How can school leaders who exclude foster a climate of belonging?

Kathryn Riley. 

There are some depressing statistics in the air at the moment: it must be the change in the seasons. They include an increase in hate crimes post Brexit – which led the Big Issue (September 26-October 2nd) to ask: Is Britain Becoming a Nastier Place? There is also a rise in the number of children self-harming; and an increase in the number of teachers who are quitting the classroom: 1 in 3 within five years of qualifying.

Health experts attribute the rise in the child self-harming figures to a range of factors, including pressures to succeed in school, body image and fears of abuse. Kevin Courtney from the National Union of Teachers puts the teacher attrition rates down to the pressures generated by relentless workload demands, high-stakes testing and an ever changing policy agenda.

If you haven’t read my blog before, it’s about place, belonging and identity: the need we all have to belong – in this uncertain and volatile world – and the role schools can play in creating a sense of belonging: that sense of being somewhere where you can feel confident that you will fit in and feel safe in your identity. The notion of ‘not belonging’ – exclusion – is something which schools also need to grapple with.

I’ve just finished Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to make the difference which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017. If young people are to shape and influence the world around them, schools need to become places of belonging. When young people feel they are safe in school, when they feel they belong, when they feel rooted, schools becomes places of possibility.

School leaders are key. What they think, what they say and what they do sets the climate for belonging or exclusion. Leaders need to start to think of themselves as Place Leaders whose job it is to make schools places of belonging. Yet researchers from the Centre for High Performance have concluded in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review  that our system rewards the wrong type of headteacher.

The rewards go to the ‘surgeons’: those ‘decisive’ and certainly high profile headteachers parachuted into schools who focus on test results, and exclude, on average, 1 in 4 final-year students and get rid of 1 in 10 staff. The gains in results are short lived but they get the ‘superheads’ get their rewards – money and Honours from the Queen. And at what a cost to the excluded…

Some years ago Professor John MacBeath and I looked at what children thought made a good or a bad headteacher. I suspect the children and staff in the schools headed up by the ‘surgeons’ might recognise this illustration from our work

wah

What makes a bad headteacher?

It’s time we started to ‘Re-Place’ some of our ‘surgeons’ with what the Centre for High Performance describes as ‘architects’: leaders who involve parents, improve teaching, grow their schools, get teachers on board. I call them Place Leaders and place-makers because they work to make schools places of belonging: joyful and inquiring places where children, young people and adults thrive. It’s what I call The Art of Possibilities. So who is up for a bit of ‘Re- Placing’?

Kathryn Riley is Professor of Urban Education, UCL Institute of Education

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Posted in Leadership and management
14 comments on “How can school leaders who exclude foster a climate of belonging?
  1. Eny says:

    I believe that the way in which we conduct classes and evaluate our students is important to achieve desired outcomes, but also, more important for me is the environment of learning as a community, in which a HT plays an important role.
    I think school culture and trust (shared by the staff, managers, leaders, teachers, students, and parents) help a lot to work on our institution’s values and vision. In the end, a sense of belonging might be based on shared values and might encourage students to be good and active members of society, because they feel they belong, and for that, they should have the right and the responsibility to improve their community.

  2. José Carlos says:

    I agree on the importance on the sense of belonging in school. Definitely there might be a correlation between this sense of security and belonging to the learning outcomes. I also believe that this feeling is desired not only by students but also by teachers and staff members.

    My question is, how to grow and build this environment throught the school organisation? How can academic expectations cohabit with a ´healthy teaching and learning environment´, without making neither of them more important than the other but equally desirable and needed?…

    • Fernando Tagle says:

      I agree whit your point about identity and sense of belonging as a desired outcome not only for students but also for teachers and staffs members. I believe that the developing a Professional Learning Community (PLC) in the school helps to address this purpose. A PLC, defined as an organisation that shares specific characteristics with the purpose of enhancing students learning, considers education as a process that involves all the community. And it needs a distributed leadership across members of the staff (Stoll et al., 2006). I believe that developing a PLC as part of the school culture, is a very powerful way to build this identity and sense of belonging across all members of the staff, in a ‘healthy teaching and learning environment’ as you wrote.

      In this line, I consider that the main characteristic of a PLC that relates to identity and sense of belonging building, is to have shared values and vision, being centred in students’ learning.

  3. Paola Munoz says:

    previous research by the centre ir high performance showed that there were two main factors related to school improvement in the UK; School culture and leadership and that against the popular beleive, you should invest resources first on leadership development that on teacher Training.

    Altough I imagine that there aré many things to improve, i believe that the UK has an important experience that should be shared because schools are improving in very diversa and challenging enviroment

    • Fernando Tagle says:

      I agree with you Paola, but it might not be an issue of investing resources first in leadership development and later in teacher training. If you think about the best place for teachers’ learning, there is research that argues that the best place is the educational workplace (in this case, schools). Investing resources in leadership development can affect directly the way that teachers relate with others, their openness and inclusive membership. If you think about the importance of context in leadership development, I believe that it is strongly related with the improve of teachers training and development in their own schools.

