I amble across the tranquil shores of Studland Bay, Dorset on an unexpectedly hot day. My Labrador Finnegan is in fine fettle. Not being a sun worshiper, I’m dressed in a baggy pair of cotton trousers, long sleeve tee-shirt and – as I’ve forgotten my hat – a scarf, a headscarf. My mind switches to an image of another woman on another beach. She’s also dressed from top to toe but she’s surrounded by armed police who are ordering her to take off a layer of clothing. ‘Her’ beach is in Nice. So much time, so much control, so much aggression focused on appearance: ways of labelling, judging, excluding.
Linked to my first blog in this year-long series about place, identity and belonging ‘There’s more that holds us together than divides us’ is a video about what belonging means for young people, Place, Belonging and Schools in our Global World. ‘Belonging means to feel comfortable where you are and just to feel you can be yourself and not have the worry that people might discriminate or not like the way you are’, a student from St Paul’s way Trust School in Tower Hamlet commented.
This second blog is about how important that sense of belonging is today and what schools can do to nurture it. Schools remain one of the few places of stability and belonging for many children, and no more so than for those whose lives are uncertain and fluid. When young people feel they are safe in school, when they feel they belong, when they feel rooted, school becomes a place for them. Yet school can be an unhappy and bleak place to be for 1 in 5 children who simply feel that they don’t belong (The Good Childhood Report 2015).
Belonging matters to all of us. It’s our history, our families, our sense of who we are and where we come from. It’s having our history recognised. Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s riveting The Matter of the North, on BBC Radio 4, brought this home to me. The programme was about the 1819 ‘Peterloo Massacre’ (ironically named after Waterloo). Fifteen people were killed and 650 wounded in what was a peaceful pro-democracy festival – everybody out in their Sunday best. The cavalry, the sabres, the groans and cries, the Yeomen attacking the women. ‘Ye are many, they are few‘, Percy Byshe Shelley wrote in his poem about the massacre (The Masque of Anarchy) which was banned for 30 years. Growing up in a family steeped in the Labour movement – my Aunty Winne was one of the first woman ‘Lord’ Mayors of Manchester and my mum the Lady Mayoress – this is part of my history. ‘Ordinary folk were set upon, slaughtered’ Maxine Peake added on the BBC programme and ‘we still don’t have this recognised’.
Since my last blog – published in the post Referendum gloom – I’ve returned from Australia via Singapore to spend the summer editing Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Change School Cultures. In the book I make the case for schools to become involved in research about place and belonging.
Student-researchers from Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets began their research journey by looking at the East End’s story of immigration: How did the Bengali Muslim community fit in? They started with a building –a Mosque called Masjid – which has been a place of worship for many different faith communities for nearly three centuries. First built in 1743 as a Protestant Chapel, by the late 19th Century it had become a synagogue for Jewish immigrants from Russia and Central Europe before opening as a Mosque. For these young women, the building reflected a story of immigration of which their families were a part:
The history of this building shows the huge varieties of faiths and cultures which live in Tower Hamlets. We live and go to school in Tower Hamlets, East London. This is the place where we feel like we belong.
Listen to what they have to say in the second video in The Art of Possibilities Series: Creating Place & Belonging in our Schools A Place to Be. It’s called Student-Researchers Show the Way. You’ll also meet other student-researchers, such as the Corelli College team, all recent arrivals to the UK, who asked the research question: ‘How successful is our school in welcoming newcomers and helping them feel that they belong? ‘
Researching for and about place and belonging enables young people to make sense of their own histories and to develop a sense of agency: that what they think, what they say and what they do makes a difference. When young people feel that they belong; when the school grows their sense of self and agency, then they will go out into our troubled world with a sense of assuredness and purpose. They will not only learn to read the word – as Paulo Friere (1993) put it – but also to ‘read the world’. And they will do this with skill, confidence and compassion.
Following my first blog, I received a number of comments, some posted on line, some sent to me directly. I was particularly moved by what Zahra had to say:
I agree this topic of a sense of place and belonging is a key issue nowadays. I recently lost a few family members in the Bagdad explosion that burnt innocent lives while they went out to buy their Eid clothes. As educators this is one way of speaking out against hate and division.
Isn’t time we focused on what matters? Schools in which both staff and students and their families feel they belong. Isn’t it time we stopped hankering for a past era – the Grammar School and a system which failed so many (Daily Telegraph, 2nd Sept,. 2016). And isn’t it time that we got our pro-democracy wall in Manchester: a reminder of how critical it is today to encourage young people to think for themselves.
Kathryn Riley is Professor of Urban Education, UCL, Institute of Education. Her books include Leadership of Place: Stories from the US, UK & South Africa (Bloomsbury, 2013).