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Belonging schools: how do relatively more inclusive secondary schools approach and practice inclusion?

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Teach First’s work on whole-child development (Griffiths, 2023) suggests that individuals in inclusive settings, particularly pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, attain better academic and other outcomes (Gray et al., 2021). However, the gap in GCSE attainment between those eligible and not eligible for free school meals remains stubbornly persistent (Farquharson et al., 2022). Suspension rates for those eligible for free school meals are four times higher and the permanent exclusion rate five times higher than for their non-eligible peers (GOV.UK, 2023).

If we want all children to realise their potential through education, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, we need greater understanding of the factors that might reduce these figures. Teach First therefore commissioned the University of Nottingham to conduct research to address two questions:

  1. What does ‘inclusion’ mean to pupils, teachers and leaders? 
  2. How do relatively more inclusive secondary schools approach and practise inclusion?


The research (Greany et al., 2023) included a review of the literature, focus groups with school and trust leaders, an online survey and detailed case studies of six secondary schools in challenging contexts across England that are achieving relatively good outcomes for both inclusion and attainment. The case study schools were selected from a sample identified using FFT Education Datalab’s prototype School Quality Index (Thomson, 2023). This tool aims to create an encompassing measure of school quality by combining a set of measures for attainment and inclusion, to provide schools with a composite score. Each school was visited for one or two days by two members of the research team, during which data-collection activities included interviews with senior leaders, teaching and support staff, tours of the school with students and observations of relevant activities, such as tutor groups. The student tours were used as opportunities to hold informal discussions on topics related to inclusion. Students were selected to reflect characteristics of high relevance to inclusive practice, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or who had been permanently excluded from a previous school. In total in the case study schools, we conducted 48 staff interviews and talked to around 57 students. Detailed case studies for each school were developed and a cross-case analysis undertaken to identify the themes in the report.

Research findings

The literature review highlighted that there is no consensus on what inclusion means or ‘should’ look like in contemporary mainstream secondary schools. That said, there has been a shift from seeing ‘special education’ as the dominant issue to it becoming one issue within a broader ‘inclusion for all’ conceptualisation that encompasses all children, as well as school staff and wider communities, while still recognising the complex ways in which children’s backgrounds, characteristics and identities intersect in ways that are connected with systemic disadvantage in education. 

Given these evolving conceptualisations, it is timely to ask how mainstream secondary schools understand and approach inclusion. The research highlights that there is no ‘one best way’ to achieve inclusion, but shows how a sample of relatively more inclusive schools adopt an ‘inclusion for all’ approach founded on equity, relationships and belonging.

The title of this article – ‘Belonging schools’ – highlights the centrality of human relationships underpinned by shared values in all six case study schools. These relationships and values created a sense of belonging – of students being seen, known, cared for, understood and supported in ways that best met their needs – from which inclusion was an outcome. 

Figure 1 presents the key features of inclusive practice in the case study schools, which we outline briefly here.

Figure 1 is a diagram made up of concentric circles, depicting the key features of inclusive practice in case study schools.

Figure 1: Key features of inclusive practice in case study schools

Belonging schools: Foundations

Rather than a separate ‘vision for inclusion’, the case study schools had a vision within which inclusion was one – highly significant – feature. These visions also included a commitment to high expectations for all students, not least in relation to academic learning and achievement through a broad and balanced curriculum. 

The six schools viewed inclusion as a whole-school focus concerning all children. Within this broad conceptualisation, most schools also focused on one or more groups of students or priorities, reflecting their different contexts and cohorts, with four being particularly prominent: SEND, social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH), disadvantage and discrimination. The focus groups and survey suggested that schools often more widely adopt a narrower interpretation of inclusion: rather than ‘inclusion for all’, it appears common to focus on inclusion for children with a particular set of needs and characteristics.

A unifying feature across the case study schools was a focus on cultivating a sense of belonging among students. Students told us that they felt safe in school, that their concerns were listened to and that they had a trusted adult to whom they could turn. Core to this was a focus on relationships and relational approaches, which ensured that all students were seen, known and supported. This was evidenced in whole-school systems as well as micro practices (for example, how students are greeted, with careful attention to language). Whole-school approaches often centred on pastoral teams, as described below.

Fresh starts and second chances after an incident or disagreement were another important practice across the schools, often drawing on restorative practice (RP) as a core philosophy and approach.

The schools demonstrated an orientation towards equity rather than equality. For example, rather than treating every student equally through the application of standardised behaviour policies, the schools acknowledged that some students needed different opportunities and treatment (often working with the wider student body to help them to understand why such differential treatment is not ‘unfair’).

