Vulnerable pupils: Poverty and mental health

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are clear links between poverty and mental health and wellbeing. Clare Stafford continues her series on vulnerable learners with a focus on how schools can mitigate the impact of poverty

Children and young people who are living in poverty are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, as illustrated by the UK Millennium Cohort Study of 11-year-olds (Iris Elliott et al, 2016). It showed that:

  • Seventy per cent of conduct problems are in the bottom two income groups.
  • Sixty per cent of hyperactivity/inattention and peer problems are in the bottom 40 per cent of income.
  • Fifty per cent of emotional problems are in the bottom 40 per cent of income.

Such mental health problems in childhood can lead to reduced life chances by disrupting education and limiting attainment, affecting social participation and reducing the ability to find and sustain employment.

David Ayre is a project director at FutureGov, where he leads on organisational and digital transformation projects with local authorities. Until May this year, he was the head of service in the Strategy and Performance Unit at Doncaster County Council, where he looked after policy, strategy and innovation programmes for children and young people. And he has previously held roles across Westminster, local government and the third sector.

In each role, he has had a focus on children who are disadvantaged, living in poverty and may be suffering from mental health problems. Mr Ayre gave me his insights into some of the individual stories behind the statistics and discussed some interventions that are making a difference.

The three Rs

Child poverty can be understood in many ways but a definition Mr Ayre uses that he finds particularly helpful is known as the three Rs: risk, resilience and resources.
He explains: “If you think about resources first, it’s the amount of money the family has to put food on the table, heat the home, provide the right school uniform, etc.
“Resilience links to issues around the levels of wellbeing and mental health – in both the parents and the children – as a consequence of living on a low income.
“Risk is both about the danger of going into poverty and also the increased risk of mental health problems and of the child running away from home.”
The story behind the statistics
Statistics give a sense of scale but it’s the human story behind them that really interests Mr Ayre. He told me: “The discussion around poverty is typically very technical and focuses on numbers and percentages – and these are obviously concerning – but what animates me is the story of the young people involved and how poverty presents itself.”
Seeing which children are eligible for free school meals might be a convenient way to identify those living in poverty, but for Mr Ayre this does not go far enough.
“That measure is predominantly focused on children whose parents are out of work,” he said. “But we now know that more than two-thirds of children who live in poverty live in families where at least one parent is in work. The nature of poverty is changing as people move into work but not out of poverty.”
What might be a better way of identifying whether a child is living in poverty? Mr Ayre suggests that one way of recognising levels of disadvantage can be the school uniform the child wears.
He explained: “Children turn up in the incorrect uniform, for example a blazer with the wrong badge on or the wrong pair of trousers. From a school’s perspective, it looks as though they’re disobeying the school rules when really it’s because the parents can’t afford the more expensive branded uniform.”
Unfortunately that can lead to the child being excluded, meaning they miss out on their education. There can be a negative impact on their peer relationships, too, when they are stigmatised by their peers for being different in some way.
While parents may do their best to protect their children from the impacts of poverty, as Mr Ayre explains, the research clearly shows that children are affected: “However hard the parents might try,” he said, “children are a lot more perceptive and have an understanding of the issues the family faces. They can even start to self-select – stop asking for things like new toys or clothes because they know their parents can’t afford them.”
Poverty-proofing the school day
Children from low-income homes can often be made to feel slightly different from their peers. Does Mr Ayre have any suggestions on how schools can mitigate that?
“Schools can do a lot by putting simple processes in place,” he explained. “For example, if a child isn’t eligible for free school meals but the family is having difficulty paying, make sure you communicate directly with the family and not via the child. Sending messages home through the child can make them feel as though they’re in trouble when it’s not their fault that they’re in a low-income household. It’s a softer, more empathetic approach.
“The same with school trips – there have been instances where a child has been left behind because the family can’t afford the cost. This has an impact on the child’s learning but also on their levels of wellbeing, so finding ways of making trips as inclusive as possible is very important.
“Also making sure that children aren’t deselected from certain courses because of the cost of any materials needed (such as cooking ingredients). Education in this country should be free for all and it’s really important that children should be able to make decisions based on their passions and interests, not based on their finances.”
Mr Ayre also pointed out that the Pupil Premium – the money given to schools for each disadvantaged pupil – can be used flexibly by the school.
He explained: “It could be used to focus on the academic side or to fund school trips for children who couldn’t otherwise afford to go, or to help with the cost of school uniform or to fund a school counsellor.”
