If we want a cohesive society, we must make sure that oracy’s power for bringing people together is not sidelined, says Kate Bowen-Viner

When I was 18, I helped to facilitate debating sessions in a juvenile detention centre for boys. By listening, I learned about injustices and heartbreaks that they had suffered, as well as the complex array of events that had led them to the centre.

I remember one boy who silenced his jeering peers when he embarked on a moving argument about how he deserved be a political leader because he would change the world for other young people who had experienced violence at home. What struck me was a sense that, as they spoke, the boys’ understanding of one another was enhanced as were their powers of empathy. My belief that teaching oracy in schools can help bring society closer together has only grown since then.

I was therefore encouraged to hear that oracy had caught the attention of Nick Gibb, the schools minister. In early February, Gibb argued that schools with knowledge-rich curricula should make use of oracy to “enhance understanding” through “purposeful, constructive discussion” and “crafted questions” from teachers.

Gibb was right to recognise the link between oracy and knowledge, and it is something we flagged in our State of Speaking in our Schools report for Voice 21. How can a young person speak convincingly on a topic if they don’t know the detail of what they are discussing? Furthermore, building knowledge of rhetorical devices plays an important role in helping young people to craft a speech that really hits home. However, Gibb’s instrumental focus – emphasising oracy as a means of enhancing learning, failed to recognise oracy’s wider social benefits.

Gibb’s instrumental focus failed to recognise oracy’s wider social benefit

Its potential to promote social cohesion and informed debate is too important to ignore. As Voice 21 and the University of Cambridge’s oracy toolkit suggests, oracy builds pupils’ physical, linguistic, cognitive, and social and emotional skills. At a time when Britain is grappling with significant social rifts, helping young people to examine and critique a range of people’s experiences and viewpoints through speaking and listening is absolutely vital.

If we do not prioritise the wider benefits of strong oracy, we are doing young people and society a disservice. We live in a divided world (as the continuing Brexit saga shows). The education system therefore needs to prioritise oracy as a means of building bridges between people.

I am not the only one who believes this. Data from State of Speaking in Our Schools revealed that a whopping 87 per cent of teachers felt that oracy supports pupils to explore and understand their feelings and empathise with others. Using oracy as a strategy to teach pupils curriculum knowledge is important, but it is not everything.

To build a cohesive society, Britain needs to take an inclusive approach to civic engagement. Teaching oracy in schools can pave the way towards this. With strong and confident voices, more young people can make a stand for what they believe in. The recent strike in support of climate action is an excellent example of oracy in action. The powerful speeches young people such as Greta Thunberg, 16, and Anna Taylor, 17, made as part of their protest have helped to shape a global movement and have caught world leaders’ attentions.

By emphasising oracy’s social benefits – rather than simply seeing it as a strategy for teaching knowledge, we can help to ensure that more young people express their views and shape the future.

The potential benefits stretch far beyond the school gates. Effective communication is the foundation of a cohesive and inclusive society. If that is the world we want to see, we must make sure that the education system is helping to build it.