A spotlight on Gosforth Central Middle School

“Allowing us to take it in our own way and doing what works for our setting will mean the impact is bigger. When we get to September and roll it out, I think we'll be really confident. We'll see that whole school impact quite quickly."

At Gosforth Central Middle School in Newcastle, taking oracy outdoors has produced some exciting results. Moving away from the classroom setting and into the fresh air has provided students with meaningful contexts for talk and authentic reasons to collaborate, both with each other and the wider community. Here at Voice 21, we were delighted to talk to Kate Tomkins, Head of MFL and oracy lead, about Gosforth Central’s seven-week Oracy Outdoors project and the impact this had on the students involved.

Catering for students in Years 5 to 8, Gosforth Central Middle School serves a “reasonably affluent area of Newcastle”. Kate describes the school as being a “very inclusive school. We have great pastoral care. We are forward-thinking so we are always looking to do what is in the best interests of our pupils… we’re expanding so our numbers are growing”. The school’s initial interest in oracy, as Kate explains, came from the following reflection:

“On Friday afternoons especially lessons 4 and 5 we saw some behaviour issues, staff felt that lesson time wasn’t always as productive as it could have been because pupils weren’t necessarily in the right headspace. We looked to change how we run our Friday afternoons … We wanted to build confidence, we wanted to build their oracy, we wanted to build their resilience.”

Friday afternoons, then, have become skills led. Many activities including Sports Leaders, spoken French modules and drama-based activities take place. As Kate explains, “the first year showed we could run sessions which targeted key skills, increased pupils’ confidence and were enjoyable for all. There are also hardly any behaviour issues on a Friday afternoon”. These successes prompted Gosforth Central “to come to Voice 21 to look at developing oracy across the school”

As a Stage One school, Gosforth Central has been involved in a small-scale project in which oracy is taken outdoors. A select group of 12 students identified by their teachers embarked on an exciting programme at their local park and nature reserve. When asked about the aims of the Oracy Outdoors project, Kate told us: 

“We wanted to make some community links – that’s something we weren’t able to do during COVID … We aimed to design a project that would allow us to volunteer in the park, and at a local nature reserve. Through that positive social interaction, we’d give children an experience that would give them scope to improve their oracy… [The project] also served as a positive cultural experience and a positive social experience.”

Recording the different types of talk they used each week, students took part in several activities with the aid of local volunteers who they wouldn’t normally come into contact. Activities included:

  • An introduction to oracy and playing oracy games
  • A general introduction to the park and its value
  • Workaround the War Memorial in preparation for an Armistice Day service 
  • A natural art session focused on identifying trees and plants
  • Conducting a survey to find out who was using the park and why
  • Planting trees
  • A nature walk looking at habitats and using binoculars to look at birds and wildlife up close

Students did an initial video recording on the theme of why the park is important. This acted as a baseline measure of students’ oracy and their ability to speak in front of an audience. At the end of the project, students took part in a celebration event where they spoke about what they had done. As Kate explains, this took place “at the nature reserve with their parents. The volunteers came, some of our school governors came. The pupils spoke about what they had achieved. They took the guests on tours to the bird hides with the binoculars …we used that as an unofficial end rating of their oracy. We looked at how they were able to talk in front of that audience”. Teachers also kept logs throughout the project to record students’ engagement, oracy skills, and interactions.

Kate noted several positive findings from the Oracy Outdoors project. Staff noticed that some of the children who had been involved in the project were more willing to put themselves forward in class and were “definitely much more vocal … it was particularly pronounced in a couple of the pupils, it really did have quite a dramatic effect on their confidence”. Kate also noted that student responses to a pupil voice survey were more positive after the project than they were at the start, “particularly with regards to oracy and how confident they felt in expressing themselves”. During our interview, Kate noted that increased confidence and feelings of positivity were particularly important in the aftermath of COVID and the resulting lockdown. 

Providing students with authentic, real-life contexts for talk as well as being outdoors was highlighted by Kate as being a particularly successful aspects of the project. She also noted positive social interactions between students; the opportunity of “mixing as a group that wouldn’t necessarily always mix”. Being outdoors and interacting with students outside of the formal setting of the classroom also helped staff to build relationships with the students who took part. Kate observed that “some of these pupils I’ve taught for three years … and I’ve never heard them speak as much as they did on those Friday afternoons … I found out things about these children that I never knew”

Feedback from park volunteers, school staff, governors, and parents were also very positive:

“We’ve had many positive comments. Hannah (Gosforth Central’s Oracy Consultant) was really impressed – she said how politely and how well our pupils interacted. All the volunteers said how well they interacted with them and each other and how well they undertook the tasks. Teachers had noticed that there was increased participation in lessons. The parents that came to the event and the governors were very impressed by how well the pupils spoke.”

During our interview, we asked Kate what advice she would give to a school thinking of undertaking a similar project. She noted that she couldn’t have anticipated how positive the project would be. Her advice to other Voice 21 Oracy schools is to “be prepared to have a go… just don’t be afraid to try it”.

So, what’s next for oracy at Gosforth Central Middle School? Kate is currently involved in running the same project again but with a different cohort of pupils. She hopes to continue to look for “any correlations, and then we could make future interventions much more specific”. She is also considering how oracy could be rolled out further. We appreciate Kate taking the time to share the findings of her Oracy Outdoors project with us. We look forward to hearing about the future successes of Gosforth Central Middle School as they continue their oracy journey with Voice 21.

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