John Humphrys - Oracy: The Answer to a Pupil’s Prayers?

July 07, 2023, 11:28 AM GMT+0

When I joined the BBC more than half a century ago the first thing I had to do was learn to speak proper. Or rather, in the language I was more likely to use at the time, to “speak posh”. That’s how BBC announcers spoke. The old joke was that they were SO posh they made the Queen sound common. Regional accents were effectively forbidden and “working class” accents like mine ditto. Happily those days have long gone, but the way we speak today is back in the headlines because of a new pledge made by Sir Keir Starmer. This has nothing to do with style, regional accents or slang. Nor, contrary to what some assume, does it have anything to do with elocution. It’s not about “speaking posh”. It is about being able to speak fluently, accurately and confidently. And Sir Keir sums it up in a word that will be new to many of us. Oracy. Is oracy really important enough to be one of the top five priorities of a new Labour government when the nation is facing so many different crises?

According to the English Speaking Union oracy is about us having the vocabulary to say what we want to say and the ability to structure our thoughts so that they make sense to others in a way that people can understand. Sir Keir says under a new Labour government oracy will be given the same status as literacy and numeracy. There will be a review of the national curriculum that will “weave oracy into lessons throughout school”. In an article for the Times he says that the “almost exclusive” focus on reading and writing at present is “short-sighted”.

This radical change in direction is based on his view that the ability to articulate ideas is key to “getting on and thriving in life”. Children with poor language skills at the age of five are six are, say the experts, less likely to reach the expected standard of English at 11. Poor oracy leaves children unable to learn because they cannot acquire the vocabulary to understand the curriculum or answer simple questions.

Here's how Starmer puts it: “The ability to speak well and express yourself should be something that every child is entitled to and should master. But the curriculum doesn’t allow us to provide this. This is short-sighted. Oracy is key to doing well in a job interview, persuading a business to give you a refund, telling your friend something awkward. Oracy is a skill that can and must be taught.”

The education statistics tend to support Starmer’s claims. Children from poorer homes are already far behind more privileged classmates at the start of school and that’s partly because they tend to be less articulate. Oracy is commonly taught in many private schools. The gap usually widens over the years and by the time children are 14 there is evidence that it is the equivalent of five years. Thus, says Starmer, children in state schools are being left behind and face increased barriers in life.

The ability to speak clearly and make cogent arguments, he says, opens up a lifetime of empowerment and he goes on: “Yes, it’s in part about good public speaking and debating skills, but in reality, it is about so much more. It’s about finding your voice. To work out who you are and what you believe. If reading opens up a world of imagination and possibility, then speaking and listening opens up a lifetime of empowerment — a chance for those who too often feel invisible in their own country to be heard. It is about the confidence to speak out, to call out injustice or harm.”

What makes it even more important today, many believe, is something that we discussed on this website only a few weeks ago. That’s the concern voiced by many university lecturers and sixth form teachers about artificial intelligence. The extraordinarily rapid emergence of tools such as chatbots is already making it difficult for assessors to judge whether a student has written an essay based on their own knowledge or simply clicked on an app and told the chatbot to write it for them. Suspecting that the student has “cheated” is one thing. Proving it is quite another. So perhaps the answer will be to move from written exams to oral assessments.

And Starmer describes another benefit of oracy that might appeal to many parents trying to persuade their offspring to spend rather less time staring at a small screen. He says: “The flipside of speaking is listening. Listening can also be taught”.

Many leading figures in the education world have given their approval to Labour’s new “pledge”. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, said: “Oracy should be a core entitlement and held in the same regard as reading and writing. Indeed, if students can articulate effectively in conversation, they are more likely to be assured readers and able to express themselves well in writing.”

A recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that communication would be one of the skills most demanded by employers over the next 15 years: “It’s vital therefore that we are equipping young people with the tools to confidently and clearly express their thoughts and ideas, and it’s good to see that Labour recognises this.”

Head teachers at a recent conference said it was essential to teach pupils how to talk and listen to each other. Jane Lunnon, head of Alleyn’s School in south London, said: “Empowering our next generation to formulate, research and articulate their views, with precision, authority and conviction, will give them the tools to shape society’s most important conversations.”

And this from Clare Wagner, head teacher of Henrietta Barnett, a girls’ grammar school in north London: “I agree that oracy is an essential skill but it is important that it is embedded correctly in and across the curriculum.”

So why, given all the potential benefits, has oracy been neglected by so many schools – especially the majority in the state sector?

It might be that there’s an assumption that speaking skills come into much the same category as, say, the ability to learn a foreign language. Some children are good at it and some are not. We all know youngsters who can “pick up” French, for instance, without making any real effort and others (like a friend’s 23 year-old son) who can barely manage to say “bonjour” after several years of being taught French in school. But, boy, is he articulate in English.

Another is that primary schools tend to be judged on how well their pupils perform at the age of 11 in tests in reading, writing and maths. In most there is no oral test, other than the phonics test at the age of six. So the priorities are literacy and numeracy. Some primary schools run a version of a “speaker’s corner” to help the children get used to the idea of speaking in front of their classmates, but there’s a wide gap between that and actively teaching them to articulate what they are thinking. In other words, developing their oracy skills. “Voice 21” is a charity that does precisely that. It was set up by Peter Hyman, who was a speechwriter for Tony Blair and is now one of Starmer’s senior advisers.

Few will argue with the need to teach children how to communicate effectively. But they might also say that if we are to take oracy seriously and find time for it in a curriculum that is already stretched, then something else will have to give. Less time spent teaching maths? Or physics? Or literacy? Or history? Or teaching them how to cope with a world in which artificial intelligence will come to dominate more aspects of their lives than we can even begin to imagine?

What’s your view? Do you regret that oracy was not a subject on the curriculum when you were at school? Do you blame the system for not helping you to communicate effectively? Or do you reckon you’ve managed perfectly well without it and there are more important aspects of our education system to worry about?

Let us know.

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