The Joy of Belonging

My Mum turned 80 a few days ago and, in celebration, our family descended on a small Catalan village in France. It was great. More about it in a moment.

First, a brief word on the Catalan reference. This is relevant to what I want to say about ‘belonging’. I’ve written in a previous blog that I regret how separatist movements such as in Catalunia (the Spanish side anyhow) focus far too much on dividing us, and far less on uniting us.

Driving through Spanish Catalunia at the end of the week, from the balcony of many motorway bridges, we were assailed by flags and banners proclaiming the unjust treatment of the separatists and their right to self-determination. I will leave it to others to debate their claims. But I was very taken with the sharp contrast with the French side, where the occasional flag was present and dual-language road signs were prominent, but one got the feeling they were far more at ease with their identity – Catalan yes, but French first.

On to ‘belonging’. I would argue that these regional and national identities mean little if one is plagued by a lack of self-esteem, is full of self-doubt or is achingly lonely. In my view, identity begins with the home and in the local neighbourhood.

And this is where the family gathering fits in. Because what poured out regularly (in addition to the copious amounts of wine) was an exuberance and happiness present in the assorted clutch of grandchildren that can only happen when children are comfortable in their identity. And whilst parents do all the leg-work in developing this, I truly believe that it is the wider, extended family that provides the necessary richness in helping children find true self-esteem and confidence.

‘Belonging’ is a core human need and a key component of happiness. Being part of a joyful extended family, or of a kind and friendly neighbourhood, provides our children with an inner contentment, an emotional intelligence which can assist them navigate the increasingly crazy world around them.

So where do schools fit in?

For some children, they will have neither the joy that a large, extended family brings, nor the benefits of belonging to a close-knit community. That’s just life in 21st Century Britain. As a result, it is incumbent on school leaders to develop a strong sense of identity within their own school community and the individual children who inhabit it. Once we relegate children to a number in a vulgar data set, we’ve really lost the plot.

And there is increasing evidence that this is more and more the case.

An example is the school assembly, now an endangered species. It was not so long ago that many schools would stage a daily assembly for the whole school. On these occasions, children were commended for their contributions, their successes or their achievements, all helping to power their confidence within a wider community setting. Now, I hear of school leaders who see assemblies as collateral damage in the battle to secure a higher league table position.  Or of schools where assemblies do actually take place, but the headteacher doesn’t see the importance of actually being present at them.

This is just one example. but there are many other signs that schools place less value in community development and, as a consequence, reduce the chances for children to have this ‘extended family’ identity.

Belonging to an extended group brings intrinsic benefit and happiness. The work of Tom Crompton and his Common Cause Foundation goes into this in more detail. I recommend all school leaders to read it. Common Cause draws a distinction between intrinsic values and extrinsic values. The former concerns relationships with family, friends and community in addition to self-acceptance. The latter promotes status and self-advancement.

All of us, to some extent, have a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic values. But the extended family, the kind neighbourhood, or the values-rich school ensure that the balance is never allowed to career too far in the extrinsic direction.

Identity is not formed through political, acquisitive or transactional bonds, but through being part of something joyful and bigger, whether that be a family, a local community, or indeed a school.

And again, Happy Birthday Mum.

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