1. What is sense of belonging?

School belonging is a complex area that is thought about by researchers in different ways. To gain an understanding of belonging, it is useful to explore each of these theoretical positions and their application to school contexts.

There are 3 broad ways to view belonging and its importance for students:
  • A philosophical understanding of belonging highlights that belongingness is not singular or static, but rather is a dynamic construct that relates to how common histories, experiences and places are conceived and sustained. This tradition highlights the importance of considering the many identities and senses of belonging that children and young people form within and beyond the classroom and their school.
  • From a psychological understanding, belongingness is a psychological state that can be viewed as an essential human need and thus a fundamental goal of student wellbeing at school.
  • From a sociological understanding, sense of belonging can be seen as context specific, where social identity is characterised through a connection to place and informs a sense of community. Each school and classroom must be considered as a unique context where the social exchanges of teaching and learning involve a balance between personal and social identities.

School belonging is characterised by various interconnected concepts, methods and theoretical positions. This broad ideology generates multiple avenues for understanding students’ sense of belonging within NSW schools.

In addition, Indigenous sense of belonging encompasses the recognition of their culture, autonomy, and connection to country. For Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, connection to country and culture play an important role in various aspects of their wellbeing, including health, spirituality and identity. Autonomy, self-determination and strong cultural identity can also contribute to nurturing sense of belonging for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students (Yap & Yu 2016).

Why is sense of belonging important?

Research shows a students’ sense of belonging at school is linked to their academic achievement and wellbeing. Students who have a high sense of belonging in school generally put in more effort and are more motivated at school, have lower absenteeism and thus higher academic outcomes. Students who feel accepted and included at school tend to be happier, have greater interest in school activities, and are more confident. Alternatively, when students do not feel they belong at school they tend to reject school values, withdraw from school activities, and become alienated or disaffected.

Sense of belonging is also paramount in early childhood contexts, where children’s relationships with others play an important role in shaping their identities and influencing their sense of place in the world. Further information on supporting children’s sense of belonging in early childhood contexts can be found in the Early Years Learning Framework.

Measuring students’ perceptions of belonging in NSW public schools

In NSW public schools, sense of belonging is measured through the Tell Them From Me (1) student surveys. The sense of belonging measure concerns students’ feelings of being accepted and valued by their peers and by others at school. It reflects the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported in the school social environment (2).

In the surveys, students are asked whether they feel included and accepted at school and if they make friends easily. The data is scaled on a 10-point scale, and students with a score greater than or equal to 6 (that is, slightly higher than neutral) are considered to have a ‘positive sense of belonging’. The results are reported as ‘the percentage of students with a positive sense of belonging’.

Sense of belonging and Our Plan for NSW Public Education

The Plan for NSW Public Education sets out the department’s direction and priorities for 2024-2027 to provide an outstanding education for every learner. The commitment that ‘every student learns, grows and belongs in an equitable and outstanding education system’ will be implemented through the Plan’s focus areas, actions, goals and success measures.

The primary and secondary student surveys support our focus area to strengthen student wellbeing and development with the goal that every student is known, valued and cared for. A measure of success for the department to track progress towards this goal is the proportion of students reporting a sense of belonging, gauged in the student surveys. The sense of belonging measure of success is reviewed at the state level to monitor progress towards providing equitable and outstanding public education.

Sense of belonging and the School Excellence Framework

The School Excellence Framework (SEF) Improvement Model supports schools to determine focus areas for ongoing improvement. The model identifies whole-school and classroom elements as improvement enablers which support effective teaching and wellbeing practices, leading to student growth and performance. Research shows improving a student's sense of belonging can have positive impacts on various focus areas in the SEF. The figure below highlights the positive correlation between students’ sense of belonging and various elements in the model.

The figure highlights the positive correlation between students sense of belonging and various elements in the SEF model. The figure highlights the positive correlation between students sense of belonging and various elements in the SEF model.

The Framework supports all NSW public schools in their pursuit of equity and excellence by providing a description of the 14 key elements of high-quality practice across the three domains of learning, teaching, and leading. The commitment to equity and excellence means that every student can learn, grow and belong. The Framework recognises the importance of students’ wellbeing and belonging through multiple references throughout its element and theme descriptions.

Learning domain

  • Learning culture: school culture is strongly focused on learning and transitions, wellbeing, fostering educational aspirations and ongoing performance improvement throughout the school community.
  • Wellbeing: there is a strategic and planned approach to develop whole school wellbeing processes that support the wellbeing of all students so they can connect, succeed, thrive and learn.

Teaching domain

  • Data skills and use: student data is regularly used school-wide to identify student achievements, progress and wellbeing needs, in order to reflect on teaching effectiveness and inform future school directions.

Leading domain

  • Educational leadership: the community engagement theme highlights the importance of a collaborative culture to build a cohesive educational community and enhanced sense of belonging.
  • School resources: the facilities theme highlights the importance of a creative and sustainable approach to the use of the physical environment, ensuring that it optimises learning and wellbeing.

Sense of belonging and schools’ improvement measures

From 2024, schools are encouraged to have a purposeful focus on a small number of improvement measures within their Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP). These improvement measures are aligned to the focus areas of reading, numeracy, attendance and pathways (for schools with secondary students). Schools are encouraged to set aspirational, yet achievable measures that are appropriate for each school’s context and that speak to the needs of the school and its students. There is strong evidence that a student’s positive sense of belonging has a positive relationship with each of the focus areas.

Focus area Connection to sense of belonging

Attendance

CESE’s Understanding Attendance (2022) review identifies sense of belonging as a key factor that influences attendance. Key findings from student survey longitudinal data found improvements in sense of belonging for low-SES students in the Year 7 cohort predict an increase in attendance of over 2 days Also, for Aboriginal students in year 7, sense of belonging, pride in school and feeling their culture is understood by their teachers, predict increases in attendance. Together, improvements in these 3 factors could result in about 5 additional days in school for Aboriginal students in this cohort.

Reading and numeracy

Research suggests that students with a positive sense of belonging are more likely to achieve higher academic outcomes. Additionally, students who have a high sense of belonging in school generally put in more effort and are more motivated at school. CESE’s How high expectations and engagement in primary school drive student learning (2019) paper found a student in Year 5 with positive friendships in school is at least 2 months ahead in their NAPLAN reading scores by Year 7 than a student without.

Pathways

Research shows students with strong teacher-student relationships are more likely to complete Year 12. CESE’s Supporting school completion (2019) paper found a student in Year 10 with positive teacher-student relationships has a 3 percentage points higher predicted school completion rate than a student without. Furthermore, CESE’s Supporting Aboriginal students to attain the HSC (2021) paper found Aboriginal students in Year 10 who report that their teachers are interested in their school assignments and that their family encourages them to do well have greater odds of attaining the HSC compared with Aboriginal students who do not report the same support.

1 Tell Them From Me is provided by, and intellectual property of The Learning Bar.

2 Goodenow C (1993) The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates, Psychology in the Schools, 30:79-90, doi: 10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1<79::AID-PITS2310300113>3.0.CO;2-X.

3 Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2020), Supporting students' sense of belonging – Every student is known, valued and cared for in our schools, NSW Department of Education

4 Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2022), Understanding attendance, NSW Department of Education

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