Why it is essential to help students ‘belong’ to their school community
As all of us across the education sector are acutely aware, the country is facing a peak in school absenteeism, creating challenges for educators as we try to reach and support students who struggle to consistently attend school due to anxiety, stress or other barriers. This risks their ability to reach their full potential as less time in the classroom can lead to a decrease in attainment. These challenges were also exacerbated by periods of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now as school and trust leaders, we must come together to restore students’ sense of belonging and connection to their school community in order to improve attendance and ultimately ensure they receive an excellent education to secure their bright futures.
Fostering belonging as a golden thread
Within the trust I lead, Mowbray Education Trust, it has become clear following the pandemic that some students need additional support to attend school, connect with their studies and remain grounded in our schools’ expectations. Our aim is therefore to enhance the bond between students, staff and their school and foster a true sense of belonging. For us, this is the solution that will achieve the greatest impact for our young people and their families, and lead to a stronger and more united community, both inside our schools and beyond our school gates.
Belonging is the golden thread that helps us embed our pastoral care provisions on a trust-wide scale while meeting the unique needs of each school community. We encourage each of our settings to prioritise their individual school cultures and assess where opportunities lay to help their students connect. The common goal all our schools are working toward is for students to understand their responsibility to the people and community around them and feel they belong through a shared bond. As a result of this connection, other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. For instance, helping students to feel they belong at school will lead to increased attendance. Further, more time in the classroom will lead to better behaviour and improved academic attainment.
Embedding and practicing connection
One method we are using to establish a sense of belonging is through whole-school events. Utilising meaningful activities where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time can help foster a sense of ‘togetherness’ which students can share with one another. So far, this has included sharing a poignant moment of silence on Remembrance Day, singing songs together during a Christmas carol service and celebrating non-uniform days to raise money for charity.
We have seen palpable impacts from these events and very positive reactions from students, all of whom were witness to these powerful shared feelings of connection. We experienced one of the highest attendance rates of the Autumn term on Remembrance Day, indicating that our students innately want to be a part of something bigger and will show up for an opportunity to connect with one another.
In addition to holding events, we are working closely with the staff at each of our schools to maximise the impacts of everyday interactions, or as we call them ‘micro-interactions.’ We support staff to make each micro-interaction with colleagues and students meaningful, whether it be through an exchanged smile, an uplifting compliment or an open question to help students build confidence and trust. This is essential as our teachers are vital points of contact for students throughout the school day and are leaders by example who can influence the way students behave at school. By harmonising the way our colleagues move around school, encouraging friendly body language and providing opportunities for open conversation, we demonstrate to students that the school is a safe and supportive environment where they can build connections, share their thoughts and be supported to flourish.
Driving the mission forward
We find our approach is most effective when all of our stakeholders, from students and families to staff and school leaders, share a collective understanding and commitment to bolstering our whole school community. We are therefore looking at how we can also engage with families and carers around belonging as they play an essential and central role in students’ lives.
While our drive towards ‘belonging’ is in the early stages, we are already seeing positive improvements in attendance and are confident the path will provide plentiful opportunities for our staff and students to work together and continue to build a positive school culture. As humans, we innately seek connection with others and a purpose to believe in, so it is only natural to prioritise these fundamental needs as a driving factor and initial stepping stone to improve the life chances of our students.