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precisely, the lack of it – which he identified as one of five “barriers to opportunity” (along with insecurity, an outdated curriculum, the low status of vocational education and low expectations).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.

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