Breaking the cycle of poverty and exclusion

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What does the research into poverty and its links to exclusion and other consequences tell us? How we can best support disadvantaged young people? Sean Harris takes a look at the research and explores the excellent work being undertaken in Hartlepool

Alfie was hard work.

In one of my previous leadership posts, it seemed that trying to prevent Alfie from being excluded was the core business of my day.

From confrontations with members of staff, refusal to engage in lessons, and sometimes arriving to school with the feint smell of cannabis on him, Alfie was so close to self-destruction. Any self-belief was intoxicated by his aggression.

We got Alfie through his GCSEs. In fact, Alfie wasn’t the hardest part that year, it was managing the expectations of a small number of colleagues who had given up on him.

I recall one teacher, stating frustration at the fact he had sworn at her: “I shouldn’t have to teach kids like him. I didn’t come into the profession for that.”

But we did go into the profession to work with the Alfies. Didn’t we?

What the research says

More than 50% of UK prisoners experienced regular fixed-term or permanent exclusion in schools. This extends to 88% of young people in custody too (Taylor, 2016). This isn’t solely related to incidents of behaviour or a lack of motivation for school.

Gazeley (2012) conducted a qualitative study exploring the school exclusion process and the relationship with low income. The findings indicated that social class shaped the parental-school relationship and interactions, including during the exclusions process. Low-income parents were less articulate and persuasive than middle class parents. Respondents recorded feelings of ineffectiveness, being blamed for all aspects of their child’s challenges, and felt that they rarely received positive affirmation from the school community.

Poverty as a predictor of educational attainment is documented by a range of commentators and researchers (Holloway et al, 2014; Jensen, 2009; Mazzoli Smith & Todd, 2009; Willingham, 2010).

Other research has highlighted that while socio-economic deprivation may be similar for many pupils, the barriers to learning manifest in very different ways (Gorad, 2014; Noden & West, 2009).

There is also growing research seeking to understand the ways in which poverty has an impact on the cognitive and neurological functions of children. I have written recently in SecEd about this area of study and the implications for the classroom (Harris, 2022).

In recent years, research has sought to identify links between school policies, behaviour for learning, and the closing of educational attainment gaps (Sharp et al, 2020; Riley, 2017; Burn & Childs, 2016; Baker & Simpson, 2020).

In particular, Baker and Simpson (2020) comment on the ways in which schools can better address educational inequality and attainment gaps through renewed approaches to behaviour for learning, moving away from “zero tolerance” towards restorative approaches.

As school leaders of both mainstream and alternative provision settings, Baker and Simpson urge school leaders to consider public health approaches to tackling anti-social behaviour in schools. They assert that children from low-income and vulnerable backgrounds are more likely to benefit from a non-confrontational approach to modifying behaviour and this, in turn, allows school leaders to be more preventative in their approach to promoting positive attitudes and learning behaviours.

Their paper states: “Young people will read the social landscape of the classroom and pick up clues that tell that they might be overstepping the mark. These punishment cues will guide them down a more acceptable path.”

However, they remind teachers and school leaders that some disadvantaged children and vulnerable pupils will not be able to read or discern these cues as a result of their mixed experience of adults, turbulent home environments, or additional social or communication difficulties.

Therefore, there is a need for schools to consider behaviour interventions and the relevancy of these to the needs of disadvantaged pupils in their school.

Tackling exclusion

Martyn Gordon is the headteacher of Horizon School in Hartlepool –previously known as Hartlepool Pupil Referral Unit. Martyn and team have worked hard to change attitudes towards the students accessing the PRU, and this included changing the name of the school.

He explained: “The students that come to Horizon school are young people. We came into education to ensure that every young person can achieve but to also ensure that every child feels valued.

“We are not just in the business of supporting outstanding students who will succeed academically, as professionals we should always be looking to contribute to the development of character, which can make a positive difference to the local community and to the world.”

Martyn and his team are making a big difference to the children of Hartlepool and have been praised by Ofsted and others. Permanent exclusion figures have dropped significantly in recent years and the team at Horizon are working alongside a number of mainstream schools to help move them from reactive approaches to proactive interventions.

Martyn discusses a range of strategies that have been instrumental in securing this impact and leading many young people to success through Horizon’s classrooms.

Expectations and empathy

Standards and expectations are imperative – as a former head of year and pastoral deputy headteacher, Martyn understands how vital they are. While high expectations are a key driver to a successful school, Martyn believes that these have to be carefully balanced with empathy and understanding.

Time is given to ensure that colleagues regularly report positive praise with carers and parents, progress meetings take place at a time that is supportive to parents, and students are actively encouraged to take pride in their work by sharing it with home or other professionals through the support of staff at Horizon.

