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Personal experience fuelled desire to tackle poverty in schools

15 September 2020


For former Deputy Head Teacher Sean Harris the memory of childhood poverty is still vivid and one particular experience stands out.

Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch and Sean Harris.
Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch and Sean Harris.

A Year-5 school trip to the Jorvik Centre and he was the only child in the class without any money to spend in the gift shop.

A teacher handed him £2 to spend and it is something that he has never forgotten.

'I did not realise at the time that it was a sign of poverty, but it meant an awful lot to me that somebody would offer help in that way,” explained Sean.

'As a kid, I was on free school meals, wore hand-me-down clothes, had debt collectors at the front door – but I just assumed it was normal.

'It was only when I got older and went to University that I started to realise that my childhood experiences of poverty where not the same as everybody else’s.'

Sean is now a married father-of-two and a former Deputy Head Teacher at Norham High School in North Shields. He works as Area Director for the Ambition Institute, a charity tackling educational disadvantage and has also enrolled to study a PhD at Teesside University where he is researching inequalities for children and ‘poverty proofing’ schools.

'I have always been on the front line of this subject, but the PhD is allowing me to take a more scientific approach,' explained the 37-year-old.

'I am interested in examining what poverty looks like in different areas and providing insight and guidance for teachers and policy makers to tackle North East doorstep disadvantage.

'It is important to measure the impact of local poverty and the historic culture of low-attainment on the mindset of teachers, children and families in key communities across the North East. But, more importantly, identify ways in which we can change that mindset, raise attainment and provide a holistic approach so that poverty is not a barrier to education or future success.'

Sean is also researching the impact which lockdown has had on education, with the additional struggles on low-income families already well documented.

I am interested in examining what poverty looks like in different areas and providing insight and guidance for teachers and policy makers to tackle North East doorstep disadvantage.

Sean Harris

'Poverty was around long before lockdown, but this has just turned up the volume,' explained Sean.

'There is almost an acceptance that these kind of struggles are normal and should be accepted – but experiences are not the same for everybody. There is a lot of work to do to educate people at all levels – we can only really tackle poverty in schools by working together.'

During his PhD Sean is being supervised by Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch, Professor of Alcohol and Public Health Research within the Centre for Social Innovation at Teesside University’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities & Law.

It is a particularly special arrangement for Professor Newbury-Birch as she is herself a former Norham High pupil and worked with Sean when he was Deputy Head Teacher on a research project which saw the pupils from the school contribute to a published book chapter based on a collaborative research project.

Sean said: 'Working with Dorothy previously was a fantastic experience and really showed me what is possible in terms of engaging pupils with research and showing them that anything is possible.

'I am passionate about tackling educational poverty and hope that this PhD will be a really important piece of work which will have a significant impact on poverty proofing our schools.'

Professor Newbury-Birch added: 'I have worked with Sean before and he is extremely passionate about this subject. For me it was a privilege to go back to my former school and work with the current pupils on live research. To now be supervising Sean during his PhD is fantastic and I am looking forward to seeing the results and the benefits of his work.'

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