Institute of Education


Research shows 'a sense of belonging' is important for pupils’ learning and behaviour

24 November 2020

Pupils who have a ‘sense of belonging’ in schools tend to be happier, more confident and perform better academically according to new research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Teacher sat down speaking to class

Belonging is the sense of being somewhere you can be confident that you will fit in and feel safe in who you are. However, the number of young people who feel they do not belong in school continues to rise, as do rates of exclusion.

The review, led by Professor Kathryn Riley with Dr Tracey Allen and Dr Max Coates and published by the National Education Union (NEU), examined current literature and school case studies and found that a focus on place and belonging in both policy and practice supports positive learning and a range of good outcomes.

The review raises questions about the move towards sanction-driven behaviour approaches. It found that overall, there is a body of evidence to support a contextualised and multi-layered approach to interventions, and strategies, around behaviour and engagement in schools.

Strategies to create a sense of belonging in school can be shown to be linked to: increased student motivation, improved academic achievement; reductions in student absenteeism; increased staff wellbeing and motivation and other positive social outcomes including health and wellbeing.

The study also concludes that where schools are places of belonging, the benefits are far reaching for staff, as well as students.  

Kathryn Riley, Professor of Urban Education at the IOE said: “For many children and young people today home and community are not fixed, and schools represent one of the few points of continuity and stability in their lives. Covid-19 has sent a shockwave across the Globe, exposed the divisions within and across society and thrown a spotlight on the lives of children and young people. It has also reinforced the importance of schools as places of belonging.

“The Government’s response to 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 has been sporadic. Recognition of the impact on individuals, their families and on society has been muted.

“In our review we looked at the positive links between school belonging and educational outcomes. We wanted to know what worked in schools to make a difference. We found little about ‘tough’ sanction-based behaviour policies based on exclusion and social isolation, and much about the enjoyment of learning.

“The emphasis is on relationships. Interventions are purposeful. The aim is to create a sense of place, belonging and agency. We found that intentional whole-school practice can help create a climate of welcome and belonging in school for all.

“Covid-19 should be the spur for a joined-up approach that focuses on the power and potential of schools to be places of welcome and possibility.

“For the Government this is a mind-shift.  It’s about changing the drivers for which schools are accountable from the transactional ‘here are the results you need to get’ to the aspirational ‘here is what you can do to enable young people to fulfil themselves and contribute to society’.

“The Government needs to develop local capacity and foster forms of leadership which recognise the distinctiveness of local contexts and how to connect schools and communities.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “As we navigate an academic year filled with uncertainty and fluctuating attendance, supporting positive behaviour for learning is a big challenge. We think that in this year more than any other, the Government should look at this review and do much more to signal that schools should feel empowered to put wellbeing and engagement centre-stage.

“Staff need more time and space to develop whole-school strategies for the context of their school and valuing teacher wellbeing is shown to be transformational. This study shows the multiple benefits from giving teachers time for professional reflection and learning from research evidence.”



Image: Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education