Schools stand centre stage in the lives of most young people. The principles which underpin them matter – not only to the students but also to the staff who work with them, and to society as a whole. How young people experience school-life (the degree to which they feel they belong in that place called school) will not only shape their belief in themselves but also their readiness to encounter the world they live in.

Principles shape intentions, guide behaviour and influence actions. Let me introduce you to the five principles which have emerged from my work on school belonging. They encapsulate the sets of beliefs, aspirations and assumptions which form the foundations of understanding and practice.

The Five Principles of School Belonging

  1. Safety: The school is a safe space – physically and emotionally – for all concerned.
  2. Presence: Adults are attentive to the experiences that each child brings with them. Everyone is known and seen for who they are.
  3. Voice: Staff and young people know what is expected of them and have a voice. Families experience a sense of being heard.
  4. Connectivity: Young people and staff feel connected to the school. Social and professional relationships are respectful and enabling.
  5. Agency: Staff and young people have a sense of agency, believing that what they do and say makes a difference. The school helps develop their skills and provides them with the opportunities to enact their agency.


A sense of rootedness grows when a school becomes a place of safety, presence, connectivity and agency. The positive relationships and ease which emerges encourages the roots to deepen and, as they burrow under the school gates and walls, they intermingle with the established roots in the local community. As young people come to recognise what it means to be rooted and to belong, they step into life with a degree of certainty and confidence, learning what it takes to enable others to feel a sense of belonging.


A sense of school belonging is an immensely personal experience and is shaped by what we bring to school life, what we encounter along the way, and what others expect of us. This is as true for school staff, as it is for the children and young people they work with. If teachers don’t feel they belong in school, neither will their students.

When belonging is a school’s guiding principle, more young people at all levels experience a sense of connectedness and friendship, perform better academically and come to believe in themselves. Their teachers also feel more professionally fulfilled and their families more accepted.

Research supported by the NEU and reported in ‘Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging’ (Riley 2022),1 provided the opportunity to look at some of the broader literature on behaviour and exclusion and explore what school belonging means for staff and young people. Working with colleagues, we found that a sense of belonging is manifested in the ways in which staff and students listen and respond to each other – and talk about each other.

We also discovered just how powerful it feels to experience a sense of belonging. One teacher – who had almost abandoned her teaching career because of her experience in a previous school – told us:

I feel really emotional when I think about this. In this school I feel that I belong. My opinion is heard. I can be myself here. I have a personal life and a professional life, and I can make a difference.

I have come to conclude that…

In schools where belonging works... the children fizz with excitement for learning. They tell you… 'I love my school..., 'I feel I belong everywhere around this school.' 'They know that I like it here and they know that I want to be here and want to take part in things.' Their learning and their independence are at the heart of school's intent and staff and students flourish because of their mutual connections to the school and the shared clarity of understanding. Staff feel professionally recognised and stay in the school which gives a consistency in approach and helps innovation.

Diagram 1 captures the important features of what is happening to staff and students when belonging is working.

Childen are at the heart of school life & their Independence is fostered Staff know they matter and have a voice Staff stay in the school which gives a consistency in approach & helps innovation Everyone talks about what matters - learning Children understand what is expected of them & have a voice
Diagram 1: Staff and students in a school where belonging is working

In schools where belonging works… this is what children and young people draw:
(Drawing 1: Mariana)

Girl with back turned, looking at sun with the words I belong here beside her
Drawing 1: Mariana

‘Mariana’ stands at the threshold of school life. Her sense of joyful anticipation reaches to the very tips of her fingers, ‘I belong here’, she writes, vividly depicting the ways in which she sees her school as a place of welcome and belonging.

In schools where belonging works, the leaders display their leadership in unique and often highly personal 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 Year 6 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 recognise their own agency and work to activate the agency of others.


  • If you want to see what a school looks like where belonging works, go to (Explore/videos SERIES 2: Creating School Belonging) and ‘meet’ some of the children from St Anthony’s Catholic Primary School. They will tell you, ‘I feel I belong everywhere around this school.’ ‘They know that I like it here and they know that I want to be here and want to take part in things.’
  • If you would like to hear headteachers talking about what it means to put belonging at the heart of school life, go to (home/podcasts/Podcasts 4 & 5).
  • If you would also like to hear young people talking about what it means to put belonging in school, go to (home/podcasts/Podcasts 3 & 5).


1. ‘The Wingspread Declaration: A National Strategy for Improving School Connectedness, (2009),

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

3. For an overview of these issues see: M. Taylor (2020), Creating change for the ‘pinball’ kids, RSA, London.

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),

8. (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 (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.

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