Becoming a talk rich trust

Abbey Multi Academy Trust, Leeds

“Without a doubt introducing oracy has been transformational… I credit lots of the changes we have seen down to our focus on oracy. It’s because of this that our students feel confident that they are being listened to and that they can articulate how they feel.”

Abbey Multi Academy Trust is an 8-school Academy Trust in Leeds providing education to students at both primary and secondary level. They seek to work in partnership to educate, nurture and empower students across their schools and since 2017 have been a trust passionate about the importance of oracy in their classrooms, corridors and the wider school community. 

The students that the trust serves are from a variety of backgrounds within the city of Leeds, all with their unique challenges and opportunities. But one opportunity that unites teachers, students and senior leadership across the trust is their passion for the difference introducing oracy has made. 

In this Spotlight School we talk to Paul Cooper, The Executive Principal for Secondary Academies at Abbey MAT, Mel Carlin, Abbey MAT Oracy Lead and Hannah Clarke, Oracy Lead at Bishop Young Academy. They explore their oracy journey and reflect on its impact. 

Putting oracy at the heart of the curriculum  

Back in 2017 at Bishop Young Academy in Seacroft, Leeds, life was very different to what it is today. “There was low attendance at the academy and poor behaviour, largely because our students couldn’t communicate effectively. They wouldn’t listen to their peers or teachers and it became clear it was because they weren’t getting these opportunities outside of school.” To Mel Carlin, it became clear that speaking and listening was going to be key to supporting students in the school to not only build relationships with them, but also to support their well-being, mental health, and the social and emotional challenges they faced. 

“So in 2017 we put oracy at the heart of our curriculum, and we began working with Voice 21.” The senior leadership team at Bishop Young decided to work with Voice 21 as we understood the importance of oracy and could support the school to lead from the top and build confidence in delivering oracy. As Mel shares, “Voice 21 offered a really strong package of CPD support around pedagogy and practice.”

When reflecting on their hopes, they wanted to improve the basics of speaking and listening within the classroom. From here the focus shifted to embedding oracy strategies within the classroom and the learning of all students. 

It became clear early on in Abbey MATs oracy journey that they wanted “oracy to inspire the students”. As Executive Principal for the Secondary Academies, Paul Cooper, shared “we wanted to raise aspirations, improve our students’ life chances and give them a chance to develop transferable skills in school.”  For Paul, it was also important to recognise the diversity of student contexts across the trust. But what held true across each of the academies was the belief that having a focus on oracy could help “with pushing students out of their comfort zones to boost their confidence, self-esteem and aspirations, and that’s important to us.”

Supporting students to be successful in exams and beyond 

A vital pillar to Abbey Multi Academy trusts oracy journey was ensuring that students can achieve the academic outcomes they deserve but have the pastoral support they need to thrive in school. As Mel Carlin shared, “for us, the whole focus was much greater than on academic outcomes. We want to ensure that our students get the academic outcomes they deserve, but we are also heavily invested in student well-being and their cultural capital. We want each of our students to have the confidence and ambition to thrive in society as well as in education.”

Oracy is embedded across all classrooms at Bishop Young and now at other academies across the trust. Teachers are seeing the difference a focus on delivering a high-quality oracy education can have on students. Teachers from across the trust shared that “for students who struggle with writing information down, talking it through helps”. Across the trust, regardless of their stage of the journey, they are beginning to notice the difference in their students and the progress that they are making.

It is these outcomes that sit at the heart of teaching and learning. For Bishop Young Oracy Lead, Hannah Clarke, when she began to introduce oracy into the classroom, she hoped that they would “gain confidence communicating with others, be articulate and expand their vocabulary.” As she explains further, “for us, it was more than just helping students to achieve in their exams, but also to be successful in life after school, to open doors and provide opportunities, and I feel like my classroom now has an encouraging and welcoming environment for all students.”

As Paul Cooper also shares “we wanted students to develop tolerance, respect and kindness towards each other outside of lessons and in the wider community. We’ve seen a significant shift in that, our students are now incredibly polite and articulate young people.”

What does life now look like across Abbey Multi Academy trust?

As the trust continues to develop their oracy teaching and learning, we asked them to reflect on what classrooms feel like now, compared with when this journey began four years ago.

For Mel, “when you’re in a classroom, you can see that students are making significant progress around, not just what they’re learning within that subject, but these greater learning skills as well. You can see students’ confidence thriving through using oracy strategies, and where once you went in classes where it was probably 80% teacher talk, you know going to classes where it’s been flipped and it’s all about the student talk. Students are excited to be challenged, and they grapple with that challenge as well. They’ve got that confidence now to want to discuss their ideas, and if they’re wrong it’s fine.”

It is this transformation that is the most powerful and is being felt across Abbey Multi Academy Trust. Students are now entering school feeling confident “that they are being listened to and that they can articulate how they feel.” It is vital to Voice 21 that through our membership we can empower teachers to deliver a high-quality oracy education. 

For Oracy Lead, Hannah, she has felt the impact of oracy in her classroom at Bishop Young: “I currently teach a low ability Year 8 class with several SEND and EAL students. Last year this class were quite poorly behaved when we used oracy tasks in their lessons… I made a conscious effort to keep integrating oracy tasks into every one of their lessons. There was one lesson when everything seemed to click into place when they each had to present a weather report to the whole class. They all demonstrated active listening skills and had gained the confidence to speak in front of their peers about a challenging topic. I was so proud of them!”

For students learning to talk and learning through talk is commonplace within their classroom, and they have a newfound passion that their voice is valued now and can be heard in the future. 

“You’ve empowered us and our leaders to drive this journey forward”

Becoming a Voice 21 Oracy School at Bishop Young and now across the Abbey Multi Academy Trust has been an exciting journey. As Paul Cooper reflects on, working with Voice 21 “has been like a handrail for us; you hold our hand through the journey, and for school leaders, you have to be brave to move in certain directions but as an organisation, you make it much easier because we get support from you.”

Becoming a talk-rich trust has given teachers at Abbey MAT a new way of thinking about pedagogy and practice. “It’s been supportive to work alongside Voice 21 from a leadership point of view. There’s been lots of support from Voice 21 to help me work closely with our primary schools right through to our schools with A-Level as well.” This support that Mel refers to has been vital not just for senior leadership but teachers across the trust as they are guided through the process every step of the way by Voice 21 expert consultants. 

But what is next for the trust on their oracy journey? In class, Hannah at Bishop Young is excited to see the progress older students are making as they “have now benefited from high-quality oracy teaching over several years. I am looking forward to embedding oracy strategies to breathe new life into some topics that our students have previously found less engaging.”

For Mel, “Across the trust, it’s really exciting to now have the opportunity to work with our primary school colleagues and to think about the impact we can have on young people’s lives no matter which school they go to knowing that we’re all working together on this really important area of education for them.” 

It is this passion and belief in all students across Abbey Multi Academy Trust that continues to drive progress. Becoming a talk-rich trust is vital for the life chances of all the young people they serve and Voice 21 is excited to be on this journey with them.

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