12 Oct

Watch: Susan Pinker on why relationships matter

Relational Schools Book Launch & Premier - 17th September 2015

The Relational Thinking International Conference last month provided a great opportunity for leaders in business, the non-profit and public services sector to come together to explore the concept of Relational Thinking in their particular fields. On 17th September, teachers, leaders and education policy makers gathered for the launch of the film and book “The Relational Teacher”. We were honoured to have Susan Pinker, international best-selling author of The Village Effect, come from Canada to speak. She was passionate, humorous, engaging and persuasive as she spoke about the importance of face-to-face interaction for education, health and life.

Photography: Julian Claxton

Buy The Relational Teacher here.

Buy The Village Effect here.


21 Aug

Relationships for learning: making the implicit explicit

The Relational Teacher (interaction)

In a new blog piece published by the Relational Schools Project a teacher reflects on the discovery of the importance of Relational Thinking in the class room, acknowledging that things like the teacher-pupil relationship should be part of the pedagogy.

“An overwhelming number of students, when asked questions about their motivation and engagement at school, responded with ‘it depends on the teacher’. Follow up interviews conducted by the Faculty of Education reinforced the correlation: students’ perception of the quality of the connection that they had with their teachers played a significant part in their engagement in lessons, subjects and with school as a whole”, she writes.

Then, a little later, she describes an observation from a study among teachers, about their teaching and the relationships with their pupils:

“For many colleagues it was the first time that they were being directly invited to focus on their pedagogy in this way. Arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of their teaching had become tacit knowledge and a number of them found it hard to identify the relational elements of their practice – it was just how they taught.

While there’s a place for nostalgic reminiscence of teacher-pupil relationships in ‘My best teacher’ articles and leaving speeches, it’s a subject relatively devoid from professional dialogue, teacher training, aside from the ubiquitous ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ NQT adage. Should this occurrence be a matter let to teachers’ own personal idiosyncrasies, given the potential impact that it can have on learning and engagement?”

Would  you like to read the whole article? Please go here.

The Relational Schools Project is launching the premiere of the documentary the Relational Teacher during the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference, taking place in Cambridge, 16 – 18 September. There are still tickets available!



07 Aug

Trailer of The Relational Teacher released

Relational Schools Filming

Interested to see what applied Relational Thinking looks like? Watch this trailer of the documentary The Relational Teacher, produced by the Relational Schools Project, which will have its premiere around the Relational Thinking International Conference in Cambridge, 16 – 18 September 2015.

You can still register for the conference by going here.



08 May

The Relational Student: developing social capital capacity

Relational Schools FilmingLinton Village College

CAMBRIDGE – By Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project.

This week saw the final day of filming for “The Relational Teacher”. The film explores a pedagogy for relationships and has followed six outstanding teachers and their classes. Whilst we have sought to highlight teacher practice/behaviours that lead to strong relationships in the classroom, the film has explored the view of students as well; their objective perspective has been crucial in understanding the subtle nuance of relationship building.

In turning the spotlight on the students, it becomes clear that being a Relational Teacher is not a solitary pursuit. The best Relational Teachers describe the environment of the Relational School (highly suited to their way of working); the Relational Staffroom (teachers who build relationships in community) and the Relational Student. A fundamental question has arisen from our work; to what extent do we need to develop the relational capacities of young people so that relationship building in the classroom becomes a shared responsibility?

In an attempt to analyse, observe and describe the ways teachers build social capital with those around them – I was struck by the need to develop the same social capital capacities in the very young people in their care.

Do relationships with teachers even matter?

The theory of social capital was distilled into two words by Field: “relationships matter” (Social Capital, London, Routledge 2003). The significance of a relational dimension is depicted in most models of social capital. The building blocks of social capital include: trust; engagement and connection; collaborative action; shared identity as well as shared values and aspirations.

When students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behaviour difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse et al., 2009). They are also more active participants in class, express a greater interest in [schooling], and maintain higher grade point averages (Hallinan, 2008)

Although both parental and teacher support are important in predicting students’ achievement, several studies indicate that student-perceived teacher connection was the most closely associated factor with progress through Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). Positive student-teacher relationships serve as a resource for students at risk of school failure, whereas conflict or detachment between students and adults are the foundations of disconnection and, specifically, outcomes such as truancy. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (2000) suggests that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with ‘relationship with the teacher’ cited as one of the principal grounds for relational breakdown. Where relationships are strong in the classroom, they can surmount social inequality; where they are poor or dysfunctional, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage. Simply put, students who have difficulty forming supportive relationships with teachers are at a greater risk of school failure (Ladd & Burgess, 2001).

