The truth about communication in schools

3 June 2009

This is the full text of a speech I gave under the title ‘Silent Voices, Still Lives’

Welcome and thank you for coming. My talk is entitled ‘Silent Voices, Still Lives’ and focuses upon the importance of teaching communication skills properly in schools. It is divided into two parts: firstly, I will look at the issue of excluded children where problems of communication are most severe, and then will look more widely at how well we teach our children to communicate.


Mohammed was only 13 years old and wasn’t especially tall or powerful, yet I was terrified of him. “I’ll f**king kill you. Do you get what I mean, geezer? I’ll f**king deck you!” he screamed at me as I asked him to leave my classroom. He had hit a boy over the head and spent much of the lesson swearing. By this time, I was trembling with rage and fear, and was relieved when he finally left the room.

Soon afterwards Mohammed was excluded from the school and I gave up teaching. It was 1997 and the chaos he had caused had sapped my confidence. Because the school was not a stereotypical inner-city comprehensive, but located in a prosperous London suburb, I felt doubly deflated; I felt that I had become horribly soft. In fact, the school did have discipline problems, with a significant rump of children from troubled backgrounds, but few teachers there were trained to cope with the more challenging ones such as Mohammed. Rowdy classes became riotous, lessons became war zones.

Several years later, with my spirits refreshed and missing the buzz and excitement of the classroom, I returned to full-time teaching, quickly becoming a head of department at a school in Havering, outer London. In this new position of responsibility I had to teach several children who had been excluded from other schools or had been passed on to me by more junior teachers. By this time, I had become a more tolerant pedagogue, less obsessed with results, more adept at handling disruption. I was calmer and more consistent in my approach. Some of my pupils were potentially just as aggressive as Mohammed had been, but I was able to cope with them; I’d learned to “give and take”, to negotiate, to form good relationships with difficult children.


One child, John, had been permanently excluded from another school but had settled well at my new school and ultimately succeeded in attaining eight good GCSEs. I recently spoke to John about his life now and was delighted that everything was going well for him. He had trained to be an electrician and was set, he said, on earning better wages than me. “What I liked about it in your school,” he told me, “was that my mates and some of the teachers taught me how to deal with my anger. Sometimes I used to get so mad, I would just punch anyone who was around me, but then I learned to walk away from rucks. I could say to myself, ‘It don’t matter.’ And I could answer back without turning everything into a slanging match. I kinda of learnt to talk properly. And I think that helped me concentrate more. The school stuck with me even though I was out of order sometimes. They didn’t kick me out. That counts for a lot.”

Talking to John, I began to think about Mohammed, who had been jailed soon after being permanently excluded from school. I recalled how there were times when he had been keen on learning, had even shown interest in Shakespeare and reading. He had wanted to succeed, but I, and many other teachers at the school, had been preoccupied only by what was wrong with him, meting out punishments and threats that had caused a vicious downward spiral. During my investigations in trying to find out what had happened to him, I learned from another former pupil at the school that Mohammed was still “up to no good”; he had become a drug dealer and had cut some heroin with washing powder and nearly killed a user.

Asking questions, reviewing the situation

Had I contributed to Mohammed’s troubles? Had my old school failed him? If extra resources had been available to give him proper care and attention, would we have spared society huge amounts of money and distress in the long term?

Mohammed fitted the typical profile of an excluded child. He was male, of mixed race, had special educational needs and was in foster care. He was permanently excluded in 1997, exactly at the point when the new Labour administration swept to power promising to address the problems presented by children like him. Tony Blair’s mantra, “Education, education, education”, was as much about sorting out the Mohammeds of this world, about being “tough on the causes of crime”, as it was about improving results.

In spite of the government’s best efforts to massage the figures, exclusion rates have remained more or less steady for a decade; on average, roughly 9,000 children or more are permanently excluded from school every year and nearly 400,000 children given “fixed-term” exclusions, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Eighty per cent of them are boys. Government figures show that Roma children are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than other children, and those from black or mixed ethnic backgrounds are twice as likely to be excluded as whites. Children in care are eight times as likely to be excluded, and those with special educational needs are three times more likely to be ordered to leave their school.

The statistics: poverty and exclusions

After 11 years of a Labour government, school exclusions continue to affect the underprivileged.
In 2007, as many as 140,000 pupils who were excluded for short periods from school were eligible for free meals, accounting for a third of such exclusions, even though these children make up only 12 per cent of the school population. But if schools were better equipped and staff better trained to deal with the persistent disruption exhibited by children from dysfunctional and deprived households, would exclusion rates be drastically reduced?