      • Paola Muñoz says:

        You have made and interesting point, specially if we believe that leadership is not only carried out in a formal role but is an act that anyone can do informally. The culture of a school is not only the principal´s responsibility, teachers, administrative staff must exhibit that culture and values,

  4. Nannan MU says:

    I so identify my old self moving more and more on the track to be the Philosopher – a language teacher and from a teacher family and thinking myself as an experienced teacher🙂 now I think I truly want to become an Architect, making real impacts to students’ lives, and leaving a legacy when I leave a school. But I also wonder if there’s a mixed style – precision of a surgeon, tenacious as a solider, money wise as an accountant, passionate philosopher and a doer as an architect.

    Am I demanding too much?

    • Emma says:

      Nannan – you make a good point and I was thinking a similar thing. I found Kathyrn’s blog and the HBR article very interesting and can identify certain characteristics with previous Headteachers I have worked with. However, is it ‘boxing’ Leaders into categories too much? I know of a previous (in my opinion) very effective leader of an Academy (where I used to work) who I would classify as a philosopher, yet also an architect, with elements of the accountant. He was values driven, charismatic and high profile in engaging the community. He inspired staff and ‘got things done’ whilst managing the finances of the school.
      In response to your question Nannan – I believe we need to demand this of leaders if they / we are to improve the quality of our schools which, as the article stated, will “strengthen a nation’s economy and the vitality of its society’.

  5. Kika Mella says:

    Nannan MU I feel that the mixed style of leader you are describing ( the one who possesses all these personal and trainable competencies) is definitely a charismatic leader. However, I keep wondering what happens when this charismatic leader has left ? Ledership will have left with him as well. An Architect leader creates capacities among students, teachers, other staff and the community that will live beyond him/her. An Architect leader “designs” his/her actions using as foundations the predecessors while thinking of the successors as well in order the school improvement to continue after they have gone. Just because this improvement is an on going one it can be measured over many years and not at a certain point of time based on isolated outcomes ( e.g high exam scores ). So I suppose that is why an Architect leaders are “invisible” , they go unnoticed and they are never rewarded by the state for their achievements.

  6. Kika Mela says:

    Nannan MU I feel that the mixed style of leader you are describing ( the one who possesses all these personal and trainable competencies) is definitely a charismatic leader. However, I keep wondering what happens when this charismatic leader has left ? Ledership will have left with him as well. An Architect leader creates capacities among students, teachers, other staff and the community that will live beyond him/her. An Architect leader “designs” his/her actions using as foundations the predecessors while thinking of the successors as well in order the school improvement to continue after they have gone. Just because this improvement is an on going one it can be measured over many years and not at a certain point of time based on isolated outcomes ( e.g high exam scores ). So I suppose that is why an Architect leaders are “invisible” , they go unnoticed and they are never rewarded by the state for their achievements.

  7. Fernando Tagle says:

    It is very interesting what you write about the importance of school leaders and how they can affect the way students feel in their schools. I believe that to feel identified, it is essential to share the core values of the organization where you are part from. Starting from that, it is all about adding the leadership qualities of each individual and the context where everything is happening. Then, we can find leadership behaviours that could help to build this identity and sense of belonging. And as Jose Carlos wrote above, not only thinking in students but also in teachers and administrative staff.

    I believe that leadership should exist at all levels of the structure of a school. I feel that sometimes we can be mistaken talking of ‘leadership positions’, since anyone in an organization can apply this skill. When you have the spaces to develop yourself as a leader in your specific context, your own identity and sense of belonging increases. And it could be not only beneficial for yourself but for building this identity and sense of belonging in others.

  8. Wilfred says:

    I have an off tangent view on this. In the highly politicised environment where policies are rapidly changing and changes are being effected constantly, it does create a huge amount of pressure on any HeadTeacher to produce School results at the shortest amount of time (before the next election). HeadTeachers are constantly pressured by the Board of Governors, Department of Education.

    At the end of the day, looking upstream, the School is accountable to the Board, the Board is accountable to the Department of Education, the Department of Education is accountable to the Minister for Education and the Minister for Education is accountable to the Prime Minister.

    It may seem that we are rewarding the wrong kind of leader, i.e. the “Surgeon” who make things happen, who seems to axe students and axe staff who does not fit in order to achieve results in the shortest amount of time, but does it do the School any good if HeadTeachers who lead strategically, who create and uphold School culture, are being replaced every year as they cannot meet targets?

    Perhaps the “Surgeon” can be trained to also be an “Architect”. Instead of removing all the spoiled kidneys, he can perhaps suggest dialysis first. =)

  9. hanguyen says:

    I find the comment of Fernando very interesting. We talk about the role of the leader to design and create a place of belonging for the teachers and students. But as we cannot lead other while we fail to lead ourself, I think that it is also essential that the leaders (headteacher and SLT) need to get the sense of belonging before they can create a place like that. Considering about the stress causes by all current measures and competition that they have to face, the high-standard “public face” they have to keep and also even the loneliness they keep inside (without sharing with others), it would be challenging for the leaders to overcome pressure and build their owe sense of belonging.

  10. Kirsty says:

    I love the idea of pupils feeling rooted in their schools through a strong sense of belonging. Lovely to think that school leaders can create a culture of belonging that potentially allows children to transcend our increasingly volatile world. Is it the school leaders or the pupils who are key though?

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