools (for example, Raising the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils: Barriers and school strategies, in which there are also many other helpful links), but let’s think outside the box a little. Many students will have been brought up in an environment where their futures (or lack thereof) are mapped out for them. Let’s get them thinking. If money, time, encouragement was no object, what would they like to be doing in 10 years’ time?

For the record, it is good to exclude anything that promises instant riches (footballer, celebrity, lottery, etc) from the outset. In other words, if they had to choose a career, what would it be? Then task them with finding out what they need to achieve that career. And support it. Get them some work experience. Yes, it’s difficult in large schools, but if they are encouraged to find some possible internships or the like for a few weeks in the career of their choice, it wouldn’t take long to follow up.

Get an intern involved. Send out a letter to local businesses and bigger ones, too. Explain what you are doing and why, and ask for their support. It is in everyone’s best interests to have future citizens working gainfully and contributing, and there is no reason that underprivileged White children can’t do that too.

On the same note, ask them to describe their lives as they might be in the same period, if they do nothing. In detail. Perhaps this will allow them to see that no change will repeat a cycle that may not break anything other than its members.

Bring back alumni who have been successful – who are able to share their “secrets of success”, their determination, their work ethic.

Get them reading. Set texts, both fiction and non-fiction, that can change their mindset. A book that is absolutely too young for our audience is Dr Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go, but I challenge you to ask your classes to read this and ask them to respond. Choose books that take them away from their closed world and help them see what’s going on beyond. A few amazing ones spring to mind and are listed below.

Or choose something beautiful and different, take them to Iceland with crime writer Ragnar Jonasson or Yrsa Sigurdardottir, to Afghanistan with The Kite Runner, and get them to map the details and prepare a project about the culture, the people, the landscape, how people make a living. Let them see a world beyond.

Publishers are only too happy to supply copies of books for young people, especially in ebook form. Encourage them to see that a life is worth living to the full, that there is wonder in the wider world, and that they, too, are capable of fulfilling their dreams. Making the break.

There are so many things that will pull at even the tightest heartstrings. Sponsor a child in a war-torn country, or a refugee via Save the Children. Let them see that they can make a difference in small ways – the baby steps that lead to greater achievement and a sense of self-worth.

Find out their passions (secretly if necessary) and enter them in competitions. Draw their ideas, work, enthusiasms to people in the appropriate industries – music, carpentry, design, writing, baking, sewing, anything goes. Give them a step up where none exists elsewhere.

Yes, I know, time is tight. Schools are stretched. The curriculum is demanding. But remember the rewards – the possibility of changing people’s lives, the fact that often difficult home lives can be superseded and hope offered.

Remember, too, that grades soar with aspirations. And that’s sort of what it’s all about, isn’t it?

I’ve got a few more ideas for you in my next article (due out May 26), including a project in Ayrshire that has really touched my heart – and I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

Further reading

  • To read Karen Sullivan’s previous articles for SecEd, go to
  • Raising the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils: Barriers and school strategies, Demie & Lewis, May 2014, Lambeth Council:
  • Digging Deeper: Why working class boys underachieve and what could be done about it, Impetus Private Equity Foundation, June 2014:

Karen's recommended reading list to inspire pupils

This is long and detailed, and came from a Facebook community where felt books changed or improved their lives.

  • Anything by Benjamin Zephaniah (for example, Teacher’s Dead)
  • Anthony McGowan’s The Knife that Killed Me
  • Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  • Louise Beech’s How To Be Brave
  • Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky
  • Graham Joyce’s Taken Without Owner’s Consent
  • Erin Gruwell’s The Freedom Writers Diary
  • Robert Swindell’s DAZ 4 ZOE and Brother in the Land
  • Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • David Almond’s Skellig
  • Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses
  • Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male
  • Barry Hines’ Kes
  • Anne Holm’s I Am David
  • Brian Conaghn’s When Mr Dog Bites
  • Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials
  • Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff
  • Anything by Alan Sillitoe
  • J.M. Forster’s Shadow Jumper
  • Cynthis Voigt’s Homecoming
  • Lauryn Miracle’s Shine
  • Sarah Dessen’s Lock and Key
  • Malala Yousafzai
  • Koan Lingard’s Across the Barricades
  • Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Joan Lingard’s The Twelfth Day of July
  • Robert C. O’Brien’s The Rats of Nimh (ideal for reluctant readers)
  • Louis Sachar’s Holes
  • J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings
  • R. J. Palacio’s Wonder
  • Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club


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