Investing in the future

Investing in the future

Discussing the so-called crumbly concrete crisis in UK schools and other public buildings, we asked in last week’s blog Fixing the roof asked about the level of sacrifice society was prepared to accept to provide a world-class education system for our children and young people. Bluff and bluster about a world-leading this and a world-beating that has enlivened many a political speech in recent years. Rhetoric rarely if ever matches reality. And that is the point. Investing in the future takes time and doesn’t come cheap. And with so many competing priorities – schools, hospitals, caring for the elderly, net zero, to name but four – there are no easy choices. Resources are finite. Let’s not pretend there are instant, pain-free miracle solutions.

Provision of free school meals is a good illustration of the problem. The issue was (briefly) in the news again at the start of the month, following the decision of the mayor of London to fund the universal rollout of free school meals in state primary schools, special schools and pupil referral units for this academic year at a cost of £135m, a decision backed by (among others) chef and longtime food campaigner Jamie Oliver:

Nourishing our kids with nutritious and delicious food at lunchtime is an investment in their future, boosts our economy and sets them up for a healthier and more productive life. Sadiq Khan has recognised this by giving all primary school children a free school meal and now we need politicians across all parties to put child health above politics and act now.

Jamie Oliver, quoted here

We have discussed elsewhere some of the arguments for and against widening access to – or even moving to universal provision of – free school meals at a time of intense cost-of-living pressures, deepening poverty and an “all-pervasive” junk-food culture (the latter description is food campaigner Henry Dimbleby’s).

Opponents of such a step point to the cost and note that the government already does a great deal to support struggling families through its free school meals programme – around 1.9 million children were entitled to free school meals in England in 2022 (22.5% of the student population), plus 1.25 million children under the universal free school meal provision for infant schools – on top of a wide range of other benefits to support struggling families.

Some cite the more philosophical argument that government cannot do everything and should not try. Individuals and families – supported by the voluntary and charity sectors – must be prepared to do more to help themselves.

On the other hand, there are (according to the Food Foundation) 900,000 children in England living in poverty who are not currently eligible for free school meals because of the very restrictive threshold. In a recent survey nearly three in four (72%) school staff said that there had been an increase in “hygiene poverty” issues in their school in the last year. Dirty uniforms and PE kits, unwashed hair and unclean teeth were the most cited indicators of hygiene poverty. Children affected by hygiene poverty will almost certainly be hungry too.

Extending provision seems, morally, like the right thing to do. As we have written before, while we debate how best to address the problem, children go hungry – possibly millions of them.

But – to make the point again – it is not cheap. And the reality of any kind of universal scheme is that some of the money is spent on those who do not need it. The child of a millionaire gets a free meal every day too. The money targeted at free school meal provision cannot be spent elsewhere. Opportunity cost is a key concept in economics: the (net) benefits you give up by not choosing the next best alternative.

To repeat: there are no easy choices – about free school meals or indeed anything else to do with spending on public goods. Assuming for the sake of argument that the only viable way to dramatically improve education is by increasing public investment in it (a proposition which of course not everyone would agree with), the money has to come – in the short to medium term at the very least – from either cutting spending elsewhere, increasing borrowing or increasing taxation. Few mainstream politicians like to talk about any of those choices. To do so, it is widely assumed, is to invite electoral annihilation.

In our blog Shifting the Overton window we highlighted the importance of resetting the terms of debate, a prerequisite for any successful change of approach or strategy. The Overton window – a concept used in political science – refers to the range of policies voters will find acceptable. A policy that is outside the Overton window will be unacceptable to the mainstream voting public. It may be seen as extreme or simply as impossible to achieve.

We referred to the argument advanced by the political commentator Sonia Sodha about government spending and borrowing. Sodha picked up on the well-worn metaphor (especially on the political right) of the maxed-out credit card. It is well worn for a reason – it seems to make sense. It chimes with our everyday experience of having to carefully control what we spend because we only have a limited pot of money. Common sense tells us that it is a foolish fantasy – worse, a betrayal – to think that we can keep borrowing and borrowing with abandon. The inevitable result is crippling debts, unaffordable interest payments and a next generation saddled with the consequences of our profligacy.

Sodha invites us to change the metaphor. Think of government spending not as partying on the credit card but as taking out a mortgage. It is also something that is part of the everyday experience of millions of people, a commitment that we see not as profligate and irresponsible but as a sensible long-term investment for the future.

In the context of the crumbly concrete crisis, the head of the National Audit Office Gareth Davies talked about the importance of “unflashy but essential” stuff like maintenance of buildings and provision of up-to-date technology. Our children are our human capital of the future. It is time to invest adequately in them too. It is time to begin shifting the Overton window.

