Sunday, 18 December 2016

Oracy Post 2 Reflecting on a first term of Oracy

We are almost at the end of our first term of introducing Oracy as a whole school initiative at St Ambrose Barlow.  I started my NPQSL course in September 2015 and settled quite quickly on literacy as a real area of deficit for our school.  I am the subject leader for Drama and wanted the work to alleviate concerns that I often shared with fellow middle leaders: the challenging new specifications require a level of independent mastery that we have not been fostering under controlled conditions, where tasks could have scaffolds and be controlled by teachers into small chunks.  I, therefore, settled on a literacy focussed ‘Teaching and Learning Inquiry Group’ to develop consistent practice across departments in teaching oracy, reading and writing skills with the objective of  facilitating better independent practice across the curriculum by students.

At one of our interim meetings, my head teacher suggested visiting School 21, I contacted them and they were keen to facilitate my visit.  Without cakey platitudes, it is difficult to sum up my visit – I think the willingness to facilitate a visit speaks volumes, but beyond that looking back now, it’s the purposeful, happy hum of the place, which dominates my first experience of School21.  The commitment to excellence, challenge and determination to deal with the complexities of teaching, learning and being a school community also strongly dominate my sense of their approach.  After the visit, they sent me the application for their EEF Pilot research study on Oracy (, we were chosen as one of the schools and the real work began.

The EEF pilot research focuses on three areas in school:

Discrete Lessons with Year 7
A team of three teachers shares the responsibility for delivering this program in our school in one lesson a week.  Two of us were lucky enough to go to School21 for two days of training and I have since returned for a third day.  The lessons have been welcomed by staff, students and parents alike;  OFSTED who visited our school this term, didn’t see any of the lessons they could have but wrote about the lessons because the students talked about them.  I have delighted in crafting lessons to expose this hidden curriculum.  The curriculum teaches protocols in both classroom talk (formative, process based, spontaneous talk) and presentation skills (summative, product based, crafted talk). 

Assemblies and Whole School Gatherings

At Ambrose, we chose early on to focus on the small detail and through this the large issues; greeting each other in our corridors and at the start of lessons was a first step to increasing connections and fostering more talking.  A term in, students often greet me in corridors before I greet them.  We have established protocols for our assemblies such as oracy cue cards and expectations of crafted talk; on two occasions this term, I have watched as year 7 presented to year 11 with clarity and confidence.  The old shaking, small, disengaged voices are beginning to be consigned to our past – we are building a community that can share ideas, speak of issues, listen to each other and respond.  We are connecting verbally with each other.

Building Cross Curricular Oracy
We have worked hard to develop a CPD program in stages (Image of first session above) exposing our whole staff to protocols after we have year 7 confidently using them in Oracy lessons.  If a teacher uses a protocol such as a talking point, all of this year group will know what to do and therefore be able to focus on the content/knowledge of the lesson.  We are fostering this approach in the other years with planned ‘no pen’ days and debate protocols in Harkness which allow exploration of issues in breadth and depth as well as fostering independence of thought – owning the academic knowledge and principles taught.

What we are doing has real significance to the young people we work with on cognitive, social and emotional levels.  It harnesses the whole person and deals with the complexities of the academic issues of learning alongside the personal and social barriers.  I have found myself appreciating the real issues within my lessons; discrete lesson practice has influenced and developed cross curricular practice.

  • In a lesson exploring the oracy of ‘You Tubers’ using the Voice 21 framework of assessment, learning stalled when students failed to reach consensus on who to look at.  The idea of ‘finding agreement’ was beyond their social framework; we had to unpick the emotional immaturity of wanting to ‘be chosen’ or ‘win’ before we could move forward. Looking to ‘find agreement’ became a really powerful concept for our young people in discussions.
  • ‘Listening and responding’ is the key to all oracy work.  Students often confuse listening with agreeing and promptly interrupt before the other student has finished because they see it as their right to stop ‘wrong’ thinking.  In fact, more learning happens when they can listen and respond regardless of agreement – to truly consider another person’s point of view we have to experience our own knowledge differently and this widens and develops our understanding.
  • A true discussion involves everyone, if you continue to allow a person in any group not to speak you are partly to blame.  We now teach our students that it is their responsibility to ensure that they ask for that quieter person to speak and that they leave space for that person to talk if they will. This fosters equality in our learning spaces and as we learnt when we explored Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech equality fosters peace.  In any community, anywhere, this idea has huge implications.

I could go on at length, but as the points above hopefully illustrate the discrete teaching of oracy develops understanding of the skill for the teacher and the student alike.  I think as a school we might need to consider pushing this further, by revolving who is in the Oracy team constantly to ensure that oracy is constantly developing and broadening our practice as teachers.  Currently our teaching team is made up of English teachers, what would happen next year if I led Science teachers through the same curriculum? And the following year, MFL-a team who are already exploring the ‘say it first’ approach to learning; the cross curricular wins would be huge.

My final reflection is that as with all truly great initiatives, our oracy work is exploring a truth we all know and yet seldom have the time to explore and develop.  To quote Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby,
‘Thought and speech are intertwined. 
Verbalising our thoughts helps to clarify them.  Once we find the right words to express our ideas, they are often easier to write down later.’
Pp144-145 Making every lesson count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning

If we insist on verbal engagement we build cognitive processes, strengthen social interactions and emotionally equip students with resilience because they truly own their learning in their own words. 