He explained: “Students enjoy success and praise, so it is always my aim to create something which enables them to experience both. Young people face a number of challenges in their home life, so it is really important that schools understand and support and at the same time guide students and empower them to make good choices and decisions.”

Collaboration not competition

Martyn holds that collaboration and partnership-building have been a cornerstone of success for colleagues at Horizon: “Don’t see each other as competition. See each other as a network of champions for the most challenging young people.”

In addition to leading a school, Martyn is chair of the Hartlepool Behaviour and Attendance Partnership. During these meetings, all local schools come together to support and challenge each other strategically, but to also provide cathartic release and emotional support for one another.

Collaborative conversations take place between alternative provision specialists and system leaders in mainstream contexts, examining ways in which outreach and “in-reach” placements can be arranged for children to ensure that they can be successfully reintegrated into classrooms.

“Circuit-breakers” have been used, where students who have lost their way have access to another school’s internal provision for a short period of time before being successfully reintegrated.

This helps to ensure that learning hours are not lost and has proved particularly successful during the additional disruption of Covid-19.

There are strong partnerships with external agencies too. Martyn added: “We are always trying to link with external agencies, as I believe that happy and motivated students result in happy and motivated learners. If wellbeing and mental health are in a good place, then learning has a greater chance of being a much more positive experience for young people.”

Beyond the classroom

A great deal of commentary and literature has surfaced in recent years in relation to curriculum intent and implementation. While the mechanics of a robust in-classroom curriculum are important, for colleagues at Horizon this work must go beyond classrooms and grades if we are to tackle educational disadvantage.

During the pandemic, the school was turned into a foodbank and students revelled in this work.

“The response was phenomenal and instantly we started to receive huge parcels of food and essentials. This led to students at Horizon school arranging donations and responding to need in their local community. In addition, students and staff worked with a local newspaper to highlight the work that they were doing.”

And then as the Covid crisis in care homes unfolded in April 2020, the school worked with social care in the town to extend its radio station into care homes.

“We provided this (service), which included a special VE Day edition of our radio programme. The feedback from the staff and residents of the care homes was incredible. Now each Christmas we launch an appeal to make sure every child in Hartlepool receives at least one Christmas gift and have been able to hand over thousands of pounds worth of gifts to social services.”

The impact of this work was two-fold for the students. It broke down intergenerational perceptions and prejudices, but it also allowed local people to challenge some stereotypes that can exist of students in alternative provision.

Furthermore, it helped the students to take pride in their local area and feel that they are making a positive difference.

One of the students at Horizon told me: “I feel more confident because I can see that my actions are helping other people in my town. It feels like I am able to make a difference, and this isn’t just because of what I’m learning in my subjects and lessons.”

In this context, educational disadvantage expert Marc Rowland (2021) perhaps sums up the plethora of research and literature: “To be successful, disadvantaged pupils will need to feel like they belong in our schools and in our classrooms.”

Further information & resources

  • Baker & Simpson: A school without sanctions: A new approach to behaviour management, Bloomsbury, 2020.
  • Burn & Childs: Responding to poverty through education and teacher education initiatives: A critical evaluation of key trends in government policy in England 1997-2015, Oxford Press, 2016.
  • DfE: Timpson Review of School Exclusion, May 2019:
  • Gazeley: The impact of social class on parent-professional interaction in school exclusion processes: Deficit or disadvantage? International Journal of Inclusive Education (16,3), 2012.
  • Gorard: The link between academies in England, pupil outcomes and local patterns of socio-economic segregation between schools, Research Papers in Education (29,3), 2014.
  • Harris: Poverty on the brain: Five strategies to counter the impact of disadvantage in the classroom, SecEd, February 2022:
  • Holloway et al: At what cost? Exposing the impact of poverty on school life, Children’s Commission on Poverty, The Children's Society, 2014:
  • Jensen: Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what school can do about it, ASCD, 2009.
  • Mazzoli Smith & Todd: Poverty proofing the school day: Evaluation and development report, Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Newcastle, 2016.
  • Noden & West: Attainment gaps between the most deprived and advantaged schools: A summary and discussion of research by the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics, The Sutton Trust, 2009.
  • SecEd Podcast: Tackling the consequences of poverty (featuring Sean Harris), June 2021:
  • Sharp, Sims & Rutt: Returning pupils to school, National Foundation for Education Research and Nuffield Foundation, 2020.
  • Taylor: Great Expectation, Prisoners’ Education Trust, August 2016:
  • Willingham: Why Don’t Students Like School? A cognitive scientist examines how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, Jossey-Bass, 2010.


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