The Relational Schools Foundation (RSF) was asked by the XP School in Doncaster to evaluate the impact of its team-focused ethos, focusing in particular on its Outward Bound expedition for Year 7 students in their first week at the school.

As Dr Rob Loe, RSF’s Director of Research comments: “The results of our relational survey were staggering! Students in all year groups reported significantly closer relationships with one another and with their teachers than we find in our benchmark data. Through our work so far, we know that schools like this which we would classify as ‘relational’, return not just lower levels of bullying and absence, and improved wellbeing, but also superior academic outcomes.”

Indeed, this was reflected in Ofsted’s report, as part of its ‘outstanding’ judgement of the school in September 2017. The inspector highlighted students’ outstanding academic progress, because “there is no ceiling to the standards that pupils can reach”, and commented that disadvantaged students often outperforming their peers “because staff and leaders know these pupils very well”.

The XP School in Doncaster has a very distinctive approach to teaching and learning, and a very distinctive ‘crew’ culture, formed in large part during an Outward Bound expedition in the students’ first week of Year 7. In 2016, XP’s CEO, Gwyn Ap Harri asked RSF to measure the impact of this Outward Bound trip on relationships between the students and with their teachers, and to explore how these were sustained back in the school as students progressed through to Year 9.

The study, based on 533 completed questionnaires, found that relationships between students and their teachers, and with other students, were much closer, deeper and more purposeful than the averages in RSF’s benchmark data.  Relational proximity, the charity’s measure of how well an individual engages with the thinking, emotions and behaviour of another, was generally high across all elements measured in the school. Specifically, for Year 7 students:

Teachers scored their relationship with the students at 83% (25% higher than the norm)

Students scored their relationships with the teachers at 78% (16% higher)

Students scored their relationships with other students at 64% (19% higher)

What makes these results so impressive is that the data was only collected two weeks after having only just met each other. In other words, two weeks earlier students and teachers had no relationship at all! This indicates that the four-day Outward Bound expedition, in which the incoming Year 7 students get to meet, interact and form relationships with their teachers before the school term begins, had a very positive impact on the quality of relationships in the school, and quickly enabled the creation of school culture, or ‘crew’ culture, as the school describe it.

Influenced by Ron Berger’s Expeditionary Learning schools in the US, XP aims to model its students’ highly developmental experience of learning-outside-the-classroom, and ‘bring it back in’. As such, XP students learn through projects, or expeditions, and work closely together in teams. This ‘crew’ culture is distilled through the entire organisation, and appears from the data to enable the students and teachers to sustain their positive learning relationships.

Dr Loe concludes: “The catalyst for the relational proximity we found was quite clearly the Outward Bound expedition. The influence and impact that this experience had was profound. The challenging environment had forged connectedness, belonging, understanding, respect, and an alignment of purpose and goals. As the teachers and students themselves identify, being with one another in contexts that not only push them outside of their comfort zones, but which also demand a high level of cooperation, has influenced the way they see each other, and the extent to which they are prepared to work to sustain their newly formed relationships. What is represented here is a shift in mind-set about how education can be conducted, based on the creation of a genuine community in which people treat others as ends in themselves.”

To find out more about the way RSF measures relationships, see http://relationalschools.org/research/ and http://relationalschools.org/research/how-we-do-it/