Most people see things they are, not as they are.
The first step in creating the conditions for school belonging is
earning to see things as they ARE.


Learning to recognise the realities of young people’s lives is an important starting point in the change journey. Children from refugee families, for example, face specific language and cultural barriers. In some instances, geographical mobility can create difficulties for them in establishing meaningful personal relationship with other students, and in being understood and respected by teachers.

We know too that ‘exclusion’, in the broader sense of the word can happen in many ways, take menstruation for example.

There is growing evidence to suggest that menstruation has an impact on attendance and absenteeism. Depending on family circumstances, menstruation cycles and what has been described as period poverty can lead to a young woman feeling that “I do not belong in school when I am having my period”.

We also know that the ‘belonging’ or not belonging experience pervades every aspect of school life: the culture, the policies, the relationships and, of course, the curriculum as drawing 2 illustrates.1

Illustration 1: Menstruation & exclusion

A rich curriculum creates spaces that respect the interests and capacities of every student and provide opportunities for growth.

However, the curriculum for children and young people in English schools has become overly narrow. Yet by participation in the ‘Arts’, for example, young people can find a place to establish meaningful relationships with other students and learn ‘what’s special about me’.

Illustration 2


Research tells us that young people’s sense of school belonging has a significant impact on their emotional wellbeing and academic performance. It also shapes their later lives. When young people experience a sense of connectedness and belonging, they perform better academically, their teachers feel more professionally fulfilled and their families accepted. A sense of school belonging is equally important for staff, and when families feel welcomed into a school, trusting relationships flourish. By taking stock of the evidence, you provide yourself with the knowledge needed for planning and acting.

Young people do not come to feel that they belong in school by accident. A sense of belonging grows through the strength of their relationships with their teachers and support staff, and the nature of their interactions with their peers. However, whether a school becomes a place of belonging or a closed place where young people feel ostracised and staff unappreciated is determined by the culture of its leadership.


If the staff and young people in our schools are to flourish, then compassion needs to come centre stage. Compassionate leadership is a prerequisite to school belonging and an integral part of the journey.

If the focus of your journey is the school… you might want to start by initiating a ‘belonging’ conversation with colleagues. Diagram 1 is a word cloud which reflects the key elements of the ‘belonging’ conversation which took place when staff from three schools, all part of the same Academy, came together.

Diagram 1: This is what belonging means to us
Your ‘belonging’ conversation will bring you all together, serve to unite you and help you think about:
  • HOW will we adapt and enrich the school landscape?
  • WHERE will we start?
  • WHO will help us along the way?
If your focus is on the school system… then your system-wide journey might lead you to ask:
  • WHY is change needed in our locality?
  • WHAT are the obstacles and the enablers?
  • HOW can we build partnerships in ways that will help change the current culture of collective accountability and ensure that all voices are heard?
Thinking about these questions will help you map what you are trying to achieve in your locality, in terms of shared beliefs, system coherence, compassionate leadership and shared responsibility.2 Diagram 2 provides a possible framework for thinking about these issues.
Diagram 2: A system-wide approach to building belonging


Like any journey, your belonging journey will start from where you are NOW. However, the path you take and the form the journey takes, is down to you.

  • You could decide to embark on a ‘road trip’ with fixed objectives: How can we bring our local communities on board and strengthen connections?
  • Your chosen journey might be a ‘walk-about’, intended to help you deepen your understanding of what motivates and inspires young people: In the wake of Covid-19, how can we engage young people on the margins of school life and develop their sense of agency?
  • It might become an ‘Odyssey’, an extended knowledge quest, aimed at recalibrating a school or a school system: How can we create the conditions for belonging and re-engineer our schools to meet the challenges of the future?

Whichever path you take, I predict three things for you.

Firstly, that you are likely to encounter some bumpy terrain along the way. A ‘growing school belonging journey’ is by its very nature an organic activity, with many twists and turns along the route. Schools are in constant flux with new students arriving, old ones leaving, and staff moving in and out. New demands and conditions arise in any organisation and schools are far from being immune from turbulence and change.

You might meet the roadblock of reluctance, built by those who are hesitant to move away from long established patterns of behaviour. You could find yourself afloat on the lake of procrastination, waiting for the ferry which goes back and forth once a month – but only in good weather. You could even stumble upon the tower of scepticism: zealously guarded by the true believers of the command-and-control approach to running schools for whom the word ‘compassion’ is singularly absent or at best rarely used.

Whatever obstacles you encounter along the way, don’t give up, because my second prediction is that your journey will turn out to be an enjoyable and rewarding one. You will find the spaces to put into practice the values and aspirations that first brought you into the world of education. You will meet like-minded colleagues and working with them, young people and the wider school community, you will come to experience untold rewards.

My third prediction is this. Once you embark on your growing school belonging quest, you will find it hard to stop, just like Odysseus. When he finally made it back home to Ithaca – to his wife, son and dying dog, Argos – his quest was far from over. Homer had other plans for him.

And the reason you will find it hard to stop is that growing school belonging is a compelling activity. It’s compelling because in schools where belonging is a school’s guiding principle, more young people experience a sense of connectedness and friendship, perform better academically, and come to believe in themselves. Their teachers feel more professionally fulfilled and their families more accepted.

So, pack your rucksack or get out your wheelie-bag and get started

Kathryn Riley



1. The sources of these two illustrations can be found in K. Riley., M. Mendoza & S. Galdames (2020), Cross-sector and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on School belonging & Exclusion: What we know; what we need to know; & what needs to change. Available at

2. For an example of a local education system approach to building school belonging, go to Telford and Wrekin Council’s (2019) Belonging Strategy,