The schools white paper must have oracy at its heart

15 Mar 2022, 5:00

We are now one year on from schools returning in full after the Covid lockdowns. But we are yet to see any significant, long-term measures to support children of all ages – not only to ‘catch-up’ on their spoken language, but to capitalise on the power of oracy to enhance children’s overall academic success. That’s why, as the chairs of the Oracy and Speech and Language Difficulties All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), we are calling on the government to ensure that spoken language is embedded in the education white paper.

We know that spoken language is fundamental to all children and young people’s literacy and numeracy. And we also know that the pandemic has exacerbated the disparities in the spoken language of a generation of children, many of whom lost out on months of meaningful interactions and learning. A focus in schools on developing children’s oracy matters for all, and it matters most for children in the most disadvantaged areas.

The statistics are stark. In these areas, 75 per cent of children who persistently experience poverty arrive at school below average in language development. Meanwhile, teachers have highlighted that the pandemic has had a much greater impact on the spoken language of their students who are eligible for pupil premium.

But tackling this injustice is within our grasp. The Education Endowment Foundation identifies that oral language approaches can lead to approximately six months’ additional progress over the course of the year. So our APPGs are deeply concerned at the persistent lack of emphasis on children’s spoken language in policy and in classrooms, and we are working together to address this.

We are at a pivotal moment. The forthcoming schools white paper and SEND green paper represent a significant opportunity to deliver long-term, sustained change to transform young people’s lives. They must recognise that a high-quality oracy education is a gateway to improved reading, writing and learning across the whole curriculum.

If we leave language gaps unaddressed, they are only set to widen

Cultivating children’s speaking skills has long been a priority for independent schools. And, of course, many teachers in all schools have also sought to highlight the importance of oracy. Yet we know that this is the exception rather than the norm. Less than half of primary teachers and a quarter of secondary teachers say they are confident in their understanding of the ‘spoken language’ requirements outlined in the national curriculum.

If we leave current language gaps unaddressed, they are only set to widen as children move through school. There have been significant efforts to close the language gap in the early years. Government policy must now consolidate these measures by giving the same recognition to the development of spoken language for school-aged children. Policy must guide leadership teams to implement whole-school approaches to spoken language and support them and their teachers with the capacity and resources they need to effectively and explicitly teach oracy to their students.

Why? Because the clamour from employers on the importance of communication skills in the workplace is never-ending, highlighted most recently by the Times Education Commission, the House of Lords committee on youth unemployment and NFER’s Skills Imperative 2035. Yet we lose our way somewhere in between with a lack of specificity and ambition for oracy in the national curriculum and a lack of support and training for schools to increase teacher confidence and capability in oracy.

We also need to recognise that some children and young people who have difficulties with communication, or who communicate differently, require additional support. So the schools white paper must work hand in glove with the forthcoming SEND green paper to achieve an approach to spoken language that benefits all pupils.

Only a sustained focus on oracy can rebuild the education too many young people have lost and finally address educational inequalities. In this way, all our children will attain the spoken language skills they need to achieve their potential.

Everyone will benefit from that, so let’s make spoken language everybody’s business.

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