‘The school is a key site for fostering belonging. However, this requires a sense of intention, purpose and a commitment to connectedness.’
The NEU commissioned research, 'Place and Belonging in School: why it matters today' found that a whole school approach, firmly focused on trust, caring and deep organisational learning can drive the commitment to innovate and make progress in serving the needs of children and young people.
School leaders are the mediating force responsible for shaping the culture of the school. Their attitudes and practices help create the conditions needed for school belonging, or send the message to some (adults, young people, families) that they do not belong.
During this research we wanted to discover more about what leaders were doing to make the difference.
What were the leaders doing?
The leaders of the schools we visited all walk or dance their leadership in different ways. Nevertheless, their leadership ‘DNA’ is infused with some common features.
- They are Leaders of Place: Their leadership is contextual and community orientated, finely tuned to the needs of the neighbourhood.
- They are Authentic: They are who they are. Some may seem idiosyncratic – which is a manifestation of their authenticity – while others appear to be leading from behind. A Y6 child put it like this… ‘’If you’re the headteacher, you just have to be who you are.”
- They are Learning-centred: These leaders model what they do, monitor what they do, and talk about what they do – all the time.
- They are Relational: Their leadership is highly relational – with their staff, with the young people and with their families – and they are ‘caring’ leaders.
- They understand about Agency: They understand their own agency and work to activate the agency of others.
Leadership is bound in culture, context and place. The school leaders we met with recognise the importance of contextual and community-oriented leadership. This is illustrated in the example below from Flakesfleet Primary School in the North West of England.
Flakesfleet is in Fleetwood, a one-time major fishing port. Poverty is endemic, with one in three children living below the poverty line. Over a series of decades, Fleetwood has lost its deep-sea fishing role, its ferry service to the Isle of Man and Ireland, and its freight rail link. It has become a town stripped of its economy and identity. The school’s central challenge has been how to rebuild this identity and the self-belief of pupils and parents. The school developed an intentional approach focused on changing learning and teaching, and reshaping expectations and the culture of the school. There was a practical focus on tackling delayed speech and language; safeguarding issues; developing a school-based nursery; supporting families and changing behaviour. The emphasis was on what children could do, not on what they were not allowed to do. Staff set out to model desired behaviours and attitudes: such as working together, respecting each other. The Senior Leadership Team located themselves in a shared office in a central area of the school. The room is also a thoroughfare for staff and children and the place where the school dog, Mabel, sleeps.
The other key piece of the jigsaw was – and is – ‘Dare to Dream’: the antidote to low expectations and a lack of self-belief within the community. ‘Dare to Dream’ is about envisioning the ‘impossible’ and making it happen – skydiving, achieving a Christmas number one song, winning ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. The headteacher saw it like this: it is vital to showcase these forgotten children and change their beliefs about what is possible. The staff we interviewed are on board with this aspiration. They feel that they belong in the school and are valued: ‘part of the place’. They are committed to translating the children’s dreams into realities. The children we met found it hard to recall any place or incident within the school where they felt they did not belong. The school is a joyous place to be. The children are engaged. Results are rising and numbers are growing. The school had a shot at the number one Christmas single; staged a prequel of the Harry and Meghan Royal Wedding; and made it to the TV show for Britain’s Got Talent. They did not win but they – and their headteacher – performed spectacularly.
Action for change
What are the opportunities for school leaders to create the conditions for a culture of school belonging?