Free schools leading the way on oracy

This week the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) released its report Speak for Change, highlighting nearly two thirds of primary and nearly half of secondary teachers say school closures have had a negative effect on the language development of pupils eligible for free school meals. Findings like these have huge implications for social mobility. As the report outlines, the benefits of an oracy education are profound: “promoting and supporting learning, and developing children and young people’s oral language skills. It improves their competence, agility, and confidence as communicators, and enables success in life beyond education”. The APPG recommends oracy skills are given higher status within education – but, true to form, free schools are leading the way.

The APPG showcased existing practices from a number of free schools, including Harris Westminster Sixth Form. As highlighted in Ofsted’s 2016 inspection report, the school has subject-based societies, or debate lessons, that students participate in every Wednesday, designed to increase confidence, leadership, oracy skills, and positive interaction with the curriculum. Regardless of whether pupils are intending to go into higher education or employment after school, Harris Westminster makes sure that an education founded on oracy is accessible to all pupils – and over 90% of pupils remain in education or go into after leaving the school, to the benefit of its typically disadvantaged cohort.

School 21 located in Stratford has established an innovative curriculum to prepare pupils for the 21st century. The school’s curriculum plan is founded on the belief that classroom learning should be rich in talk to develop thinking. Just last month, School 21 held an ePortflio day and invited external visitors to listen to pupil presentations, to hold students accountable for the quality of their presentations and work. In 2014, the school’s Executive Headteacher Peter Hyman co-founded Voice21 - a national charity that works with thousands of teachers and hundreds of schools across the UK, delivering teacher development and school improvement programmes.

We’ve also seen a growing number of bilingual and multilingual schools enter the sector since 2010. The Bilingual Primary School in Brighton and Hove, the Anglo Portuguese school of London and The Europa School UK in Oxfordshire all enable pupils to develop understanding of their English language, through the study of a new languages. The cognitive benefits of developing a second language along with primary English is deep rooted in extensive evidence.

The benefits of the free schools are not only concentrated to pupils in mainstream settings, but special as well. Many children within these schools are affected by an inability to express themselves fully. The Rise Free School in Feltham uses the Ruth Miskin Literacy and Language programme to develop pupils’ comprehension, writing and spoken language which encourages pupils to discuss texts and builds their confidence reading, writing and oracy. Similarly, Churchill Special Free School places great weight on developing students’ communication, interpersonal and social skills and assess’ development each pupil has made.

The schools we’ve highlighted show the oracy gap identified by the APPG can be addressed – but for too many children, especially those most disadvantaged in ‘left-behind’ areas, these practices are out of reach. In recent free school waves, restrictive criteria has limited novel approaches and stopped more providers – like School 21 and Harris Westminster Sixth Form – receiving approval. As more evidence of the pandemic exacerbating the language gap is forthcoming, it’s time best practice is spread to all corners of the country so every child can access an education that gives them the tools to flourish.   

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