Why oracy matters now, more than ever

Beccy Earnshaw, CEO of Voice 21, reflects on the last five years of Voice 21 and looks forward as we develop our next plan to take us to 2025.

Last month, as I sat in on a seemingly never-ending stream of Zoom meetings, I celebrated my five-year anniversary at Voice 21. 

In 2015, I answered an advert to lead a new campaign to increase the focus on speaking skills in schools. I was excited about the noises that had made their way up the M1 of a school in East London that was putting talk at the heart of their curriculum  – having spent my school days getting told off for talking so this sounded like my kind of school! I must confess, that prior to my interview I had to look up the word Oracy in the dictionary – I soon learned I wasn’t the only person unfamiliar with the term! A good chunk of my time over the last five years has been spent explaining what Oracy means. 

Over the summer holidays of 2015, as the sole employee of Voice 21 (but with some very able advisers and colleagues from School 21) I wrote a five year plan for Voice 21. This mission and strategy aimed to take us from one school in Stratford to a thousand schools nationally.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the strategy was too heavily focussed promoting the headline grabbing moments of children performing speeches that were beyond their years, rather than the sustained cumulative impact of day to day routines and strategies that truly achieve a high quality oracy education. It lacked understanding as to what it really takes to change practice in a classroom and across a school.

That knowledge came shortly afterwards when brilliant teachers joined the Voice 21 team and as their expertise enabled us to develop the high impact programmes and partnerships to take our approaches outside of a school in Stratford, we started to make rapid progress towards the milestones in the plan. 


Our strategy 2015 – 2020

Voice 21 set out to make the case for oracy not on a theoretical basis but by demonstrating the difference oracy education could make for students across a range of outcomes in a wide variety of contexts and settings. Now, having supported 1100 schools across the UK through our professional development programmes, we can point to evidence of impact in a diversity of schools from small rural primaries to large urban secondaries.

We aimed to build a national movement of teachers with the confidence and capabilities to champion oracy and inspire others to do the same. Over 7000 teachers have participated in our teacher development programmes and they have each supported, encouraged and shared their practice and enthusiasm with thousands more. Everyday a new teacher pops up on twitter or in our inbox saying that they have been given responsibility for oracy in their school or that they spoke to a colleague, read an article, heard a talk or saw someone teach and now they too want to get involved. 

We wanted this movement of teachers to have access to resources and guidance to support them, so we have developed our core approaches to oracy teaching and learning, and supported schools to take, adapt and embed these into their own contexts. We have also explained and unpacked these approaches in our book (Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk: The Oracy Imperative) and through our events, masterclasses, workshops and case studies. 

We knew that we needed to identify the active ingredients of oracy education and empower teachers and leaders with the understanding of what a high quality oracy education looks like and how to know whether you are providing it or not. Last year we researched, trialled, produced and published the Oracy Benchmarks to achieve this aim.  

We also recognised the need to raise awareness of the value of oracy beyond the school gates – to bring on board influencers from politics, business, and civil society to help our mission. From advocating for oracy on the Today Programme, addressing the OECD education group, to meeting with Ministers at Sanctuary Buildings, we have grasped every opportunity to speak up for oracy.

We’ve also supported the All Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy since it was set up by Emma Hardy MP in 2018. It’s findings of its first inquiry ‘Speak for Change’ are set to be published later this year. 


How far have we come

Five years into our journey, Voice 21 is once again lifting our heads and looking forward as we develop our next plan to take us to 2025. Unlike last time, this is not being concocted by myself, alone, over the course of the summer, instead it is a process the amazing Voice 21 team of 20 have been working on for almost a year. 

This time we also have the benefit of five years of learning and experience and we are starting from a very different point. The landscape for oracy has changed significantly from where we were in 2015.

Thanks largely to the influence of the Education Endowment Foundation, the evidence base for oracy has become more robust, prominent and accessible. There is a growing cadre of teachers with leadership of oracy as a specified responsibility in their role who are trying out ideas, testing what works for their students, collaborating with peers, sharing their practice and championing oracy within their schools and beyond. 

Earlier this month, Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge awarded the first Douglas Barnes prize for Classroom Research in Oracy from a strong field of entries and every day we see hundreds of eager teachers swapping oracy resources and ideas on twitter and through teacher networks. 

Oracy’s place on the education policy agenda has also risen. Ministers have used podium speeches to highlight the importance of quality talk in schools, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy has received hundreds of submissions of evidence from individuals and organisations not only from educators but also from the business, health, citizenship and social justice sectors. 

At this most challenging of times, the role of oracy in reintegrating students back into school as part of a ‘recovery curriculum’ has been a regularly repeated refrain in blogs, articles and online discussions.


What will the next five years bring 

In light of what we have learned over the last five years (and some unexpected insights hastily discovered in the last five months!), what will the next five years bring…

We will be doubling down on our mission to enable economically disadvantaged pupils in the UK to develop good oracy skills by building the capacity of teachers and schools to provide a high quality oracy education while developing and promoting a compelling evidence base for the impact and importance of oracy.

This involves us changing the way we work with schools to maximise whole school impact and ensure this can be sustained for the long term. 

Since refining our offer this term, more than 100 new schools have signed up to work with us as Voice 21 Oracy Schools. This membership brings together the best of our teacher development and school improvement courses along with dedicated, personalised support and access to our online learning hub, resources and programme of events. Voice 21 Oracy Schools form a diverse community of schools committed to high quality oracy education learning and collaborating together to make progress to achieving the oracy benchmarks. 

We will continue to support and grow the geographical hubs of schools that are embedding oracy expertise in communities across the country. Our existing Voice Areas in places including Liverpool, Ipswich, North Tyneside, Knowsley and Leicester demonstrate that when focussed on a shared need, communities of practice combined with expertise and momentum, become a powerful force for change. We are excited to build new Voice Areas in Blackburn and with Brigantia Learning Trust as well as other projects with groups of schools across England, including south Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire this year. 

As schools closed due to the pandemic, Voice 21 responded by moving our activities online. Our programme participants have accessed online classrooms and seminars as well as virtual consultations and over 4000 teachers from across the globe have tuned into our series of online masterclasses. This crisis has compelled us to quickly discover how technology can augment our work and add new ways for schools to learn about oracy. As a consequence, we will be growing and developing our online learning platform and events including a two week virtual festival of oracy education – Oracy October (get your tickets here now!

We will also continue to learn and grow our expertise and understanding of what makes oracy education effective, particularly in improving outcomes for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Yesterday, we announced the 12 schools that will form our second cohort of our Get Talking in PRUs project. This project aims to explore how oracy enhances social and emotional learning and skills. It sits alongside planned research into oracy and transition and oracy and subject knowledge this year as part of our ongoing quest to continually improve and expand our understanding and expertise into the attributes and impact of high quality oracy education. 

All this, alongside the Oracy APPG’s Inquiry report due in the autumn and a new Chair and Board of Trustees currently being recruited, means that 2020/21 promises to be an exciting start to our next five years. 

Thanks to all who have supported Voice 21 by engaging with our ideas and mission over the last five years, particularly to all the teachers and school leaders we have come to work with and know in that time; we certainly could not have come this far without you! 


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