A focus on oracy will require Ofsted to adapt

Richard Willis delves into the historical making of Labour's new policy and the changes needed to deliver it

Richard Willis delves into the historical making of Labour's new policy and the changes needed to deliver it

14 Jul 2023, 5:00

The term ‘oracy’ as an educational aim finds its roots in the work of academic and educator, Andrew Wilkinson, who led a project on speech and language in educational settings at Birmingham University’s school of education in the mid-1960s. Decades of debate later, Labour has committed to delivering on its promise, but why does it matter and what will it take to implement it?

Policymakers’ awareness of the significance of language in children’s development is not new. Many have argued that young people’s progress in life depends on a mindset which puts the value of speech at the heart of their learning and instruction. Last week, the Labour party formally recognised these advantages. In a mission speech on opportunity, Keir Starmer committed to prioritising reforms to advance oracy in schools if called upon to form a government after the next general election.

Voice 21 and Oracy@Cambridge have played an important role in highlighting the benefits of oracy and advocating for this position. Credit can also be given to my colleague, Dr Tom Wright for his innovative project, Speaking Citizens. He and his team have shown that the implementation of policies and practices to improve oracy in schools is cost-effective, but also that they can be built upon existing structures and that accessible and achievable tweaks can begin to make a positive impact on pupil outcomes.

There is no golden age of oracy in schools to hark back to, but plenty of ground has been lost in recent years. The removal of oracy from GCSE English in 2013, for example, had a detrimental effect on its part in classroom practices. It is perhaps this context which has caused renewed vigour among the profession for vocabulary to be made a priority.

Indeed, Lord Blunkett threw his weight behind such reform earlier this year, citing oracy among the recommendations in his Learning and Skills Report, which Starmer had commissioned as groundwork for the party’s education offer in its election manifesto.

It’s a policy befitting the Labour Party’s core principles

Blunkett has since lent active support to those advocating for greater focus on oracy. He wants to see a “renewed emphasis on vocabulary, particularly in early years and key stage 1”, and to foster in children the “basic and essential skills needed” to benefit their future studies and employment.

And it’s a policy befitting the Labour Party’s core principles. Oracy was central to women’s emancipation in Victorian Britain. Not only was it a tool feminists of the 1860s used to great effect, but they also recognised its vital importance as an educational aim to achieve greater equality for women and girls. In giving evidence to the government, they were able to set in train policies that heralded the use of oracy in the curriculum. Once the preserve of elites, female oracy rose from the educational subconscious at that time and played an important role in empowering an oppressed group to achieve a measure of equity.

But as Dr Ian Cushing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Professor Julia Snell at Leeds University have shown, oracy has also been the subject of policing. Since its nineteenth-century inception, His Majesty’s Inspectorate and Ofsted have specifically favoured traditional British language and pronunciation, negatively affecting pupils and teachers with regional and ethnic accents. 

So, while I whole-heartedly welcome the Labour Party’s commitment to oracy, implementation will need to be done with care. It should be evident to the shadow education team that with power will come a heavy responsibility to manage workloads. The good news is that it calls for little more than a fairly slight rejigging of the national curriculum.

However, the harder work will be to align accountability with this new priority. Inspectors will need to be at pains to avoid derailing oracy’s emancipatory potential by favouring one form of spoken English over all others. Levelling up standards will hinge on valuing local and cultural dialects.

Delivered right, this is a policy that, for once, will require those who hold schools accountable to do the heavy lifting.

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