Labour’s plans to make speaking skills a core part of England’s education system would give state school children the confidence of private school pupils, experts have said.
In a keynote speech announcing the party’s vision for education on Thursday, Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would embed “oracy” into the curriculum to help “shatter the class ceiling” that leaves disadvantaged pupils behind.
The party would roll out a “world-class early language intervention” programme to “help our children find our voice,” with Sir Keir claiming the scheme would improve both academic attainment and help young people get jobs.
“The inability to speak fluently is one of the biggest barriers to opportunity,” said the Labour leader. “So let’s take this on. Let’s raise the importance of speaking skills.”
Experts said the plans would help narrow the attainment gap across the country and bring state schools up to speed with the private school sector, but could take a decade to effect significant change.
Annabel Thomas MacGregor, director of the English-Speaking Union, said private schools have recognised the benefits of oracy “for a really long time,” meaning teaching is much more oriented towards encouraging students to speak and build their confidence.
“It’s more in their culture. They’ve invested in it for ages, and I also think things like just having smaller class sizes lends itself more to discursive teaching,” she told i.
“It’s less ‘teacher in the front of the class telling the children something,’ and more ‘right, get into groups of three and discuss what you think about this’. I do think independent schools have an advantage there and those students naturally tend to be more confident, but we could really see this replicated across the state sector.”
Ms MacGregor said the plans could easily be scaled up nationally, with charities such as the English-Speaking Union already offering ready-to-use oracy packs for primary and secondary schools.
Group exercises drawn up by the charity include asking children to decide which celebrity they would throw out of a hot-air balloon and which household item they would use to defend themselves in a zombie apocalypse.
“In the balloon debate, you have a bunch of famous people in a hot air balloon, but it’s sinking, so you’ve got to throw one of them overboard. Each of the children takes on a character and then they have to discuss and use evidence and reasoning to defend them,” she said.
“In the zombie apocalypse one, you’re in your house, the zombies are outside and you have to choose one item to defend yourself. The children have to argue why a toaster or a wooden spoon is the best option. It’s all about building these kind of high-level thinking skills.”
Ms MacGregor said resources like the charity’s Oracy In Action packs, which are used in primary schools and designed for both full-time teachers and supply teachers, would be unlikely to impose a major burden on teachers’ already-stretched workloads.
But others warned that while Labour’s oracy plans could swiftly boost the basics for millions of children, it could take a decade to train up teachers to provide more advanced speaking lessons to help older children excel.
Jane Harris, chief executive of charity Speech and Language UK, said Labour could “genuinely start noticing a difference within a few months” of taking office.
“We have a programme called Talk Boost, which takes nine weeks and lasts an hour-and-a-half each week,” she said. “It’s easy to teach – a teaching assistant could do it – and at the end of that time about half of children will have entirely resolved their speech and language standards.”
She said it means Labour’s plan for “early language interventions” could swiftly boost speaking skills for the 1.7m children currently struggling with the basics of talking and understanding words.
“But for something more advanced it would take a lot longer,” said Ms Harris.
“I think you could probably get halfway there in say five years if you put in short-term interventions, but it will probably take 10 years in order to actually train all the teachers to help the children that have got lifelong challenges and to recruit enough specialist speech and language therapists.”
Questions also remain about how much funding will go towards the oracy programme, with Labour claiming it would fund the plans through the party’s tax raid on private schools, which it hopes will shore up “more than £1bn” to spend the education sector.
But economists have cast doubts over Labour’s maths, with critics also noting that the party has pledged to use the money to fund a number of other policies including recruiting 6,500 new teachers.
Sir Keir said in his speech on Thursday that the party will also shake up the “outdated” curriculum to get children studying a creative arts subject or sport until they are 16.
The Labour leader said he hopes to bring state school standards up to those of their private counterparts within his first term if Labour wins the next general election.
“This is intended to set out what I would hope to have achieved in five years of a Labour government, maybe a little more,” he told Sky News.
“We’re in a bad situation … but I want state schools just as good as private schools. I want parents to feel that it doesn’t matter anymore whether you send your children to state school or private school because the quality of education is just as good in both places.”