Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking? Discuss

It’s Monday morning and the start of a year 7 English class at Highbury Grove school, a large comprehensive in north London. The students have been played the soundtrack to a film and hands are creeping up as they are questioned about the role background music plays in setting the mood.

Answers are tentative, but as the pace picks up, their vocabulary strengthens with discussion of “foreshadowing” and “transition” and “perspective”. Encouraged by their young hipsterish teacher, Lewis Green, who tells them that “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means I want you to explain more”, their answers become longer and more eloquent. By the end of the class, well over half the pupils have their hands up, bursting to speak.

An ordinary, lively English lesson? Not quite. Hardly a word has been put to paper. The emphasis of this lesson, in a school in which 70% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, is on speaking skills. The approach is based on the work of consultant Martin Robinson, author of two books that attempt to bring classical principles to modern comprehensive education, surprise hits in recent years.

Robinson, who advises Highbury Grove, says: “It is important that young people develop educated opinions, that is, opinions that emerge after exploring and weighing up different sides of an argument.” Robinson believes an educated 18-year-old “should be able to respond to gentle interrogation and not worry when they get to the point of not knowing, relish it even because they can explore and find out more”.

This week sees the launch of a campaign, the Oracy Network, to raise the profile of public speaking in the national curriculum, backed by the English Speaking Union (ESU) and involving, among others, Peter Hyman, founder of School 21 in east London and an enthusiast for the cause. Too many schools still don’t seem to know about the benefits of encouraging pupils to be confident speakers, or haven’t integrated oracy into other parts of the curriculum. A new studypublished today by LKMCO thinktank, reports that provision is patchy. “Few schools evaluate the quality of pupils’ verbal contributions in lessons, or communicate with parents about the quality of these contributions.”

The report says 57% of teachers say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years, and 53% would not know where to look for more information if they needed it.

For Duncan Partridge, of the ESU, the government’s much-criticised 2013 decision to remove speaking and listening assessments from GCSE English grades has proved both “a threat and an opportunity”. “It’s a threat because schools in the current climate don’t tend to concentrate on what isn’t being assessed. But it’s an opportunity because students taking GCSE English will still get a separate speaking and listening certificate, which gives schools a chance to develop their oracy work.”

Boy in class with hand raised

Nick Gibb may quibble – the schools minister was reported to have described attempts to develop classroom speaking as “encouraging idle chatter [pdf]” – but evidence of the link between oracy and higher attainment is firmly established. Neil Mercer, of Cambridge University, who has researched the subject, says: “Children who were taught the art of reasoned discussion significantly improved their scores in maths and science. They also increased their scores on Raven’s progressive matrices test, a standardised psychology test of non‑verbal reasoning.”

According to a paper by the influential Education Endowment Foundation, pupils who participate in spoken language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over a year, and such interventions are listed among the top 10 most effective methods of improving teaching.

But what of that daunting distance between research and practice? How do you persuade sassy adolescents wedded to their smartphones to become persuasive public speakers?

Tom Sherrington, headteacher of Highbury Grove, and the school’s director of oracy, Andrew Fitch, approach this with gusto. Commonsense rules for speaking are pinned up around the school, urging pupils to mind their slang and reject double negatives. A soapbox project runs through years 7 to 9 for which every student has to deliver a three-part persuasive speech to an audience that includes parents. “Of last year’s year 8, 192 out of 198 did their public piece and there were some fantastic contributions,” says Sherrington. Sixth formers must give an oral presentation as part of their extended project qualification.

Students reluctant to give a formal talk are encouraged to build up their arguments through one-to-one discussion “doing it again and again until it’s better”, says Fitch, who is also co-coach to England’s winning World Schools Debating team, sponsored by the ESU.

But it’s not only students who need encouragement says Sherrington: “Teachers often think, they don’t have time. There’s so much content to get through. We tell them it’s not an add-on, it’s part of the pedagogy.”

Fitch adds: “There’s a lot of learning where students don’t actually have to verbalise concepts but it’s useful.” He describes teaching An Inspector Calls, when a student couldn’t say the word “vigorously”. “He knew the word perfectly well, he just couldn’t get it off the page.” Fitch made him repeat it until he could.

Sherrington has a similar story about a year 7 maths class where pupils were finding it hard to say “denominator”. “They were using substitute, vague terms like the ‘numbers at the bottom’.” He adds: “Every year group has its particular challenges. With some older pupils, it’s not the speaking out that’s the problem. They can be confident, cocky and loud, feel obliged to act up a bit. So I say to them: ‘Your challenge, guys, is actually to play it straight.’”

At Highbury Grove the experiment is in its early stages. But watching that year 7 group, hands stretched high by the end of the lesson, it’s also not difficult to believe, as Fitch says, that “students adapt quickly if they know speaking is something expected of them right from the start.”

This piece first appeared in the Guardian on November 8 2016

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.

But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.

As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.

Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.

Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.

But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).

This review was first published in the New Statesman on January 12th 2017