Building a Case for Relational Reform in Education: Towards a Relational Pedagogy

Rob Loepost by ROBERT LOE
Education Research Director, Relational Schools Project

Why Relational Education?

To establish an argument for the Relational reform of educational organisations there is a requirement to establish first the goal of such organisations. 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[1] (Schluter, 2006).

The concept of a Relational school is not a recent innovation. The philosopher John Macmurray (1961, p.24 and 211) 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.[2]

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[3] (Sage, 2014). It has been suggested that schools themselves are ‘designed and conceived and structured for a different age…conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution’.[4] Students are often thought of as an input to an ‘industrialised’ economic system, and consequently education policymakers and schools often apply a reductionist approach to education[5] (Sage, 2014; Negus, 2014). In a rapidly changing world where it is hard to forecast the patterns of economic and social change, knowing your Shakespeare is thought to be less important than competence in English Language, Maths and Science. Diane Reay makes a compelling case for this, noting that whilst the:

3Rs are important, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important[6].

The system could be considered inherently problematic because successive governments look at what an economy requires and then adapt the education system to its needs, rather than beginning with the family and the society and developing the individual’s capacity for service to a community. Todd explores the powerful dynamic of school and community in her recent blog.

A Change of Mindset

A Relational worldview regards the goal of education as being the preparation of children and young people for outward service, living as involved participants in their respective communities. Such a worldview foregrounds three relationships – relationships with oneself, with others and with the natural world (Shortt, 2012). Thus education, from a relational perspective, addresses the question of how students relate to that which is around them. There is both a theoretical and practical outworking of this with students learning, for example, to relate to different people, in their different roles and in different situations, through development of skills such as conversation (Walker, 2013). Fundamentally, it centres on the economic and cultural imperatives of why every education system internationally is the subject of continued and systematic reform; there has been a historic need for students to identify how they will contribute to the economies of the time and also develop a sense of heritage whilst being part of a process of globalization (Robinson, 2008).

More fundamentally, it could be suggested that learning to relate to others is where a person’s sense of identity and belonging begins. The development of identity goes hand in hand with a person’s emotional wellbeing[7] (Buber, 1937). It means becoming a distinct person both behaviourally and economically (understanding how we will contribute to society as a whole, inside-out). It has been suggested that a good way to nurture the development of identity is through the promotion of encounter relationships, defined as a connection between two individuals based on some degree of unmediated contact (Schluter and Lee, 1993). Without this knowledge of how we relate to ourselves and others, there is a sense that we don’t know who we really are. Arguably, this is essential for the health or strength of communities; that is, if people are aggregated together, but dislocated from a sense of how their individual skills and talents are to be used for the benefit of others, it leads to fragmentation in society (Robinson, 2008). Perhaps more simply put, we need to challenge the very premise of why we educate; I argue that the current system promotes the kind of individualism and materialism that leads to isolation and not positive civic engagement.

It could be argued that the purpose of education enables individuals to find their place in, and contribute to, society using their talents and resources responsibly. The central tenet here is that personal fulfilment is to be found in serving those around us and is entirely distinctive from Western concepts of individualism. In southern African tradition, the word used to embody this sentiment is that of “Ubuntu” (or “I am, because you are”); it stresses the interconnectedness of humanity and has been described as the ‘very essence of being human’ for, ‘we can’t exist as a human being in isolation…you can’t be human all by yourself[8]. Thus education shapes not just the individual, but subsequent generations and the future course of society.

The consequences of Relational Distance in Education

Recent studies have demonstrated the effects (both on individual educational attainment as well as on society) of broken relationships: defined here as “non-intact families”[9] (Roberts el al. 2009), “fractured” or “non-stable” home environments (CSJ, 2013) or “insecure attachments” which can be in the home, with teachers or amongst a child’s peer group (Marsh, 2007). Where relationships, as described above, are dysfunctional, the negative impact on student outcomes is significant. Research tells us that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with their ‘relationship with the teacher’ (CSJ, 2000: p.5) cited as one of the principal reasons for truancy. Where attachment in the classroom context is more secure, relationships can surmount social inequality; where they are weak or fragile, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage.

Studies reveal that whilst developing secure teacher-pupil relationships (characterised by strong communication, empathy, patience etc., Ahmad and Sahak, 2009) is challenging, strong relationships impact upon elements such as academic motivation and behaviour (Lerner and Kruger, 1997). The stronger the relationship, the more likely that circumstances in the home might be overcome, particularly in terms of “risk” behaviours such as drug and alcohol use and associated anti-social behaviours such as “aggression” and “violence” (Howes and Ritchie 1999; Howes et al. 1988; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 2002; Pianta et al. 1997). For example, a study by Resnick et al. (1997) demonstrated that strong attachment relationships between teachers and students correlated with reduced engagement with drugs and alcohol, suicide rates, violence, etc.

Kennedy, rooted in social psychology and neurobiology, supports this view, arguing that insecure attachments affect educational outcomes, but those insecure attachments can be repaired, and the ability nurtured, through secure teacher relationships[10] (Kennedy, 2008).