Developing Relational Resilience 

So, how do we actively create social capital within school communities?

Research indicates that not all students have equal access to the opportunity to develop close relationships with their teachers. According to Jerome, Hamre, and Pianta (2009), some subgroups (including certain ethnic minority groups, males, those of lower ability or those who exhibit externalising behaviours such as aggression or hyperactivity) experience teacher relationships with more conflict than their peers. Likewise, students with emotional disturbances, mild learning disabilities or students who display more problem behaviours at home have more conflictual relationships with teachers than with students without these problems.

Whilst education has witnessed a shift in focus in relation to the students’ role, the learning and assessment processes, teacher-to-student relationships remain asymmetrical. As such there is, perhaps, an expectation, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to develop the  professional working relationship between them and the student. But that some groups of students struggle to build close relationships with teachers, more than others, suggests relational capacities of young people are exceptionally important to building strong relationships and need to be developed. We need to help to develop relational resilience in students so that when they meet others who aren’t as good at developing relationships, they can overcome perceived obstacles. Students need to know where to begin and not passively to expect the teacher to initiate the process.

picThe Culture of Open Dialogue

One area that can be focused on to build relational resilience is the area of communication. Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and consequently students with poor communication skills will struggle to build relationships. One way to develop this is through the practice of dialogue (West-Burnham & Otero, 2004). This dialogue needs to be rich – not just focused on ‘instructional conversation’, but including community conversation, where people can share views and develop social capital. When students practice dialogue with their teachers and classmates, they will develop their communication skills, and likely feel greater mutual respect, thus building relational resilience.

The National College poses eight interrogatives to assess the Relational culture of your classroom/your school. How open is your school’s culture of dialogue?

In our view, there is no surer route to community building and to fulfi lling the promise of democracy and lifelong learning than through the deepening of good, ongoing dialogue. Such dialogue can increase student achievement, transform teaching and learning and renew relationships that connect communities to schools (Preskill et al, 2000)

The Relational Teacher is released this September.

17 Mar

The Village Effect

Old men playing game

I took my family to the stunning King’s Cross Theatre production of The Railway Children yesterday. This wasn’t any visit to a theatre. We weren’t spectators of a production and more participants in the production.

We arrived half an hour early to the purpose built 1,000-seat theatre, complete with a railway track and platforms but we didn’t have to wait for the start of a performance; the inclusivity of the experience was evident from the start. Met by characters in costume, “held” in a waiting room dressed as a period station space and then directed to our seats, the characters mingled with the audience from the beginning.

Directed by Damian Curden, the Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal,  the play was first produced at the National Railway Museum, York, in 2008/9. It enjoyed both critical and financial success. Its popularity, in part, will be due to the spectacle (the presence of a live steam locomotive and a vintage carriage) as well the magic of E. Nesbit’s story which appears timeless. Yet, the magic for me was the continued dialogue with the audience and the wonderful invitation to join the village community (become the village community) at the end of the show and celebrate the return of the father.

It was a reminder to me that one does not need to live in a community like that to feel (and perceive) that you are surrounded by people you are connected to and who make you feel better about life because of it.

Space for true community

Journalist and Psychologist Susan Pinker wrote a book called “The Village Effect – Why face-to-face-contact matters”. Her argument is clear: the people who invest in meaningful personal relationships with lots of real social contact are more resilient to challenges in life, have better psychological defenses than those who are solitary or who engage with the world largely through social media.

In my chapter on education in the The Relational City I argue for the creation of 5th Spaces to promote true community collaboration opportunities. It is my argument that the individualism and materialism of the 21st Century has led to two sorts of spaces we inhabit: the environment of the home (which is increasingly inhabited by the individual living alone without relationship to others around them) and the environment of the workplace (where we spend an increasing number of hours to the detriment of our ability to sustain relationships elsewhere).

Those like American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg call for the creation of “Third” spaces. They are physical locations where people meet on the level of social/cultural experience. Yet a “fifth space” approach to education takes this argument further. It promotes a vision of education where many of the third place structures which foster encounter relationships, and the workplaces and workspaces which promote economic growth and development, are united with the physical environment of the school itself.

