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


Belonging part 3: ‘This is how we look, this is how we talk…’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 July 2022

 Illustration by Kristy Campbell

Kathryn Riley.

There is a curiously British aversion to talking about matters that might upset the neighbours. This feeling lurks at the back of many a staffroom, like some unwelcome spectre at the feast, or an aged parrot on the shoulder, grown weary by the passing of the years. Yet, disturb things we must. If schools are to become places of belonging, then some difficult conversations need to take place. This blog – the third in the ‘Belonging’ Series – is about how.

In 1981, I was teaching in a South London secondary school when the Brixton Riots erupted. In their wake, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brought in senior judge Lord Scarman to examine the causes. His excoriating report pointed to institutional racism (and, in particular, the indiscriminate use of ‘stop and search’ powers by the police against black people); limited employment prospects and restricted educational opportunities.

The school I was teaching in responded to the riot with a wall of silence. Discussions would only stir up feelings, the headteacher decreed. What happened outside the school-gate was beyond the school’s remit.

How good are schools today at talking about challenging and uncomfortable issues? Do they know what their students think and experience?

In Talk it (Racism) out American educators Decoteau Irby and Shannon Clark examine the challenges of talking about race –the practice of ‘race talk’, as they call it. Their conclusion is that schools need to develop the kinds of professional practices that enable ‘race talk’ to happen. Only by doing this, will they be able to recognise the underlying points of conflict, and develop their ability to identify potential solutions.

In the podcast This is how we look: This is how we talk, which is part of the series, ‘Let’s hear it for school belonging’, we explored how to get beneath the surface. We wanted to know how schools can question culture, behaviour and attitudes in ways that bring different voices onboard. Here’s something of what we learned.

Working with staff and young people at the University of Birmingham School – a diverse city secondary – trainer Imani Clough set up a creative interchange: a way of enabling difficult ‘conversations’ to take place. This included how Black students experience school life. She began by interviewing students and then, with the agreement of staff and students, fed back to staff what the students had said. This feedback loop was part of a professional development programme.

For the podcast, we interviewed students about their engagement in the process.  What had it meant for them? They told us of their relief at being able to express what they thought, ‘without feeling like I’m being discriminated against’. They were no longer ‘treading on eggshells’ and were proud that they had been asked to take part in these difficult conversations. They had been able to contribute to the training of their teachers – helping them to understand something of the realities of life for young black people -and their ideas about the school’s curriculum for black history month had been listened to and acted on.

Speaking out, having their voice heard, had contributed to their sense of agency and belonging. They wanted other schools to ‘take advice from my school and look at how we’ve changed our curriculum and stuff like that’.

In schools where belonging works, the student-teacher relationship is powerful. Young people feel trusted. They believe that their voice is heard and that what they say matters. They are happier, more confident and perform better academically. Their teachers feel more valued, and their families connected.

We all want to be part of something, part of a place, to feel that sense of belonging. The tricky part for any school leader is how to get this to happen. Creating the conditions for school belonging includes finding a safe space for young people and staff to have the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that matter.

Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging by Kathryn Riley is published by UCL Press.



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