You don’t mark it and it has huge impact, what’s not to love?

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Oracy Post 1 ‘Good enough’

On Wednesday 6th July I travelled to London to attend two days of training with School21 for their Voice21 EEF Research pilot, which is not an impact trial, but rather a character grant funded exploration of the promise that their Oracy curriculum has on students’ confidence and assessing whether this can be replicated nationally.  

The training absolutely lived up to our expectations and properly ignited our sense of purpose whilst equipping us with a rich curriculum tool kit to work through in our own school.  The research project has three areas of focus which are:
  • Whole School Culture
  • Assemblies
  • Oracy Curriculum: cross curricular developments and a discrete one hour lesson for year 7 students once a week

There are so many things that I want to reflect on and write about over the forth coming year, but I want to reflect first on the sense of purpose that was instilled in me, which is very much part of the School21 & Voice21 mission.  I have thought about this session deeply and repeatedly since the training.

We were exploring the tool of HARKNESS DEBATE and the protocols that School21 has developed with this style of debate, but as with almost everything I experienced in the school the process worked on many levels.  We were randomly divided into groups, given this talking point and happily my group was removed to the Harkness room first:

‘Is England’s education system fit for purpose?’

I had been asked to function as scribe for the debate but was allowed to contribute as desired – the act of scribing curtailed my contributions but added to my enjoyment of the debate as I had to follow others’ thoughts well.  The role developed my listening skills within the process and was thoroughly rewarding.  We were given two minutes thinking time and then the moderator (acting somewhat like a chair but without the need for hierarchy) opened the debate.

Initial ideas contributed asked questions about the contention and probed into the participants’ experiences – Does it depend on where you teach? Privilege and those ‘left behind’ came up almost immediately and then a Canadian teacher, Lil, piped up.  It is her words and the gear shift they provoked in the conversation that has stayed with me – like a silver bullet through my professional heart.  I will have to paraphrase what she said and apologise for the chasm between her soft Canadian insightful calm and my words here. 

Lil started by explaining how teaching is a highly respected and sought after career in Canada and how  many graduates have to teach abroad to get the experience necessary to be employed in Canada where competition is fierce.  She explained that internationally teaching in England is known as the ‘trenches’ and has a fearful reputation. International recruitment consultants are clear in their message that to teach in England you need ‘guts’.  Whilst we were revelling in this and enjoying some good old fashioned Dunkirk spirit from the trenches, Lil rapidly moved on and I can quote her directly here:

“The system is classist... apathetic kids are a result of the message that they are ‘not good enough’.”

Lil continued and brassily concluded that this message is reinforced by the setting of classes.  She asked us to consider what the message of being 7th or 8th in 8 sets actually conveyed to the students in those classes? What it showed the students about their value to the school?

The debate raged on to consider: what our purpose is in education? Whether our purpose was to maintain the status quo or to change it? What is ‘fit’ for students? What do they need? Is the exam focus helpful? We touched on the role of government and the need to remove politics from the education system.  We talked as professionals and parents and ourselves; it was engaging, dynamic and exciting.  Each point stimulated and developed the next.

Then, Lil spoke up again and again her words must have been concise because I have them captured in speech marks;

“It’s not just failing students, it’s failing professionals.”

She spoke of professionals who consistently received the message that whatever they do is “never enough”.  She asked us to consider whether not being academic was a crime? And further to that, what the recruitment of teachers without qualifications said about the system?  I am re reading notes to write this and can feel these words echoing again.


Her truths that stay with me are that the school system tells the most vulnerable in society that they are not ‘good enough’.  That that same system tells the professionals within it that they are ‘not good enough’ too.  That much of the behaviour we witness from students and professionals are a response to this message. 

Stop the message and it follows that you will, to some degree, stop the behaviour.

As a graduate of top sets throughout my own education and as an option subject teacher who has always taught mixed ability sets, I find myself really questioning setting.  When I read through my notes across all the participants of the debate I find echoes of what Lil was saying in almost all of the comments, yet no native teacher had the balls to assert it so boldly.  

I have lost count of the times that I have been wearily climbing into my car after 12+ hour day only to hear a politician assert that teachers are ‘coasting’.  There is a mass exodus from our profession which is provoking policies where training as a teacher is now seen as inessential.  A policy which affirms the original catalyst for the exodus; we’re never good enough, so why bother?

We know the impact of the message as professionals and yet we compound it for our students.

Bottom sets continue. 

Setting has been shown to have little impact on attainment and whilst primary schools are beginning to grapple with this through consistently teaching in mixed ability groups, most secondary stage education providers shrink in horror if you mention this.  Setting is seen as a necessary evil.  A change from which would provoke more problems than it would solve, and yet many subjects within that school will be taught to GCSE and beyond in mixed ability groups.

I completed NPQSL this year. A course which opened with the instruction to QUESTION EVERYTHING – Setting is now at the top of my list.  The students I taught this year achieved a 100% A* - C pass rate in a mixed ability class. It can work, if we want to make it work and if we don’t, then I think we need to question that too.

Everyone deserves to feel 'good enough' in school.