2. What is happening to belonging in NSW public schools?

In NSW, schools can examine the extent to which their students experience a positive sense of belonging at school through data collected in the student survey. This survey asks students whether they feel included and accepted at school and if they make friends easily.

Key messages

Data from NSW schools shows that sense of belonging at school has been declining in both primary and secondary schools since 2017. In primary schools, the decline was particularly pronounced in 2020 and 2021 and now continues at around 1 percentage point per year. Secondary schools saw a slight reversal of the trend between 2019 to 2020 however 2020 to 2023 saw a decline of nearly 8 percentage points (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sense of belonging in NSW, 2016 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we support student wellbeing?

The department has a suite of resources on how to improve students’ sense of belonging at school.

Wellbeing in schools webpage provides policy, advice and resources to support your students.

What works best: Wellbeing professional learning. This course involves connecting educational theory and research with your own context.

The pattern of declining student belonging is not unique to NSW. Similar declines have been observed nationally and internationally among states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Figure 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a: Sense of belonging in Australian states and internationally over time, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data


Figure 2b: Sense of belonging in Australia and the international average over time, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data

Sense of belonging has declined across all student years, with the largest drops from 2019 to 2021 in primary schools and since 2021 in secondary schools. This is particularly concerning as it is the same cohort of students transitioning from primary to high school over these years.

Figure 3: Change in sense of belonging by year level, 2019 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we support students’ sense of belonging?

The department’s School community webpage provides links to multiple resources to support students’ wellbeing. Resources include information on wellbeing programs, wellbeing support services, the wellbeing framework and resources to help tailor the health and wellbeing approaches at school.

Supporting students’ sense of belonging. This research explains why students’ sense of belonging is important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support and care for their students.

Student background

Sense of belonging in NSW has declined across all equity groups. However, declines have been largest among girls and students from low socioeconomic status (SES) and Aboriginal backgrounds (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Change in sense of belonging by student background, 2019 to 2023, Tell Them From Me data

How do we promote equity for all student groups?

The Achieving School Excellence in Wellbeing and Inclusion tool supports schools’ understanding that wellbeing and inclusion initiatives and programs can be used as evidence of excellence across the School Excellence Framework.

Maximising learning and wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal students.

Excellence for all Aboriginal students.

Closing the gap case studies illustrate how five NSW primary schools have achieved high learning growth for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Tell Them From Me: Gender and engagement.

Excellence for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The socioeconomic background equity loading can be used to meet the additional learning needs of students who may be experiencing educational disadvantage as a result of their socioeconomic background.

Students transitioning to high school

Concerns over belonging may be exacerbated by transition to a new school. Going to a new school disrupts friendships and raises academic stakes, in an often larger and more impersonal school environment (3).

In NSW, the decline in sense of belonging across the transition to secondary school has accelerated slightly since 2019 and more so since 2021 (Figure 5). This acceleration may be due to the disruptions to schooling experienced since 2019 – floods, bushfires and the impact of COVID-19.

Figure 5: Sense of belonging in 3 longitudinal cohorts across the transition to secondary school, Tell Them From Me data

How do we assist students during periods of change?

The department’s Transition to school webpage provides resources for parents and carers, ECEC services and schools, to support children transitioning to school.

The department’s Enhancing the transition to high school for students webpage provides resources and strategies to make students transition to high school more successful.

The role of student engagement in the transition from primary to secondary school report. This publication examines the relationship between a students’ sense of belonging and other measures of student engagement over the primary to secondary school transition.

The impact of bushfires on student wellbeing and student learning report. This paper supports the Bushfire Relief Strategy which outlines the department’s approach to assisting schools to recover from natural disasters across the short, medium and long term.

Trauma-informed practice in schools is an explainer that summarises evidence on trauma-informed practice within an educational context and provides strategies schools can use to support students.

The decline in sense of belonging at school is mirrored in wider mental health trends. Psychological distress has increased markedly since 2012, more so among female than male young people (Figure 6). A 2023 report reveals the 2019 to 2020 downward trend has continued with NSW and Australian decreasing between 2020 and 2023. Psychological distress records how frequently in the past 4 weeks respondents have felt nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety, so depressed that nothing could cheer them up, that everything was an effort, and worthless. It is a robust predictor of mental health problems in young people (15 to 19 years old).

Figure 6: Psychological distress in young people in NSW and Australia, 2012 to 2020 (4)


Previous analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) also shows an association between aspects of a student’s wider mental health and their sense of belonging at school. Students with low levels of anxiety or strong relationships with their parents tend to report higher levels of belonging at school (Figure 7).1

1 Longitudinal modelling conducted in partnership with University of Queensland – Institute for Social Science Research

Figure 7: Student, family and community factors positively associated with students' sense of belonging, LSAC data

How do we promote students’ mental health?

