Five Ways in Which Governors Can Play a Role in Fostering a Sense of Belonging and Status at their School

Pupils from underserved groups can often feel like they don’t belong in their class, year group or school. They are more likely than their peers to be fragile and nervous learners, finding it harder to work in teams, to trust others and to accept feedback. Their energy and focus may well be sapped by the trauma of navigating social situations; they are prone to feel the weight of external scrutiny and judgement and all of that can detract from their ability to feel safe and to perform at their best. And adults (staff and parents) from underserved groups can lack status and a sense of belonging too.

Inclusive educators recognise that they have amazing powers to convey a sense of belonging, status and connection to those who are floating adrift. They strive to create an environment in which their underserved learners’ loves, passions, out-of-school experiences, dreams, frustrations and fears are understood and responded to by the adults at the school.

They understand that learning is facilitated by strong relationships and the trust that comes with them: open and honest relationships enable pupils to communicate their learning needs and teachers to personalise their support more effectively. And they know that for learners who do not have adults supporting them at home, the adults in the school can perform the role played by the parents of more fortunate peers.

What can you do as a governor or trustee to support in the fostering of a sense of belonging for all learners, and particularly the underserved, at your school?

Firstly, in your role as overseers of the curriculum, you have an important function to ensure that the curriculum in all subject areas builds identity and fosters a sense of belonging.

The schemes of learning, resources and displays should foreground, showcase and usualise the achievements and experiences of peoples from all cultures, classes and backgrounds, including those with protected characteristics. All members of the school community should see themselves represented, their identity and heritage honoured and their lived experience recognised through the curriculum.

Examine schemes to check for inclusion and scan for visual representation when you are in school. You could invite curriculum leads to present to governors on how they build a sense of belonging and status for underserved learners through their curriculum design.

Secondly, when you have the opportunity to visit during the school day, look out for inclusive, welcoming and status building behaviours, such as:

  • Use of smiles, praise and encouragement by staff, directed at undeserved learners.
  • Staff welcoming back an underserved learner who has been absent and telling them that they were missed.
  • Staff going out of their way to find opportunities to give responsibilities or to assign a role to a learner with low social status.
  • Teachers not allowing confident learners to dominate the discussion (learners with high status talk more!) and not asking for volunteers to read (students with low status are unlikely to volunteer).
  • Staff publicly (or privately) admiring the effort and/or achievement of a learner with low status and using ipsative assessment (comparing their performance to their previous best rather than the performance of others).
  • Staff demonstrating through conversation that they are holding underserved learners in their mind e.g. “I saw xxx and thought of you…”

When you see great examples acknowledge them. If you see any examples of non-inclusive practice, inform leaders. You might like to suggest that, at a governing body meeting, leaders present what adults at the school proactively do to foster a sense of belonging and status building. This could form the focus of a governors’ visit.

Thirdly, fostering a sense of belonging for parents and family members is also vitally important. Governors who are not on the school staff are in a great position to gauge and give feedback on how welcoming the school feels for those who call or come into the reception. Here you might look out for the following:

  • Whether the school reception is a welcoming environment (chairs, space for buggies, useful information, welcoming messages in community languages).
  • Whether reception staff are welcoming and helpful to, and understanding of, family members.
  • Whether staff maintain a friendly and familiar presence at the start and end of the day.
  • Whether home visits are conducted for underserved learners to connect with the family, form a strong relationship and ensure that any barriers and needs are understood.
  • Whether staff invite underserved learners joining the school, and family members, to visit in advance to familiarise themselves with the site and facilities.

Fourthly, you could perform an important function in conducting voice activity with pupils, staff and/or parents from underserved or under-represented groups to gauge the extent to which they feel a sense of belonging at the school.

Whether that is through meeting with groups of PP eligible learners, those from racially minoritised backgrounds or students with SEND, or by conducting exit interviews with staff or inviting targeted families to complete a survey or meet you for a coffee and a chat, the fact that you are one step removed from the senior leaders may we mean that you can elicit candid comments and powerful perspectives.

Lastly, and importantly, ask for and analyse data which will show the impact of strategies to develop a sense of belonging and status. Look for:

  • High attendance rates for underserved learners.
  • No over representation of underserved learners in sanctions and behavioural incidents.
  • High retention rates of underserved learners into the sixth form.
  • Low attrition rates of staff from underserved groups (unless for promotion!)
  • High engagement rates amongst underserved learners in extra-curricular and enrichment activities and trips.
  • Learners, parents and staff who describe a sense of being valued and empowered members of the community.

Author

Rachel Macfarlane, Lead Advisor for Underserved Learners, Herts for Learning

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