Image at the head of this article by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Fixing the school roof

Fixing the school roof

Attack lines for political opponents of the UK government have all but written themselves in the last couple of weeks, with phrases like ‘the roof falling in’ and ‘the crumbling public realm’ shifting from the metaphorical to the literal. The immediate issue dominating the headlines has been the safety of school buildings at risk from crumbly concrete. More than 100 schools were forced to fully or partially close just as children were beginning the new academic year. Interest in Raac will inevitably fade (indeed, it already has, to judge by the front pages of the last few days) and the political storm will subside. But the uncomfortable underlying issue will remain: what sacrifices are we prepared to make to fund the huge investment required to create and maintain a genuinely world-class education system for our children and young people?

The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies said last week that spending on school buildings is “low in historical terms and low compared with levels of need. This is the view of both the independent National Audit Office and the Department for Education itself. The current crisis illustrates just how costly failing to keep on top of necessary investment in buildings and infrastructure can be.”

Gareth Davies, head of the aforementioned National Audit Office (NAO), wrote in a headline-grabbing article in the Times that a recent NAO report concluded that, following years of underinvestment, about 700,000 pupils are learning in schools that the responsible body or Department for Education (DfE) believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment:

The underlying challenge is that adequately funding responsible capital programmes for our public services leaves less for higher profile projects. Failure to bite this bullet leads to poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking-plaster approach.

Gareth Davies, quoted from the Times, posted online 5 September 2023

The snag for politicians is that they aren’t many good headlines in thinking long term and taking care of the things that Davies calls “unflashy but essential” – maintenance of public buildings, replacement of obsolete technology and so on. Moreover, whenever cuts in government spending are deemed necessary, it is the capital budgets that are routinely raided in order to ‘protect frontline services’ – ie minimise the immediate, direct, tangible impact on voters. And that is before we even start to calculate the cost of truly game-changing investment capable of transforming educational provision so that it is genuinely world-beating.

It is a cliché to say that to govern is to choose. But all clichés contain at least an element of truth. Politics and economics are indeed about choices. Scarcity is a key concept in economics: the gap between limited resources and theoretically unlimited wants. On the one hand, a politician who pops up on TV and says that they would love to fund x, y and z but that it simply isn’t affordable is not necessarily lying. On the other hand, what they are neglecting to tell you is that the money can indeed be ‘found’ – the government made available hundreds of billions during the Covid pandemic at exceedingly short notice, to give just one example – but that it will almost certainly require making some uncomfortable and/or politically disadvantageous choices.

This is not to make a narrowly party-political point. The Guardian columnist Martin Kettle wrote recently that there is a systemic reason why we are so bad at implementing big changes for which there is actually widespread agreement – reducing the human impact on the environment, strengthening the NHS, creating a social care system that is fit for purpose and so on. High-quality education in well-resourced and structurally safe classrooms would presumably be near the top of any such list of desiderata.

…Britain always struggles to construct the bridge linking public readiness and achieved outcomes. Populist and partisan politics have made bridge-building less attractive and more difficult. Social media have increased the instability. In the more deferential past, the bridges would have been constructed after a royal commission consisting of the expert and the eminent. But modern politics, with its desperate compulsion to retain control, recoils from such exercises.

Martin Kettle, Ulez reveals a systemic problem with how UK government works – or rather, doesn’t, The Guardian, online version posted 31 August 2023

Kettle’s article is worth reading in full, whether you agree with it or not. His solution is deliberative democracy – some form of citizens’ assembly involving a representative sample of voters who examine an issue in depth and put together a policy package that most if not all of them can get behind.

There is widespread concern about an apparent disconnect between our elected politicians and those they purport to represent. What is certainly true is that across the democratic world authoritarian populists are mining a rich seam of anger and discontent. Interest in deliberative democracy is growing, and perhaps its day will come. But don’t expect it to be any time soon.

The depressing reality of the political process – especially in the long run-up to elections – is that creative and radical thinking will be stymied by mudslinging and petty partisanship, with ideas put forward by one side routinely rubbished by the other.

Just think about proposals for reforming social care put forward in the last fifteen years or so and the twin phrases ‘death tax’, used about Labour government proposals before 2010, and ‘dementia tax’, used about later Conservative government proposals.

Meanwhile, the consequences of chronic underinvestment in our schools and other public services continue to mount.

Image at the head of this article (with a slight modification by us) by 200 Degrees from Pixabay.

Supporting girls’ participation in sport

Girls' participation in sport

‘We need to get girls on the pitch, but we need to get girls to stay on the pitch.’ That’s the message behind the Kick On football initiative promoted by Starling Bank and its ambassador Jill Scott MBE, the former England footballer. Though nearly half of girls aged 11–16 play football, they are three times more likely than boys to give up the sport, according to research done by the bank. Issues such as bullying, body confidence and school work all hinder girls’ participation and commitment, it says. Meanwhile, a high-profile public campaign – including a petition signed by 150,000 people – was needed to persuade the Nike sportswear brand to make Mary Earps replica goalkeeper shirts available to buy following England’s success in the recent Women’s World Cup. The number of children currently meeting official guidelines on daily physical activity is less than 50%. We need a broad and ambitious long-term public health strategy enabling everyone – young, old and in between – to take part in sport and physical activity and have access to high-quality, inspirational facilities. Schools have a vital role to play.

