Oracy: Speaking up for speaking

Written by: Anthony David | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Plans are afoot to create an All-Party Parliamentary Group on oracy. Primary school leader Anthony David considers the importance of speaking skills for children of all ages

It is not often that Parliament is silenced by a 15-year-old who is struggling not to cry as they try to convey the importance of being able to speak out. However, this is what happened back in late April.

Admittedly this was a Westminster committee room and not the great debating chamber, but the people who mattered were there and they saw how Olivia, a self-described working class teenager from Manchester, had been changed by attending an after-school group that had taught her how to speak publicly.

She wasn’t the only young person in the room who moved us by the way they were able to shatter stereotypes, either social, ability or age.

We had gathered together at Parliament for an event hosted by Emma Hardy MP and entitled Speaking Up For Speaking. The aim was to celebrate the value of oracy and its link with social mobility.

In a packed room I was, I believe, the only headteacher present and while there were plenty of policy developers and MPs who were keen to put up their hand and add to the discussion, I found myself humbled by the young speakers who managed to convey far more through their honest and impassioned speeches than some of the waffle that those who should have known better were trying to get away with. Unusually, I was silenced.

So why are we in a position where MPs are campaigning for children’s right to speak? In my view it goes back to the heart of our teaching and our curriculum.

There were many things that disappointed me about the 2014 revised curriculum – the weight on facts, the lack of skills, the lack of any sense of common values. But, above all, it was the removal of speaking and listening from all subjects. Only within the early years do we see any genuine sense of tracked speaking and listening. Are we to assume that by five-years-old our children know all there is to know about speaking and listening? Obviously not, and this is a significant concern.

I love my schools. They are full of chatty children who like to discuss real issues. The children have a voice and they know I value this – it is, after all, one of the key articles within the Convention on the Rights of the Child – for a child to be free to express themselves.

And because of this I was heartened by Emma Hardy MP, who back in April listened and considered the young people with genuine honesty and respect.

Equally, I was horrified by a policy developer who tried to defend a knowledge-rich curriculum under the guise of “you need facts to win a debate”. He’s wrong – you need confidence; I’ve seen people win debates purely on bravado and without an ounce of knowledge.

Since I introduced a language-rich curriculum into my primary school I have seen the following four outcomes – improved behaviour, improved attendance, improved standards, and in my mind the most important, an improvement to our children’s sense of wellbeing and confidence.

Being able to speak out is immensely powerful and if we can train children to do this successfully then they will be able to access a much broader world with confidence. The sad thing is that it isn’t expensive. Yes, if we want to do it properly then it requires proper assessment but haven’t we been doing this for many years in other subjects?

There are organisations, such as the English Speaking Board, who have been developing resources for schools and assessing speech for decades. They understand how to get the best out of a child and also how to pitch resources to include all children.

One of the most moving talks that I have seen was delivered by a child whose academic ability was so low that he could not access the year 6 SATs papers – but he could talk with passion.

If we trust teachers to assess writing in year 6 with public accountability then we can trust them to assess speaking, surely? Equally, there should be no fear in scrabbling around trying to find debate materials when organisations like First News do this for us on a weekly basis. Their debates are diverse, well pitched and are constantly seeking to broaden children’s vocabulary and, importantly, their worldly opinions.

If we are to value childhood mental health then giving children the tools to express themselves could help unlock any number of concerns that, if dealt with early on, would save money in the long term (if you want to consider this subject in its coldest form). Importantly it could save a child by helping them to speak up.

One of the biggest changes we have made at the school is to do away with School Council. Controversial? Really? Can you honestly say that a dozen children elected on popularity genuinely speak for every child?

I am being deliberately controversial because our replacement has been for every child to be in the council. Every half-term we hold meetings with children from each year group in classes – on every table there is a child from years 1 to 6, with the year 6 child chairing the meeting. Every adult in the school is involved and there is a common theme – it might be evaluating the new maths strategy or reviewing an aspect of culture around the school. Whatever the subject, the children feel involved and when I asked a group of year 6 children recently, they cited the Class Council as one of the most important aspects of school where they felt they had an influential voice.

At Westminster, Olivia was brave. She spoke with passion between tears and I am utterly convinced she is not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of Olivias waiting for someone to help them unlock their voice, and in a digital age when we are speaking less and less there has never been a more important time to start speaking.

Following the event, Ms Hardy confirmed she intends to form an oracy-focused All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the coming months. I wish her every success with this work – it is time to speak out for our children in order to help them speak up for themselves.

  • Anthony David is executive headteacher of St Paul’s CE Primary School and Millbrook Park Primary School in north London.

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