Oracy plays a crucial role in supporting children to get back into learning, articulate their worries and build relationships, argues Emma Hardy

Before Covid struck, I and my colleagues launched a parliamentary inquiry to raise the status of oracy in our education system. At the time, schools minister Nick Gibb was calling for “a debate on how oracy can support the delivery of a knowledge-rich curriculum”. Now, though the evidence regarding the value of oracy remains the same, the education landscape has changed for ever. A light has been shone on the deep-rooted disadvantage in our education system. In fact, the crisis has exacerbated it, and that means improving this generation’s oracy skills is even more urgent.

When we teach children how to speak and provide real opportunities for speech, discussion and debate, children’s attainment and life chances can be improved. Lockdown showed us the need we all have for human interaction and its importance in particular for young people’s social development and wellbeing.

Recent Parent Ping polling found that 64 per cent of parents agree that school closures reduced opportunities for children to develop their oracy skills. Government has recognised this “Covid language gap” via funding for an early-years catch-up programme, which rightly acknowledges this crucial period in early language development; but it fails to notice that many school-age children are already behind. Continuing language development is proven to support the most disadvantaged in particular, enabling five months’ additional progress over the course of a year.

I am convinced that oracy must be explicitly taught

It’s not all bad news. Some teachers have commented that their reception cohorts have stronger language skills than in previous years due to increased family time. But not all children are in a language-rich home. Seventy-five per cent of children who persistently experience poverty arrive at school below age-related language expectations, and gaps in language grow rather than diminish as students move through school.

Teachers agree. Teacher Tapp polling shows that more than two-thirds of state school teachers think developing their students’ confidence and competence in spoken language and listening skills would narrow the attainment gap, rising to 75 per cent of teachers in schools with the highest proportion of children on free school meals.

In uncertain times, we must help children develop the tools and capabilities to navigate the uncertainty and maybe even thrive through it. Fifty-five per cent of all teachers think that developing students’ oracy skills improves their mental health and wellbeing. Oracy plays a crucial role in supporting children to get back into learning, articulate their worries and build relationships.

Which is why I’m particularly concerned about the current guidelines on classroom setup which are likely to be in place for some time. If interpreted as “all desks facing forward”, this could lead to decline in classroom talk. It will certainly make it harder for teachers to ensure high-quality classroom talk can prevail.

I am convinced that oracy must be explicitly taught and should become a common expectation of all schools. There is a real opportunity for the government to play a stronger role in motivating teachers on oracy and shift the emphasis with regards to its educational value. The New Curriculum for Wales gives oracy equal standing to reading and writing, but in England fluctuating education policy is pushing oracy out of the curriculum to the detriment of more disadvantaged students. We can’t continue with a system where some teachers feel other demands are drowning out opportunities for something as vital as high-quality talk.

And while none of us knows what the future looks like, all signs suggest that skills related to oracy will continue to grow and have sustained value in the competitive global economy. As and when we emerge from this crisis, we have the opportunity to reimagine education and consider whether our system is serving the purpose that it needs to serve and is valuing the right competencies and skills. Oral communication must be one of those.