Opinion

Without a foundation in fact, oracy isn’t sufficient

Of course pupils need to learn to express themselves, says John Blake, but the fact is that without a firm basis in knowledge, their rhetoric will fall flat

There are not many people who think literacy and numeracy are inessential objectives of our children’s education, even if there is far less agreement about how best to teach them.

Should “oracy”—the term coined by educationists to cover children’s use of the spoken word in school—be an equally important objective? This was the argument made recently in Parliament by the Labour MP Emma Hardy and addressed by the conservative children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi, among others.

There were some special moments. Pint-sized primary pupils confidently discoursing on the most effective way to challenge bullying in school is not something you see every day, especially not when their audience consists of senior teachers, policy wonks and politicians.

When 15-year-old Olivia’s voice caught tearfully as she described overcoming her fear to speak out loud and proud in Parliament, and thanked the youth workers who had helped her gain that confidence, it was hard not to share the emotion. As someone who learned to speak up thanks to drama at school, I was very happy to see these examples of excellent practice in schools today.

Pupils confidently discoursing on the most effective way to challenge bullying in school is not something you see every day

But while the case was clearly made that empowering students to communicate as fluently verbally as they are on paper is an essential aim of our education system, some seemed to see oracy as a tool to unpick changes brought about recent reforms in education policy. These include the 2014 national curriculum, which reiterated and reinforced the right of all young people to a knowledge-rich education based on traditional academic subjects.

The first of these is baffling: while teachers do need more support, resources and training to effectively implement the curriculum, the content itself is sound, based on high-quality research evidence and effective international comparisons. And for every subject in the curriculum, there is an explicit commitment to developing pupils’ spoken language skills.

READ MORE: You don’t need facts to win a debate, you need confidence

For English, Mathematics and Science there is a separate and detailed outline of what oracy skills children should develop across their time in school, whilst in other subjects, appropriate opportunities for oracy are also flagged. This is a substantial improvement over the previous version of the National Curriculum, where the only subjects for which there was detailed explication of speaking and listening were English and modern foreign languages.

Moreover, it is not simply that the current curriculum is explicit that oracy is a right for all children in all subjects; a knowledge-rich curriculum allows children to access a wider range of discussions and contribute meaningfully. Of course, plenty of young people have a great deal they want to say based on their own lives and experiences. Like many teachers, I have listened fascinated as my students have shared their views of the city in which we both lived, their experiences wildly different from mine.

But whenever I attempted to turn their undoubted passion and confidence to speak about events in the wider world or engage in more formal debate, they often quickly came a-cropper.

Sadly – and this was far more my fault than theirs – they did not know enough. They had gone through a school system that had paid too little attention to patiently building the architecture of their minds, so while they frequently encountered information about current affairs or the academic subjects on their timetables, too little was remembered.

They gave speeches about, say, climate change, in which anger substituted for analysis and an unexpected point of information could completely derail them. In the end, passion was not enough: they needed to be able to argue, and that meant, for example, knowing enough to recognise when the other side had a point, and when they did not, and being able to summon examples to challenge them.

A traditional curriculum is the essential foundation on which we should build if we want a generation of school children capable of engaging meaningfully in debates about their own lives and societies.

John Blake is head of education and social reform at Policy Exchange



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  1. Everyone has an angle, everyone is biased according to their own education and life experiences.

    It is clear to anyone who reflects even for a moment that to make a sound argument one must know facts, know how to assemble them as an argument and then know how to communicate these ideas.

    I find that the more anally retentive educators and bloggers tend to love to argue that there is only knowledge. Knowledge of facts, knowledge of concepts, knowledge of processes and procedures. It is all knowledge and domain focused knowledge at that.

    At the other end of the continuum we have those who argue (there are not many) that memorising facts is not important as long as you have the skills. You can simply look up facts when you need to solve problems. Clearly again this is likely true for a good many facts, but arguing on the fly requires some degree of knowledge of facts. I would happily discuss which facts are useful to memorise (as has Hirsch and his disciples) and I am even open to the idea that the more knowledge/facts you have the more effectively you will learn new knowledge.

    This is where I come back to the anally retentive types who have to polarise the thing and suggest that one view of the issue is clearly more valuable than the other.

    Clearly knowledge of facts is a great asset. Whether that knowledge is the same as one would find when studying via the “traditional curriculum” or “The trivium” I am less convinced.

    I believe that learning in school should be a balance between facts, skills in developing arguments and linking facts and presenting the results of reflection and cognition.

    That is the way my kids acquired wisdom, that is the way I tend to learn these days and that is the way that I believe we will produce contented citizens in the 21st century.

    None of traditional, progressive, direct instruction, unguided/guided independent study, transferable skills, project based learning, conceptual understanding etc are not alone going to do the job.

    I think that people need to be a little less anally retentive when the evidence seems to me to suggest that an eclectic approach is required.

    I do however realise that people need to find their way in the world, that people have careers to fashion and people need a purpose in life. Some also need to always be right and always know the truth while others simply wander through a sea of fake news and ignorance.

    You have an angle, I have an angle, and there really isn’t just one right way.

    Unfortunately, anally retentives (and I use the term fondly not as a term of abuse) tend to steer very clear of balance.