Do young people feel as though they belong at school?

Dear St Andrew’s Community,

In visiting our partner schools in Scotland (now two weeks ago), I enjoy getting a feel for the culture of Scottish education.  Our Scottish partner schools focus on the relationship between staff and students as we do.  They set high expectations for their students in relation to their academic expectations, their responsibilities and their aim for personal best, as well as a focus on students’ sense of pride and belonging.  This is nothing new.   Good schools  often focus on culture and a sense of belonging in order to build a child’s sense of being part of an entity that is outside of themselves, but I genuinely believe in an age of social media and other distractions, this is getting harder.

Whilst on the long haul plane ride to Scotland, I make use of the time by reading. I always enjoy reading Dan Haesler; he is both provocative and challenging in his ideas of educational development. I quote from a recent article of his-

Of all the challenges facing Australian schools in the 21st Century, including funding, falling behind Asia, and preparing kids for jobs that don’t yet exist, there is one challenge that is not being afforded the attention it deserves, and in light of the shifting political landscape it might just be the biggest challenge facing schools in the 21st Century; “Do young people feel as though they belong at school?”

In 2015, the NSW Department of Education published a report of the findings of a 2013 pilot survey of 78,600 high schools students in public schools across the state. Using the Tell Them From Me (TTFM) Survey, students were asked to respond to questions about their experiences of school.

These findings suggest that even when belonging is at its “best” – in Year 7 – around 30% of students feel as though they do not belong at school. I appreciate that this might not represent your school. But what proportion of your students feel as though they don’t belong?

It’s important to recognise that as well as benefits to learning, studies have shown a teenager’s sense of belonging has the strongest link to depression – even more so than attachment to parents (assuming there has been no prior mental illness). This should serve as a prescient warning, given that children who start school next year will graduate in 2030, the year that the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will become the leading cause of disease in the world.

Interventions that promote school belonging should therefore be a vital part of any approach to enhance student wellbeing. When you feel you don’t belong where you are, you go looking for someone – anyone – who gives you the impression that you matter. This is the modus operandi of every gang in the world.

I know schools are constantly challenged to better prepare students for a world that doesn’t yet exist, particularly as we appear to be outperformed by our Asian neighbours in education league tables. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing an increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) or it’s sibling STEAM (A is for Arts), whilst also developing their so-called 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (The 4 Cs).

But if kids don’t feel like they belong when they walk through the gates at school, we’ve got Buckley’s chance of any one of these acronyms or approaches having an impact. And then we’re going to face much bigger social issues than just losing the “Education Race” to Asia, and in my opinion, it won’t be the schools that are to blame.

I was encouraged by this article because I constantly wrestle with the balance between our desire at St Andrew’s to provide academic rigour, that is, a commitment to providing quality teaching to ensure our students have the foundations for life-long learning, with the need to provide a culture that means children are keen to be involved and to ‘belong’.  It is a careful line to walk and one that that I know I reflect upon as a parent and educator almost every day.  Sway too much one way and we have a thoroughly focussed and rigorous academic program with little engagement from our students.  Lean the other way and you have a wonderful warm and inclusive culture but less desire to succeed, to achieve personal best.

As leader of our College I am always mindful  of this balance, and make it my aim to reflect upon on and re-align priorities if needed.   As parents know, currently I am making a concerted effort to reignite the focus on excellence in literacy and numeracy development across Primary and Secondary. However, in doing this, also never to lose sight of the wholistic aspiration of our strategic intent: which reminds us that we need to focus on ensuring our students move confidently into their futures.  This is my constant reminder that we need to provide an environment where every diverse skill and pursuit is valued, every student feels that have a place where they ‘belong’  and where they feel valued as a person.

Chris Ivey