To say that relationships are important in schools is to both state the obvious and challenge the prevailing narrative of educational priorities. So, when we here at the Relationships Foundation talk with schools about what we do, people respond in one of two ways, or both. They nod along and shrug and think “well yes, of course”, and then “but we’re way too busy to focus on that!”
And this is the challenge of advocating for more relational thinking. Relationships are simple and complex at the same time. No teacher would disagree that relationships matter for their children, but few feel they have the time to explore the psychology of them in detail, nor the space in a crowded and results-focused curriculum to try and improve them purposefully.
But it’s a challenge we’re up for, because our work - our research, our analyses, our data - is beginning now to provide a powerful confirmation that good relationships are actually fundamental to the achievement of all the educational goals we seek. We would even go so far as to say that they are at the root of a successful education, and by ignoring, bypassing or denying their importance, it becomes impossible for schools to achieve their educational and developmental aims.
This understanding that relationships are the foundation for human flourishing is not new. We are particularly inspired in this field by Helen Pearson’s review of the Life Project and Susan Pinker’s Village Effect, which themselves benefit from the work of many psychologists and social scientists before them. But we are particularly driven by the outcomes of the 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development which is finding that it is the quality of our relationships above all other factors that most powerfully affects our health, happiness and longevity. Indeed, it is our close ties with friends and family, more than our social class, education, habits or genetic predispositions, that protect us from life’s discontents and enable us to thrive.
So, we need relationships in our adult lives to be healthy and happy, and to live long lives. But we also know that the ability of a child to connect to school (particularly from the age of 10 upwards) is a key protective factor that lowers the likelihood of later health-risk behaviours, while also enhancing positive educational outcomes (Resnick et al., 1993; Resnick, 2000; Glover et al., 1998; Blum & Libbey, 2004; Libbey, 2004). We know that where attachments in the classroom context are secure, relationships can surmount social inequality. And we know that where they are weak or fragile or dysfunctional, they have a negative impact on outcomes and reinforce educational disadvantage (Marsh, 2007).
Yet we systematically ignore these facts. We may tut and shake our heads when we learn that social relationships amongst children and young people are more fragmented than ever (CSJ, 2013) and that British children are unhappier than they have ever been, with family relationships and chronic isolation the underlying causes of much of their angst (NSPCC, 2016; Randall et al, 2014; Griffin, 2010), but we do not act systematically or strategically.
Perhaps this is because it is easier to focus elsewhere ... to go to where the numbers are. Well, that’s where the Relationships Foundation comes in. What we bring to the field is a robust empirical and numerical measure of relational closeness. Tried and tested over the last 25 years in a wide range of contexts, including healthcare, prisons, management consultancy and schools, the Relational Proximity Framework (RPF) enables us to build a picture of the quality of dyadic relationships in any population. More than that, when correlated with other contextual variables or repeated over time, we are able to explore what social, cultural, political or organisational activities improve or corrode relational health.
Critically, on the flipside, it also enables us to explore how relational health affects other variables too. For example, our data on nearly 16,000 student-student and student-teacher relationships in a large Australian schools group found not only that close peer friendships are strongly correlated with high self-reported wellbeing, but also that close student-teacher relationships are protective of a child’s wellbeing, even where social and cultural disadvantage might otherwise depress their mental health.
Looking like this at relationships as a driver for organisational optimisation is key to our mission and also informed our approach to working with the Suffolk & Norfolk SCITT on teacher retention. But the study was also greatly enhanced by correlating relational health with the outcomes from the Cambridge Personality Styles Questionnaire (CPSQ), Cambridge Assessment’s psychometric test of behavioural characteristics. Our key finding - that close personal and professional relationships drive trainee teachers’ retention and performance - is transforming the way the course providers work and defining how they engage with their client schools to retain the newly qualified teachers they hire. What this partnership between the RPF and CPSQ tools is showing is that there is great value in looking at relationships both from the inside out (to understand how individual personality and experience influences behaviour in relationships and organisations) and from the outside in (understanding how social and organisational dynamics effect relationships, enabling them to flourish or otherwise disabling them).
We believe this study provides an important insight into the dynamics of the teaching profession and critical data on how to improve it through relational thinking. In fact, we believe - and all the data would have us believe - that relational thinking and leadership of this type is key to the improvement of all types of organisation. We are delighted to offer our measure of relational closeness as a means by which organisational leaders can gain actionable data to drive change.
Dr Rob Loe
Chief Executive, Relationships Foundation