This argument quite deliberately excludes discussions of, what I term, the “fourth space”, the virtual/digital networks which have certainly pulled individuals and groups into a space that have certainly made the world seem smaller, allowing us to develop a much wider, yet more shallow, nexus of support. These networks, are no match for the face-to-face communications of personal relationships which, so science is now revealing, impacts on our happiness, or reasoning capacity (particularly memory) and even our life chances.

The ultimate village life: Sardinia

Susan Pinker takes her inspiration from the tight village communities of Sardinia.

We are beginning to understand why women, on average, live 5-7 years longer than men in the developed world. Research suggests that one reason may be the premium women place on tight/known personal connections and interactions.

But in Sardinia, there are no such age distinctions. Women and men live to similar ages and an astonishing number, between 6-10 times the ratios in modern cities, live to the age of 100.

The sceptics point me to the fish, the olive oil, the Mediterranean climate or the pace of life. Sure we know that eating too much animal fat, high salt intake, cigarette smoke or obesity shortens life. Pinker highlights scientific research which suggests that relationships – the people we know and care about – are just as critical to our survival and not just any sort of contact but real face-to-face communication which not only impacts of psychological well-being, but, scientists believe, be the very thing that switches on and off the genes responsible for our immune response for cancer and, specifically, tumour growth. That’s what Steven Cole and his team at UCLA have found and other studies support the medicinal benefits of relationships.

Studies is France of 7000 utility workers found the quality of their relationships was a strong predictor of who would be alive at the end of a decade or studies of Swedish citizens found lowest rates of dementia in people with large, strong friendship groups or 50 year old men with such friendships less likely to have heart attacks than those who live a more solitary existence.

Pinker’s book, which I highly recommend, explores this in great depth. Her conclusion, and my highlight from the book is:

You don’t need to live in a community like that to know you are surrounded by a tight circle or people whom you’ve invested serious time and affection over the years and who return that attention

My theatre experience yesterday reminded me how easy it it to make people feel connected and how, in school, we should strive even harder to unearth the best practice that creates such conditions for young people.

This article was written by Rob Loe, Education Research Director at the Relational Schools Project, and published earlier on their website.

10 Feb

Why relationships matter in schools

child covering eyes

By Robert Loe

 The ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society.

I know relationships matter
 Relationships matter far more than we like to openly talk about and yet I haven’t met someone yet who didn’t agree. On Monday 26th January, however, I listened to Prof Colleen McLaughlin speak about why relationships matter in the context of education. I have never heard someone speak with such authority on the subject. Prof McLaughlin, drawing on decades of research (a lifetime’s work), asked her audience to accept several “assumptions” about why relationships matter. Why “assumptions” I thought? The evidence presented was utterly compelling and supports everything that I believe and that Relational Schools Project has uncovered in its own research in the last year. So why “assumptions”?

I take it the reason is that, in Professor’s McLaughlin’s view, she is “yet to see a school take relationships on as a topic“. Well this is the work I would like to do for a lifetime. Today, I want to share with you why relationships matter, and the reasons many of the schools we work with have already taken on this challenge.

Relationships matter because “learning is mutual and deeply social”

McLaughlin reminds us that relationships matter because they lie at the heart of the way children learn. Learning is not an individual cognitive thing; it is a social thing. I know I make this sound a little trite but it has enormous implications for how we view classroom environments. You cannot learn if you are frightened. You cannot learn if you are unhappy. You cannot learn if you feel you don’t belong in a classroom.

What’s more, you cannot hope that by adding an intervention, yet another activity to the ever-growing list of a teacher’s workload, you can make people feel engaged. Rather this is a radical change in mindset. You have to change everything.

Everything matters

You have to change the way children relate to each other in the classroom. You change the way you do learning in a way that assimilates mutuality and relationships. You have to change the way teachers relate to each other in the staffroom and challenge the values that teachers are made to operate under. And let’s be clear when teachers hear the message of Relational Schools Project, they like it and they like it because it reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place: they love children and they want to see them grow up, mature and send them off to build a society not just hold down the job. Such values are distinctive from the values of our current system which espouses competition, standardised testing and fear. In Singapore they have a word that encapsulates this value: the word is “kiasu” – be afraid to fail.

 What is enacted in schools and their surrounding communities on a daily basis matters because they shape the personal and social development of young people.