Governance, leadership and culture: Enablers

Committed governance

The trust and/or governing body played an important role in shaping and sustaining the case study schools’ inclusive ethos. 


Interviewees in the case study schools talked consistently about how school-wide values permeated decision-making and practice. Middle leaders and wider staff, including non-teaching staff, felt trusted and empowered to make professional decisions in line with these values and in the interests of students. Strategic leadership was apparent in various areas, including how the schools worked to codify and embed shared practices – for example, through the development of shared language and ways of working. 

School cultures

The research identified five common aspects of culture across the case study schools, although these played out in different ways: trust and professional judgement; consistency and flexibility; communication and joined-up working​; being deliberative (sense-making and drawing on diverse perspectives); and being outward-facing (community-linked). These features enabled the practices outlined in the following section by providing an open, high-trust and collaborative environment in which for staff to work.

Key areas of practice

Pastoral support and relationships

Two schools had highly developed pastoral models (small-group coaching circles in one and a college-based vertical tutoring model in the other) that provided core structures through which all other pastoral support operated across the school. The remaining schools had more traditional approaches, with year-group-based tutoring, heads of year and related pastoral roles.

Early help, safeguarding and multi-agency support

Several schools employed staff from non-teaching backgrounds, such as social workers, therapists and police officers. All six schools worked closely with external agencies to provide specialist support. 

Behaviour, inclusion and exclusion

Five schools used a version of a ‘three strike’ behaviour model (e.g. ‘chance, choice, consequence’), but always with an emphasis on student ownership of their own behavioural choices and consequences. The research identified a continuum of practice in relation to exclusion, isolation and alternative provision (AP). One school had stopped permanently excluding students and had closed its isolation room. The other schools used permanent exclusion sparingly, but argued that it was necessary in cases where there were risks to the safety of staff and students. These five schools also used isolation rooms, although most were working to modify these spaces with inclusive principles in mind. Two schools ran their own internal APs and a third had plans to open one, while the other three schools used external provision sparingly.

Teaching, learning and curriculum

Many aspects of teaching, learning and curriculum in the case study schools were similar to other secondary schools, but with some more distinctive aspects, including: 

    • whole-school literacy (specifically reading) initiatives (four schools), to ensure that all students could access the curriculum
    • all schools using setting or streaming to some degree, especially in core subjects and at Key Stage 4, but with several introducing mixed-attainment grouping in Key Stage 3
    • a broad and balanced curriculum linked to a rich extra-curricular learning and ‘enrichment’ offer
    • embedding diversity within curricula and developing anti-racist and anti-discriminatory cultures (five schools).


Student voice, parents and community

Student voice was valued in all six schools, including asking student councils to organise significant community events. In one school, all students receive training in restorative practice, and many students act as peer coaches and counsellors. Parental engagement was a priority in all six schools, although three characterised this area as challenging. 

Staffing and continuing professional development (CPD)

Five of the case study schools reported stable leadership and staff teams, which was seen as contributing to the development of relationships, practices and cultures. The sixth school had experienced seven different headteachers in the last 10 years, and still struggled with staff recruitment. School leaders invested in high-quality CPD and the wellbeing of staff, seeing these as important for developing a professional culture. 

Feedback and continuous improvement

Processes for monitoring and evaluating inclusive practice were regular, data-rich and formative in the case study schools, in line with the deliberative cultures referenced above.

We draw these foundations, enablers and areas of practice together into the visualisation seen in Figure 1. ​

What are the challenges to inclusion? 

A variety of issues were identified as challenges for inclusion:

  • Post-pandemic issues: These included challenges around attendance, behaviour and additional needs 
  • Issues related to SEND: Increasing levels of need across the country mean that inclusive schools become ‘magnet’ schools, popular with parents of children with SEND, which can become overwhelming if staffing and resources are insufficient to meet needs
  • Funding: In addition to core school funding concerns, cuts to wider services were seen as problematic
  • System-level issues: Several schools described system-level barriers, such as the lack of a ‘level playing field’ for schools with an inclusive ethos when they are judged using metrics that do not always value inclusive practice.



The research raises a number of questions for wider policy and practice in this area, including:

  1. What more could be done to support a focus on ‘belonging’ and ‘inclusion for all’ as part of the National Professional Qualifications for leadership?
  2. Building on the SEND and AP Green Paper reforms (HM Government, 2023), what more could be done to make sure that all schools have the opportunities, incentives and resources that they need to ensure inclusion for all?
  3. How can we broaden our conception of high-quality schools to encapsulate both inclusion and attainment?
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