SCHOOLS AS PLACES OF BELONGING

THEME 2: WAYS OF THINKING - THE EVIDENCE ABOUT
EXCLUSION, OSTRACISATION, BELONGING

Q2. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUNG PEOPLE FEEL THEY DON’T BELONG?

THE SEARCH FOR SCHOOL CONNECTEDNESS

In June 2003, an interdisciplinary group of leaders in education met at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. Their aim was to draw on empirical evidence to identify the actions needed to create school and classroom environments in which all young people felt engaged and could develop to their full capacity. Their findings, published as ‘The Wingspread Declaration,’1 were broadly these…

that students were more likely to succeed when they felt connected to school and came to believe that the adults in the school cared about their learning, as well as about them as individuals.

Two decades on, many of the challenges raised by the Wingspread Declaration remain unresolved, and there is a pressing need to revisit these issues and re-activate solutions. Across many countries and contexts, a rapid increase in exclusion, alienation and a sense of ‘not’ belonging in school has led to mounting concerns about the mental health, wellbeing and life chances of young people. Suspensions and exclusions are growing and some – arguably those with the greatest needs – find themselves handed the ultimate ‘red card’ of exclusion from school.

In England, children and young people from low-income families are four times more likely to be excluded than their more affluent peers.2 Those from disadvantaged groups, such as children with special educational needs, are also disproportionately excluded from school. Racial disparities in exclusion rates are particularly acute for Black Caribbean pupils.3

Some schools rely on social isolation (a form of ostracisation) as a tool for managing behaviour policy infringements. Yet the evidence indicates that the long-term consequences of such approaches are likely to exacerbate a sense of alienation and a feeling of not belonging. American Psychologist Kip Williams described to me, the impact of what it means to be ostracised in the following terms:

To be ostracised is to be ignored and excluded… not being looked at or listened to… not being invited to group activities within and outside of school. It means being invisible and unheard… Being ostracised robs the individual of a feeling of belonging.4

The consequences of being excluded from school are profound for individuals, their families and for society. We know, for example, that the disaffected and excluded search for ‘belongingness’ elsewhere, finding it in many ways, including extremism, self-harming and gang membership. We also know that the excluded frequently become the exploited.5

THE OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN

Belonging and ‘not’ belonging are highly differentiated experiences, and the migrant, the refugee can soon become the outsider,6 becoming marginalised and feeling vulnerable. The process of creating outsiders occurs daily and is often linked to the barriers and stigma associated with having low levels of formal education.7 If as a parent, your own school experience has been one of rejection, then your child’s school may become a familiar place of trauma and shame once again.

In the five-part podcast series, It’s Time for a Change: Let’s hear it for school belonging you can listen to the voices of practitioners and experts from around the world, as well as inputs from our resident Rapper, Jamie Pyke. In the second programme in the series, you can ‘meet’ Anita Berlin (General Practitioner and Professor of Community Medicine) and Janet Foster (Associate Professor of Criminology at LSE).8

Anita and Janet discuss how the process of stigmatization and marginalisation can contribute to families seeing themselves as failures. Anita describes how she and her GP colleagues were puzzled by the increase in the number of mothers seeking medical help. The common trigger was their interactions with the headteacher of the local school which led them to see themselves as bad parents. The impact on these women was a downward spiral of depression, and on their children – a drop in attendance. That headteacher eventually left the school under a dark cloud. However, it is important to remember how often parents are the ‘product’ of the local school system and carry that experience – good or bad – with them.

The impact of feeling that you are the outsider, and you don’t belong can be both powerful and long lasting. I worked with junior and senior student-researchers in the project Is this school a place where I belong?9 Analysing the experiences of younger children in their school, a junior researcher (aged 10) reflected in drawing 1, ‘Me in the playground’ in the following terms:

This girl, she's in the playground and this other girl comes up to her and shouts at her……."

I was thinking that if this little one came in from play time… She might feel upset, and then, she might feel angry at them as well saying, "Why did you do this to me?"

And she wouldn't be focusing on her learning, she'll focus on how about if they come and do it to me again, and I don't want to go to school anymore.

Let me dip once again into the podcast series, It’s Time for a Change: Let’s hear it for school belonging and take you to episode 1. Listen now to Catherine Gladwell who heads up Refugee Education UK in conversation with international educator, Mohammed Elmeski.10

Catherine explains how young refugees can suddenly find themselves catapulted into an alien culture, knowing neither the language, nor the rules of the game. She tells Mohammed that the only words 10-year-old refugee ‘Aisha’ could speak in English (after three weeks in her new school) were ‘Shut up and leave me alone’. Listen to Rapper Jamie Pyke ‘retelling’ Aisha’s story in the following words:

  • Shut up & leave me alone…
  • Don’t let that be the only words that they know…
  • Do you feel accepted rejected?…
  • Are you inclusive or selective?…
  • Do you feel…. Safe? Free? Do you Belong?…

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN

And yet – the evidence also tells us that young people who feel they belong in school tend to be happier, more confident and perform better academically. Addressing a sense of school belonging closes the achievement gap by between 50 – 60% and the benefits appear to stretch well into adulthood.11 We also know that the relationship between young people and their teachers is the most significant factor, in terms of whether they experience a sense of school belonging.12

 

1. ‘The Wingspread Declaration: A National Strategy for Improving School Connectedness, (2009), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2004.tb08279.x

2. The Fair Education Alliance (2017), Third state of the nation report card, 2016-2017. London: The Fair Education Alliance, http://www.faireducation.org.uk/report-card/ accessed 27/10/2017.

3. For an overview of these issues see: M. Taylor (2020), Creating change for the ‘pinball’ kids, RSA, London. https://thestaffcollege.uk/publications/creating-change-for-the

4. K. Williams (2022), What it means to be ostracised, in Riley, K. (2022), Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, UCL Press, pp 31-32.

5. For a deeper discussion of these issues see: K. Riley (2019), ‘Agency and belonging: What transformative actions can schools take to help create a sense of place and belonging?’ Journal of Educational & Child Psychology; 36 (4), 91-103.

6. See, for example: (i) B. Anderson (2013), Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press; (ii) D. Reay (2017), Miseducation. Bristol: Policy Press; and (iii) C. Vincent (2022), ‘Belonging in England today: Schools, race, class and policy’. Journal of Sociology, Vol. 58 (3) 324-341.

7. M. Easterbrook (2022), https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/people-us

8. https://www.theartofpossibilities.org.uk (home/podcasts/Podcast 2, ‘You are all in detention’).

9. K. Riley (2017), Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Make the Difference. London: Bloomsbury.

10. Go to https://www.theartofpossibilities.org.uk (home/podcasts/Podcast 1, ‘Shut up and leave me alone’).

11. K. A. Allen., M. L. Kern., D. Vella-Brodrick., J. Hattie & L. Waters (2018), ‘What Schools Need to Know about Belonging: A meta-analysis’. Educational Psychology Review, 30 (1), 1-34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8

12. K. A. Allen & M. L. Kern (2019), Boosting School Belonging in Adolescents: Interventions for teachers and mental health professionals. London: Routledge.