Everyday resilience – what works best in practice guide. This guide is for school leaders and teachers on how to support students’ everyday resilience. It provides strategies on how it can be supported by implementing What works best classroom practices.

Supporting our Students Mental Health professional learning provides foundational knowledge and practical skills needed to effectively support students. It covers mental health theory, practical skills and discover where, and when, to refer students for other available supports.

Department of Education: Mental Health and Wellbeing webinars – A series of mental health and wellbeing webinars to support educators to promote positive social and emotional wellbeing and safe environments for students.

Mental health programs and partnerships – The department works with mental health organisations here in Australia and internationally. Programs are available for K to 12.

Whether or not the driving force behind declining sense of belonging is located inside or outside the school gate, school characteristics can help protect against the decline in belonging or even work to raise it. Analysis of data over time shows that schools that support students' social engagement and positive teacher-student relations, and that provide a positive environment for both students and staff, also have more positive changes in sense of belonging.

Students’ social engagement

Schools that foster peer relationships, minimise bullying and provide access to activities outside the classroom where students can connect with others with common interests may protect against a decline in sense of belonging.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that schools with lower levels of bullying, and higher levels of positive peer relationships and participation in sports and clubs, tended to have lower levels of decline in belonging or even large increases (Figure 8). Schools with large increases distinguish themselves particularly through less bullying and more participation in sports.

Figure 8 : Bullying, peer relationships and participation in clubs and sports by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

How do we foster students’ social engagement?

Bullying of Students – Prevention and Response. This policy sets out the department’s position on student bullying and the requirements for preventing and responding to student bullying, including online bullying. Implementation document: Anti-bullying plan.

The School Sport Unit program provides carefully planned, adaptable and enjoyable representative and participation based physical activity experiences for all students in NSW public schools as well as quality teacher professional learning and policy support for teachers and principals.

Quality teaching practices

Schools that create caring, fair and respectful learning environments, and that affirm students’ ability to succeed at school by combining high expectations with the support needed to meet them, may protect against a decline in sense of belonging at school. Schools with high-quality teacher-student relationships may also protect against a decline in sense of belonging.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that schools with more positive teacher-student relations, advocacy at school, teacher expectations for success and classroom management also record more positive changes in sense of belonging (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Students' perception of teaching factors by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

How do we support quality teaching?

‘What works best’ outlines eight quality teaching practices that support school improvement. All ‘What works best’ resources.

Supporting high academic expectations explains why high expectations are important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support their students.

Supporting advocacy at school explains why student advocacy at school is important and provides practical suggestions for schools to support their students.

Classroom practice provides classroom management strategies to support teachers.

Staff wellbeing

There is little direct research on the link between staff wellbeing and student wellbeing. However, some researchers suggest that teachers who feel good about themselves and in their job are better able to build good relationships with students and provide consistent expectations in the classroom (5, 6).

Previous CESE data analysis shows that in NSW schools, staff wellbeing is positively associated with changes in sense of belonging (Figure 10). In primary schools, staff support and satisfaction and low levels of work stress in particular are distinguishing factors.

Figure 10: Staff wellbeing according to People Matter Employee Survey 2019 by change in sense of belonging

School infrastructure

There is limited research on the link between the built school environment and student sense of belonging at school. However, some findings suggest that the physical environment sets the stage for positive perceptions of school (3, 5, 7). The availability of recreational spaces and opportunities to play and socialise support students’ connection to their peers. A clean and pleasant environment also sets expectations for safety and for positive, respectful relationships.

Previous CESE data analysis shows that in NSW schools, the physical school environment is positively associated with changes in sense of belonging (Figure 11). The state of toilets, playgrounds and covered areas is particularly important.

Principals and school leaders should thoroughly understand their own context before adopting any strategies to uplift students’ sense of belonging, ensuring alignment with their school's specific environmental circumstances and needs.

Figure 11: Student perception of school infrastructure by change in sense of belonging, Tell Them From Me, 2021

3 Healy K and Stroman C (2021) Structures for belonging: A synthesis of research on belonging-supportive learning environments, Student Experience Research Network, accessed 09 July 2021.

4 Brennan N, Beames JR, Kos A, Reily N, Connell C, Hall S, Yip D, Hudson J, O’Dea B, Di Nicola K and Christie R (2021) Psychological distress in young people in Australia - Fifth Biennial Youth Mental Health Report: 2012-2020 [PDF, 3.7MB], Mission Australia, accessed 27 July 2021.

5 Allen K and Kern M (2017) School belonging in adolescents: Theory, research and practice, Springer, Singapore.

6 Viac C and Fraser P (2020) 'Teachers’ well-being: A framework for data collection and analysis', OECD Education Working Papers, 213, OECD Publishing, Paris, doi: 10.1787/c36fc9d3-en.

7 CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (2009) School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth [PDF, 1MB], accessed 16 July 2021.

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