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Belonging part 2: from alienation to connection and calm

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 July 2022

Kathryn Riley.

‘I belong when I drift through the wind, peaceful and calm when I belong’ is the opening chorus of a ‘belonging’ song, written and performed by children from an International School. Their belonging experiences include ‘acts of kindness in the playground… friends who keep you above the water… pride in my work … people who are willing to find out something new… being included in things everyday… a sprinkle of joy and acts of trust…’

This blog is the second in a five-part series which tracks the impact of exclusion and the power of belonging. It’s linked to the podcast series, Let’s hear it for school belonging and the UCL Press book, Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging.

In these difficult times, we all need to have a place where we feel we belong. Whether young people experience a sense of school belonging and agency will not only influence how they think about themselves today but also how they see their future as global citizens. Sadly, for an increasing number of young people today, schools are not places of belonging.

Anita Berlin (GP and Professor of Community Medicine at Barts) and Janet Foster, (Associate Professor of Criminology at LSE) came together in Podcast 2 to discuss how young people become stigmatized and marginalised, and how their families come to see themselves as failures. What happens, they ask, when young people cannot find a sense of belonging in their home life and their school life?

Anita describes how, as a GP, she and colleagues found themselves dealing with a growing problem as a number of parents sought their help. What they had experienced in common was a series of encounters with the headteacher of a local school. These encounters had left them feeling that they were bad parents and had also led to a downward spiral of depression, and to their children not attending school. The headteacher eventually left the school under a dark cloud.

Janet draws on her knowledge of patterns of crime in London to trace the links between young people’s negative experience of school-life and their life on the street. It is the excluded and alienated, she argues, who become vulnerable to grooming, or who find themselves lured into gang membership. We are failing to ask ‘why’ this is happening.

Shaun Brown from The Difference – an organisation which works to help change the story on school exclusion – maps that bleak story. The tally includes: 8,000 permanent exclusions a year in England; 80,000-plus managed moves and 350,000 fixed-term exclusions, topped by the countless detentions which aim to shame, rather than build learning ­­– a practice (as discussed in blog 1), which contributes to children and young people feeling ostracized.

The contemporary reality is that a rapid increase in exclusion, alienation, and a sense of ‘not’ belonging in school has led to mounting concerns about the mental health, well-being, and life chances of young people. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of this critical social policy issue. In a recent report, the Commission on Young Lives add their assessment of the damage to children from school exclusion. They conclude that permanent exclusions from primary schools should end. They also point to evidence which indicates that Black children are more likely to be viewed as “less innocent” and more adult-like than their peers, leading to them receiving tougher punishments at school.

The Japanese have a word for belonging: ibasho. It means a place where you can be yourself. When belonging is a school’s guiding principle more young people at all levels experience a sense of connectedness and friendship, perform better academically, and come to believe in themselves. Their teachers feel more professionally fulfilled, their families more accepted.

The three blogs which are to follow shine the powerful lens of belonging on schools. What do schools look like where belonging works?  What actions make the difference? What kinds of leaders and leadership are needed?

To prompt your thinking in the meantime, here’s a mini ‘School Belonging Quiz’.  The statements are all based on research evidence. Think about a school you know well and ask yourself the following five questions. If you answer ‘Yes’ – then what’s the evidence? If you answer ‘No’, then you’ve a lot of work to do!

  1. Do the STAFF feel respected and have a voice?
  2. Do they stay in the school, discuss learning with each other?
  3. Do the CHILDREN and YOUNG PEOPLE understand what is expected of them, believe that what they say matters, think their teachers listen to them?
  4. Do they feel safe (physically and emotionally), connected and that what they do makes a difference?
  5. Do their FAMILIES feel accepted and heard?

Professor Kathryn Riley is Professor of Urban Education IOE, co-founder of ‘The Art of Possibilities’ and an Associate of the Staff College.

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