Emma Hardy: It's time to take speaking seriously in schools

Posted On: 
17th May 2019

With rise of automation and AI, it is the uniquely human qualities central to oracy that will have sustained value in the competitive global economy, writes the chair of the Oracy APPG Emma Hardy

Evidence shows that not all children simply 'pick up' speaking skills, says Emma Hardy
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Walking around Westminster, you cannot escape the constant chatter of MPs at work. As politicians we deliberate, debate, discuss and hopefully (although probably not enough) listen. Here talk is valued – it is our lifeblood; what we say and how we say it matters.

But can the same be said of talk in schools? How much do we care about the development of students’ speaking skills compared to the taught and tested reading, writing and maths?  

Spoken communication is as vital in the corridors and classrooms of our schools as it is in the committee rooms and chambers of Westminster. But it is currently overlooked and undervalued in our education system. These concerns were shared by Schools Minister Nick Gibb recently when he stated in a speech that “little attention has been paid to the important role of oracy”.   

This is why the Oracy All Party Parliamentary Group is launching a new inquiry Speak for Change to investigate the provision of oracy education in the UK, assess its impact, and identify actions to enable all children to access the benefits of oracy.

'All too often it is assumed that speaking is a skill that doesn't require teaching' 

The development of oracy improves educational outcomes. Engaging in dialogue through verbally elaborating on ideas, building on contributions of peers and questioning each other’s thinking serves to deepen understanding and cultivate critical thinking.

Through the purposeful teaching of speaking skills and the provision of opportunities to use their voice through public speeches, debates and lots of contexts for talk in and out of the classroom, children and young people can become agile and confident communicators.

While no one ever questions the need for children to be taught to be literate or numerate, all too often it is assumed that speaking is a skill that doesn’t require teaching and that children will just pick it up. But the evidence shows that not all children will. Seventy-five per cent of children who persistently experience poverty arrive at school below age related language expectations and concerningly gaps in language grow rather than diminish as students move through school.

The importance of these skills extend well beyond the school gates. A recent report of the APPG on Social Mobility has shown that children who have poor language and communication skills at age five are twice as likely to be unemployed aged 34. This is not surprising as oral language skills are among the top workforce skills gaps identified by employers. Young people need more than good grades to secure jobs and thrive in employment – they need to perform well in interview, navigate the perils of networking, collaborate and have the confidence to share their intellect and ideas with colleagues and customers. With rise of automation and AI, it is the uniquely human qualities (empathy, expression, creativity, critical thinking) central to oracy that will have sustained value in the competitive global economy.

As much as oracy matters to young people’s learning, attainment, social mobility and employment prospects, it is also central to citizenship and democratic engagement. As Prof Robin Alexander said “Political democracies need citizens who can argue reason, challenge, present cases and evaluate them. Democracies decline when citizens just listen rather than talk, and when they comply rather than debate”.

The inquiry will launch with a drop-in event for MPs and Peers to meet with young people and see oracy in action on Monday 20th May from 2.30-4.30pm in Room M, Portcullis House. It will coincide with the APPG’s AGM at 4pm.

A call for evidence is now open and we welcome written and video submissions from across the education sector, industry and civil society. Most importantly, we will ensure the views of teachers, parents, children and young people are represented. To attend the launch event or find out more please contact inquiry@oracyappg.org.uk or visit www.oracyappg.org.uk.


Emma Hardy is a Member of Parliament for Hull West and Hessle, a former teacher and member of the Education Select Committee.