Starling Bank has launched the second phase of its Kick On football initiative which distributes free kit to girls’ teams to promote participation and equality. The bank says that it is giving away £200,000 worth of kit, equipment and coaching vouchers to grassroots football clubs with girls’ or women’s teams through its partner Gift of Kit.

A survey of 2,000 young people in the UK aged 11–16 commissioned by the bank in July–August 2023 found that:

  • 30% of girls who play football stop playing by the time they reach their late teens (compared to 10% of boys who play)
  • 27% stop due to pressures to do well at school
  • 14% stop because of body image insecurities
  • 8% stop because of bullying
  • 18% stop because they say they do not see a clear career pathway into the sport

The survey also found that almost half (48%) of under-16 girls who have quit the sport say they would keep playing if they could overcome the barriers they face. The bank says that this amounts to an estimated 200,000 girls in the UK. These findings mirror those of a 2022 report from the Women in Sport charity, which stated that nearly half of all girls may be disengaging from sport when they enter their teenage years. The charity referred to them as ‘the lost 43%’.

Rachel Kerrone, brand and marketing director at Starling Bank said: “Our commitment to women’s football at Starling doesn’t stop at getting girls on the pitch, we want to help them stay there. The reality is that the glass ceiling still exists for women and girls in sport and Kick On with Starling Bank is chipping away at the barriers bit by bit.”

For the first time, the kit giveaway will include sports bras, following requests from previous kit recipients. Jill Scott talks about the importance of “seemingly small changes” such as the availability of matching and correctly fitting kit.

Hundreds of thousands of girls have had to give up football, despite wanting to carry on. Any one of them could have been a future Lioness. The surge in girls wanting to play the game is really encouraging, but if we can’t make girls feel welcome on the pitch and keep them playing, it’s game over for the Lionesses’ legacy.

Jill Scott MBE, former Lioness and Starling Bank ambassador

In our recent blog Supporting PE in schools we discussed the need to use high-profile events like the recent women’s football world cup to promote participation in sport and physical activity, in and out of school, as part of a coordinated, ambitious and long-term public-health strategy.

We need to ensure that all children understand the importance of participating in sports and have regular opportunities to take part in physical activity. Not only is it good for them here and now, it will also help them learn habits that will serve them well throughout their lives. This means tackling whatever obstacles, attitudes and biases are directly causing or contributing to a reduction in participation levels.

The image at the head of this article is taken from Starling Bank’s website.

Read More About Physical Health

Read More About Sport and Physical Activity

Supporting PE in schools

PE in schools

Two statistics – one a cause for celebration, the other more a cause for shame – caught the eye this week. First the good news: the UK television audience for England’s appearance in the women’s football World Cup final peaked at 14.8 million. And then the bad: the amount of PE and sport in secondary schools in England has fallen by more than 12% since the 2012 London Olympics, something the charity Youth Sport Trust said should be “a matter of immediate national concern”. Politicians and other leaders often pepper their speeches with phrases like ‘legacy planning’ and ‘building for the future’. But, as we have asked before, how do we ensure that all the fine words about legacy don’t turn into empty promises, with plans quietly shelved or downgraded when difficult choices have to be made? How do we use high-profile events like world cups to promote participation in sport and physical activity, in and out of school, as part of a coordinated, ambitious and long-term public-health strategy?

According to Youth Sport Trust’s analysis of recently released government figures, 4,000 hours of PE have been lost from the curriculum in state-funded secondary schools in the last academic year. The charity goes on to highlight a trend that has seen the amount of PE and sport in secondary schools in England fall by more than 12% since the 2012 London Olympics.

According to the BBC, the latest government figures show that 326,277 hours of PE and sport were delivered in secondary schools in England in 2011–12. This had fallen to 290,033 in 2021–22 and then to 285,957 in 2022–23.

PE provides a foundation for learning across the curriculum, the physical literacy it develops is as essential a life skill as numeracy and language literacy, and it provides a universal introduction to sport and physical activity for every child regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or affluence. With increasing demands on the NHS, it should be harnessed for its contribution to public health as well as wider social and educational outcomes.

If we can reverse the trend of declining PE and physical activity within schools and implement new ways of working effectively, this will help young people’s mental and physical wellbeing, enable them to access new skills, and empower them to live happier and healthier futures.

Ali Oliver MBE, chief executive of Youth Sport Trust

In our 2022 blog Building on the success of the Lionesses we pointed out that “legacies don’t just take care of themselves; even golden legacies can be squandered. Progress has been made around girls’ participation in sport but there remains much to be done, particularly for teenage girls. The Lionesses’ triumph at Euro 2022 has created momentum. Now we need to push on.”

