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Place and belonging in school: Why it matters today

Case studies from a research-based inquiry undertaken by The Art of Possibilities & UCL, Institute of Education.

Author/s: Professor Kathryn Riley, Dr Max Coates, Dr Tracey Allen

Schools matter

Our world is at a turning point, a moment of transformation. Covid 19 exposed the divisions within and across society. It has also taught us some important lessons:

  • That wisdom and compassion help build connections and communities.
  • That our schools matter… and
  • That they need to be places of belonging

In this report we offer findings from a small- scale research inquiry about schools as places of belonging. The Inquiry was commissioned by the National Education Union (NEU) with the aim of bringing to light school-wide approaches that appear to be having positive outcomes for young people, their families and school communities. The context for the Inquiry was one of growing concerns about the rapid increase in rates of exclusion, alienation, and a sense of ‘not’ belonging in school, and the impact of this on young people’s well-being, mental health and life chances.

The Inquiry involved:

We began the Inquiry in late 2019 and were part way through when the Coronavirus took over and ‘lockdown’ became our contemporary reality. Day-to-day life as we knew it came to a standstill. Evidence slowly emerged that some groups and families had found themselves more exposed to the impact of the Virus than others. As events unfolded, the place called ’school’ became recognized as being even more central in the lives of young people.

This report is about the importance of schools as places of belonging. The child’s illustration (Illustration I) is a pre-Covid drawing and is taken from the research reported here. The date is February 2020. The caption reads, ‘I belong here’. The drawing is a vivid depiction of what it feels like when a young person experiences their school as a place of belonging and enters into the joys of school life with eager anticipation.

In reporting on the research, we offer examples of how intentional whole-school practice can help create a climate of welcome and belonging in school. A purposeful approach which brings everyone on board, enriches the lives of all concerned and sets the school on a positive and upward trajectory. The report illustrates what is possible - even in the most challenging of contexts - and how rewarding and joyful this is.

We hope you find the research and report helpful and enjoyable. We would love to hear what you think about it.

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