Amanda Moorghen, Voice 21, UK

Young people across the country take part in activities that ‘make a positive difference to others or the environment’ (Angus, 2019); this is youth social action. These opportunities are frequently talk-rich. Whether collaborating with others on a campaign team, pitching their ideas to others or arguing their case in the debate chamber, students rely on oracy to thrive in these environments. Students are both learning to talk – developing their oracy with new challenges – and learning through talk – relying on pre-existing competencies. Those involved value oracy; Arthur et al. (2015) found that confidence and communication were in the top three ‘virtues’ developed by social action, according to youth social action providers and the young people involved.

The connection between oracy and social action is important because of the relationship with economic disadvantage. On entry to school, children eligible for free school meals are 14 to 21 percentage points less likely to meet expected levels of language and communication than their peers from more affluent households (Read, 2016; Moss and Washbrook, 2016). Students from less affluent backgrounds are also less likely to take part in youth social action (Knibbs et al., 2019).

Research approach

The focus of these case studies is to show the ways in which high-quality oracy provision interacts with this advantage gap, in terms of students’ access to and engagement with youth social action opportunities. To address this, separate interviews were conducted with key members of staff at two schools working with Voice 21 to deliver a high-quality oracy education to their students. Open-ended questions were used, inviting reflection on social action and oracy. Short summaries are presented and key themes are identified.

Case study one: Robson House, London

Robson House Primary Pupil Referral Unit is a specialist centre for children who cannot attend mainstream school because of social, emotional and mental health needs, or who have been permanently excluded from school. Most students (80 per cent) are eligible for free school meals (FSM). A multi-disciplinary team provides a therapeutic approach to meet the children’s social, emotional and academic needs. Talk is central to school life, and the Oracy Framework (Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge, 2019) is used as a common language for identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses and planning their learning. The Oracy Framework was developed by Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge. It describes the physical, linguistic, cognitive and social and emotional skills that enable successful discussion, inspiring speech and effective communication.

Robson House recently held a student showcase, with guests (including parents) being taken on tours by Year 6 students. The Curriculum Lead explained that mainstream schools often struggle to include challenging students in these events, and so Robson House students are likely to have been previously excluded from these opportunities. However, at Robson House, staffing levels and expertise enable an individualised approach to meeting every child’s needs, and so, prior to the showcase, there were ‘literally months of work’, building oracy competence and confidence to maximise access. This preparation was integrated into curricular teaching and learning, and is crucial: ‘If they felt like they didn’t have the ability to convey all the information that they had to, that would cause a lot of anxiety.’ (Curriculum Lead) Enabling students to take part, rather than excluding them from these activities, has a big impact: ‘They’re proud, their parents are proud, it’s such a big achievement!’

Case study two: Madani Schools Federation, Leicester

Madani Schools Federation comprises a girls’ and a boys’ school on the same site, serving 600 students. Its student population has high numbers of EAL students and is above the national average for FSM. The Assistant Head – Communications describes the vision of the school as going beyond the excellent academic results that students achieve to prepare students for adult life. As part of this vision, Voice 21 have been working in partnership with Madani Schools since 2018 to build teachers’ understanding, confidence and expertise, thus developing their capacity to deliver a high-quality oracy education.

The school provides many opportunities for students to get involved in the local community and speak about important issues. Recent examples include events speaking out about knife crime, and taking part in sensitive discussions with students from other local schools about the Holocaust. The Assistant Head – Social Sciences reflected that the school’s focus on oracy has been an important tool (alongside monitoring participation) to increase the range of students who are able to access these opportunities. Students are more willing to volunteer ‘because they’ve done all that prep work in the lesson, about how to discuss things, the different methods that they use, how to interact with each other, they felt more confident’. Additionally, knowing that all students gain a foundation in oracy during their lessons helps to reduce the staff time needed to ensure that students are well prepared and able to make the most of any opportunities that arise.

Research insights and implications

The first theme highlighted by these case studies is that a high-quality oracy education improves access to social action opportunities for students in both settings (acting as tour guides at Robson House and speaking at events at Madani). This involves deliberate and universal instruction from teaching staff, which staff from both schools discussed as having wide-ranging benefits for students, socially, emotionally and academically.

The second theme is that in both settings, oracy is used as part of a wider package of strong teaching and learning. It is never seen as a ‘stand-alone’ activity, but rather is integrated with the wider school vision and pedagogical approach. This means that teachers are able to use oracy education, as they would other tools, to meet the individual needs of students and to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum.

These case studies suggest that educationalists interested in youth social action may wish to further explore the role that oracy plays in ensuring that all young people are able to access these opportunities, and have the competence and confidence that they need to thrive. In the words of one Year 6 pupil at an event for the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group, ‘If we didn’t have oracy this world wouldn’t be the world. Speaking to people has to work or otherwise nothing really happens – or changes.’ 

References

 Angus A (2019) Building youth social action in your community. Centre for Education and Youth. Available at: https://cfey.org/news-and-events/2019/11/building-youth-social-action-in-your-community (accessed 8 April 2020).

Arthur J, Harrison T and Taylor E (2015) Building character through youth social action: Research report. University of Birmingham. Available at: http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/1967 (accessed 8 April 2020).

Knibbs S, Mollidor C, Stack B et al. (2019) National Youth Social Action Survey 2018: Summary report. Ipsos MORI. Available at: www.iwill.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/NYSA-Survey-2018.pdf (accessed 8 April 2020).

Moss G and Washbrook L (2016) Understanding the gender gap in literacy and language development. University of Bristol. Available at: www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/education/documents/bristol-working-papers-in-education/Understanding%20the%20Gender%20Gap%20working%20paper.pdf (accessed 8 April 2020).

Read C (2016) The lost boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years. Save the Children UK. Available at: https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/library/lost-boys-how-boys-are-falling-behind-their-early-years (accessed 8 April 2020).

Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge (2019) The Oracy Framework. Available at: https://voice21.org/oracy (accessed 16 September 2020).