Case study: Creating a sense of belonging at St Thomas More School
St Thomas More Catholic School is a co-educational secondary academy and sixth form in Wood Green, which is part of the Cardinal Hume Academies Trust. The school also welcomes applications from those of other faiths or no faith. The racial diversity across the student body includes a high proportion of Black Caribbean (13%) and Black African (37%) heritage students, many achieving outstanding results in their GCSEs and A Levels, no matter their starting points.
The leadership of the school has deliberately focused on ensuring that no child is left behind through building a sense of community and through acting in harmony with families when it comes to high aspirations and educational attainment for all students. This is developed in a number of ways which focus on creating a sense of belonging.
Softer starts for Year 7
Before children start Year 7 at St Thomas More, they are invited to a summer school where they are inducted into the ways of the school, and have a chance to get to know each other, their teachers and to spend time in the school before the older students start the academic year. Parents/Carers are also invited for a meeting where they learn more about the school and about their child’s starting point.
This softer landing continues throughout Year 7 to support transition from the primary school environment, and students have a year with their own playground and an earlier lunchtime slot. The aim of this is to continue the nurturing environment and give Year 7 students plenty of time to acclimatise and the teachers plenty of time to get to know them, their needs, strengths and interests.
As a school that draws in students from right across the borough, context matters. The school takes time to understand individual children’s family backgrounds, challenges that each child’s family may face whether that be uncertain financial circumstances, health concerns or specific emotional needs, as well as each family’s expectations and aspirations for their children. Similarly, the school has begun exploring contextual understanding around behaviour and safeguarding. While it operates a clear behaviour policy which includes an expectation of quiet movement around the school, staff are also mindful not to have blanket assumptions around things like demanding eye contact when speaking with a student, where looking away can be interpreted as a sign of respect, rather than being interpreted as a sign of potential defiance. As such, behaviour is outstanding and the school is calm and orderly.
Families are highly engaged with the school, often through an open journal system where they and the school can communicate freely. There are also parent forum meetings run online, with no fixed agenda aside from inviting parents/carers to raise any issues, express their opinions and have dialogue about any aspect of the school. This two-way process helps staff understand communities and individuals better and they are well-attended.
This contextual understanding extends beyond students’ time at the school, and St Thomas More keeps in touch with past students making sure that they are included in the alumni board on site. During careers events, past students will return to St Thomas More to speak with students about their career path and this supports not only students’ aspirations, but also their ability to see what possibilities look like in the world of work. It brings context to their own learning journeys at the school.
Providing families with peace of mind
The school knows that we all want the best for our children, and as such, they ensure children are safe and cared for while parents/carers are at work by providing wrap around care. The school is open from 7am to 7pm during weekdays and children can take advantage of meals, homework support as well as other academic and extra-curricular opportunities either side of the school day. The school sees this as part of their caring responsibility and a continuation of the sort of care that children would have received in primary education, and which is so often sharply interrupted when transitioning to a secondary school environment.
Curriculum, cultural capital and celebration
The school is making efforts to ensure that the curriculum is reflective of the diverse communities served. Leaders take care to include curriculum choices that are culturally and socially relevant, and want the curriculum to be agile enough to encompass current affairs while being grounded in robust historical background to support critical thinking and help students make connections readily. As part of this, the school places an emphasis on cultural capital, purposefully trying to imbue the sorts of knowledge, skills, experiences, oracy and confidence that are valued and that might level the playing field when students go on to their next steps in higher education and employment.
With this, the school takes care to celebrate skills, strengths and abilities as well as cultural capital that students bring with them, such as multilingualism and community knowledge, which enriches the school community so much. Other ways the school makes sure that students and their families are celebrated is through E-praise, hand-written postcards home, head of year awards, weekly headteacher awards, and annual celebration and sport awards evenings.
Creating a sense of belonging for staff is vital to the success of the school, as is the level of staff satisfaction at work. This also ensures good staff retention. The staff are dedicated and give up time to deliver Saturday sessions and extra periods after school. The rewards for staff are both in their relationships with students and the outcomes that the school sees, as well as in the way the school ensures that there is time for interaction and enjoyment as a team. There are a number of key social events throughout the year which include a theatre trip, a whole-school mass and a get-together where each staff member brings a dish to share.
Catholic ethos and the wider school family
The Catholic ethos of the school means that there are moments for mass and prayer, and even for those that are not Catholic or who do not practise a faith, this provides time for reflection and a framework through which to consider the way the world works.
Being part of a family of schools through the Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) means that staff have a ready-made network to draw on for professional development and practice-sharing. It also means that fixed-term and permanent exclusions are extremely low because the schools within the MAT can support each other by hosting a student who needs time away from their regular environment but who would be disadvantaged if they were made to stay at home. A student facing exclusion can attend a school at another site, continue with their learning and know that they will be in an environment with the same culture, systems, procedures and expectations. It also communicates an ongoing caring commitment to the student by the school. Staff, the student and their family know that the student is safe, well cared for and not left to fend for themself in an unknown environment or needlessly missing out on learning by being at home.
As such, St Thomas More Catholic School aims to continue its efforts to create a sense of belonging for staff, students and families across the school community and no matter the challenges, the future looks bright!