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‘Shut up and leave me alone’: Why schools need to be places of belonging

Kathryn Riley, Professor of Urban Education at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

‘Shut up and leave me alone’ were the only words that 10-year-old refugee ‘Aisha’ could find to say in English after three weeks in her school. She was the outsider who didn’t belong.[1]

Across OECD countries, more than one in four young people share something of Aisha’s experiences (OECD, 2019), feeling ‘ostracized … ignored and excluded … not looked at, listened to’ (Williams, in Riley, 2022, p. 5). For some, school exclusion will become the ultimate ‘red card’, and those with the greatest needs will be denied school membership (Taylor, 2020). In an increasingly uncertain world, it’s time to shine the powerful lens of belonging on schools.

‘Belonging’ is a relational, cultural and geographic concept, a complex emotion triggered by a range of factors. It’s a sense of being somewhere you can be confident you will fit in, a feeling of being safe in your identity and of being at home in a place. Young people’s sense of school belonging is shaped by what they bring to it – their histories, their day-to-day lived realities – as well as schools’ practices and expectations.

‘“Belonging” is a sense of being somewhere you can be confident you will fit in, a feeling of being safe in your identity and of being at home in a place.’

In Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging I set about reviewing some of the evidence about belonging and exclusion (Riley, 2022). International findings show a significant link between children’s sense of physical and emotional ‘safety’ in school – a key aspect of belonging – and their academic performance in maths and science (IEA, 2019). There is a powerful relationship between a positive sense of belonging and young people’s motivation, happiness, academic achievement and personal agency. The many benefits of having a sense of belonging stretch well into adulthood (Allen et al., 2019).

Drawing on a National Education Union-supported inquiry on the practice of school belonging, I found that in schools where adults and young people experience a strong sense of belonging, tough sanction-based behaviour policies do not feature. The red card of exclusion is rare, and interventions are characterised by relational approaches that value individuals. Staff and students report that their voices are heard and that they enjoy school life (Riley, 2022).

Leaders are key and whether a school becomes a place of welcome, possibility and belonging, or a closed place where young people are ostracised by a clique, and staff feel unappreciated is shaped by the leadership. A study of leadership during lockdown (carried out in collaboration with headteachers from Telford and Wrekin and the London Borough of Hackney) brought to light the importance of compassionate leadership.

Compassionate leaders acknowledge their own uncertainties. They recognise the importance of building trust and connecting to communities. They focus on communicating in relational and inclusive ways. The point where compassion, connectivity and communication intersect represents the essence of what it means to lead with compassion (Riley, 2022). Others have characterised this approach as ‘caring leadership’: a moral endeavour – a dynamic ministry – and a highly relational and place-based activity, driven by deep wells of compassion (Smylie et al., 2020).

In schools where belonging works, young people tend to be happier, more confident and perform better academically. Their teachers feel more professionally fulfilled and valued, and families feel more connected. Compassion is the superglue that brings leaders, staff, families and communities together: the ingredient which has the potential to redress some of the imbalances and inequities revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our hearts tell us this is the way forward. Research data provides the evidence about how to welcome all children, young people and adults into our schools.

Kathryn Riley’s book, Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, published by UCL Press, is available online here.

[1] The interview with Catherine Gladwell, Refugee Education UK, will be available online from 1 July 2022 at


Allen, K., Kern, P., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1–34.

International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement [IEA]. (2019), Do both boys and girls feel safe at school and does it matter? Compass Briefs in Education (5), February.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2019). Sense of belonging at school. In PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What school life means for students’ lives.

Riley, K. (2022), Compassionate leadership for school belonging. UCL Press.

Smylie, M. A., Murphy, J., & Louis, K. S. (2020). Caring school leadership. Corwin Press.

Taylor, M. (2020), Creating change for the ‘pinball’ kids. Royal Society for Arts.