There are particular barriers to girls’ participation in school sport. According to figures published by the FA, only 67% of all schools and 41% of secondary schools currently offer football equally to girls in PE lessons, and only 46% of schools provide the same extra-curricular opportunities as for boys. In March 2023 the UK government announced measures that aimed to create equal school sport opportunities for girls, including playing football, and ensure a minimum of two hours of physical education per week.

Sport England’s latest annual survey of children’s activity levels found that less than half of children are currently meeting the UK chief medical officers’ guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of sport and physical activity a day. Affluence has an impact on activity levels. Those from low-affluence families are still less likely to be active than those from high-affluence families, and children and young people in the most deprived places in the country have not yet seen activity levels recover to what they were before the Covid pandemic.

Life-Based Learning and healthy lifestyles

We need a broad and ambitious long-term public health strategy enabling everyone – young, old and in between – to take part in sport and physical activity and have access to high-quality, inspirational facilities.

Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face, now and in the future, become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning.

Tackling health and wellbeing combines a focus on children learning how to look after themselves with a coordinated, whole-school focus on physical activity. Life-Based Learning emphasises participation in sport, physical activity and outdoor play to help children grow up physically and mentally healthy. It also recognises the importance of children developing habits and a healthy mindset that they will carry with them into adult life.

Image at the head of this article by ve2cjw from Pixabay.

Read More About Physical Health

Reciting poetry

Reciting poetry

There is a moment in the film Dead Poets Society that conjures up memories of my own schooldays. We are in a Latin class, the students declining the noun agricola (farmer) in unison. When they reach the ablative plural agricolis, their teacher Mr McAllister simply says “Again” and the process repeats. It is traditional rote learning, there to accentuate the contrast with the unorthodox methods adopted by Mr Keating, the poetry teacher. To be clear, this blog is not a defence of rote learning per se, still less a call to adopt the bleak “Fact, Fact, Fact!” outlook of Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind. (At the end of the film we again see McAllister’s class, still mindlessly declining nouns and conjugating verbs but now doing so outside in the courtyard. It is a small concession to the Keating revolution.) But it does support giving children opportunities in school to recite – including from memory – poems and high-quality prose (both modern and canonical), as an educational good in itself and as a way to help them become more confident public speakers. Besides, it’s fun!

The trigger for this short series of blogs on the importance of developing young people’s speaking skills – see the links below – was the response to the speech on education policy delivered by Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, in early July, with its references to oracy.

There was an interesting op-ed from Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, for example. Moore is a ‘big beast’ of the political right – a former editor of the Telegraph as well as of its Sunday edition and the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine. He was chosen to write the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher (published in three volumes), and he now sits as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, having received a peerage from the government of Boris Johnson. His own education included Eton and Cambridge.

This background information is relevant. In recent years education has found itself on the frontline of the so-called culture wars and arguments about ‘wokeism’. The right’s critique is rooted in the belief that the state education system fails the vast majority of children. The educational establishment – the ‘blob’ – is obsessed with egalitarianism, in hock to the teaching unions and inimical to innovation and competition. The education system, so the argument goes, is firmly in the grip of left-wing culture warriors and their ‘wokeist’ ideology. Education-related stories in right-wing newspapers are peppered with terms such as ‘banned’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘indoctrination’ and ‘going woke’.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Moore dresses up his response to Starmer in partisan clothes, in line with the right’s attack on what it sees as the ‘dumbing down’ of education. The state system, he says, considers it ‘elitist’ to teach high culture to children from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds. The belief that children should only be taught things that they can ‘relate to’ – that are part of their ‘lived experience’, to use an in-vogue term – is therefore denying them access to the very best, such as Shakespeare, Dickens and the King James Bible. He is nodding here to Matthew Arnold’s famous reference to culture as the study of perfection and “getting to know … the best which has been thought and said in the world”.

Moore concedes that Starmer’s comments on oracy ought to be taken seriously but argues that it is indeed neglected in modern state education. He then goes on to highlight the emphasis on the spoken word during his own “long-distant” education – reciting the Lord’s Prayer, reading aloud poems or passages of literature or scripture, reciting Latin verse, lengthy recitations of literature in front of parents, debating societies.

We can argue all day about the place of Christianity in education today except as part of the religious education curriculum and debate the need for lengthy recitations of anything. But my guess is that the typical disinterested citizen would not quibble with the basic point: that learning and practising how to speak in front of others – and having opportunities to do so on both formal and informal occasions – is a worthwhile endeavour. I certainly don’t.

And what better place to start than with poetry? It surely ought to be the go-to resource for introducing children to the beauty and musicality of language, for practising memory-strengthening techniques and for helping them learn to speak confidently and fluently in front of others.

