A spotlight on Manchester Enterprise Academy Central

Embedding oracy into the heart of their curriculum when the school was founded in September 2017 was vital for school leaders at MEA Central in South Manchester. They believed that through a focus on oracy they could give their students opportunities to build confidence, raise aspirations and succeed in school.
Now two years into their journey as a Voice 21 Oracy School, we speak to Vice Principal for Quality of Education, Kate Edwards, and Oracy Champion, Claire Willis about the impact introducing oracy has had.

The students the school serves come from a variety of backgrounds across Manchester. As Kate Edwards explains, “as an urban school in Manchester we have around 50% of our students on Pupil Premium, and around 65% EAL students, and above the national average of our cohort who are SEND.” 

That does present challenges, but it also brings a lot of opportunities and diversity within the school, it brings people who speak multiple languages together. As a new school, we could look at what best practice was taking place at other schools and set that up as a normal approach to our pedagogy.” 

What sits at the core of the school’s ethos is a commitment to their students. They believe that regardless of their background, pupils should be given the same opportunities as any student anywhere else in the country. For Oracy Champion, Claire, it is key that the school can “give our students an equal playing field regardless of where they live or where they come from.”

With this in mind, the school has jumped headfirst into developing oracy teaching and learning. 

Meeting every citizen as an equal 

Becoming a Voice 21 Oracy School was an important decision for the team at MEA Central. It was guided by their belief not only in their students’ capabilities but also in what they wanted for them when they left the school. The school identified two key priorities that they hoped their students would get out of receiving a high-quality oracy education. 

We want our students to go out and be able to meet every citizen as an equal… we want them to have had the same experiences as any young person from any background and part of that is their ability to articulate themselves and feel like they can articulate themselves because they have a right to.” 

For Kate, helping to support their students to be well-rounded young people was a vital component. They wanted them to know that “using your voice to raise the voice of others, whether that’s through charity, or whether that’s through interactions with children in your class.  That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but nobody really talked to me about that, nobody would have said, “you’ve got a voice”, you know, you’ve got something to say so that kind of message is really important to us.

Secondly, “we knew that our students were not going to be able to have the same success in their GCSEs compared to other students if they couldn’t talk about it as well as write it down. This was a hugely important part of our decision knowing that the best the students can achieve is not based on progress eight scores but getting them the grades they need to go to college, university and beyond” 

Using this as a clear motivation, the school then began to look at how they could do this and create a long-term strategy within the school’s culture and ethos. For the Senior Leadership Team, “a big driver was wanting to work with an organisation that already had an approach which was structure and research-based which just felt like the right thing for us.”

At a classroom level, Claire Willis wanted to be able to see the difference oracy could make to all young people she teaches. Yes, we have students that are naturally quite shy for example, but we’ve worked with them so that they don’t shy away from opportunities and from starting a conversation. You go out on the yard with them, and they come over to talk to you and that’s never happened in any other school I have worked in.” 

Working with their Voice 21 Oracy Consultant, the school began to identify key areas that they could work on and wanted to focus on throughout their membership. This included establishing a formality scale, supporting students to scaffold their talk and embedding skills in the classroom like turn-taking. The centre of their approach was to “make our students confident to add their views in a constructive manner so that they all have a voice and a voice that is valued.” 

Confident students that can articulate their views 

Now as a Stage Two Voice 21 Oracy School, when they reflect on their journey and the difference embedding oracy as a central component within their school has had,  there are already changes they can identify.

Providing opportunities for high-quality talk to take place including ignite speeches, whole school events and creating talk-rich classrooms has been a key highlight on MEA Central’s journey. 

It is this transformation that is now being seen and heard down the corridors and in classrooms. “I would say oracy is now embedded across the school and that expectation that if they can’t speak it, they can’t write it. So I think that idea of talking things through,  turn-taking, talk structure and talk activities are now a massive part of our pedagogy and I would say it’s well embedded.”

As an Oracy Champion in the school, Claire has seen her students learn the art of conversation. “The fact that you can learn from other people and combine your ideas with other people has been really good for them to then feel more confident with their work in a lot of the written subjects. In subjects like History and Geography, teachers now use talk activities prior to doing a written task. This means they can get the students sharing as many ideas as they can think of so that when they come to do the written task they feel much more confident.” 

The impact of the pandemic on oracy at MEA Central 

But as we all know, the last 18 months have not been without their challenges for schools and students across the country. The pandemic has impacted students from disadvantaged backgrounds the most and at MEA Central the result of school closures has really been felt. 

“When the children came back they were very quiet and very unsure of themselves. So we had to do some work on going back to the very basic sentence stems, body language and turning and talking. Now we worry that their education might be disrupted again. As a lot of our children didn’t hear any English at home, especially academic and formal English, during the whole lockdown we saw a real regression of their language which was a real shock.” 

But this didn’t hold the teachers at MEA Central back. They have continued to work hard, and with the support of Voice 21 are determined to ensure that their students can continue to make progress and thrive in school and beyond. In spite of the pandemic and challenges it has brought, what remains true is their commitment to the goals they set at the beginning of their Voice 21 journey. 

The story continues 

Reflecting on their experience working with Voice 21, what is noticeable is the determination that Kate and Claire have to ensure that each of their students has access to a high-quality oracy education. 

What has worked for Kate Edwards, is working with Voice 21 to steer and support them on this journey. “It’s all evidence-based, and it feels like you are doing something that is grounded in good research and is the right thing for the students. There are so many approaches you can take to embedding oracy in your school and that’s what makes it really flexible.”

Claire now sees that the school now has very articulate young people. “When you work in school every day you forget what it could be like. The fact that we’ve worked so hard on it with the students sometimes you forget that you could be working in the same school, having not worked on oracy and it would be a very different situation.”

“I think the main difference is that they’re not afraid to start a conversation with you and they can manage that conversation well. Obviously, there are always going to be students that struggle and have additional needs that we are there to support. But, our students are now good at starting a conversation, holding a conversation and actually listening to what the other person says, rather than having two people speaking at each other.”

Going forward Kate, Claire are excited to continue to establish more oracy tools and practices in the classroom. From January they are introducing a new Talking Point activity, not in the classroom but the canteen. “We’ve got big screens in the canteen and we will be putting a talking point on the screen each week. As we split year groups up at lunchtime, we are going to encourage our older students to go and start conversations with the younger groups using the talking points.  It’s about getting them to start that conversation outside of the classroom.” 

What is evident is that each teacher at MEA Central is passionate: about their young people, what they can achieve and how oracy can support them in doing this. Valuing every voice and championing their young people regardless of their background is now at the heart of the school’s DNA.

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