Giving teachers back their agency through a spoken communication curriculum.
Beccy Earnshaw, Director, Voice 21.
Beccy became Director of Voice 21 in 2015. Prior to this, Beccy was a founding Director of Schools NorthEast (a network of 1200 schools in the North East), and spent seven years facilitating educational collaboration and championing the views of the region’s school leaders.
The Big Change
Taking its name from School 21 in Stratford, East London, Voice 21 is a programme to embed speaking skills (oracy) in all state schools.
In 2014 the School 21 Trust worked with Cambridge University to develop an oracy curriculum to be shared with schools across the country. With charitable backing, Voice 21 was born.
The ambition for change
The big vision for Voice 21 is: for oracy to become a fundamental part of the curriculum for all young people, to enable them to develop the communication skills necessary for the 21st century.
This is being achieved through programmes to empower teachers on the ground, whilst also spreading the message about oracy in the wider education system.
The shift in direction
When designing School 21, the founders saw the opportunity to start from scratch, and tried to create a classroom practice fit for purpose in the modern world.
They considered the skills, knowledge, ideas, opportunities and classroom experiences that young people would need during their time at school in order to thrive.
They noted that spoken communication was an area that had been pushed out of the English curriculum, and that this had led to issues in terms of young people’s ability to articulate their thoughts and ideas. The founders wanted to give oracy a much more secure base in the education system; to hold it up as an equivalent pillar to literacy and numeracy.
School 21 now nurtures a whole-school culture of oracy where every child’s and adult’s voice matters. Based on its impact, Voice 21 is spreading oracy in schools up and down the country.
Making change happen
1: The start point
Real practice and an informed framework
Voice 21 used the rich pool of tried and tested classroom practices from School 21 to consider which practices would be replicable and could work in other school settings. In addition, School 21 worked with Cambridge University to develop an ‘Oracy Framework,’ which created a shared language around oracy. Beccy observed that without a shared understanding of what were good spoken communication skills, teachers could not give oracy any meaningful focus in the classroom. The combination of real practice and this framework were the two cornerstones of Voice 21.
“There were lots of misconceptions about it – there were lots of people who would say ‘Oh, we do oracy at our school…’ but they actually did something which was very limited and wouldn’t, for us, represent the breadth of what we meant or were thinking people need from that.”
2: Taking off
Mobilising existing energy
Beccy found that there were a lot of teachers who had either been already thinking about oracy, or were looking for something transformational for their own practice that could increase opportunities for young people. The initial work involved developing relationships with these individuals and building a community of interested partners.
“Building from that then it was about starting to find initially the kind of low-hanging fruit, the people who were already thinking along many of the same lines as us, but hadn’t had a channel through which to put their energies and ideas and focus and passion for this.”
An Education Endowment Fund pilot then took their work out to eleven secondary schools nationally, so they were able to look at what schools needed to give them the confidence to work with oracy in the classroom. Voice 21 focuses on teachers rather than students directly in order to broaden the number of young people they can reach, both presently and in the future. Their programmes embed ‘Oracy Leaders’ who are expert practitioners in partner schools, and encourage schools to collaborate with each other to meet their ambitions for oracy.
“Our job has always been: What do we need to do to catalyse that need, to give teachers and schools agency to be able to teach oracy in the way we think it needs to be done to enable every young person to find their voice, regardless of background, to get the best in school and in life?’”
3: Keeping going
Staying connected to the system
Voice 21 also have a campaigning arm, and make the case for government and educational bodies to support their work. Teachers told Beccy they felt that this work by Voice 21 was helping to reduce systemic pressure, and create space for them to innovate in their practice by exploring oracy in the classroom.
“I think actually what we’ve found that’s been really interesting is that people have found that something like oracy has helped to reconnect them to their sense of purpose in education and why they went into it- what they’re trying to achieve in their mission as a professional and their sense of vocation in education.”
Principles not products
Beccy and Voice 21 remained focussed on the principles, rather than the products, of their oracy programmes. They grappled with the evidence and thought critically about what was working and what wasn’t. They went back to first principles at every stage and made sure to have an open dialogue both within the organisation and externally. They also resisted calls from schools for easy to use, up-and-ready products, such as lesson plans and packages, and insisted on developing the individual agency of teachers to develop their own methods.
“You need to make sure that you really think about what’s at the core of what you’re trying to achieve, and not be too fixed too early on about the way in which you achieve that.”
Learning from participants
Voice 21 see themselves as catalysts for change, as a ‘very early starting point’ on a journey to schools embedding oracy as core in their practice. They provide teachers with adaptable programmes and make sure to capture the diversity of what has been developed in classrooms in order to inform their own learning. This practice, like all aspects of Voice 21, is informed by the respect they have for the teaching profession.
‘They’d go off and do things with it that we never thought possible, rather than them faithfully implementing something that we gave to them that only takes you so far- it’s so much more expansive -the opportunity for change is so much greater.
Conditions for success
Restating an essential truth
Whilst oracy was not properly embedded in school curricula before Voice 21 began, Beccy found that most practitioners had some level of awareness of the importance of spoken communication to education. Effective questioning and ideas around rhetoric a have strong standing in pedagogy dating back to the socratic method in Ancient Greece. There was no resistance to the idea that oracy was an important part of the curriculum – Voice 21 simply found that this needed to be reframed and reinforced to ensure a consistent standard of practice across classrooms.
“If you look at even early conversations around what should form a national curriculum – right back into the beginnings of the universal access to education – talk and oracy was part of that.”
Do a baseline recording of the conversation before you start
Beccy really regrets not having recorded data on mentions of ‘oracy’ before Voice 21 began their work: on Twitter, in Google searches, in educational conference programmes, in school development plans or in Ofsted etc. She feels if they had there would be a really big story to tell about oracy rising up the agenda.
Surround yourself with passionate people early on.
Beccy initially felt hesitant to hire people to Voice 21 initially, because she was worried about finding the right people. In retrospect, she acknowledges that it’s okay to bring people on a ‘leap of faith’ with you right at the early stages, as long as they have the same passion for the ‘why’ of what you’re doing. Beccy feels that having a dedicated core of passionate people, able to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other, would have accelerated things and improved her confidence in the early days of Voice 21.
The impact of change
- Beccy has noted that since their campaigning began, organisations which didn’t refer to oracy, and public-speaking organisations have rebranded themselves to include oracy in their title. She sees this is as an indication that Voice 21 has been able to give the word meaning.
- Voice 21 works with an All Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy.
- Alice Kennedy, from Torianno Primary School, says, “I am very excited by the innovative ethos and feel supported and encouraged to take risks and be part of this cohort of future leaders. Together we have developed a lens through which we can lead change nationally. This feels very special.”
- In 2017/18 Voice 21 worked with 222 schools and trained 1,786 teachers.
- Qualitative research shows that children in Easton CE School say they are more confident talkers.
- At Plymouth Grove, another partner school, they have embraced a ‘highly dialogic teaching style,’ which empowers the children to communicate confidently and fluently. Staff meetings have also taken the form of a dialogica forum, which staff voice and pupil voice taking centre stage in the development of the school.
- “It’s important to know how to talk so we can be happy in ourselves.”
- “Oracy is very important because there are many types of people, some shy and some confident, learning about oracy will help shy people express their views more confidently”
- “Oracy is important because it helps you to learn about how to behave in certain circumstances, how to have dialogue and how to join in with discussions and conversations.”