The art of reciting poetry dates back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were almost certainly written to be read aloud. Learning poems by heart, says Gyles Brandreth, is good for you and “deeply satisfying”. In a blog written just as we were entering lockdown in March 2020, Gyles discussed the benefits for people of all ages (including unborn children) of learning and reciting poems. He had previously published an anthology of favourite poems called Dancing by the Light of the Moon, the title a line from The Owl and the Pussycat, which he had learned by heart as a child.

Our Benefits of oracy blog discussed the four skillsets that the English-Speaking Union says underpin oracy and their wider curriculum applicability. We noted that the fourth skillset – expression and delivery – was the area most obviously connected with helping develop self-confidence and also empathy (the ability to put yourself in the position of another person). What better way for helping even young children learn about expression and delivery – emphasis and intonation, rhythm and metre, voice and articulation – than via a poem?

Meanwhile, we highlighted the educational value of poetry in our blog Poetry is perfect for helping children to appreciate words and language. It is a discussion that we will return to in the run-up to this year’s National Poetry Day on 5 October.

Image at the head of this article by 14995841 from Pixabay.

Read More About Oracy

Benefits of oracy

Benefits of oracy

A primary school deputy headteacher points to a “dramatic improvement” in children’s speaking and listening and to clear impact across the curriculum – “from problem solving in maths, to expressing opinions about books, to resolving playground conflicts”. The leader of an educational charity talks of “transformative power”. Both are champions of oracy. Both backed the recent call (via letters to the Guardian newspaper) for more space for oracy in the curriculum, which we wrote about in our Giving children a voice blog. Evidence suggests that the benefits of teaching oracy go far beyond developing children’s competence in public speaking and debating. It also improves engagement in learning and fosters wellbeing and self-confidence – fundamental goals of any curriculum.

One of the letter-writers was Russell Findlay, who is the chief executive of Speakers Trust, a charity that delivers workshops to young people and provides resources to schools and other organisations. Its vision, it says on its website, is “that every young person is able to speak confidently and be heard”. It claims to have worked directly in over 20% of state secondary schools in England over the last twelve months.

I was encouraged by reading of Keir Starmer’s ambition to put speaking lessons at the heart of the curriculum. Despite this causing some to fear that schools would revert to children reciting “How now, brown cow”, oracy or public speaking lessons can build young people’s confidence and career prospects.

The charity I lead, Speakers Trust, has visited 600 state schools and worked with 35,000 young people – almost half of whom say they don’t have the confidence, skills or opportunity to share their ideas in public.

In our 17 years of commitment to young people, Speakers Trust has experienced first-hand the transformative power of oracy lessons. It’s not just about articulation; it’s about building confidence, sharpening influencing skills, and empowering each student to find and express their unique voice. These are essential skills for young people’s futures.

It is a welcome sign that politicians are recognising the importance of oracy as an essential life skill for young people. Working in some of England’s most deprived communities, we understand that developing oracy skills is not just crucial to individual growth, but also a key driver of social mobility.

Letter in the Guardian from Russell Findlay, chief executive of Speakers Trust, July 2023

Voice 21 is a charity that campaigns for oracy to have a higher status in the education system and supports schools to provide high-quality oracy education by delivering teacher-development and school-improvement programmes. On its website it argues (with supporting empirical evidence) that oracy:

  • increases engagement in learning
  • improves academic outcomes
  • fosters wellbeing and confidence
  • supports transitions (eg from one phase of education to another) and enhances employability
  • helps young people take their place as participatory citizens
  • promotes a fairer society by helping close disadvantage gaps

The English-Speaking Union, meanwhile, is an education charity that “works with teachers and schools to support the development of all children’s speaking and listening ability (oracy) and cross-cultural understanding as a foundation skill for life”. It has recently launched what it describes as a comprehensive self-teach resource for teachers called Oracy in Action to support the effective development of speaking and listening skills in children aged 7–11 and “kickstart meaningful talk in the classroom”.

The English-Speaking Union talks of four skillsets that underpin oracy. It is easy to see how these skills have wider curriculum applicability. (Voice 21 organises its explanation of the benefits of oracy around the terms ‘cognitive’, ‘physical’, ‘linguistic’ and ‘social and emotional’.)

Thinking and evidence-gathering – the cognitive skills we need to construct (and then defend) a cogent argument. What points do I want to make? What supporting information should I provide? This ability is obviously applicable to any academic or real-life situation in which we are preparing to make a case for something, orally or in writing.

Listening and responding – the ability not just to actively listen to the arguments of others but also to formulate our own response in order to then engage in discussion. It is a key element of public debate and perhaps the most difficult skill of all because it requires you to do two things simultaneously and instantly. When we discuss or debate an issue with someone, do we actually listen carefully to what they are saying, or are we too busy formulating our follow-up based on what we assume they are saying? Do we properly evaluate their counter-argument, or do we simply draw from a bank of stock responses?

