Working with The John Warner School: A Case Study

Our first contact with David Kennedy, headteacher of John Warner School, was when Ian was representing the local authority at a Special Needs and Disability Tribunal and David was a witness. It was an unlikely starting point for what was to become a very successful working relationship. The Tribunal went well and at a lunch afterwards David and Ian realised that some future joint collaboration might be productive.

About 10 years ago Chris and Ian had designed a Conciliation Skills training programme to deliver to professionals – educational psychologists, SENCOs, teaching assistants and local authority officers -  who work with parents of children with SEN. The daily work of those staff often involves difficult conversations which need to be tackled head on but with sensitivity to achieve an outcome with which all parties can be happy. The course has been delivered more than 100 times over the years, continually evolving from the experience of delivering it. Feedback from the training has been repeatedly positive, with participants reporting that it has been very effective both in their professional and personal lives.

We were at the stage where we were wanting to open the programme up to a wider audience, because we and our participants were realising that the material had the potential to have a wider use and impact beyond the SEN context. Coincidentally, David was looking to build on the tremendous successes the senior leadership team at John Warner had already achieved, by offering his pastoral staff training in managing difficult conversations with others around the school and parents.

Conciliation skills are about understanding the points of view of others, learning to develop a rapport, and finding outcomes that work for both parties. Those skills can be used to resolve disputes on any topic, but are also intended to prevent those disputes occurring or escalating in the first place. In dialogues which could develop into confrontation, it’s all too easy to take an aggressive stance or settle for a soft option, leading to compromises which can leave one person dissatisfied, or to decisions which are fuzzy or fudge the main issue. In contrast with these two approaches, conciliation is a robust and rigorous process. It enables those people who have learned and practised the skills to have the confidence to deal in a positive and productive way with the kind of situations most of us would rather avoid.

We began developing a schools’ conciliation/communication skills package and contacted David to ask if he could give a school’s perspective on what we were doing. He suggested doing a pilot with his pastoral staff and the SEN team to support the development of their skills and confidence in conciliation skills to deal with potentially difficult conversations with other professionals and parents.

A two-day training programme incorporating some key elements from the conciliation skills training was designed. We gave it the title ‘Crucial Conversations’ to  highlight that the whole focus of the training was to develop the skills to tackle those important and often difficult conversations in a way that lead to the possibility of an improvement in any situation.   We worked closely with Jeremy Scott, the Deputy Head in charge of pastoral matters, to design and deliver the programme in a way which would have maximum impact for the school.

We held two training days at the school – several months apart. Day 1 introduced key concepts and techniques, and gave participants time to practise skills in small group and paired practical sessions, supported by us both.

Before we held Day 2, staff had a chance to try out what they had learned in real situations with support from Jeremy. Chris and Ian were also on hand to give support via email if necessary.

Two months later Chris and Ian returned to the school for Day 2 to review what had worked for people and gone well, to consolidate staff’s existing skills and to introduce further concepts and techniques.

We were all delighted with the outcome. Participants and senior staff reported significant changes in people’s confidence and ability to hold difficult conversations. The term ‘crucial conversation’ replaced ‘difficult meeting’. It has become part of the school’s vocabulary and is frequently overheard in the staffroom.

The success of the pilot led to further work with the school. The value of the Heads of Faculty and Departments experiencing the same skills training was quickly recognised.  This was as part of a process of changing the culture within the school to promote crucial conversations involving staff at the nearest appropriate level to an issue, rather than avoiding a conversation or escalating the issue to a more senior member of staff.  A one-day version of the programme was designed and delivered and received similarly excellent feedback.

The working relationship with the school continued to develop and we have collaborated with them on topics beyond the particular area of communication skills training. We have delivered a session on the role of the form tutor for a whole school INSET day, and facilitated the SLT on one of their development days.

Towards the end of the first year of our relationship we were asked to become involved in the NQT programme. John Warner is a vibrant and expanding school which attracts lots of new staff, many of whom are rapidly promoted.

The programme for the NQTs now includes the following:

  • Subject input from heads of faculty and heads of departments
  • Pedagogy concepts and skills input from a senior member of staff
  • Communication skills from us designed to improve their communication and confidence in the classroom and their interactions with colleagues and parents.

 

For our inputs on the last bullet point, about midway through each term we have a day with the NQTs and offer phone and email support in the intervening periods. Past participants have reported it has helped them to develop their confidence and skills; they have particularly valued the dynamic, practical, non-judgemental and flexible style of the sessions, and the way each session built on the previous inputs. The use of colourful, handwritten flipcharts that were created through interaction throughout the day and provided to them as a pdf after the end of the training, rather than pre-prepared PowerPoint slides was particularly welcomed!

We saw for ourselves how much more assured and articulate the NQTs had become in their interactions with others in the course of the year. Based on the success of our first year, we have been delighted to be invited to repeat the programme for each new group of NQTs in the following academic years.

We feel privileged to have become part of such a buzzing, thriving school community, sharing in its drive to improve and achieve excellence. A focus on improving communication skills and developing the impact of coaching has become embedded in John Warner’s staff development plan and thinking.

 

Suggested Learning Points

  1. All staff, however senior and experienced, can benefit from reflecting on the quality of their communication skills, recognising what they do well and how, so that they can do even more of it as well as developing new skills and approaches.
  2. Highly skilled junior staff can be sometimes be promoted to posts of responsibility, without necessarily having had much time to develop their confidence and skills in holding difficult conversations/meetings.  Communication skills training which focusses on crucial conversations can help them to accelerate their progress in this key area of performance.
  3. We have developed some fundamental elements as core material and delivered this material across different groups of staff, customised to their particular experience, contexts and issues. Over time, this is helping to build a common approach and language across the school.
  4. We and the school were looking to develop a long-term relationship over years rather than a ‘quick-fix’ approach to a single issue.  This encourages us all to be open and honest in our discussions.
  5. Although independent, we have developed a good understanding of the school through our work in training with different staff groups at different levels over the year.
  6. Our purpose is to foster transformational growth within everyone we work with.  We believe that we offer complementary skills to the expertise within schools whilst sharing many core Educational values.  We are proud to be working with teachers and schools.

If you are a school considering a similar approach, then just have a go by working with external trainers whom you have seen in action or who are recommended to you. Risk can be minimised by committing yourself to a pilot programme only, for which you may be able to negotiate a reduced cost.

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