Meanwhile, society as a whole is paying an increasing cost. Significant research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital, which offers advice on giving, reveals that the average excluded child costs society more than £63,851 a year. This figure includes the future lost earnings of the child resulting from poor qualifications, and also costs to society in terms of crime, health and social services. In total, this amounts to £650m a year.

Lord Ramsbotham and City University

This is probably a gross underestimate, since many excluded children are not accounted for in the figures.

The human cost of failing to deal with the problem is incalculable: carrying a knife is the most common offence among children excluded from school, and 50 per cent of men in prison were excluded. “Research shows that at the root of school exclusions, and much crime, is the inability of young people to communicate properly,” says Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons. “If we addressed these problems in the classroom, many of our problems with antisocial behaviour would disappear.

“At the moment, what happens is that these young people, having been alienated from their families at an early age, are then excluded from school and turn to crime: drug-taking and dealing, knife crime and, in extreme but increasing cases, murder. Research shows that while poor parenting and low socio-economic status are major factors, school exclusion plays a significant environmental role in helping shape the criminals of tomorrow. The government needs to appoint a minister for inclusion to begin to address these issues.”

Ramsbotham is right, but what is shocking is that not a huge amount of research has been carried out into the link between communication problems and school exclusions, although much has been done on children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Hart and Risley research in the US

In her illuminating book, Why Children Can’t Read And What We Can do About It Diane McGuinness highlights the US study which Betty Hart and Todd Risley carried out several years ago. They studied 42 families from three social groups and recorded how mothers spoke to their young children during the first two and a half years of life, recording everything which was said to each child for one hour per month. McGuinness writes: “The average number of words addressed to the children ranged from 1,500-2,500 words per hour in homes classified as ‘professional’, 1,000-1,500 in middle class homes, and 500-800 to children on welfare. By the age of three it was estimated that children in professional families had heard nearly 35 million words, middle-class children 20 million words, and welfare mothers 10 million words. These differences were found even though welfare mothers spent more time with their children. Mothers in the professional group used a more complex sentence structure, a richer vocabulary, and highly affirmative feedback style: ‘That’s right’ ‘That’s good’ along with a more positive tone of voice. Welfare mothers often used a negative tone, and lots of explicit disapproval ‘stop that’ ‘don’t spill it’ and ‘don’t do it that way’. However, welfare mothers did not differ in other ways, affection, concern for their children, the cleanliness of home, appropriate reactions to children in need. Nor was race a factor.”

What can teachers to do improve communication skills of children?

Ofsted solutions

Recent research conducted by City University however is bucking the trend, there James Law and Sonia Sivyer have shown that if children at the risk of exclusion are taught good communication skills, the risk of exclusion almost disappears.

Ofsted, in its report, Reducing Exclusions of Black Pupils from Secondary Schools: Examples of Good Practice, identified three interrelated features that significantly reduce exclusions: “Respect for the individual in school and a systematic, caring and consistent approach to behaviour and personal development, the courage and willingness to discuss difficult issues, a focus on helping pupils to take more control of their lives by providing them with strategies to communicate well and look after each other.”

Clearly, parenting plays a pivotal role in shaping how children communicate. So where does that leave teachers like me? As an English teacher for the past sixteen years and Head of English at a large London comprehensive for the past six years, it does make me feel quite depressed, feeling that there is little that I can do to significantly improve children’s communication skills. Yet, we know that parental influence is not the whole story.

The current situation in schools:

As recent research from Ofsted has shown, school can improve every pupils’ ability to speak publicly, confidently and openly if it gives pupils the right opportunities. At the moment, our obsession with exams has denied children vital opportunities to speak; resources and money has been targetted at spoon-feeding pupils with information which they can regurgitate in the exam. Very little money or thought has gone into providing significant chances for children to speak publicly. Most assessment is done by exam or written coursework. Even in English only 20% of pupils’ final marks for GCSE are given for ‘Speaking and Listening’.

The opportunities for public speaking: my school and what it does

Moreover, chances for proper public speaking are minimal because so few resources are put into them. Some of the top private schools pay teachers to run public speaking societies, but I have yet to come across a state school where teachers are given financial incentives to encourage public speaking. This is because it has not become a ‘government initiative’ and not seen as a priority.

But all the evidence suggests that it should do – as we have seen inarticulate children are most likely to be excluded from school and become criminals.

