Professor Kathryn Riley talks about her RESEARCH
and how this shapes the ART OF POSSIBILITIES

We live in a world of unprecedented change and uncertainty, a world on the move, a world of rage and 'untruth’. These global realities give an immediacy to our concerns about what our schools are offering – and not offering – to young people.
Over recent years, my research has explored the importance of place and belonging: what this means to each of us, and what it means to schools, particularly those serving diverse communities facing major socio-economic challenges, or high levels of need.
An underpinning element of my approach has been to try and find new ways of ’telling’ the story and reclaiming the notion of schools as places of hope and possibility: dynamic and wonderful places to be, places of belonging where young people are encouraged to think and question and challenge – and to be and become their best possible selves.

Aspiring leaders from Australia working with Kathryn
and enjoying discussing what place and belonging means to them.
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In "Leadership of Place" I explored the lives and experiences of young people growing up in disadvantaged communities in the US, UK and South Africa.

I asked the hundred or so young people who contributed to that research inquiry to respond through drawings to two key questions:

‘What’s it like living round here?’ and ‘What’s it like being in this school?’

Those illustrations showed many stark and competing realities: areas which were safe and welcoming and others which were ‘no go’ areas. I’ve used this approach in my work in other parts of the globe, including Jamaica and Chile. Young people’s responses revealed the challenges and realities of everyday life, as well as their hopes and dreams – and the importance of schools in their lives.

Leadership of Place also identified a cohort of ‘place leaders’ who sought to understand young peoples’ lives and experiences and connect to the wider archipelago of surrounding communities. The potential of school leaders to make a difference was inspiring. It sprang from a sense of hope, a sense of possibilities - a belief on their part that things could and should be different – and a recognition of the importance of place and belonging.

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Identifies the factors which contribute to creating a sense of place and belonging in school - or exclusion.
Demonstrates the value of engaging in research about place and belonging an approach which:

  • Gives teachers powerful insights into young people’s lives, encouraging them to explore, reflect and act differently;
  • Provides young people with the opportunity to voice their experiences and develop their skills and sense of agency; and
  • Encourages school leaders to see themselves as place leaders and place-makers.

Signposts how ‘design research’ can be applied as an intervention strategy which can help reshape how we think about schools, how we talk about them, and how we lead them.

‘The book draws on research place and belonging undertaken by some 70 plus student and teacher-researchers (NQTs) and school leaders) from thirteen London schools who joined the UCL Institute of Education in a research and development partnership which drew on the traditions of collaborative inquiry to ask:

Is our school a place where everyone feels they belong?
And if not, what are we going to do about it?

This research approach unleashes the energy and creativity of staff and students alike. It provides young people with the opportunity to voice their experiences and develop their skills and sense of agency. It gives teachers powerful insights into young people’s lives and encourages them become outstanding professionals.

(UCL, IoE Research team: Professor Kathryn Riley, Dr Max Coates, Dr Dina Mehmedbegovic & Rhoda Furniss.)

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Next Steps

Through research and The Art of Possibilities, we’ve learned that this focus on place, belonging and identity appeals to school leaders, staff and young people alike. It generates a sense of well-being and agency.

Kathryn is now testing the robustness of this as a model for school-wide interventions which can help reshape schools by looking at:

  • The potential of ’design research’ to bring school communities together;
  • The notion of belonging as a dynamic concept;
  • The nature of the leadership needed today: the notion of leaders as place leaders and place-makers;
  • The interrelationship between student, teacher and leader agency and the connection of the notion of agency to social and relational trust.

Some reflections

In a global competitive climate, in which the success of schools is judged increasingly on a narrow range of test results, have we forgotten that our children and young people need to be known and seen for who they are?


  • When young people feel safe, rooted and that they belong, they become open to learning and they succeed at every level.
  • When they know they are listened to, they develop their sense of agency.
  • When they become less fearful and recognise their own talents, the world opens out for them.
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