Whilst research shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff (DeMulder, 2000; Kennedy, 2008), if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then strong teacher-pupil relationships can be formed and as a result, those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). In practice that means being far more intentional about bonding with our students (Marsh et al. 2008); making them feel valued; and knowing them in multiple contexts, both in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities (McNeeley, et al. 2002).

Positive peer interaction correlates well with student motivation (Furrer and Skinner, 2003), student engagement (Keefe and Berndt, 1996) and academic outcomes (Keefe and Berndt, 1995). More recent studies studies of student-to-student relationships 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).[11] In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish.

Promoting a Pedagogy of Proximity: Introducing the Relational Schools Project

Relational Proximity describes the functional and experiential closeness of a good, strong, healthy working relationship or community. The Relational Schools Project is exploring, with schools, academics and policy makers, how to promote stronger or closer relationships between the home and the school and in the context of the classroom.

When we say relationship, we mean far more than a mere interaction or causal connection; we say that relational proximity exists where there is:

  • a series of encounters with another person, group or organisation which are shaped by the experience (memory) of past encounters and the expectation (imagination) of future encounters;
  • where the other is known, or at least knowable;
  • where the actions of each can affect the other;
  • within some shared context or motivation.

On this basis, our approach is based on five broad domains of relationship: communication, time, information, power and purpose. For each of these domains there is a main mechanism of influence on the relationship.

Communication: The way in which contact is made, including choice of the medium of communication

Time: The time span over which these contacts take place and the ways gaps between them and transitions are managed

Information: The opportunities to gain greater breadth of knowledge through a variety of sources and contexts

Power: The use and distribution of power; and

Purpose: The ways in which difference is both valued and managed.

These mechanisms shape the fundamental processes of a relationship, influencing both the way in which the relationship is experienced and the outcomes that are achieved.

This ongoing project is interested in the ways in which schools promote Relational health between the key stakeholders. We work with schools first and foremost believing that politicians cannot legislate better relationships into existence; but it is possible to create an environment in which strong relationships are more (or less) likely to be established.

Robert Loe is Director of the Relational Schools Project.



[1] Schluter, M. (2006) “What Charter for Humanity? Defining the Destination of Development”, Cambridge Papers, Vol 15 No.3 September 2006

[2] Macmurray, J. (1961) Persons in Relation (Faber and Faber) pp.24 and 211

[3] Sage, R (2014) Education in a Capitalist Society, presented as part of the dissemination material for seminars and conferences within the EU PEEP project (2012-14)

[4] Robinson, K. (2008) in his Edge Lecture: Changing Paradigms – How we implement sustainable change in education, RSA p.3

[5] Sage, R (2014) Education in a Capitalist Society, presented as part of the dissemination material for seminars and conferences within the EU PEEP project (2012-14) p.10

[6] Reay, D, (2014) “Socially Just Education”, Social Justice SIG, Respecting Children and Young People, BERA

[7] Buber, M. (1937) I and Thou (Ich und Du), Charles Scribner’s Sons

[8]Tutu, Desmond (1999) No Future Without Forgiveness: A Personal Overview of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Random House

[9] Roberts, S., Stafford, B., Duffy, D., Ross, J. and Unell, J. (2009) Literature Review on the Impact of Family Breakdown on Children, Edge Hill University

[10] Kennedy, B. (2008) Educating students with insecure attachment histories: towards an interdisciplinary theoretical framework, Routledge

[11] Blatchford, P and Baines, E. “Peer Relations in School” in The International Handbook for Psychology in Education, (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010), p.239


Further References

Howes, C., & Ritchie, S. (1998). Changes in child–teacher relationships in a therapeutic preschool program. Early Education and Development, 9(4), 411–422.

Howes, C., Rodning, C., Galluzzo, D., & Myers, L. (1988). Attachment and child care: Relationships with mother and caregiver. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 403–416.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2002). The relation of global first-grade environment to

structural classroom features and teacher and student behaviours. The Elementary School Journal, 102, 367–387

Marsh, H. W., Martin, A. J., & Cheng, J. H. S. (2008). A multilevel perspective on gender in classroom motivation and climate: Potential benefits of male teachers for boys? Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1), 78–95.

McNeely, C., Nonnemaker, J., & Blum, R. (2002). Promoting school connectedness: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138–146.

Negus, E (2014) Lessons for the 21st Century from Victorian utilitarian education. In press, Education Today, Vol. 64. No.4

Resnick, M., Bearman, P., Blum, R., Bauman, K., Harris, K., Jones, J., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(10), 823–832.

Robinson, K. (2008) Changing Education Paradigms, RSA

Walker, S. (2014) Confirmation of Seven Factors which Contribute to Cognitive- Affective State (CAS), Human Ecology Education

Walker, S. (2014) The Relation of Disclosure and Trust of Others in Year 10 Students as a ‘Learner-Environment State’ to School and Set, Human Ecology Education