Ofsted, oracy and you – Will your next inspection observe students’ speaking skills?
Anthony David considers the extent to which Ofsted cares about speaking, and what that might mean for teachers…
In April of 2021, an Oxford-based think tank, The Centre for Education and Youth, published a report on Ofsted’s reporting of oral skills that largely went under the radar.
Its aim was to examine whether students’ oracy skills been impacted by the pandemic, using prior inspection reports as an evidence base. When those reports were analysed, the picture they painted of speaking was mixed, to say the least.
Oracy is clearly something inspectors are sensitive to, with 54% of the reports mentioning speaking in some form, following a steady increase since 2015. However, the emphasis of oral comments were often lighter in tone than those on core skills.
And while the number of reports referencing oral skills might have grown from 174 in 2015 to 446 in 2018, that’s dwarfed by the total number of Ofsted reports produced each year, which typically amount to 10 times that number.
Commentary or judgement?
When it comes to mentions of oracy in key findings, that proportion shrinks even further – from a 2012 peak of 236 reports referencing oracy in their key findings, to just 42 in 2019. It could therefore be argued that Ofsted either isn’t particularly minded towards speaking, or that its inspection process lacks the framework needed to accurately assess oracy in the same way as core subjects.
The latest Ofsted Inspection Handbook references the spoken word as often as reading, deploying a variety of words – including ‘oral’, ‘talk’ and ‘speaking’ – when referring to oracy in varying contexts.
What’s different, though, is that the emphasis is typically on the oral skills of teachers, and how they provide feedback and model language, over how pupils use newly acquired language. With reading, it’s always the child’s capacity that’s being measured.
As such, there’s the risk that any references to oracy skills in Ofsted reports are purely commentary with no particular judgement, whether positive or negative. That said, there seems to be something of pattern in Ofsted reports in that positive comments on oracy typically reflect a teacher’s skill in developing language in the classroom, while negative comments are usually made in reference to resourcing or students’ use of language.
The spoken word
In this context, it would be easy to conclude that Ofsted aren’t especially minded to assess oral skills – but good schools know that if they want students to be better writers and readers, they need to have experiences that stimulate that.
Students need parameters within which to exercise newly acquired language skills, opportunities to play with words and feel how they sound, and chances to use them in a safe, supportive environment.
Within this context, Ofsted’s interest in the spoken word increases significantly. Much of the Inspection Handbook centres on students being able to speak about their learning experiences, which may well include activities such as organising a campaign or working in support of a charity.
Even book looks have changed, with child conferences and book scrutinies now approached as a single activity, where students bring their books to the inspector and discuss their learning with those books to hand.
What we do know is that overlooking oracy presents a risk for deprived students. Prior to the pandemic, it was thought that students from low income families heard approximately 30 million fewer words than those from high income families. What has yet to be analysed is the diversity, context and opportunities for speaking that higher income families are able to access.
The COVID effect
Sadly, from what we’ve been able to observe so far, the pandemic has had a significant impact in this area. Students have spent prolonged periods during lockdown with little or no access to the kind of casual spoken opportunities that were previously part of everyday life.
Even after they returned to school, we’ve seen students unable to participate in activities such as as singing, performing in class assemblies and shows, or participating in traditional singing games.
Between March 2020 and September 2021, there were significant restrictions on spoken communication. The data we have shows that more than 10% of students continue to miss out on education due to COVID-related absences.
In many ways the situation is worse than last year. The home learning we experienced may have been difficult, but we at least knew that the vast majority of students were accessing learning via remote provision, compared to the current chaotic patchwork of students being in and out of class.
On 27th April 2021, the BBC ran a report highlighting the impacts the pandemic had had on young people’s learning. The list of lost speaking opportunities was stark, spanning a dearth of intergenerational conversations with visiting grandparents or extended family, a lack of social opportunities both in and outside school and fewer chances to practice visual communication, thanks to the wearing of face masks and social distancing.
When all this is taken into consideration, we can see that there’s strong anecdotal evidence indicating lower confidence levels among students than might have been expected in the past.
The specialist SLCN firm Speech Link has estimated that 20% to 25% of rising reception pupils will require additional support with their speech. This may well be true, but the supporting evidence won’t be available until the end of this academic year, when schools submit their Early Years data.
So far there hasn’t been a similar study examining the speech skills of students at secondary, but my instincts would lead me to suggest that the impact may be just as significant – though the consequences may take years to be felt. There will be some students who manage to bridge the gap, but also a far larger group who won’t.
What’s become clear in recent months is that the DfE is once again emphasising the importance of speech, and encouraging schools to not shut down spoken word opportunities (though there have been a couple of clumsy tweets from the DfE on this topic)…
And yet, whilst general the picture may seem bleak, the Education Endowment Foundation recently highlighted a form of positive impact that’s highly focused, and which points to the benefits speaking opportunities can deliver.
Key to enriching students’ language and narrowing the spoken word gap will be access to resources that focus on language in a safe environment, and give students opportunities to exercise speaking abilities purposefully.
What teachers need to avoid is downplaying students’ adoption of new language. Instead, we should be celebrating the joy to be had in learning new words, and using them to express our ideas and thinking.
Anthony David is an executive headteacher