Why student-student relationships matter

We know that about the age of 8 or 9 young people begin to gravitate towards the peer group and they become the most significant source of emotional support. When young people are in trouble they go to their friends first. We know that if you want to intervene in the mental health of young people, the most powerful thing they can have is a friend. That’s why we worry (and we should worry) about young children who struggle to form relationships  or who seem isolated.

Being victimized by your peers at school is significantly linked to low levels of psychological well-being, low levels of social adjustment and higher levels of psychological disturbance. What’s more, we know that if problems remain into adolescence, they often last into adulthood. As the result, the most powerful thing you can do with a young person is intervene while they are at school.

How should teachers respond?

What we tend to do as teachers when we see someone experiencing peer difficulty is form a good relationship with the student. Research shows we need to do something quite different: the most effective intervention is to encourage interactions with all the people in the classroom. But this seems daunting doesn’t it? How can I achieve this? How can I maintain it? How can I control it? Isn’t this the job of the pastoral teams of the school? Teaching and learning, on these terms, becomes far more than supporting academic outcomes; it is the foundation to academic success and personal and social growth.

Most young people think they have a very good relationship with their teachers but McLaughlin found that there was a statistically significant group who have strong negative relationships with staff  and they were often young people with mental health difficulties. That is not irreparable. We know that if a child is depressed and they can form good relationships with staff they will improve.

Research, which I explored in a piece for BERA recently, also shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff but if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). Moreover, Smith and Rutter found that where young people have strong relationships with teachers, they are less like to become involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour and far more likely to have increased engagement with school.

Positive school relationships correlate well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. More recent studies of relationships in school have found historical, “concurrent and longitudinal connections with school attainment and adjustment outcomes….popular/accepted students tend to do well academically and are more prosocial, and have higher self-regulatory skills” (Blatchford and Baines, 2010: p.239). In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish. Michael Rutter adds that being connected is more than just the ability to make friends and is as powerful as being literate or numerate. The ability to connect is linked strongly with feelings of self-efficacy; I feel that I can be effective in the world. Such students in his study were ten times more likely to be employed and ten times more likely to be in a stable, longstanding relationship such as a marriage.

You see, relationships matter because “the ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society” (McLauglin, 2015).

I was inspired by Colleen McLaughlin this week. I hope you will be too?

Robert Loe is the Director of the Relational Schools Project, an education research and consultancy group based in Cambridge and a member of the Relational Thinking Network. This blog originally appeared on the Relational Schools Project website.

16 Oct

Building a case for relational reform in education

shutterstock_111027338 Cropped

Rob Loe, the Education Research Director for  Relational Research and Director of the Relational Schools Project, is writing today about the need for a more relational approach to education on the website of the Britisch Education and Research Assocation (BERA):

“I would contend that the development of any society comes through the maturing process of its members to reflect the directions a society wishes to take, and thus to influence how resources like land, capital, and human resources (arguably, society’s greatest resource) are deployed in the future. The concept of a Relational school is not a recent innovation. The philosopher John Macmurray argued that: “The first priority in education – if by education we mean learning to be human – is learning to live in personal relation to other people…I call this the first priority because failure in this is fundamental failure, which cannot be compensated for by success in other field”.
In Britain, however, it could be argued that “success in other fields” has preoccupied those framing educational policy, which has both economic and cultural imperatives. Models of schooling increasingly reflect the end-use to which learners will be put in which “the economic and political context can easily subvert the primary educational purpose”, he says.

Read the whole article here.

26 Mar

Relational Schools launch survey on graduate employment and internships

CAMBRIDGE, UK – March 26, 2014 The RSP has designed a survey asking recent UK graduates (2009-2013) about their experiences of finding work since leaving university.

The short questionnaire – which typically takes less than five minutes to complete – seeks to find out how many graduates are doing internships, how many of these internships are paid and whether doing an internship significantly boosts employability. In addition, we are also interested in what degree subjects are prevalent among interns and what sectors interns go on to work in.

Jeremy Swan, Research Analyst at Relational Research, said ‘In the past few years there has been a significant rise in the number of companies offering internships and these roles are increasingly seen as essential experience for some graduate jobs.’

‘That said, there is surprisingly little quantitative data on how many people are doing internships, how many are paid, what the average duration of an internship is, and so on.’

‘We want to contribute to the debate on internships by speaking directly to graduates and learning from their experiences.’

The survey can be accessed here https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/BQWFN5F


Further information


More information about the Relational Schools Project can be found on our website www.relationalschools.org.


Alternatively, you can also send an email to office@relationalschools.org.