Voice 21 Speaks Out

Rather than simply leave it in the reply section to my previous post Oracy is the New Black Pudding, I am happy to fully post comments from Director of Voice 21, Beccy Earnshaw, here.

It is reassuring to read the detailed aims and objectives of Voice 21 regarding oracy, and I of course fully endorse them.

As a regular blogger on education issues that still matter to me, I am pleased to at least have a response, and one that is informed – and persuasive – rather than dismissive or just flippant!

I will read the further details Beccy has highlighted from Voice 21, and I will continue to follow reporting on this issue and challenge misrepresentations, as I did in my article when referring to ‘education commentators’:

Hi Mike
I read your blog with interest and as Director of Voice 21, I wanted to reassure you that we do not define oracy as the ‘art of teaching children how to speak well’ – those are the words of the journalist not Voice 21. On our website you will find our oracy charter which outlines our beliefs re. oracy (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_ccd5718b6ca84a74b0eaefcd8ee01f14.pdf

Voice 21 Oracy Charter
– Oracy is the capacity to use speech to express our thoughts and communicate with others
as outlined in the four strands of the Oracy Framework.(the Framework was devised with Neil Mercer and team at Cambridge University and can be found here https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_1c4bb315fb26438b9eaa2fc4899bafe6.pdf)
– Teaching improves oracy and oracy improves teaching and learning.
– Effective oracy teaching and learning is purposeful, scaffolded and structured to deepen understanding and develop critical thinking.
– Children and young people should become agile communicators who learn to navigate
the expectations for oracy in different contexts through the provision of a wide
and varied curriculum.
– Oracy is the responsibility of every teacher and the entitlement of every child

You might also be interested in this research we commissioned last year which explores this in more depth https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_91a02276fdf645d2b70ad433049306a3.pdf or this blog (there are some short videos on this site too) https://www.edutopia.org/blog/oracy-literacy-of-spoken-word-oli-de-botton or this essay in the ESU’s Speaking Frankly publication https://www.esu.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/13795/ESU-Speaking-Frankly.pdf

I am sorry you could not find more details about our aims and work on the website – it is all there on links from the homepage but we will review the site to ensure people can find this info more easily. If you want to see the kind of approaches we promote you can have a look through our resources on http://www.voice21resources.org

Finally, I totally agree with your points on oracy not being something new (many of the approaches we use have their roots in Ancient Greece!), however as the polling we conducted with teachers and school leaders found, most schools are not giving oracy the focus (we believe) it deserves for a variety of reasons (these are explored in the research) and we want to support teacher and schools to put a greater emphasis on oracy and increase the quality and quantity of dialogue within classrooms.
Do get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspect of our work,
Many thanks

Oracy is the New Black Pudding

bp - Copy

Oracy would seem to be the new superfood, like black pudding: it’s always been there but people have only recently recognised its worthiness. Now we know you can talk your way out of a locked cold store room with a bit of oracy…

I recall it used to be virtually impossible to find a definition of it, definitely in hard-copy dictionaries, and especially in the early days of computer search engines when even the spelling wasn’t recognised – and as I type, Word right now red-underlines oracy as an error.

Typing the word in Google Search today, here are some first lines from suggested reads:

Talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the need to help young people develop their abilities to use spoken language effectively

 Skills in oracy (the use of spoken language) will be more important for most people when they leave school

 For most of the British population, oracy has never really been a subject in the school curriculum

 If there was ever a generic skill that was most essential for success in life, it would have to be oracy: the power of effective oral communication

 It helps students formulate their ideas into clear thoughts

All of these are to a degree knowing and positive, but even here there are worrying slants [no pun intended, see soon…] and misconceptions and annoying contextualising. I know I can be easily irked, but these wrong-rub my understanding of oracy:

In recent years – I have been aware of and put into practice oracy as a principle of teaching and learning from the early 1980s and throughout my teaching career

(the use of spoken language) – oracy is this but equally and critically about listening [thus the latter term, especially at GCSE English, Speaking and Listening]

has never really been a school subject – it isn’t a subject, it is a pedagogical principle/approach that should be applied to all teaching and learning in all subjects

That nit-pick is simply to fine-tune. Indeed, the point is that quotes 1, 3, 5 and 6 above are pretty much spot-on as encapsulations, especially the first one.