Organising and structuring – the ability to set out your argument in a sensible, logical and easy-to-follow way. It is one thing to have a valid argument but how do you present it in a compelling way? How do you start? Which point do you make next? There is an obvious link here with essay writing.

Expression and delivery – the area most obviously connected with helping develop self-confidence and also empathy (the ability to put yourself in the position of another person). What tricks can you use to hold an audience? How do you know whether or not you are even connecting with your audience?

The third blog in this short series on oracy will consider how poetry can help children become more confident public speakers.

Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Read More About Communication

Giving children a voice

How refreshing it was to see references to the importance of teaching oracy in schools high up the public agenda, albeit momentarily, a few weeks ago. Oracy – speaking skills – featured in a speech on education policy delivered by Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party. It was also encouraging that, even in these politically charged times, that element at least of Starmer’s speech was widely welcomed. The case is after all unarguable: the ability to speak fluently, to make yourself clearly understood and to articulate your thoughts and views is a key life skill.

The theme of Starmer’s speech was the need to break down barriers to opportunity and to shatter the “class ceiling” to improve life chances for those from working-class backgrounds. Speaking skills, he said, are “absolutely critical” for children’s future success.

He highlighted the importance of being able to talk through your ideas before putting them on the page, helping to improve writing. He also cited discussion as a way of deepening thinking.

His remarks on oracy came in the section of his speech about confidence – or, more precisely, the lack of it – which he identified as one of five “barriers to opportunity” (along with insecurity, an outdated curriculum, the low status of vocational education and low expectations). Confident speaking, he said, is a skill for life, giving you “a steely core, and an inner belief to make your case in any environment”.

Our 2021 blog Oracy needs the same focus and attention as literacy and numeracy quoted the words of the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG):

Oracy is to speech what literacy is to writing and numeracy is to maths. It is the ability to express yourself effectively — to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence through talking, listen to others and have the confidence to express your views. These are all fundamental skills that support success in both learning and life beyond school.

In the same blog we highlighted the strong correlation between poverty and underdeveloped language skills. That blog – and a follow-up called More evidence of why schools need to focus on oracy skills – was written in April 2021 when the world was just beginning the process of returning to normality after the Covid pandemic. Evidence of the deleterious impact of lockdown on children’s learning and their social and emotional development continues to mount.

A key finding of Speak for change, a 2021 report from the oracy APPG, was that the pandemic had widened the language gap – the difference in language skills and vocabulary between children from different backgrounds. And just this week a report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) – examining the impact of parents’ experiences in the labour market on children’s social and economic development – suggested that nearly half of all children saw their social and emotional skills worsen during the pandemic.

Commenting on Starmer’s speech, Jane Harris, who is CEO of the children’s charity Speech and Language UK, highlighted the needs of the “at least 1.7 million children who have speech and language challenges, up 200,000 in one year alone”:

Without help, these children’s futures look bleak. Six times more likely to fail at English. Eleven times more likely to fail at maths. Twice as likely to have mental health problems as children and to be unemployed as adults. While communication skills are important for all children, this group are on the most need [sic] of better help.

Jane Harris, CEO of Speech and Language UK

The 2022 Times Education Commission final report stated that communication skills should become mainstream in state schools to match what is already happening in the private sector. “Pupils need to learn to converse, to debate, to present, to persuade, to justify and to challenge. These tools are highly valued by employers but they are not systematically taught in school…”

The report also quoted Sir Damon Buffini, chairman of the National Theatre, who insisted that so-called ‘soft skills’ matter: “When you’re from a particular socioeconomic background you probably get it round the dinner table, or in the tennis club, but that’s not fair, and I think that’s what education can perhaps learn from business.”

Life-Based Learning

Life-Based Learning focuses not just on reading and writing — fundamental though they are — but on communication in all its aspects. This includes non-verbal communication – a key ingredient in forming positive and lasting relationships – and of course oracy.

A fundamental weakness of the national curriculum is the compartmentalisation of subjects, one consequence of which is that reading, writing and speaking are too often seen as almost the sole preserve of a single subject — English. The LBL framework, by contrast, values and emphasises the role that all curriculum subjects can play in developing children’s communication skills.

It brings a fresh approach by building language acquisition into every subject. This is much more than merely children learning about grammar, punctuation and spelling, and teachers paying lip service to the notion of literacy across the curriculum. It involves an understanding that every subject has its own language to be learned and articulated by the child — the language of science, of physical education, of design technology etc — and that subject language is an integral part of learning in that subject. And it is an approach that also values the crucial role that speaking and listening play in the learning process itself.

Image at the head of this article by Kaspar Lunt from Pixabay.

