Theme 2: belonging and culture

The NEU’s ‘Belonging’ research puts relationships between students and staff at the heart of the cycle of connectivity where they are heard and seen for who they are.

We were welcomed into the schools and found attitudes and approaches which aim to put children and young people at the heart of the school endeavour. We found them to be places of enjoyment, learning – and belonging.

The NEU commissioned research, 'Place and Belonging in School: why it matters today' offers examples of how members of staff supported and created a climate of welcome and belonging in their schools?

The schools involved in this study have all faced major issues about behaviour in the past. Recalibrating the school culture has been critical. Today, exclusions are rare. The response to students’ challenging behaviour is typically:

  • Why did you do that?
  • How do you feel?
  • How do you think other children or your teacher feel?
  • What do you think we should do?

During this research we wanted to discover more about how the teaching staff and support staff viewed what was happening, and their role in it?

There is a common language and a shared set of practices. The behaviour ‘agenda’ is owned by everyone. Staff and pupils know what it is; have helped shape it; think it’s fair.

In addition, the spaces around the schools reflect how children and young people learn; showcase their creativity; and highlight contemporary issues, such as climate change and social justice. Values matter.

Entering into these schools is a warm and welcoming experience. See what approaches the staff used in each of the case studies.

Case Studies

Helston Community College, Cornwall

Cooperative values are at the heart of school life at Helston Community College, Cornwall: the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.

We used a drawing exercise with young people in all of the schools: ‘What does it look like (in my school) when… I feel that I belong?… I feel I don’t belong?’ This drawing exercise uncovered a strong sense of belonging. The images of belonging were warm and glowing and heartfelt. The examples of ‘not’ belonging came from a sense of empathy for how it might be rather than day-to-day negative encounters, as well as an understanding of the ebb and flow of friendship patterns. There was little about bullying or isolation and a strong sense that if anything was going wrong, you could go to your teacher.

At Helston, the drawing instrument revealed a culture of participation and belonging. These young people had few concerns about bullying or peer harassment.

Frederick Bird Primary, Midlands

The school is several miles from the centre of Coventry and its 800 pupils between them speak 44 different languages. Frederick Bird is surrounded by a 1930s social housing estate which today is an area of high disadvantage and a first location for many migrant families, including people from Somalia and Eastern Europe. The neighbourhood has a significant mix of different cultures and many new arrivals do not have an immediate proficiency in English.

The school is clear about its values: respect, honesty, responsibility, kindness, creativity, good manners and enjoyment. Expectations about behaviour are made very clear, with much greater weight placed on positive expectations than on negative ones.

Extract from Frederick Bird Primary’s Behaviour Policy
All are expected toAll are expected not to
Show good mannersFight or be violent
Be honestTalk while others are talking or shout out
Accept responsibilityName call or use unkind words
Show kindness/generositySwear or be rude
Be respectful - for property and all peopleSteal
Have a positive attitudeSulk
Listen carefully-
Be responsible for your own learning-
Have a positive work ethic-
Walk around school-
Not argue back-
Think before you speak/act-
Treat others how you want to be treated-
Be helpful-
Work in a variety of groups-
Pay compliments-
Do what you are asked to do-

Hargrave Primary, Islington

A sense of belonging is closely linked to learning – and learning is what it’s all about, according to staff and young people at Hargrave Primary, Islington. The school serves a diverse and evolving neighbourhood which faces significant challenges in a Borough which also has many affluent residents.

Drawings by children at Hargrave Primary school

As you enter the school you are met by ‘The Hargrave Wheel’ which reminds everyone about the importance of learning and the key elements in the learning process:

Hargrave Primary diagram: Staff know they matter and have a voice > Staff stay in the school which gives a consistency in approach & helps innovation > Children understand what is expected of them & have a voice > Everyone talks about what matters – learning > Children are at the heart of school life & their independence is fostered >
Diagram: Hargrave Primary, Islington: Learning and Independence

Children’s learning and their independence are at the heart of the school’s intent and staff and pupils share an understanding about what this process means. The diagram below captures the important features of what is happening in Hargrave to help create a climate for independent learners to flourish.

Action for change

What are the opportunities and responsibilities for school staff to create the conditions for a culture of school belonging?

How can teaching staff shape school behaviour policies with the aim of creating a sense of belonging and agency, and steer away from ‘tough’ sanction-based behaviour?

Cover graphic

Get involved

Share best practice with other members on how your school is creating a sense of place and belonging and register your interest here to be more involved.

Creating a sense of place and belonging in schools
Back to top