When staff at the Spinney Centre carried out an audit of pupils' communication skills, it came as no surprise to find that almost two- thirds had some speech or language need.
The centre is part of, though physically separate from, Woodfield Special School in Coventry, and serves around 30 boys aged 14-16 with complex emotional, behaviour and social difficulties, who have failed to succeed or fit into mainstream education.
"The audit looked in detail at their special needs statements, issues such as dyslexia and autism, but particularly their language and communication skills," says Annie Tindale, the centre's headteacher.
"We found that around 62 per cent of boys had some communication need. Many had previously been offered speech therapy but they hadn't attended and had consequently dropped off the list. It is hard to assess young people who don't want to be tested."
With the help of Sandi McKinnon, Coventry's lead speech and language consultant, and I CAN's national Secondary Talk programme, staff at the centre were trained to focus more on speech and language.
"We had to make staff aware of each pupil's difficulty and give them the tools to deal with these," Ms McKinnon says. "But they also had to realise that not every strategy was going to work with every child."
The first exercises included lesson observations. "We looked at the amount of time teachers spent talking and found that there was too much," Ms Tindale says. "Staff believed that talking to the boys kept them engaged but actually it was more about controlling their behaviour. There was a fear of what might happen if they let the students talk because these aren't the kind of kids who come in on a Monday and ask if you've had a good weekend."
An effect of this was that students also looked to staff to negotiate their group and pairs tasks, rather than discussing these themselves with classmates. "Many of the boys have low self-esteem and fragile confidence and rely on others to speak for them. Overall they had very little verbal independence in lessons and this needed to change," Ms Tindale adds.
Ms McKinnon noticed the tendency for staff to ask "closed" questions that left no room for students to elaborate. "There was not enough thinking through and developing ideas, so we asked staff to increase the amount of time given to students for processing information to 10 seconds," she says. "Staff were quite nervous about this but it didn't faze the boys at all."
One breakthrough came when an exceptionally quiet teenager paused for a whole minute before answering a question, but got it correct. It dawned on staff that the strategy was working and was encouraging the boys to speak, and to think more for themselves.
"We also do a lot of work with them on the language of emotion to help them articulate what they're feeling," Ms Tindale adds. "Students often lash out but don't always mean what they say.
"A student refusing to do a lesson because it's `rubbish' probably means he's stuck or it's going beyond his pace. The students definitely feel more listened to in lessons now and it has slowed down the pace of learning. Talking is embedded in the whole fibre of the place."
At Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London, a focus on listening has improved communication skills across the school. Seven years ago the school launched a project called Listen'Ear, for which it received help from a speech and language therapist. Since then, staff have been trained to deliver many of the strategies themselves, allowing staff to tailor provision to the needs of children directly in the classroom.
Janette Goss, the school's Senco, says: "Staff are now self-sufficient and able to implement strategies, while continuing to use the speech and language therapists in an advisory role."
Pupils with communication needs are identified in Years 7 and 8, usually based on reports from primary school. Talking and listening have become part of the ethos of the school - staff are encouraged to take time to talk to pupils, and nurture groups have been set up to support those who need it most.
For older students, the school offers a BTEC in Workskills which includes units in aspects such as interview preparation and team work.
An emphasis on listening in the school means that pupils and staff are aware of exactly what is expected of them. "Active listening reminds everyone that they need to listen and understand each other," Ms Goss adds.
"It also reminds them that they need to process what is said and to make eye contact because that means you are engaging with that person. If the pupil is engaged with the teacher it means they are not doing something they shouldn't be.
"We have only a small number of children with these difficulties but actually we have found everyone benefits from developing their communication skills."
I CAN www.ican.org.ukSecondaryTalk.