More About Communication

Tackling grim health projections

Health projections

More than nine million people in England will be living with major illness by 2040, according to the Health Foundation. That is nearly one in five of the population. As we have said before, the evidence is stacking up that we are in effect sleepwalking towards a massive future public health crisis. And as the Health Foundation reminds us, countries across the world face the same pressures. But as a new US study suggests, all is not lost: simple lifestyle changes, even in middle age, can add decades to your life. We must support people to eat and live healthily and we must think long term. Schools have a key role to play by developing healthy habits and a healthy mindset in children and young people that they will carry with them into adult life.

The health projections were published in a new report from the Health Foundation called Health in 2040: Projected patterns of illness in England. Its headline figure of 9.1 million people is an increase of 2.5 million people compared with the latest data from 2019 (a rate of increase that is nine times faster than the rate at which the working-age population is expected to grow – 37% as against 4%).

The analysis indicates that there will be millions of new cases of several highly prevalent or high-need conditions. Most of the projected increase in major illness – 80% or two million people – will affect those aged 70 and over as the so-called baby boomers reach old age and life expectancy increases.

Much of the projected growth in demand is for conditions such as anxiety or depression, chronic pain and diabetes, which – the report points out – are predominantly managed outside hospitals in primary care and the community, suggesting the need for investment focusing on prevention and early intervention to reduce the impact of illness and improve the quality of people’s lives.

It also projects that improvements in some of the main causes of poor health, such as fewer people smoking and lower cholesterol rates, will be offset by the impact of obesity as many people who have been obese for long periods of their lives reach old age.

Meanwhile, research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston suggested that making eight lifestyle changes in middle age can add years to your life. The researchers used data from more than 700,000 US army veterans.

Their eight lifestyle recommendations are:

  • Eat well
  • Avoid cigarettes
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Be physically active
  • Manage stress
  • Avoid binge drinking
  • Be free from opioid addiction
  • Have positive social relationships

Life-Based Learning

There is a glimmer of hope in the Health Foundation’s grim projections. It can be summed up in one word: education. We need to shift to a more prevention-first approach, helping people to live healthier lifestyles before their health declines. Education has a massive role to play in achieving that goal.

As we argue in blogs such as A prevention-first approach to health, we need to prioritise children’s physical health to help tackle obesity and improve wellbeing more generally. It means teaching children healthy habits for live.

Life-Based Learning is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are. Unless we do more to ensure that individuals – including children and young people – adopt healthy lifestyle choices, we will continue to sleepwalk towards disaster.

Image at the head of this article by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.

Read More About Improving Health

Valuing our libraries

Valuing our libraries

We all know that libraries are a good thing, right? But how much of a good thing? For the first time we can express the value of libraries in monetary terms. A new report – Libraries for living, and for living better – suggests that England’s public libraries generate £3.4 billion a year of value. The report’s authors estimated that a branch library typically provides £1 million in value annually. Extrapolating the findings to all of England’s 3,000 libraries gave them a national total of £3.4 billion. This equates to at least six times their cost. The report is a welcome reminder – at a time when both local and central government grapple with unprecedented financial pressures – that libraries are not an unaffordable and dispensable luxury. As well as being places of “living literacy” and an investment in the future, libraries play a crucial role as a frontline public service, perhaps now more than ever.

The landmark analysis was carried out by economists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) for Libraries Connected East, the eastern regional network of the charity Libraries Connected. Their aim was to estimate the economic value of libraries in the region.

The UEA team developed a new valuation tool that ascribes a monetary value to various library activities based on their equivalent commercial rates, the savings they create for taxpayers and their projected financial impact on individuals. For example, literacy programmes were valued at £279 per participant. The researchers say that they expect the tool to be useful to library professionals, enabling them to make meaningful estimates of the benefits of library services and programmes.

The research focused on three service areas: digital inclusion, children’s literacy, and health and wellbeing. Their methodology included extensive library visits, user interviews and statistical analysis.

They found, for example, that a men’s mental health project in Norfolk generated value of £60,000 per participant and a ‘knit and natter’ group in Clacton generated more than £30,000 of value by reducing the impact of loneliness on healthcare, productivity and wellbeing.

The report also reminds us that libraries “are places of living literacy, raising children’s literacy levels and with potential to return a value of up to £60,000 throughout each child’s lifetime”. They are also “frontline mediators” for many public services and charities, and they help to alleviate social isolation and loneliness (issues of ever-increasing concern as the number of people in older age continues to grow).

Libraries Connected said that the UEA analysis “makes a powerful case for increased local and national investment in the library network”.

For the first time, we have rigorous academic analysis the [sic] demonstrates the far-reaching economic and social impact of libraries. This innovative research by UEA should be a gamechanger for public libraries and how they are viewed by local and national decision-makers. The evidence is clear: investing in libraries brings huge returns for local communities and the public purse.

