Hearing the voices of young people at risk of exclusion. 

I happened upon a fascinating, densely referenced research study by Bethany Hawkins (University of York, 2011) recently. Its aim was to hear the voices of pupils at risk of exclusion and to identify what they perceived to be the barriers to engagement at school as well as the potential enablers. Through a series of semi-structured interviews, the author was able to ecstrapolate six key recommendations for inclusion, summarised at the end of this post. First though, an overview of the pupils’ views.

Pupil-teacher relationship and discipline 

Teachers were identified as one of the worst things about school because pupils felt they were unfairly treated – that teachers scapegoated them and sanctioned them more harshly than their peers. They felt they were expected to show respect but not treated with respect in return, for example when being told to ‘shut up’ or shouted at. Pupils complained that teachers were too busy or reluctant to listen to their point of view, that they had no voice.

Conversely, teachers who were positive, smiley and willing to share interests and a joke with pupils were identified as having a major effect on their willingness to engage in lessons. When asked to identify a favourite teacher, most chose one who showed a pastoral interest, who asked questions and cared. The important thing for pupils – and especially the most socially disadvantaged – was having a wider, more complex relationship with the teacher than just one of teaching.


If teachers are perceived to be the worst thing about school, then, this confirms that they  have the potential to be the best thing about school too. Riley et al. (2006) notes, ‘The importance of interplay between pupils and school staff cannot be underestimated, particularly for pupils on the margins’ (Riley et al. 2006: 28). 

Hart, Dixon, Drummond and McIntyre (2004) discuss the need for “emotional dimensions to learning” (Hart et al. 2004: 132). If teachers recognise and attend to the pupils’ emotional dimensions, they argue that it helps “learners overcome psychological barriers that might otherwise limit their ability and willingness to engage” (Hart et al. 2004: 144). The key theory surrounding this is transformability which enables the teachers to engage learners in a “genuine meeting of minds” (Hart et al. 2004: 182‐3) giving them feelings of “security, competence and control” (Hart et al. 2004: 195). This type of approach could be a powerful enabler for pupils at risk of exclusion to be able to engage with learning and overcoming some of the psychological barriers they are presented with.

The curriculum, environment and organisation of the day

There was a clear gender difference in responses with boys identifying ‘book work’ – reading the passage and then answering the questions – as a significant barrier and expressing a strong preference for interactive and practical lessons. Curriculum content was also a barrier. The academic curriculum was something that pupils felt they would not engage with long term and was therefore pointless. KS4 pupils identified vocational courses such as mechanics and brick-laying as enablers with feeling more like an adult part of the reason why. 

The physical environment was important to pupils; they wanted it to to be less ‘tatty’ and more ‘modern’. The organisation of the day was also identified as a barrier by most. Lessons were too long with no activities between to ‘break them up’. Perhaps surprisingly, too much unstructured time was also a problem for this sample. They wanted something directed and concrete to do over lunchtime, like ‘footy’ or basketball. This would prevent them from getting bored or, worse, into fights.

Social relationships and interaction

For various reasons such as socio‐economic backgrounds, language, culture, self‐ esteem, academic ability, and medical reasons, fitting in socially appeared to be a difficult barrier for the majority of pupils at risk of exclusion in the sample. This appeared to create fear of being humiliated or ridiculed in front of peers. The pupils suggested that working in small groups to avoid the classroom situation would be an enabler.

Osterman (2000) explains the link between not fitting in and disruptive behaviour: “Rejection or the sense of exclusion or estrangement from the group is consistently associated with behavioural problems in the classroom (either aggression or withdrawal), lower interest in school, lower achievement and dropout” (Osterman 2000: 343). 


Those pupils in the sample who had stronger social networks identified friends as the best reason for attending school but also felt that friends were a barrier to participation in learning. Gender identities played a significant role. Fear of femininity associated with working hard and academic prowess, and the need to assert their masculinity, meant many boys admitted to playing up for the lads. In addition, girls at risk of exclusion found other pupils encouraging them to misbehave was a significant barrier.

Hawkins’ Recommendations

1. Hands-on Leaning – kinaesthetic learning opportunities within academic lessons as well as a curriculum comprising some work-related learning.

2. Classroom banter – A key factor in increasing engagement with pupils at risk of exclusion is for the teaching staff to create an environment where they can join in some of the banter and use humour to build relationships with the young people (Lumby & Morrison 2009). 

3. Enhanced pastoral care – For pupils at risk of exclusion and those with SEN in particular, a relationship with staff is paramount. Pupils gave ideas of mentoring, teachers taking an active interest in their lives and increased pastoral care as being significant in increasing their belonging at school and thus reducing their exclusion. A social pedagogical approach for pupils at risk of exclusion could therefore have important implications. 

4. Small groups – Social interaction was identified as a challenging aspect of school. Suggestions of smaller classes and even avoiding a classroom environment altogether were given as potential enablers to increase engagement at school. Exploring the use of smaller classes or nurture groups with pupils at risk of exclusion would therefore be beneficial.

5. Redecoration – Small enablers, such as asking pupils to help decide what colour to paint doors, or getting them to help design the layout of certain classrooms, could have enormous benefits for young people at risk of exclusion. Including the pupils not only in making decisions but also in implementing them would give them a sense of ownership, connectedness and voice.

6. Child centred approach – Particular attention could be given to treating pupils as individuals and structuring their school day in a way that can meet their needs and help increase their engagement (Reid 2005). This child‐centred approach could mean fairly small changes to timetables, lunchbreaks, and lessons which could change the pupils’ ability to engage dramatically. 

Hawkins’ conclusion is important.

The one thing which stands out to me from the findings is that despite all of the challenges the pupils face they all wanted the teaching staff to think that they were good, that they tried and that they were clever. This displays an emotional engagement to school and the educational system despite their apparent disaffection or risk of exclusion and highlights to me that by implementing some simple changes, the risk of exclusion for these young people could be significantly reduced.

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4 thoughts on “Hearing the voices of young people at risk of exclusion. 

  1. Makes the point about how we conceptualise all students, as resourceful, successful and hopeful. Including those who struggle to fit it is even more important, behaviour that causes friction in the system must be the indicator for more inclusive practice in place of systematic inclusion. Thanks for referencing this research Mary.

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  2. I think this is wonderful and makes a lot of sense. My son is finding things very difficult at the moment and is receiving 3 different sorts of counselling. The school have been wonderful but if small changes like this were made…. If all teachers were aware of my son and children like him then I’m sure they would be so much happier in school (like they want to be) and engage in school a 100%.
    I also realised recently that while my son… And many others like him…receives counselling to try and make him have confidence and more self esteem the other children who cause the problems very often….the bullies for want of a better description…they are told off, maybe given detention but it doesn’t matter to them, doesn’t bother them in the slightest. All these resources being spent trying to ‘change’ the gentle caring children when maybe the ‘bullies’ need to be made at attend ‘compassion’ classes or something similar. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if they were all just compassionate caring individuals. I know children learn a lot from home but just imagine when the young children who had compassion classes have children of their own……maybe the circle can be broken.
    Or am I being to idealistic.
    Would love to hear some views on this x

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    • You’re not being idealistic at all! The restorative approach is gathering momentum in UK schools because many agree with you, that punishment is ineffective in resolving bullying issues. Having to hear in the context of a restorative conference exactly what impact your action has had on a peer, on a whole family – your own family hearing that too. Wrapping that all up in a formal, signed agreement about how you will treat your victim in future. It’s so much more powerful than a punishment. I’ve led conferences in school and seen this many times. Thanks for your comment and I wish your son well. x

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