How hostage skills can free learning

Negotiation may be the key to improving students' attainment

Julia Horton

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Teachers must learn the skills of hostage and suicide negotiators to give all pupils - especially the most vulnerable - the best chance of succeeding, a former police chief has said.

John Carnochan, a trained hostage negotiator, whose work in Scotland has focused on preventing suicides, said that the key to engaging with people in crisis was listening, problem-solving and "finding common ground".

He told TESS that such abilities were crucial in building a rapport between school staff and students, and when helping pupils at risk of dropping out of the system.

Mr Carnochan, co-founder and former head of Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit, added that teachers needed to consider more "radical" approaches to finding time for pupils and parents, such as offering to meet at weekends.

He also urged more schools to reduce exclusions by focusing on difficult students' needs, rather than what they had done wrong. This "needs not deeds" approach to pupils in trouble could build on the success of falling youth crime rates by raising attainment levels in the classroom, he said.

Speaking ahead of his keynote speech to the Scottish Learning Festival on Thursday, Mr Carnochan said of his role dealing with people attempting suicide: "The key to that is about listening, about problem-solving and finding common ground.

"In relation to teachers, they are under a lot of pressure and they have limited it becomes very difficult to create a space to listen to pupils.

"So, if someone is saying their dad can't come to a parents' evening because he is working until 6pm, let's organise a meeting at 7pm instead, or on a Saturday morning.

"That may be radical - and I know we do that in some more extreme cases already - but maybe we need to do more of that, or use social media more and texting."

Mr Carnochan said creating time to talk was essential because engaging parents was vital for closing attainment gaps. He added that Curriculum for Excellence rightly valued such qualities as resilience and well-being but teachers needed to "relax a bit more" and understand that they were "humans first of all".

"All the evidence suggests that children and young people learn much better when they feel a connection with teaching professionals - where some relationship is established," he said.

The latest figures show a significant drop in youth crime (down 45 per cent in 2012-13 compared with 2008-09) and schools could play a significant role in reducing this further, said Mr Carnochan, who now works as a violence reduction consultant specialising in education.

When the Violence Reduction Unit ran a gangs project in the East End of Glasgow, schools' decision not to exclude pupils helped to reduce incidents of violent crime. "If they are excluded, the school functions much better but the community doesn't," Mr Carnochan said.

He has also backed fresh calls for young offenders to be given the right to vote in elections after a record turnout at the Scottish independence referendum, in which 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to have their say.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said the skills Mr Carnochan had identified were "those that good pastoral care staff have recognised for years", adding: "Ultimately we've all been dealing with same people just in different contexts.

"Schools are far more relaxed than they have been and most are more welcoming places for parents. However, as always, much remains to be done. There is a greater sharing of good ideas and practice. There have also been significant reductions in exclusions with much wider range of support measures in place. But frequently it all comes down to resources and time."

An Education Scotland spokesperson said that the organisation already delivered "a significant amount of professional learning related to the development of positive relationships between teachers and pupils, particularly those at risk of disengagement."

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Julia Horton

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