Isobel Hunter MBE, chief executive of Libraries Connected

Life-Based Learning and the importance of libraries

We have written previously that well-stocked libraries are an investment in our future. What a bitter irony it is that, in times of economic difficulties and retrenchment, investment in the public services that produce the best long-term returns is often the first to be slashed. The Guardian newspaper reported in 2019 that almost 800 libraries in Britain had closed since 2010. It is safe to say that the situation will not have improved since then.

Perhaps the biggest hole of all is in our school library provision.

A 2021 report published by the National Literacy Trust charity said that a quarter of disadvantaged primary schools in England do not have a library and that four in ten primary schools do not have a dedicated library budget. The report reminded us that it is not even a legal requirement for schools to have a library.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of good library access — more reading for enjoyment, better attitudes to learning, higher attainment — school library provision is extremely uneven across the country, with schools in areas of highest deprivation having the worst provision.

Every time a library closes it becomes harder to have access to and enjoy books. Ending book poverty is therefore a question of social justice as well as of educational common sense: every child, regardless of their background, should have access to a rich supply of high-quality books and to spaces that make it easy and pleasurable to read.

Image at the head of this article by Hermann Kollinger from Pixabay.

Read More About Reading

A prevention-first approach to health

prevention-first health

The National Health Service turns 75 this week. It faces huge short-term and long-term challenges – from ongoing strikes and lengthening waiting lists to worsening health outcomes – and there has been muck talk about the need for fundamental reform. The former health secretary Sajid Javid, for example, called in the Times newspaper on 4 July – just ahead of the anniversary of the creation of the NHS in 1948 – for the setting-up of a royal commission. It comes just days after a prediction that the number of diabetes cases around the world will double by 2050. Most calls for healthcare reform emphasise the need to shift to a more prevention-first approach, helping people to live healthier lifestyles before their health declines. Education has a massive role to play in achieving that goal.

There has been no shortage of advice recently about the sort of reforms that are needed to rescue a visibly ailing NHS.

One area is the use of robotics and technology more generally, supporting with everything from diagnostics to operations. Artificial intelligence (AI) is more accurate at reading scans than humans. ‘Virtual wards’ would enable many patients to receive hospital-level care at home, freeing up much-needed beds in hospitals. Another is reform of GP care, with technology helping here too, for example by automatically transcribing clinical notes.

A third area is around adopting a more prevention-first approach – tricky ground politically because it inevitably involves the state in encouraging, nudging and/or compelling people to change their behaviour.

James Bethell, a Tory peer who was a health minister during the Covid pandemic, talks about the need for a “new contract” between the government and the people “that is not just a one-way promise for free access but is more of a partnership around healthy living”. The NHS Long-Term Plan (published in 2019) already talks about “supporting people to live longer, healthier lives through helping them to make healthier lifestyle choices and treating avoidable illness early on”.

Stuart Bloom is a senior consultant. He recently set out in the Guardian a six-step strategy for transforming the NHS. Step four talks about improving preventative health. Step five calls for an effective obesity strategy – starting in schools.

Tackling obesity is the key to reducing cardiovascular or cancer mortality. We should set up a programme of diet education in schools with a new (compulsory) GCSE on personal health. Within a few years the public health benefits would be enormous.

A report in the Lancet journal on 24 June said that more than 1.31 billion people worldwide could be living with diabetes by 2050. It was 529 million in 2021. The authors of the report into diabetes – which the Lancet calls “a defining disease of the 21st century” – wrote that type 2 diabetes, which makes up the bulk of diabetes cases, “is largely preventable and, in some cases, potentially reversible if identified and managed early in the disease course. However, all evidence indicates that diabetes prevalence is increasing worldwide, primarily due to a rise in obesity caused by multiple factors.”

Life-Based Learning

Life-Based Learning is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are – not least in relation to health and wellbeing. Unless we do more to ensure that individuals – including children and young people – adopt healthy lifestyle choices, we will continue to sleepwalk towards disaster.

Encouraging children and young people – and adults – to take part in regular physical activity is not, on its own, going to magically solve all our health problems. There is a clear link, for example, between health outcomes and economic circumstances. However, regular physical activity does have lots of benefits, especially for children. For example:

  • it improves bone health, muscle strength and heart health
  • it helps reduce anxiety and increases confidence
  • it supports self-esteem and happiness

Schools have a massive role to play. Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.

LBL priorities children’s physical and mental wellbeing. This includes opportunities for regular sport and physical activity – including the Daily Mile or something similar – and an emphasis on food education and healthy eating.

We need to junk our junk-food culture. Food education and healthy eating – knowledge, knowhow and practice – must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving health outcomes. It needs to be proactive and not reactive.

Click on Physical Health in the Categories list on the right-hand side of this page to read much more about improving health and wellbeing and the value of a life-based approach to children and young people’s education.

Image at the head of this article by Anil sharma from Pixabay.

Read More About Physical Health