It is important that the school understands the wider impact on children and young people and the potential for mental health problems, rather than taking a purely financial point of view.
Promoting wellbeing
I asked Mr Ayre whether he could give any examples of positive interventions that schools have introduced specifically in relation to mental health and emotional wellbeing. He responded: “Thinking about poverty and mental health as well, a school in the West Midlands adds on extra tuition classes around exam time, which is particularly helpful for disadvantaged children.
“Alongside that, they provide counselling, be that formal or informal, so that if a child is experiencing stress, anxiety or depression linked to the exam period, there’s someone on hand to talk to them as well. Then they have rooms just for children to drop in to chat with friends, play table tennis.
“I find it inspiring because it takes a holistic view of the young person and anecdotal evidence is that it’s beginning to bear fruit in terms of the happiness and behaviour of pupils and their engagement with lessons – and the school is optimistic that it’s going to translate into improved results as well.”
As Mr Ayre says, this approach is not rocket science, it is about taking a pupil-led approach and thinking about the pupils as individuals. He added: “Find something that motivates and excites them and focus on that. If they have a particular disadvantage because of their family circumstances, be understanding of that and the impact it will have.
“The issue is around consistency – ensuring the child receives the same level of support, understanding and compassion, regardless of the setting. It would be a really positive step if people working with children and young people had a set of principles to adhere to, to ensure consistency around supporting children living in poverty.”
Supporting transitions
The transition from primary to secondary school can be particularly challenging and is another key example of the need for understanding and consistency when supporting disadvantaged children. As Mr Ayre explained, it is something they have put a lot of time and energy into understanding in Doncaster.
“We conducted a pupil lifestyle survey and a piece of research that looks specifically at levels of subjective wellbeing in children and young people,” he said. “What we’re seeing is there’s a real drop-off and change in the levels of wellbeing during the transition from primary to secondary school. That has an impact on the child’s level of aspiration and engagement with their education, and even affects how safe they feel at school. There’s a lot more that can be done locally, regionally and nationally to understand that better.”
A child-led approach in Doncaster
Mr Ayre told me that Doncaster aims to become the most child-friendly borough in the country. So how are they going to achieve that? A key project in which Mr Ayre was involved was a child-led inquiry into poverty, which will help put the voice of children and young people at the heart of all the decisions that are made about them.
He explained: “We had a group of eight young people who have the opportunity to shape the debate around child poverty in Doncaster. They were all living in or on the edge of poverty and had a real interest in improving the lives of their peers. They developed an understanding of what it means to live in poverty, what the impact of that is, and what’s being done or might need to be done to change that. They were a really vibrant group who have started to challenge assumptions that exist in Doncaster, both within the group themselves and more widely among their peers.
“Providing them with a platform to address child poverty at a local level is a really nice example of how children and young people who are disadvantaged can have a positive influence on improving circumstances for themselves and for their peers.”
The future: social mobility
Social mobility is a key issue that the government is addressing in a number of ways, including through the Department for Education (DfE). Over the next three years, the DfE is giving £6 million to each of 12 social mobility opportunity areas across the country. Mr Ayre predicts that some important work will come out of this: “I think we’re going to see the opportunity to test some novel interventions and understand whether they have a real impact. That could have some real implications for the way we work with and support disadvantaged pupils.”
Working with children in poverty
• Talk to the child to get their perspective; take the time to understand their story.
• Don’t jump to conclusions as to why the child is late for school, wearing the wrong uniform or has a dirty uniform.
• Ensure school procedures do not accidentally stigmatise disadvantaged children.
• Make extra provision during exam time to support disadvantaged children’s wellbeing – take a holistic approach.
• Be as inclusive as possible, for example enabling all children to go on school trips.
• Be aware that the transition from primary to secondary school can be particularly challenging for disadvantaged children.
• Find resources on the impact of poverty on children on websites run by charities such as the Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau, Action for Children and Barnado’s.SecEd

• Clare Stafford is CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit
Further reading
The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust’s Stella Project has been working with professionals to provide mental health training in order to better support vulnerable learners. This series of articles is part of the legacy the year-long project hopes to leave. For more information, see The Stella Project: Supporting vulnerable learners, SecEd, February 2018: To read previous articles in this series, go to
Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy, Iris Elliott, August 2016:


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