There would appear to be a ‘resurgence’ in thinking about and promoting oracy, especially in teaching English, and I have picked this up largely through twitter posts, as I did this article today about oracy from Schools Week which has prompted this posting in the same way it did my tweet, which was:

As reported, this comment ‘a “family lunch” which “implicitly models oracy” through a daily discussion of a political or ethical topic’ is just fundamentally dumb in its complete misunderstanding of oracy as a principle of teaching and learning

Yes, irked. Sometimes school leaders and other representatives of the Return to Gradgrind brigade [see post here] say the stupidest things, firstly in candid defenses of their nonsense, then, as here, in little meaningless caveats of how their nonsenses are really not all that bad.

But enough on the philistines.

My introduction to oracy was through the DES 1982 Bullock Resisted: A Discussion Document by HMI which articulated and promoted the principles of oracy, so we are going back a few years before its more ‘recent’ resurgence. As a new English teacher – I started in 1980 – I was around that time working with my then English Advisor and my Head of Department in devising teaching materials incorporating the primacy of student talk in classroom methodology as well as disseminating this to other English teachers in the county. It was an exciting and positive time. Other influences were the Resources for Learning Development Unit, based in Bristol, whose teaching projects also placed student speaking and listening at the core of the work.

So I am both excited and dismayed to see oracy’s renaissance but then also the counter move to these absurd SLANT instructions which are in the Schools Week article further absurdly referred to as a process

in which pupils fold their arms and track the teacher with their eyes in silence, is used to “ensure pupils are actively listening”, another element of oracy.

‘Another element of oracy’? You cannot coerce students into positive and productive speaking and listening. It has to be through a culture and ethos within a continuing classroom experience. It also concerns me that, as reported, some apparently promoting oracy do so by references to ‘rhetoric and debate’ and ‘academic terms’ and this leads to my final concern that Voice 21, again as reported in the article cited, and promoted [in good faith I am sure] by Emma Hardy, Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, is presenting oracy as

…the art of teaching children to speak well

This may be a gross simplification of the aims, but nonetheless, having started with definitions of oracy as a key place to begin making clear what it should and shouldn’t be, this definition is completely wrong.

Indeed, I have just visited the Voice 21 online site, and whilst its aims and objectives aren’t presented in any detail – sadly – there is this stated objective which, as a definition, does seem much more expansive than the one about speaking well:

All children & young people, regardless of their background, should have access to high quality oracy education enabling them to develop the communication skills and confidence necessary to thrive in the 21st Century

Educators and education commentators need to be aware of the dangers in misrepresenting what oracy is. I don’t care if teachers today think it is a new approach – though I have, I accept, been elsewhere a little defensive about its actual history – but I do have real concerns about flaunting it as a means of ‘improving’ speaking.

Worse is suggesting the occasional ‘serious discussion/debate’ makes up for other co-existing practices where student voices are made entirely passive. Worse still is missing entirely the fundamental purpose of oracy which is, as our first definition succinctly stated, appreciating how student talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning.

Top Fifty 10: Donovan – A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, 1968

[Originally posted February 2014]



I’m listening today to a superb live recording of Donovan, the 1967 The Complete Anaheim Show, and when he sings songs from the 1968 UK release A Gift From A Flower To A Garden I am reminded of how much I loved this album at its time, and more recently – for me that means in the last 10 years – when I bought it on cd. It is both beautiful and twee [e.g. a song sung to a pebble, everybody is a part of everything anyway], encapsulating all that is classic Donovan as well as late 60s, right down to the purple and mauve and pink psychedelia of the cover and all similar posters/pictures of this album and the time. Prettily purple, psychedelically purple, poetically purple. For me, Donovan’s purple patch too, though many may prefer the folk of his earliest recordings, and these are fine as well. The live recording has some excellent light blues and jazzy performance, the latter demonstrated on the track I am listening to as I write, Preachin’ Love, Harold McNair terrific on sax solo.


