We listen - but do we really hear what the other person is saying? Wendy Wallace visits a school where tragedy forced a rethink of values and where staff and pupils are now always there to lend a sympathetic ear
Is the school of the future a place where classrooms are heated with solar panels and all students have their own laptop folded into their micro fibre pocket? Or is it a place where people - staff and students - really listen to each other? Four and a half years ago tragedy drove Kidbrooke school in Eltham, south London, into a re-evaluation of what matters. In January 1997, a Kidbrooke student was murdered at the school gate by teenage intruders armed with a machete. Many pupils witnessed the killing; the institution was thrown into deep collective trauma.
Then, within months, another student disappeared. Her mutilated body turned up, piece by piece, in the River Thames. Distress and heartbreak over these events ran so deep that staff felt ill-equipped to help the students cope with their grief.
Deputy head Sue Davidson has been at the school for 19 years. "They were terrible blows," she says. "We had to rely on ourselves to deal with it. We had to learn to support each other, and the children, through the most awful time."
Kidbrooke has largely put the horror behind it now. With 1,100-plus students aged 11-19, it has secured performing arts status and grown in popularity. Last year it had the most improved results in the London borough of Greenwich. But what has emerged from the past is a pioneering programme to train all staff in the art of listening.
Before the training, many teachers told psychotherapist Peter Hudson of the School Counselling Trust that they were already good listeners. Some were. But the demands of school life too often led staff not to listen at all, but to anticipate and define the problem for students before telling them the solution, all done on the hoof as they passed in the corridor. Or they would simply tell students to keep quiet.
"I was quietly critical of some of what I observed," says Peter Hudson. "The pressures on teachers must make it tempting to try to throw your weight around and shut them up. But there must be other ways."
"Listening" to colleagues in the staffroom all too often meant barely waiting for the speaker to draw breath before chipping in with a similar experience. "I would immediately give an identical problem of my own," admits Di Bruce, head of English at the school. "I learned that that's not giving anyone anything, that's taking away from them."
All 72 teachers and several support staff at Kidbrooke have taken the trust's 20-hour short course in structured listening.Two teachers - year heads Sandra Ankah and Karen Kitchen - have pursued further studies so they can run the training themselves when the trust pulls out of the school at the end of this term.
The course consists of one full day of workshops, followed by a series of after-school seminars. The skills taught are reflective listening (listening without interrupting), feeding back to speakers the main elements of what they have been saying, identifying the most important elements and allowing them to define for themselves any possible course of action. Crucially, the listener takes a "value-free" position, helping the speaker to clarify concerns without being judgmental.
Julie Aynge, learning support assistant in the school's pupil support unit, has changed her working style since going on the course. "You think you listen to people," she says, "but really you only half listen. It's helped me to listen to what they are actually saying, as opposed to what I think they're saying. It's a brilliant way of working because no one knows what's best for someone except that person."
Peter Hudson initially came to Kidbrooke to offer counselling after the tragedies, with funding from Greenwich education authority. But his work in the school has grown to encompass the wider needs of staff and students, pastorally and academically. Paid for by the local education action zone, private trusts and the LEA, the Kidbrooke project includes the listening training, individual counselling for students, an academic tutoring programme and a consultancy service for staff.
While in-house counselling for children is a luxury that increasing numbers of schools believe they can't do without, similar support for staff is rare. Yet teachers as much as children need to be heard. "The quality of support radically affects the efficacy of the staff," says Peter Hudson. "The same goes for staff as for kids. If you listen, if you praise, if you're attentive, their motivation will go up."
Julie Aynge is one of about 30 Kidbrooke staff who uses the consultancy service provided by Peter Hudson and another trust counsellor, Trevane Wallbank. "I've benefited," she says. "I have on occasions felt very stressed out. It does affect you when you hear some of the things the kids have got going on in their lives. To try to keep staff in schools we need strategies to help people cope with what they need to do. I feel calmer, more in control, as a result of the counselling."
