What is Voice 21?
Oli de Botton, Head Teacher, School 21
The capacity to communicate clearly, the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas eloquently and the confidence to speak in a wide range of contexts are fundamental to success in life and work. Yet too few young people are taught the skills and knowledge they need to thrive as confident speakers.
Evidence shows that improvements in speaking skills, or oracy, have significant positive impacts on academic outcomes, employability, wellbeing, self-esteem, civic engagement and social mobility. But there is no shared understanding or common expectation for oracy across schools. As spoken communication has no explicit currency within the UK school system, oracy is often viewed as a peripheral or optional undertaking by schools.
Young people from poorer backgrounds suffer a double disadvantage in relation to oracy. On average, they have significantly lower levels of spoken communication skills when starting school and are less likely to attend a school that has a focus on oracy. This means that, all too often, these young people are denied the opportunity to learn how to articulate their ideas effectively and gain the confidence to find their voice.
In 2012, School 21 opened in East London, with the aim of reimagining education to prepare students for the 21st century. Oracy is at the heart of teaching and learning at the school. Assemblies are restructured, grouping students into discussion circles for greater participation and debate. Classrooms are talk-rich, with discussion guidelines and talk roles helping students to navigate new ideas and build on each other’s understanding. Harkness discussions, where students sit at seminar-style circular tables to explore and challenge new topics, are commonplace. Reception pupils are taught the techniques of storytellers and from age 8 and all pupils deliver TED-style talks to an audience.
This culture of purposeful talk throughout the school not only aids students’ personal development but also helps to stretch their cognitive abilities. Its success has led to a growing interest from other schools looking for teachable outcomes that will better prepare their students for the future workplace.
Voice 21 was established to further enable School 21 to share this innovative approach to education. The organization works with educators to raise the profile of oracy in education and develop the capacity of all teachers to bring oracy into their classes.
Working with School 21 and Oracy Cambridge, a research center at the University of Cambridge, Voice 21 has created a framework, curriculum and teacher toolkit for oracy. Voice 21 also provides teachers with professional development and resources to support schools to embed a sustained and comprehensive commitment to verbal literacy in every classroom.