It isn’t that my Top Fifty or albums for that category have now become an afterthought – well, I guess that’s precisely what they have become. The defence I want to make is that favourites still resonate and for some reason I have simply left this blog focus behind a little. Perhaps that is what makes today’s ‘discovery’ so pleasing and surprising, surprising that I hadn’t written about the album before.

Songs that meant the most to me at the time from the album are Isle of Islay, The Lullaby of Spring [oh the consonants and enunciation], Widow With a Shawl [A Portrait], Epistle to Derroll, Wear Your Love Like Heaven [a single too] and The Tinker And The Crab [*]. And others, but those just mentioned are songs I played on the guitar [I have the songbook somewhere] and sang, and played with a good friend who had a flat in Putney, and as a teenager I used to go there from Ipswich to visit and grew up in all kinds of interesting ways for my age and at that time and in London. We even had a very occasional band called Proleptic Kinecy – oh yes, as pretentious as that – and played one gig as a band at a residential centre for disabled teenagers where we helped out [my friend then a social worker]. It was earnest and correct and worthy and all those things that you can’t knock and yet seems formulaic.

But those songs are so, as I’ve said, pretty. I don’t know if Donovan is an acquired taste: he wasn’t the British Dylan because he was so different, but it is easy to understand that tag. The ‘poetry’ of the lyrics was quintessentially British [I think ‘English’ but Donovan is Scottish so I am being embracive] yet it is that enunciation, again already mentioned, and the precision of the language sung in the sweetest tones that may not have appealed to all. Not the case for me, then or now.

[*] Have just returned from car trip when I played the cd: was reminded quite sharply that apart from Wear Your Love... I don’t really like what was the first of the two lps, and it is only the second one that truly appeals, so on the cd it’s track 11 onwards. Also reminded of the campfire cowboy harmonica on The Mandolin Man and his Secret as well as the dancing flute breaks, especially on The Tinker and the Crab. What a sucker I am for this sunshine pop ‘For Little Ones’].




Nebraska 26: ‘Lines in Late March’ by John G. Neihardt

I whistle; why not?
Have I not seen the first strips of green winding up the sloughs?
Have I not heard the meadow-lark?
I have looked into soft blue skies and have been uplifted!

Where are the doubts and the dark ideas I entertained?
What have I caught from the maple-buds that changes me?
Or was it the meadow-lark— or the blue sky— or the strips of green,
The green that winds up the sloughs?

I sought the dark and found much of it.
Is there in truth much darkness?
Have the meadow-larks lied to me?
Have the green grass and blue sky testified falsely?

I want to trust the sky and the grass!
I want to believe the songs I hear from the fenceposts!
Why should a maple-bud mislead me?

Reproduced from Lyric and Dramatic Poems by John G. Neihardt. Copyright 1926 Macmillan Company. Copyright renewed 1954 by John G. Neihardt.

I forget my precise – if it ever was – rubric for posting ‘Nebraska’ poems. Initially, they referenced the state directly or places therein, and then it seems relevance was the poet’s link to Nebraska. All will suffice. Neihardt was a one-time resident in Nebraska as well as Professor of Poetry at the University of Nebraska.

I like the challenge of the questions here and the defiance within that.

Showing a Heifer


I haven’t of late written anything specifically for posting here on the blog, so I will now.

But it won’t be about education or politics. No creative writing ideas either. Not another poem.

It is about showing a heifer.

