Receive free UK schools updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest UK schools news every morning.
The writer is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach
Rodney Starmer, a toolmaker, was a man of few words. Yet his second child became so good at stringing sentences together that he became a barrister and could be the UK’s next prime minister. Sir Keir Starmer knows first-hand the importance of being articulate — and how an inability to talk confidently can hold working-class children back. That is why this week, as part of Labour’s plans to rid schools of the “class ceiling”, the party leader said “oracy is a skill that can and must be taught.”
The only thing wrong with this is the made-up word “oracy”, which first appeared in the 1960s and has a nasty whiff of the dentist’s chair. Otherwise, the plan to teach all students to speak better is important, radical and might even be — unlike some Labour education policies — just about achievable.
State sector education has always concentrated on the three Rs — reading writing and ’rithmetic — with rhetoric, repartee and even replying barely getting a look in. Talking has been considered a naturally acquired skill kids will pick up as they go along. Except that many don’t.
The poorest students start school 19 months behind the richer ones in language and vocabulary, according to the National Literacy Trust. In the most deprived inner-city schools the average number of words uttered per child per lesson is just four.
I have taught in various different schools in London and the north-east of England, where strict uniform policies make it hard to spot the poorer students. But after a couple of lessons I can usually identify them, not by accent (students are good at mimicking classmates) but by their unwillingness to speak out. Other things, including personality and gender, affect a child’s appetite for putting their hand up but social class is the big one.
I once taught a boy I’ll call Mason, a bright student on free school meals who got a top grade in business studies GCSE. But when called on to express a view he invariably replied with just one word: “Dunno.” Despite his achievements, Mason is never going to be prime minister and is unlikely to have an interesting job at all, unless he replaces dunno with something more fluent.
The speaking gap was rammed home to me last month when I went to give a talk to sixth-form economics students at a local private school. When I asked for questions, a forest of arms went up as students confidently interrogated me on Brexit, communism and pay transparency.
Two weeks later I invited an entrepreneur to talk to business studies students at the comprehensive in Gateshead, where I teach. I had prepped them with questions — but when the dreaded moment came, not one hand was raised.
Private school students tend to be better at talking because, in their homes, Labour’s education policies are being discussed over dinner. But it is also because the schools set out to teach them. Debating and public speaking are taken almost as seriously as football and cricket: Eton even employs debating coaches.
State schools can’t be blamed for this as they have enough to do dragging students through written exams. And, on top of that, they are feeding their charges, acting as social workers and entering data into spreadsheets. Teachers are so stretched that now is not a great time to suggest they take on anything else.
However, it must still be possible, with some additional funds, to teach children to converse, debate and persuade. The emphasis should start at nursery and continue to the end of university.
I taught at one comprehensive in London that made a point of teaching “oracy”. Every 12-year-old had a compulsory period each week for debating; teachers took it in turn to coach the teams. During my turn, I watched the shyest student deliver her much-rehearsed speech audibly to the whole year group. I saw how she swelled with pride (and relief) when it was over.
Every term we had a day with no exercise books when students spent the lessons speaking. I got my class to role play a Davos press conference in which students took turns to be the then Prince Charles and Greta Thunberg, while others were journalists asking questions. I can’t say the class became Jeremy Paxmans overnight, but it was fun and better than nothing.
More than these set pieces, it is important to make every student talk in every lesson, every day. This is self-evidently good for them whatever their background — but is not something that most teachers have been trained to do. I make it up as I go along and often get it wrong: once I was so insistent that a 12-year-old girl spoke in front of the class that she started to cry. This doesn’t show that making children talk is wrong. It shows I need some extra training from Starmer’s people so I can teach “oracy” properly.