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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Belonging part 1:  the ‘red card’ of exclusion

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 22 June 2022

Kathryn Riley.

‘You must shun (this girl) .. avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, shut her out of your converse… (she) is a liar’.  So pronounced Mr Brocklehurst, proprietor of Lowood School. His venom was directed against Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s novel.

Some time ago, I interviewed young people who had been excluded from school. They drew pictures of how they felt. One image has long haunted me. At the center is a small child looking distraught. The caption around the drawing reads:

      You’re thick..  You’re stupid..  You don’t belong here..  Get out of my school…

Our world is full of boundless promise, but it doesn’t feel like that. The times are strange and dark which means that it is even more important that our schools are places of belonging and possibilities. ‘Belonging’ is that sense of being somewhere you can be confident you will fit in and feel safe in your identity. A feeling of being at home in a place.

This blog is the first of five. It is linked to my new book, Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, and a podcast series, Let’s hear it for School Belonging, where you can dip into what young people, school leaders and experts from around the world have to say about exclusion and belonging, and listen to the sounds of our resident Rapper, Jamie Pyke.

This first blog covers some of the tough data. Although I have been exploring issues about belonging and exclusion for some time, as I pulled the evidence together for my book, the weight of the findings came as an unpleasant shock.

Across OECD countries, young people’s sense of belonging is declining, with nearly 1 in 3 now feeling they don’t belong in school . In England, children from disadvantaged communities are twice as likely as their more advantaged peers to feel they don’t belong. Some – and arguably those with the greatest needs – find themselves being handed the ultimate ‘red card’ of exclusion.

In researching for the book, I discovered the many ways in which children and young people can come to feel an outsider in their school. Sexual harassment, period poverty, the feeling of being ostracized are just some of them. The ancient Greeks practiced ostracism as a way of banishing people from society. American psychologist Kip Williams, who I interviewed for the book, described what it means to be ostracised in the following terms:

To be ostracised is to be ignored and excluded.. not being looked at or listened to.. not being invited to group activities within and outside of school. It means being invisible and unheard… Being ostracised robs the individual of a feeling of belonging.

In research carried out during lockdown, which is reported in the book, I found many school leaders who are committed to creating the conditions for school belonging. Their actions are motivated by deep wells of compassion and an understanding of the complexities and challenges in the lives of many of the young people they work with. Sadly, compassion and empathy are lacking in the recent statement of Attorney General Suella Braverman. She argues that schools need to take a ‘much firmer line’ with young people on transgender issues: an approach which has drawn the ire of a number of school leaders, as being potentially damaging to young people’s mental-health and sense of belonging.

It is time to talk tough. However, the tough talking needs to be about how to make schools places of belonging; places of safety (physical and emotional); places where young people can feel a sense of connection. The evidence tells us that young people who feel they belong in school tend to be happier, more confident and perform better academically. Addressing a sense of school belonging closes the achievement gap by between 50- 60% and the benefits appear to stretch well into adulthood.[3]

Charlotte Bronte first published Jane Eyre in in 1847. Sadly, her description of what it means to be ostracised in school is still recognisable today.

Let me know what you think. Please dip into the podcasts and prepare yourself for the next blog where I talk about what happens when we stigmatize and marginalise young people, and their families come to see themselves as failures. I will also introduce the possibilities and realities of belonging.



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