"Teachers are constantly on the go," says Peter Hudson, who also works with business and in the health service. "And there's plenty of worry and late-night marking. Having the opportunity to spend a relatively long time - 40 minutes - talking is amazingly important."
Sue Davidson says: "There are occasionally things that are very troubling and sometimes you want someone to talk things over with."
The advantage of Peter Hudson and Trevane Wallbank is that they are outside the school staff structure. "It's nice to voice your frustrations to someone where there's not going to be any comeback on your career," says one staff member.
Peter Hudson initially asked for volunteers for the listening course; those most attracted to, or least put off by, the idea of counselling were trained first. But over the three-year period, all teachers and learning support staff have been trained, including those with a general distaste for the touchy-feely, and a particular horror of "counselling". Peter Hudson is at pains to stress that what staff learn is not counselling, but listening. "We're trying to get teachers to listen to kids, on the basis that if we are listened to there is often a buzz of motivation and energy. We can all benefit from being listened to."
Relationships between staff and students have improved, says Sue Davidson. "The course has taught us to listen, reflect and clarify - which is not to say we weren't doing it before. But certainly when children are in distress or troubled it becomes very clear how they're feeling and you reach a better understanding of issues and episodes with them. You don't lead people directly to take action. The way you listen becomes a route by which people can find possible solutions."
Working with small groups in the learning support unit, Julia Aynge is ideally placed to listen to students. But one of the major criticisms of the course is that even those who sign up to the concept may struggle to find time to put it into practice. Di Bruce is enthusiastic about the approach but points out that, in a fast-moving school, adopting a thoughtful pace is difficult. "The demands on you to listen are constant, especially if you're a manager," she says.
But she tries to use the technique. This morning, she found a child crying in the corridor. "I listened to her and tried to lead her to coming up with what she thought was the next step. Before, I would have listened, then told her what I was going to do next." Staff are advised in the course that if they do not have time to listen, they should make an appointment with the pupil, or a referral.
But if the introduction of a listening culture at Kidbrooke has changed staff-student relationships, it has also changed staffroom culture. Inevitably, in the course of the training, staff have got to know each other better. "You can know people on a greeting-in-the-morning level, but you really don't know much about them," says Sue Davidson. Some staff have set up informal one-to-one listening sessions.
While most of the children directly affected by the student deaths at Kidbrooke have moved on, those who remain require different kinds of help. With one pupil in two entitled to free school meals, almost as many having special educational needs and 43 per cent coming from ethnic minorities - many of them refugees - there is, acknowledges headteacher Tricia Jaffe, a lot of social need. "There's an amazing richness in the roll call of countries, but it also brings issues," she says. "There's a lot of dislocation around here for families, which affects children's ability to approach learning."
Tricia Jaffe says the listening programme has permeated school culture. "There's a different ethos," she says. "I certainly find youngsters much more able to explain themselves and I think that comes from the listening, from being given space."
The listening project, staff have realised, may also address children's academic performance. Di Bruce undertook the training early on and was struck by how useful it could be across the board. "I saw early on that it had huge potential for turning Kidbrooke into a listening school academically, as well as pastorally," she says. "Until, then, we hadn't really encouraged students to be active listeners. But if we can teach them to listen more actively, their level of achievement will shoot up."
GCSE results at the school have gone up from 13 per cent gaining five A*-Cs five years ago, to 27 per cent last year - when 95 per cent of pupils gained at least one graded GCSE. The school now holds academic tutoring days three times a year, and staff use their reflective listening skills to help students set their own targets, rather than handing them down from on high. "We're no longer giving solutions," says Tricia Jaffe. "We're trying to enable students to work out what they do, make school a place where they can gain pride and self-esteem."
The School Counselling Trust is running a one-day workshop with Christchurch Canterbury, University College on July 6. Listening for Results - on improving student performance through a structured approach to listening to students - will take place at the Salomons Institute, Tunbridge Wells, cost pound;85. For more details contact Peter Hudson on 020 8674 6999