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Does OFSTED care about speaking?

By Executive Headteacher, Anthony David

In April of 2021, the Oxford based think tank, The Centre for Education and Youth, published a report that has largely gone under the radar reflecting on OFSTED’s reporting of oral skills.  The report’s primary premise was ‘have oracy skills been impacted by the pandemic’ using prior inspection reports as a base for evidence.

When previous reports have been analysed, the picture on speaking was mixed to say the least.  It is clearly something that inspectors are sensitive towards, with 54% of reports mentioning speaking in some form.  Indeed, the emphasis on ‘talk’ has steadily increased since 2015. However, the emphasis of any oral comment was often lighter in tone than an emphasis on core skills.  So, whilst the number of reports referencing oral skills has grown from 174 in 2015 to 446 in 2018, this is dwarfed by total number of reports which are typically ten times this number.  In terms of key findings, this number is even smaller and has fallen from a peak in 2012 at 236 reports referencing oracy in some form to just 42 in 2019.  Taken in this context, it could be argued that either OFSTED in not particularly minded towards speaking or that it does not have the framework within its inspection process to assess accurately in the same way it can core subjects.

So what does the inspection handbook have to say about this subject? Interestingly, it is more than you would think. The Inspection Handbook (2021) references the spoken word as regularly as reading (they use a variety of words including ‘oral’, ‘talk’ or ‘speaking’ to reference oracy in varying contexts).  What is different is the context and emphasis is typically on teacher’s oral skills; how they provide feedback, model language and then how then pupils’ use new language. With reading it is the child’s capacity that is being measured. In this context there is the risk that any reference to oracy skills is purely commentary with no particular judgement (either positive or negative).  That said, when there were comments made positive comments typically reflected the teacher’s skill in developing language in the classroom and negative comments about resources or students use of language. 

If this is the context it would be easy to suggest that OFSTED are not particularly minded towards oral skills.  Yet, good (or better) schools know that if they want children to be better writers or readers there needs to be an experience that stimulates that.  Children need a parameter to exercise new language; to play with it, feel how it sounds and use it in a safe context.  Within this context, OFSTED is extremely interested in the spoken word.  Equally, much of the inspection handbook centres around children being able to speak about their learning experience which may well include wider opportunities such as organising a campaign or work towards a charity. Even book-looks have changed with child conferences and book scrutiny’s now being one activity; children will bring their books to the inspector and, with their books, discuss their learning.

What is known is that there is a risk for deprived children.  The context prior to the pandemic suggested that children from low income families heard approximately thirty million fewer words than high income children.  What has not been analysed was the diversity, context and opportunities for speaking that higher income families are also able to access.  Sadly, the pandemic has significantly impacted on this.  Children have had little or no access to casual spoken opportunities that in the past would have been just part of normal life.  Not only have we had prolonged periods of lockdown with obvious reduced opportunities to speak, but even when children returned to school they were unable to access casual opportunities such as singing, performing in class assemblies or shows, or even playing some of the traditional singing games that we associate with the typical school day.  Between March 2020 and September 2021, we saw significant restrictions on spoken communication.  As we head towards the end of year, again we are hearing of nativities being cancelled, no carol services and genuine risks heading into the new year.  Once again we could see a muffler being put on the opportunities for spoken word.

On 27th April 2021, the BBC ran a report highlighting the impacts that the pandemic has had. The list of lost opportunities for young children to speak was stark; loss of intergenerational opportunities by not visiting grandparents or extended family; loss of social opportunities in school and out with no playdates or sleep overs; wearing of face-coverings restricting visual cues compounded by social distancing. With all of this taken into consideration there was strong anecdotal evidence to point towards lower confidence levels with children approaching school age than would be expected in the past.  The speech firm, Speech Link, estimated that 20-25% of rising reception children would need additional support with speech.  This may well be true but the evidence supporting this will not be available until the end of the academic year when schools submit their early year’s data. 

The impacts of the lack of spoken word may well take years to be felt. Certainly there will be children who will manage to bridge this gap but there will clearly be a larger group who will not.  The Centre for Education and Youth report makes a clear recommendation that OFSTED’s emphasis needs to change.  With the full reintroduction of inspections in September, it is to be seen if OFSTED gather enough evidence to substantiate a change.  What is clear is that the DfE is increasing its own rhetoric on the importance of speech and encouraging schools not to shut down spoken word opportunities (though there have been a couple of clumsy tweets on this subject from them). 

Whilst this picture may seem bleak, the Education Endowment Fund highlight the positive impact that highly focused speaking opportunities can have.  Schools will have a suite of strategies of which Picture News is just one element.  Key to enriching language and narrowing this spoken word gap will be resources that focus news words in a safe environment and give children an opportunity to exercise these new words purposefully.  The risk that any teacher can take is down-playing new language rather than celebrating the joy of new words and how they fit into new ideas.

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