Tom Barwood is principal consultant and lead presenter at LikeMinds Consulting Ltd. You can contact him at or go to for more information. He is a keen supporter of the work of Relational Research.

How important are relationships in the classroom?

There seems to be, at the moment, a dichotomy in education between the notion that worrying about the social aspect of teaching is an outdated concept and the fear that we are ignoring a vital aspect of bringing up well rounded young people.

In some quarters there is the feeling that if we are to compete with the emerging nations then we need to ‘harden up’ so to speak. Research done by Stanford University pointed to the fact that if Britain could make the same gains in the PISA scores in the next twenty years that some nations made in the last nine it could worth something like $9 trillion to the UK economy in the lifetime of our children.

Others will then argue back that whilst some countries may have academically successful pupils it is at an enormous cost to their happiness and well being.

So the question is – can pupils be both happy and productive? As someone who uses a coaching model at the heart of his work in schools my answer would be a resounding ‘Yes’.


In the course of my work as an educationalist I have had the great privilege and opportunity to attend many exciting courses, read a lot of amazing books and listen to quite a few great speakers.

Many aspects from all those different avenues of stimuli have stayed with me but one that I really remember well was a practice called the ‘Conversation for Relatedness’ which I used on one particular course. The exercise takes place between two people and in an ideal circumstance between two people who are not well related or are having difficulty relating.

The participants take it in turns to articulate the ‘concerns’ they have about each other then decide why they think it is worth having those concerns and whether they think they can dismiss them. This done, they then ‘create’ who they are for each other.

Strange though it all may sound, it is a profound and often funny experience (and one you are keen to repeat). I was amazed how many people on the course that I felt intimidated by (even though I hardly knew them) said they thought I was ‘scary’. It was so ridiculous as to be hilarious.

Many of our relationships are mired by an innate suspicion we seem to have about people. A lot of this suspicion stems from a very basic fear of appearing to be weak, or a failure and being ridiculed for it. Maybe this is worse for people who have actually been bullied.


However, I do believe that what every powerful or productive relationship requires is a strong degree of trust and this is frequently missing for many people. As one of the great maxims of Neuro Linguistic Programming states – ‘just because you hear the sound of hooves don’t assume it has to be a herd of zebra.’ We tend to make assumptions based on limited data.

As a parent of two primary school age children, I certainly know that it was with great trepidation that I ceded control for my children’s welfare and education to their school. This required, and continues to require, a huge amount of trust.

So how do we try to generate a greater degree of trust in our education system – pupil to pupil, pupil to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to SMT, teacher to parent, and parent to parent?

My answer is that we must never stop working on the relational aspects of teaching and never assume anything. We must learn to communicate consistently, clearly, frequently and genuinely (not in sound bites or news speak). We need to have mechanisms and systems which are easily accessible and secure. The technology is there to allow us to do that so much more freely now whether it be through social media sites, email, meetings or a more open door policy yet still so many schools rely on nothing more than a newsletter and a parent consultation evening.

Despite being told that they were Outstanding by Ofsted this Autumn, it would seem that my email thanking the staff of my children’s school for all their hard work in keeping my children excited and inspired actually caused more of a stir in the staff room! Funny that…

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