Why does the sense of belonging matter in school?

Author: Eveliina Manninen


Diversification has increased in Finland for the last three decades. The proportion of people who have a foreign background is still smaller than many other European countries, but changes can be seen in Finnish society and everyday discussions. Since 2015, especially, due to the large number of refugees, migration has been shown to be a more polarised topic in public discussion than it was previously, even though there have been people with migrant backgrounds in Finland for a long time. Who belongs to Finland and what is Finnishness? What kind of communities are there and what kind of communities are we involved in?

From the policy level point of view, the Finnish legislation and the Finnish school system guarantee equal opportunities for education to all Finnish residents. For instance, children with asylum seeker status also have the right to go to school. They can also receive teaching in their first language and own religion. The current curriculum for the Finnish basic education (ages 7−16) aims to support each pupil’s linguistic and cultural identity and it underlines the importance of language awareness and multilingualism in school communities and across the curriculum (National Board of Education, 2014).

Notwithstanding these policies, the sense of belonging is constructed in interactions. The sense of belonging can be described as being like an emotional experience – feeling “at home” and “safe” (Yuval-Davis, 2011). It consists of a sense of being understood, accepted and appreciated (Davis, Ghorashi, Smets & Eijberts, 2018). Belonging is based on individual and social identities, and communities have a tendency to create collective images of who is in or out of the group. Communities also have their own practices to strengthen the sense of belonging, by meaning-making, defining norms and deviations, and negotiating and challenging (May, 2013; Yuval-Davis, 2011).

The sense of belonging is not only a central basic need for our welfare, but it also multi-dimensionally affects our resources to act and perform. One such example is students’ academic success, which is related to students’ sense of belonging (Harju-Luukkainen, Nissinen, Sulkunen, Suni & Vettenranta, 2014). Overall, schools are important arenas of interaction where perceptions and structures appear. When individuals feel belonging and meaning in one community, for instance in school, they can more easily feel belonging also in other communities, or vice versa. However, stabilization of practices to address cultural diversity varies between schools (Ouakrim-Soivio & Pirinen, 2015) and policy level can only direct staff members’ interaction on a practical level in the right direction. That is why it is important to note that different statuses can be locked in communities also by discourses, which further restricts how individuals re-construct their identities (Jokinen, Juhila & Suoninen, 2016).

Our research raised some interesting findings regarding belonging when we explored discourses of Finnish speaking students in a lower secondary school, in a small town where diversity is not very visible (Manninen & Tarnanen, 2019). Firstly, student participants expressed different roles to their peers according to their backgrounds, and students with asylum seeker backgrounds appeared more like passive targets and objects than active agents. Even several months after their arrival at the school, the students with asylum seeker backgrounds only changed from being “unfamiliar strangers” to being “familiar strangers” in the school community, as stated by Finnish-speaking students. Thus, mere familiarity is not enough for actual belonging in the community. Secondly, students did not mention their own school community as being an in-group or “we”-group. Instead, their identity demarcation focused very one-sidedly on Finnishness. Accordingly, I argue that there is potential in social identity within school communities but that potential is underused. Thirdly, the school can be seen as a miniature society in many ways. Students’ discourses echo the ways of speaking of those they are close to and of public discussion. Even indirect bullying in the school is illuminating the same norms as distant tolerance and indirect racism in Finnish society. However, it is noteworthy that the link between schools and society is two-way: even though social phenomena are visible in school, everyday school life also affects society.

When we are discussing belonging in school communities, members of school staff play key roles. In our study (Manninen & Tarnanen 2019), teachers appear as equitable persons, “grown-up, non-racist and teacher-like”, but at the same time, their role also appears surprisingly technical as an order supervisor. Students hardly mentioned any teachers’ acts that would indicate teachers’ attempts to facilitate belonging in the school community. This raised several questions: How conscious are teachers of belonging? Do they think that facilitating belonging is one of their work tasks? Do they know how to strengthen feelings of belonging? Do schools have common practices to facilitate belonging? Do education policies enable enough time for teachers to put effort into it?

Facilitating belonging further promotes the integration process. However, belonging does not concern only the students with a migrant background, but every other student also. Integration is a two-way process, where everybody has to adapt to new situations (Modood, 2007). Based on research evidence, students’ sense of belonging in Finland has significantly weakened overall and it is lower than the average of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OECD) countries; in fact, the weakest total index was for students who have no migrant background (OECD, 2013). Staff members’ consistent work on belonging is also important because it has been noted that young people’s group boundaries tend to stay fairly unchanged (Olsson, 2018). Superficial slogans like ”everyone is different but equal”, without regular cooperation with other students with different backgrounds, do not offer enough practical tools for complex real-life situations in young people’s worlds and diversifying society. Schools, at the least, need clearer practices in order to facilitate belonging and implement zero-tolerance for indirect discrimination with both students and staff, but without focusing on confrontation and guilt-finding (Alemanji & Mafi, 2018).



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Published 4 October 2021