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What will help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well at school

SSAT National Conference 2018
Rt Hon David Lammy, former barrister and now MP for Tottenham, highlights the issues in education for young people from working-class BME backgrounds and their families

Education has had to meet a hugely changing environment. I think schools have done an enormous amount against the odds, and particularly in inner city areas, to address some of these challenges. For example, there are all sorts of things going on in the modern home, so you’ve got to support parents better.

Having travelled across the country as minister for universities and skills, and before that as Estelle Morris’s parliamentary private secretary, I realised that as teachers and school leaders you have to meet your environment and the cohort of young people coming through your doors. When we’re talking about working-class young people we need to be considering an extended day, breakfast clubs and things like that, and focusing hard on behaviour and an environment that’s conducive to learning.

Talking about working-class young people, we need to be considering an extended day, breakfast clubs and things like that, as well as focusing hard on behaviour and an environment that’s conducive to learning

There’s an outstanding multi-ethnic community school in my constituency which has really cracked meeting those young kids in the environment from which they’re coming, with popular music – the assemblies are developing into a sort of rock star show, children are celebrated and really bigged up. That formula works fantastically well in the context of Tottenham.

Helping deal with the challenges

I’m very fond of the supplementary schools movement. In ethnic minority traditions particularly, that extra work on a Saturday morning or after school does make a difference, because these are young people whose parents often find it hard to help, or where frankly some of the things going on in the home are not conducive to a learning environment. That was the case for me.

There have got to be lots of things going on in the school beyond the school day that attract parents and carers into the school for their own reasons. Things like really trying to get the fathers in, that’s a huge nut to crack. Skills education and training, such as English as a second language, can attract certain cohorts of parents.

And I think assisting parents to support their children’s education is hard sometimes, but there are things like making use of social media and bringing in motivational speakers that I’ve seen work for different cohorts.

You also have to look at your cohort of staff and ensure you have the best team that works for the young people in your school. For example, one headteacher in Tottenham found that teachers who had a certain kind of straightforward manner with the kids, often teachers from working class backgrounds, whatever their colour, worked best for his young people.

Get real

I say this from experience as a black, working-class kid from Tottenham – my father left the family when I was 12, it wasn’t easy for my mother raising five of us. But I had some fantastic teachers in Haringey and later in Peterborough, who really took an interest and were determined to lift up this black inner-city kid to get to where he needed to be. So, I say to kids from my kind of background that you’ll always find adults who may not look like you or sound like you, but if you can get over your pride, they will help you. And the bottom line in school is about taking what’s in your teacher’s brain – for free.

I say to kids from my kind of background: you’ll always find adults who may not look like you or sound like you, but if you can get over your pride, they will help you

I mentor a few young people who are about to leave university, working class but bright. And one of them wanted to be a lawyer: great kid, mixed race, mum’s a nurse, dad’s in the events business. He told me he wanted to be a lawyer at (major law firm) Clifford Chance. And I said, well, the braids have got to go. You cannot go for an interview for Clifford Chance with braids: let’s get real.

Knowing your own truth is hugely important to me. In the politics game, it’s very worrying: there are too many politicians whose opinion is just echoing the last person that spoke to them. I find that I can’t do the job without conviction, without a very clear idea about how I feel about a subject – and if that’s not consistent with my party line, tough shit. While I’m a Labour politician and feel passionately about the Labour party, in the end the lives of my constituents and people like them come first, before everything else, and that’s how I stay positive.


David Lammy MP

David Lammy MP is a former barrister who became a Labour councillor, then MP for Tottenham before becoming a minister for state of universities and skills in the previous Labour government.

SSAT Members can watch a discussion with David Lammy MP from last month’s National Conference: Imagine if… it didn’t matter where you came from


2 thoughts on “What will help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well at school

  1. mkaur on said:

    I like the idea of the supplementary schools movement, providing that extra help and support not only helps students academically but emotionally. It gives them a sense of belonging and a foundation on which they can build their progress upon.

  2. Naomi Writer historys on said:

    I always feel sorry for children who do not have the opportunity to study. I am very sad about this. As a child, I had every opportunity to get a decent education and I, like many others in my position, did not appreciate the opportunity that I had. Education is important not only for getting decently paid work in the future, but also for social development. As the author of many written stories, I want to say that the initiative should come primarily from students and not from the people around them!

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