Reclaiming the future: schools where children belong even in a volatile world

Kathryn Riley.

I’ve had to grit my teeth many times of late, before engaging with the ‘News’: the fragile and alien social and political landscape; the unfolding stories of the sexual abuse of our children and young people; the discourse of rage. My own email account has not been immune to messages which echo the shrill voice of bigotry.

When I visit schools, I ask children the question, ‘What does belonging mean to you?’ Answers over recent weeks – from youngsters in London, Luton and the Netherlands – have included: ‘It’s where you are safe and comfortable’; ‘It’s when you’re on the inside and working together’; ‘It’s when people tell you the truth and you can trust them’ – a prescient comment in the light of national distrust of politicians.

In this ‘post-truth’ world, the times may be gloomy and we may have to revisit battles we thought were long since won – about respect, equality, dignity. Yet a different world is possible and, as educators, we need to start retelling it and reclaiming it.

As I wheel my new granddaughter through the chilly streets of Brockley,  I tell her about an amazing woman called Michelle Obama who spoke out so passionately about the ‘disrespectful violation of women’s ambitions and intellects’. I tell her about the journey of Phiona who grew up in Uganda’s sprawling slums and whose story is told   in the wonderful film Queen of Katwe. Phiona became an international chess champion because her teacher, guide, mentor believed in what the children of the slums could do and be. ‘It’s all about the art of possibilities,’ I tell the now sleeping child. And I think about our schools and the countless golden rays of sunshine, beacons of hope and possibilities: our children and young people.

Towards the end of our recent research on place and belonging (School – A place where I belong?) my colleague Rhoda Furniss reflected:

“I was thinking about all the people that are actually involved in a school – the pupils, the teachers, the teaching assistants, all of these people. If they all thought about their school in a different way….

– a place where I go,

– a place where I feel like I belong,

– where I feel like I can contribute,

– where I feel like what I say is heard…

 …what a dynamic, wonderful place that would be.”

Look this up on Video 5 in the Art of Possibilities series (Making Belonging Work in a Volatile World).

There is an urgency to the retelling and the reclaiming. What we do and say today, as educators, will help shape the future. The now is about creating schools that are dynamic and wonderful places to be, places of belonging where young people are encouraged to think and question and challenge. That’s the fight back against bigotry. That’s what will help keep our children safe. And that’s what will enable our young people to recreate a world of possibilities.

Kathryn’s books include Leadership of Place, Stories from the US, UK and South Africa (Bloomsbury 2013). Her new book Place, Belonging & School Leadership: Researching to make the difference is due for publication early 2017.





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Posted in Leadership and management, Research matters, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “Reclaiming the future: schools where children belong even in a volatile world
  1. jameswilding says:

    I run a broad ability non-selective independent school of 1100 children in Maidenhead. To engender that sense of belonging requires a whole bunch or architecting over years. You need teachers who know what hard learning feels like, pastoral leaders who know how not to blame, administrators who appreciate their work is about children, a counselling service for both children and adults, and school nurses in similar post for both. The co-curricular needs to have additional staff who add oomph and value, because of course, learning is not linear and children learn from achieving something well and spreading out their experience of success over other areas where success is less readily come-by.
    Sadly, the Govism of the last 6 years, where advocates of post-truth, post expert practitioner means we have had rolled out all over the country a mantra that it’s all about Literacy, Numeracy PISA and results. Intersting to note just how much the HMCI is rowing back from this, recognising that untold damage is done to schools that are told that they require improvement. Nothing wrong with telling them that they are not there YET, but keep hope alive rather than sack the head, the governing body, and retool anew. As Jim Collins reminded us, the people we have got are in the main the best people, and we have to work hard to find out which seats suit them best!

    • Kathryn Riley says:

      James, thanks for that comment. What you say reinforces the importance of talking about what can be – the possibilities – and the importance of schools in the lives of young people. As you say, its about keeping hope alive and recognising the many gifted and committed teachers in our schools who are working to make a difference.

  2. Kathryn,

    Thank you for this moving and insightful account. You raise vital points that are core to helping our students prepare for a future made particularly unstable by accelerating changes in technology. A sense of belonging, a sense of place and a sense of self will be crucial anchors throughout these turbulent times.

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