When my school has run public speaking competitions that it has had a very significant effect upon improving pupils’ confidence and overall standards of work. My current school runs its own public speaking competition for eleven and twelve year olds; it is a much heralded event, with first rounds, semi-finals and final. In the past two years, the Jack Petchey Foundation has paid for professionals to train fourteen-year-olds to speak in their Speakers’ Bank competition, which has its finals in east London. All of my pupils who have participated have grown immeasurably in stature and maturity as well as become more articulate.

It does though feel like simply scratching of the surface: these are one-offs that enable the star pupils to fly. Your average and mediocre pupil is often left behind in the first round. What we need is for schools to start structuring their curriculum so that there are regular chances for public speakers. Some of my best lessons have been when I have done this; making pupils give presentations to the class, encouraging group work where serious issues are discussed, holding class debates. Again though, this has been difficult to do systematically because of the demands of the curriculum.

New technology – has it made the situation worse?

The government’s investment in computers in schools should have given pupils more chances to communicate in new and innovative ways; to video conference peers from other schools, to talk to experts, to upload videos and podcasts of presentations. Certain subjects like the Media course I am teaching at the moment enable this, but too many of the other academic subject give little or no credit for such things. Sadly, computers haven’t been used for aiding communication skills in schools because worries about cyber-bullying and other inappropriate comments being passed through the ether. Networking sites like Facebook, MSN are banned in my school like many others, as are other great sites like YouTube. For all the money spent on new technology, it doesn’t seem to have helped make pupils more articulate. In fact, the reverse has been the case. Most computer lessons consist of pupils sitting typing and chatting about anything but the work.

The future:

I hope though that the scrapping of the Sats and the introduction of School Report Cards which give a wider picture of pupils’ skills than exam results will mean that schools will look long and hard again at the issue of communication. All teachers need to assess their pupils’ communication skills in a range of settings: their ability to articulate their feelings, to negotiate in a variety of setting, their confidence when speaking publicly, their facility for telling stories, recounting anecdotes, explaining things clearly. At the moment, this is a tiny fraction of the English curriculum, but clearly these skills are relevant to all subjects. Perhaps, the new School Report Card system will allow all teachers to assess and set clear targets for improving pupils’ communication skills.

Children’s rights

Save the Children: advocacy for children at risk of exclusion
The Children’s Rights Alliance for England

One small but significant step to making exclusions a more constructive experience would be to grant children the right to appeal against their own exclusions, being assigned a trained “advocate” to represent them. A scheme like this has already been piloted in ten boroughs between 2005 and 2008 by Save the Children with its three-year EAR to Listen project, which gave excluded children an independent advocate to speak for them at exclusion panels and liaise between home and school generally.

That the project had an 80 per cent success rate in supporting children and young people to remain, re-enter and re- engage with education, but there is little political impetus behind spreading its good practice throughout the country. “The government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives children the right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters affecting them, but we are nowhere near granting this to our excluded pupils,” says Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Since September 2007, schools have been obliged by law to promote pupil well-being. “We would hope that new guidance on the duty, which the government will require schools to implement next year, will add further weight to exclusion panels to considering a child’s rights when making exclusion decisions.”


Pupils should not feel that school is where they go to be told to shut up and get on with the work. Schools need to be the heartlands of encouraging debate, of public discussion of difficult issues, venues for verbal exploration of the human soul, forums for exhorting impassioned argument, not ugly places of suppressed anger, sullen compliance, and damaging invective. That ladies and gentleman is why we need to improve the communication skills of our young people. I rest my case. Thank you.


Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

Promoting the communication skills of primary school children excluded from school or at risk of exclusion: An intervention study
James Law
Department of Language and Communication Science, City University, London
Sonia Sivyer
East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust (and City University, London)

Previous research has focused on the close association between speech and language difficulties and emotional and behavioural difficulties. However, little attempt has so far been made to examine this relationship in children with emotional or behavioural difficulties who are at risk of exclusion or who have been excluded from school. In particular there are no data on the impact of speech and language interventions on this group of children. This study tests the hypothesis that children with emotional or behavioural difficulties currently excluded from school or at risk of exclusion, receiving intervention for their language and communications skills, would make significant progress both in terms of language, self esteem and behaviour in relation to a comparison group. Children made significant progress as a result of treatment compared to no-treatment, in the areas of language and social communication skills, and self esteem. The data suggest that, in the short term at least, the type of intervention carried out had beneficial effects for the children concerned. Implications for practice for speech and language therapists and teachers working with this client group are also discussed.

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