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Speaking skills must be at the heart of education catch-up in schools

Emma Hardy MP

This article first appeared in Politics Home on 28th April

The impact of Covid-19 school closures on children’s spoken language skills paints a stark picture, with the already persistent language gap between disadvantaged students and their peers further exacerbated across all ages.

Nearly two years ago the Oracy APPG launched the Speak for Change inquiry. We hoped to highlight an issue that we all felt that had been overlooked and undervalued for too long – the need for children to develop the ability to articulate themselves and become confident communicators.

There was a feeling that the narrowing of the curriculum through SATS in primary schools had seen oracy reduced to the role of bystander. Classrooms were growing silent and being commended by some for doing so. The purpose of the Inquiry was to explore the reality of the teaching and status of oracy in English schools and produce a report which would detail a way forward.

The past few years have seen growing division in our country and improved oracy skills, learning to disagree without being disagreeable, is needed more than ever.

It couldn’t be more important for us to act now. The evidence we received on the impact of Covid-19 school closures on children’s spoken language skills paints a stark picture, with the already persistent language gap between disadvantaged students and their peers further exacerbated across all ages.

The response to the Inquiry was fantastic. We heard from leading academics, international experts, key education influencers and decision makers, school leaders, hundreds of teachers and most importantly children and young people. We examined over 130 pieces of written evidence, heard five oral evidence sessions, held roundtables, public events, case studies and polling. And the message has been clear.

Oracy in education matters. We are not doing it well enough and we need to do better, starting now.

We need an enduring shift towards oracy in educational culture and values, and in policy and practice. When we teach children how to speak; when we provide real opportunities for discussion, debate and a sharing of voice, children’s attainment and life chances can be improved.

To do this we must begin by acknowledging that despite what is included in the current National Curriculum on speaking and listening, oracy education is not being consistently or comprehensively provided in our schools – for some children, school is their only chance to develop these skills. Less than half (46%) of primary teachers and a quarter (23%) or secondary teachers reported being confident in their understanding of the ‘spoken language’ requirements outlined in the National Curriculum. Only 14% of classroom teachers felt that their school was meeting the spoken language requirements of the National Curriculum to a ‘great extent’.

Lockdown showed us the need we all have for human interaction; we are social beings who need a connection with others. Oracy is particularly important for young people’s social development and wellbeing and the majority of teachers want and understand this. 80% of headteachers and 62% of classroom teachers said oracy should be treated as essential now schools have reopened. However, 26% of classroom teachers said oracy is not a priority in their school and only 8% of teachers strongly agree that their school has a consistent approach to oracy. This chimes with my experience as a former primary school teacher; how the pressures, challenges, incentives and competing priorities schools face can act as barriers to focusing on what we, as teachers, know is most important.

But some schools and teachers are making it happen. It was a privilege to hear teachers describe to the inquiry their hopes and ambitions for the children and young people they serve; the obstacles and challenges those young people face and the impact that oracy education was having on their success both in school and in their life beyond the school gates.

The work of producing the report has left us in no doubt that oracy education cannot be viewed as a “nice to have,” something relegated to a short-lived project or initiative, or an extracurricular opportunity for a self-selecting few.

The report presents its case in great detail and its recommendations include: investing in a teachers’ professional development at every stage; equipping and empowering teachers and schools to provide sustained, and comprehensive, high-quality oracy education; including oracy as part of funded policy initiatives such as opportunity areas and English hubs; ensuring that oracy is part of any recovery or ‘catch up’ investment; and the return of an oral language component as a part of the grading at GCSE level.

Oracy education is a moral imperative and a matter of social equity. Just as talk is the heart of how we communicate, learn, discover, explore, express, interact, relate, empathise, create, collaborate and connect, so oracy must be at the heart of education.

The report and its recommendations aim to establish oracy as the golden thread running through a child’s education from beginning to end. Oracy is too important to miss out on especially for those young people that need it most.

Emma Hardy is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull West and chair of the APPG on Oracy. 

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