This week Sir Keir Starmer doubled the number of education policies he is willing to declare pre-election, with the announcement that all children should be taught oracy in schools.
Alongside the prospect of the imposition of VAT in the independent sector, this announcement was laced with an anti-private school flavour: being able to speak well is yet another of the unfair advantages that our sector confers.
On the importance of oracy, at least, I happen to agree with him. Ask any Year 11 what was the worst/hardest/most awkward exam they did, and they are likely to tell you it was their Modern Language oral. Teenage girls may seem less grunty and more articulate in the main than boys, but all can lack confidence in expressing ideas and emotions for a range of reasons.
“Any Year 11 will tell you that their modern language oral was the worst/hardest/most awkward exam they did.”
At Magdalen College School, we have replaced optional LAMDA lessons with a drama and oracy curriculum beginning in Year 7, which focuses firmly on developing a range of communication skills, from analysis to improvisation. Schools are outstanding reinventors of wheels, but the good news is that there are many great resources out there: Oracy Cambridge, Voice 21, The English-Speaking Union, the Jack Petchey Foundation and many more.
What Starmer is suggesting is scarcely news to either state or independent schools. Clare Wagner, who has been researching and teaching the subject for over a decade now, notes that the Labour leader’s announcement “is brilliant news for schools. Oracy is a complex topic and involves a great deal more than teaching public speaking and debating. The teaching of oracy promotes clear, articulate, confident speech in a range of settings. There is also significant research that shows that oracy in the classroom improves learning and understanding, as well as metacognition.”
“It is hard to imagine a national system of short vivas replacing six hours of searching exam questions.”
We are, as Starmer suggests, also looking at using more oral assessment of our extended projects in the light of the AI revolution, though we really ought to recognise that one consequence of ChatGPT is to make old school pen and paper exams look relatively fair… or at least “cheat-proof”. It is hard to imagine a national system of short vivas replacing six hours of searching exam questions (the early Victorians must be chuckling in their graves: in Oxford, University exams were oral only until the nineteenth and in some cases early twentieth century, and public exams for schools began in 1858).
But what really interested me was what Starmer swerved: that it is still the case that as soon as anyone in the UK opens their mouth, it (in the words put into the mouth of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady) makes some other Englishman despise him. If we are going to talk about oracy on a national scale – as we should – we need to recognise that the elephant in the room is accent.
As ever, the Sutton Trust is being smart about this. Their fascinating report, Speaking Up , looks at what employers might need to do to combat the entrenched regional and class-based bias accent often connotes. It’s all very well encouraging our young people to speak up, but not if they are going to be done down by it.