Neglecting oracy skills ‘hampers job prospects and social mobility’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

A lack of focus in school on developing students’ speaking skills could be hampering social mobility and job prospects, it has been suggested.

A report published this week finds that other than “speaking in assembly” the majority of schools (more than three-quarters), do not offer “meaningful” opportunities to develop oracy skills.

Oracy: The state of speaking in our schools – commissioned by the Voice 21 campaign, which argues the case for oracy in schools – states that a majority of teachers believe oracy to be just as important as literacy and numeracy.

It finds that oracy skills are much more likely to be found in independent schools, where debate clubs are popular and teachers often feedback to parents about pupils’ vocal contributions in class.

A second report released this week by the English Speaking Union – entitled Speaking Frankly: The case for oracy in the curriculum – includes contributions from a range of educationalists arguing why oracy skills should be prioritised.

Between them, the reports identify a number of barriers to effective oracy education, including:

  • A lack of time.
  • Anxiety that shy and under-confident pupils might struggle.
  • Anxiety about pupils’ behaviour.
  • Priority being given to other tasks (in particular, pupils’ writing).
  • A lack of confidence and expertise, exacerbated by a paucity of training.
  • Perceptions that oracy is only occasionally relevant when teaching or relevant only in certain subjects such as English.
  • A lack of active support from school leadership.

Among the contributions to Speaking Frankly, Neil Mercer, emeritus professor of education at the University of Cambridge, writes: “Children can transcend their destinies if schools provide the kind of experience and tuition which will develop their use of language for self-expression, reasoning, reflection and self-regulation. This is one reason why oracy skills deserve the kind of attention traditionally given to literacy and numeracy.”

Peter Hyman, executive headteacher and founder of School 21 in east London, where oracy is “integral to teaching and learning”, said: “Teaching oracy is an issue of social equity.

“Too often young people are denied the opportunity to learn how to articulate their ideas effectively and gain the confidence to find their voice – opportunities consistently afforded to more advantaged students.

“Which would have a bigger impact on social mobility: more grammar schools or every child being taught how to become an eloquent speaker?”

The publication of the reports has come alongside the launch of a new website by Voice 21 and the English Speaking Union – entitled the Oracy Network – which is offering a range of resources and activities to help schools develop students’ oracy.

Beccy Earnshaw, director of Voice 21 said: “’Despite a wealth of evidence from educators, academics, economists and employers as to the importance of oracy, it currently has meagre status within our education system. It is clear from the research that there is an appetite from schools and teachers for more time for talk, support for speaking and resources for rhetoric.

“If we are truly committed to empowering every young person regardless of their background, with the belief that their voice has value and the ability to articulate their thoughts so others will listen, then it is time to get talking in class.”

The Oracy Network can be found at www.oracynetwork.org. For more information on the Voice 21 campaign, including School 21, visit www.voice21.org, and for details on the work of the English Speaking Union, including its grants for teachers, go to www.esu.org


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