Rob Loe is concerned. He’s concerned about young people feeling isolated in our society. And he thinks you should be concerned about it, too.
“People are deeply worried about how disconnected young people are from one another these days – and they should be worried about it because some young people are more likely to experience loneliness than the elderly,” Loe says.
As director of the Relational Schools Foundation, which was established in 2014 as a charitable thinktank aiming to improve how people in schools relate to one another, Loe is in the business of relationship building. He believes that there is plenty of work to be done when it comes to developing how staff and students value and understand school-based relationships.
“Human beings are social creatures, and we have lived in social groups far more than we have been isolated. But right now in the UK, we have a loneliness minister, and our young people are extremely likely to experience loneliness at some point,” he explains.
This is not just a UK phenomenon, he says. A recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that students in Australia were less likely to connect with each other and more likely to experience loneliness than those in other OECD nations.
“There is a massive body of research saying why relationships are important…and yet students are telling us they feel disconnected from each other. I am not sure people really understand how bad things are.”
This is what the Relational Schools Foundation aims to change. Loe and his colleagues believe that, by strengthening the quality of relationships between people, starting with children in schools, society as a whole will benefit.
By applying what he calls “relational thinking”, and measuring the quality of relationships in the classroom and in the wider school, Loe believes institutions can change the way they are organised and the way they conduct their teaching, leadership and management, in a manner that will bolster what he terms their “relational capital”.
Good morning, good morning
For Loe, this relational approach starts at the very beginning of the school day. If morning form time is used for administration – for taking the register and reading out notices – then not only is an opportunity to cultivate relationships being missed, it could be having a long-term detrimental effect on some students’ wellbeing, he says.
“We need to be far more intentional about what quality pastoral and mentoring time looks like in schools because it is hard to talk about relationships with people if you don’t necessarily trust them. Why would you open up to them?” he asks.
“If pupils don’t feel a social connection in those pastoral structures then they are extremely unlikely to connect with anybody in the school at other times.”
Loe is not just speaking from experience here, he is drawing on the research. One Relational Schools project, carried out with Christian Schools Australia, worked with more than 11,000 students and school staff to investigate the link between wellbeing and pastoral connections. Establishing strong relationships in pastoral settings was found to be beneficial to all students but particularly those who were struggling to connect with peers and staff at other times of the day.
“We found absolute correlation between the strong mental health and wellbeing of individuals, and their relationships in a pastoral setting at the beginning of the school day,” says Loe. “It also benefited their wider relationships within school.”
Can relationships be measured?
But how can schools know if relationships are strong – and is it possible to accurately measure something intangible, such as the quality of people’s personal connections?
“It is a really complex and difficult thing to do,” says Loe. “As a former head of teaching at a large secondary school, I know that if you can’t put numbers on something, if you can’t get empirical data on it, then it’s sad to say it can fall down the list of priorities.”
However, there is, he adds, “a lineage of work going back to the mid 1990s”, that has sought to quantify and measure the quality of relationships. “We are always measuring the dyadic (the relationships between two people) and then aggregating what we find. We are as interested in the whole-school community’s relationships, of course, but we start by measuring relationships between two people in one setting.”
The Relational Schools tool then looks at hundreds, even thousands, of dyadic interactions to investigate “what the relational culture feels like at class level, year level, then school level and system level”. It’s a practice the foundation has been involved in since 2015.
Among the aspects assessed are the quality of communication between people, the degree to which members of the school community know each other in a range of varied contexts and the parity – or equality – of the relationships on show.
“Even in the student-teacher dyad, which is inherently asymmetrical – and rightly so, because it is right to say that the teacher should be in control of the classroom space – equality plays a role. From my perspective, the best teachers make young people feel like they are on a completely level playing field, and that they are working together,” says Loe.
Despite his belief that all schools could benefit from the implementation of the Relational Schools framework, Loe says he is very concerned about the possibility of the government – or Ofsted – making relational development a requirement.
“I am absolutely terrified that someone might think our work is so valuable that it should become part of an inspection regime, and that the inspectorate would start to beat schools around the head with some sort of relationship measure – and then say, ‘you are no good because your relationships are no good’.”
Forcing schools to identify a member of staff to take responsibility for relationships within a school – an approach that might become the norm if Ofsted was to begin inspecting on such things – would not be an effective way to encourage positive change, Loe believes.
“If you’re incentivised to identify a key lead individual then it will become an add-on, an additional part of that teacher’s life. Teaching the importance of relationships would simply be tacked on to the end of another lesson.”
He points to citizenship as an example of where official requirements have resulted in the subject undergoing a series of what he believes to be unhelpful iterations.
“The danger is that we just call it ‘relational studies’, and it is treated in the same way [as citizenship],” he says.
For this reason, Loe is wary about singling out specific examples that demonstrate precisely what makes a truly relational school. “The danger is that people could look at the work we did with a school and take just one aspect or action from it,” he explains, which would miss the point of having a whole-school approach.
However, he has been particularly impressed by the approach of XP School, a small secondary in Doncaster – especially by its decision to take all Year 7 students away for a four-day outward bound residential trip at the very start of their first school year.
“Most schools take kids away, but they usually do it at the end of the year as a treat – just at the point when the pupils are about to break all those relationships over the summer holidays.
“Doing it at the end has less of an impact on the community feel of the school, and a more short-term impact on personal wellbeing,” he says. The XP approach has a much more lasting, positive effect.
“They were catalysing their relationships, and those relationships, after four days away, were more robust and healthy than we had seen in many schools after four or five months. It had a profound impact.”
Even so, he says, headteachers should be wary of taking this intervention in isolation and applying it in their school before concluding that they had implemented a “really relational” approach.
“There is definitely some strong evidence that it will have a big impact on your relational culture but, to be clear, the reason why XP school is so amazing is its holistic approach to everything it does,” he says.
“The danger is that one person can only do one thing, whereas I think it is possible to transform school culture if you approach it from multiple angles to achieve it.”
For example, another school Loe has worked with dedicated a significant amount of time in the middle of every day to ensuring that every pupil took part in an extra-curricular enrichment activity.
“In some schools, only those pupils whose parents had encouraged them to join the choir or be part of the soccer club were taking part in these types of activities,” Loe says. “By doing it in the middle of the day, everyone could do it – and we know that when people get to know each other in different contexts, they learn more about each other – it can have a big impact on a school’s culture.”
This change in culture is crucial, Loe continues. “You can only start to build relationships if you have got a deep sense of common purpose and, in order to create an environment like that, you have to pay attention to why people are all there.”
The best schools, he concludes, are “more like households where young people are treated as an end in themselves”.
“Unfortunately, there are many schools in the UK where students are treated as a means to an end, and in that environment, people don’t really connect.”
Chris Parr is a freelance journalist