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Spoken language support for children is crucial to tackle educational inequality

4 min read

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the educational inequalities children face depending on where they live and the circumstances in which they grow up.

While no one has escaped the long shadow of the pandemic, some of our most vulnerable learners have been hardest hit.

According to the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group, the spoken language gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has significantly worsened as a result of Covid. Too many children missed out on hundreds of hours of conversation and learning through talk in the classroom.

Half of teachers across primary and secondary schools said school closures negatively impacted the spoken language development of free school meal pupils, just one in five said the same of the most affluent pupils. Even before the pandemic, three quarters of pupils who experienced persistent poverty arrived at school with below average language development.

Teachers across primary and secondary schools must be given much greater oracy training and support

School is often the only chance for many children to acquire language and develop their ability to speak with confidence. Oracy gives children the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others.

With a consistent focus on oracy in the classroom, children develop a more expansive vocabulary, can better engage with learning across the curriculum, and ultimately achieve better grades.

Spoken language skills are one of the strongest predictors of a child's future life chances, yet we know that the extent to which schools focus on children’s oracy is inconsistent, patchy, and of variable quality. Not because teachers think it's unimportant but because there is a lack of confidence and understanding in how to effectively teach it alongside many differing priorities and challenges that schools face. 

For those schools that have committed to improving their children’s speech and communication, they are reaping the benefits. Bishop Young Academy in Seacroft Leeds is an example of a secondary school with oracy at the heart of their school development plan, which is transforming the life chances of their young people.

Bishop Young Academy serves an area of high deprivation. In 2017, the school was judged to be inadequate in all areas by Ofsted with behavioural issues, attendance and student attainment flagged as areas of particular concern. The impact that a culture of communication and oracy has had on pupils is remarkable. A year after deciding to put oracy at the heart of its school development plan, the school was rated as one of the most improved schools in Leeds.

In my role as chair for the APPG on School Exclusions and Alternative Provision, I have seen the importance of oracy as a tool for preventing avoidable expulsions and helping pupils to reengage with education.

By focusing on oracy, suspensions at Bishop Young academy went from being five times the national average to below average and there was a 70 per cent reduction in the number of pupils being removed from classrooms due to poor behaviour. With kids who are more comfortable and confident in articulating themselves, conflict is resolved, feelings are understood, and learning can take centre stage.

Oracy education has never been more important. As we look to recover children’s education and new, bold targets to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy, we need to ensure the message is loud and clear that oracy matters.

It is critical, now more than ever, that oracy is fully embraced by schools as a key tool for levelling up opportunities for working class kids, equipping them with the vital skills needed to advance into further and higher education, and join the labour market. The schools white paper due soon needs to ensure teachers across primary and secondary are given much greater oracy training and support.

The children and young people who benefit the most from a continual focus on communication in their education are hit hardest by its absence. We must ensure oracy is at the heart of our approach to tackle educational inequality for children, and crucially, to level the playing field later in life.


Andy Carter is the Conservative MP for Warrington South and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Exclusions.

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