What 9 year olds taught a communications manager about communication

Zoe White, 31/05/19

I attended the launch of the oracy All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Speak for Change inquiry at Parliament on May 20th to interview some Year 5 and 6 pupils.

These were not just any nine to ten-year olds, they are pupils at School 21, which uses the Voice21 speaking curriculum to teach oracy skills. I wanted to know how having oracy incorporated into the what and way they learn was helping these pupils both at school and in their wider lives.

What I learnt came as much from the words these young people used as the disconnect I saw between their skills in speaking to a room full of MPs and other adults one-to-one, and my lacking ability to speak to either those same people, or indeed the young people themselves.

I was in Year 6 in 1997 and judging by my social and professional anxiety in Room M at Portcullis House in Westminster, I don’t think we learnt oracy in my classroom.

What is Oracy? 

Oracy refers to talking well, and learning well through talk, whether in education or in life. Talking well involves being a confident, sensitive and effective communicator. Learning well through talk means growing personally, academically, and socially through verbal interactions with other people

I hung back for a while and watched these young people speak confidently and enthusiastically to everyone. I smiled and took photos and listened from afar as they answered questions from others. Once introduced to these intellectually intimidating youngsters – 23 years my juniors – I was blown away even more.

Speaking up

Isabella is in Year 5, she told me that learning oracy skills helps her with her friendships as well her school work. She uses quiet Senenti sitting beside her as a hypothetical example in her story:

“If Senenti said something rude to me, if he told me I couldn’t play sports with the boys then I would first take a deep breath and think ‘yes I can’. Then I would wait until everyone else was gone and have a word with Senenti and tell him how I feel.”

Suddenly it’s apparent that oracy means much more than learning to speak. Isabella says it’s about speaking up.

A self-confessed ‘chatterbox’, she says that her best friend goes to a school without oracy lessons and she notices that she speaks much less. “Everyone really likes her but she only talks to about two people so she doesn’t know that everyone likes her. She’s not shy she just doesn’t talk much”, says Isabella.

This is the other thing I’ve learnt already – oracy isn’t just about building loud speakers it’s about building confident, self-aware speakers.

What I learnt from two 9 year olds about communication, Isabella and Suniti, School 21 pupils at the launch of Oracy APPG
Senenti and Isabella

Senenti who has been sitting quietly, occasionally nodding in agreement, now shares with me that he thinks oracy lessons are important so that children can learn to speak about the things that matter to them. He says:

“it’s not just about speaking, it’s about speaking effectively.”

Senenti knows that climate change and pollution are vital issues in the world. We look out the window onto Westminster bridge at the many, many cars going past. He tells me that if you ask most people if they care about climate change and think they should do something about it then they say ‘yes’.

But, he says, they don’t often turn this into action because they don’t necessarily understand how to speak about the issue with confidence and how to incorporate evidence into their arguments.

He wants to be able to speak about the environment and the things that he cares about in a way that will resonate with and empower others. He is nine years old.

Senenti also wants to be a writer, and I have no doubt that he will be persuasive whether it be magical fiction or frightening fact on his pages. Either way, I will certainly be reading everything he publishes.

Many of the MPs who speak with the children at the APPG launch also stress the importance of listening, and how glad they are that oracy skills teach pupils to both speak and listen. They tell the young people about how listening to others helps them communicate better in their jobs.

It’s encouraging to see so many MPs come in and out through the day to show their support for the Speak for Change inquiry. They are each taken aside to be interviewed on camera by School 21 pupils and asked to record a message calling for support from their constituents.

The young interviewers today tell Lizzie, from Voice 21 (who are leading the Oracy Network and the APPG process) that the answers to ‘how does oracy help you in your job?’ receives the most interesting answers.

More than speech

Two Year 6 pupils also present their own speeches on topics they care about; voting rights for children – quite brave I thought telling an all party parliamentary group that you do not want a Conservative government – and Muslim discrimination in the UK.

These aren’t just children promoting speaking skills to MPs, they’re citizens with powerful voices sharing their views on vital social messages.

They are heard because of their access an education in and through oracy.

It’s a stark reminder of the many other areas in education as well that we need to address when Isabella later tells me she would like to be a teacher – “but I don’t know if I would like to be because some children can be really difficult and aggressive and that makes it hard.” She praises her own teachers and teacher assistants and says that if she was a teacher like them then she could do it.

Big Change also supports the greater wellbeing of teachers and teacher agency to make sure all are trained appropriately, empowered to be agents of change, and stay in the profession. In our inclusion as strength focus area we also support programmes like The Difference which train teachers to deal effectively with behavioural issues before they lead to exclusion.

I went to the launch of the oracy APPG to ask the young people about their experience having oracy lessons at school. I left wishing I had these in 1997.

Zoe is marketing and communications manager at Big Change

Did you Know?

On average an inner-city child speaks only four words per lesson.

Around 50% of pupils from areas of socio-economic deprivation enter schools with language skills below those expected for their age.

40% of 7 to 14-year old referred to child psychiatric services had a language impairment that had never been suspected.

Over 75% of people with mental health disorders have communication difficulties.

Spoken language disorders are also extremely common amongst young people and adults in the criminal justice system.

50% of employers say they are ‘not satisfied’ with school leavers’ skills in communication. One report estimates that by 2020 over half a million UK workers will be held back by soft skills deficits, including communication and interpersonal skills.

Improvements to standards of spoken literacy in our schools have been shown to have positive benefits for social mobility and student’s critical thinking and reasoning skills, wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem, civic engagement, and employability.

Teachers lack expertise and confidence in teaching oracy and are unlikely to receive training.


Voice21 is a Big Change project partner from our 2017 cohort. They believe all children, regardless of background, are entitled to an oracy education. They work with teachers, and in partnership with schools and areas, offering professional development to build capacity in the system to teach students through and to talk.

Oracy is to speech what literacy is to writing and numeracy is to maths. Its analogy to literacy and numeracy emphasises its equal educational significance. Voice21 structure oracy as learning to talk via four strands – linguistic, physical, cognitive and social & emotional, and learning through talk.

Voice 21 was launched in 2014 by innovative educational charity the 21 Trust. Based on methods and approaches developed at School 21 in East London, Voice 21 supports schools and teachers across England to develop student’s speaking skills and improve the quality of talk in their classrooms.

They also work to raise the status and understanding of Oracy with parents and the wider community of policy makers, business leaders and politicians.

Big Change is now supporting Voice 21 to expand and scale this pioneering programme – helping them to focus on those areas of greatest need across the country, build sustainable capacity in schools and across the teaching profession, and embed change within the education system.