In the late ‘70s I worked on a very large farm in Suffolk for three years. In this time I became a highly skilled tractor driver and fork-lift aficionado as well as a professional irrigater from laying basic moveable sprinkler system pipes to using the latest [at that time] equipment like a self-propelled ‘Dolphin’ system and a ‘whirligig’ – not a brand name – huge helicopter-arm irrigation machine driven onto the fields to spray great gushing circles of water. I also did so many more rustic jobs from winter potato riddling – including bagging, threading and stacking 112lb hessian sacks of spuds – to winter man-harvesting of sugar beet with a special handheld puller and knife.

Then there was feeding the animals, especially early morning tractor-filling troughs for the cows with maize silage [the glorious sweet-rot of it]; mucking out the animals – tractor with front loader in the large sheds and by hand in the smaller; chainsaw felling of trees for making into fencing posts; farm fencing, including putting in our own posts [no concrete used] and bracing corners with natural, hand-axed wood wedging; making a horse lunging ring by hand and sight…

…and there I am lyrically waxing, which isn’t genuinely what I meant to do, but it is fun to recall and I am proud of the range of experiences and skills I acquired, but rather than continue with accounts of more, I should mention a few jobs I didn’t do, like

milking cows; showing heifers.

That is until The Suffolk County Show one summer of seventy something. I have no recall how I was persuaded to or why, but I was asked if I would show one of the farm’s Frisians at the Suffolk County Show and I agreed, probably because it was a day off from the routine. Something new. Something simple.

I also have no other memory of events leading up to the showing or anything else to do with the Show other than that showing, which I will recount in a minute as I remember this very well, but I do have these pictures of me at the tent and then with my heifer, number 979, right at the beginning of my showing her in the Show ring in front of quite a few people, maybe in the hundreds around the entire four sides of the arena:

1st cow - Copy

2nd cow - Copy

Not in either of these two pictures, but I think at the same time, a young boy between I would guess and remember 10-12 years old, was leading and showing a bull. A full-grown massive bull, being led by the boy holding on to the bull’s nose ring with a rope, a rope similar to the one I am using to lead my heifer.

Events like these have their traditions and protocols and one of these is for those doing the leading/showing to wear a clean white coat, and I am wearing mine. You can see the judges in their smart suits and bowler hats in the background. All very prim and precise.

The rest is history and that is all I remember. Nothing between the second picture and the only subsequent event I vividly recall and which, thankfully, was not photographed – or perhaps it was and I just don’t have a copy. My heifer decided to go independent. Remember – in all the time I had worked on the farm and of all the highly skilled and often quite complex, demanding jobs I had perfected, showing a heifer was not one of them. I had never walked a heifer. I didn’t this time either, not very far.

The heifer took off. My one and only mistake – I don’t believe I made any error whatsoever to prompt the heifer to run – was to hold on to the rope. Hold on with the strength the many demanding jobs on the farm had nurtured me physically to do. So I was running with the heifer. Do you know how fast a heifer can run? It was certainly much faster than me. But I held on. I even held on when I tripped and fell and was dragged to the ground.

Can you imagine how much shit is lying on a showground where animals are being paraded all day? That khaki, liquid green primarily of cows? And do you remember the white show coat I was wearing?

Top Fifty 9: John Martyn – Bless the Weather, 1971

[Originally posted April 2013]


If I was only allowed one album out of all that I have and even all that are available from forever, it would be John Martyn’s Bless The Weather. And if similarly I was only allowed one song out of all those available in the infinite musical universe, it would be Head and Heart from this album.

This third solo album presents John at his sweetest – the sweetest songwriting, the sweetest vocal and the sweetest guitar playing, all as on opener Go Easy with its honeyed guitar chords and the youthful vocal register so different to the gruff slur and growl of John’s eventual vocal instrument. Second and title track Bless the Weather is of course a classic in the broadest sense but also in Martyn’s oeuvre, the distinctive slap guitar playing of John himself and then the accompaniment of great pal and genius double bass player Danny Thompson, a match made in whatever sonic heaven oversees such musical gifts bestowed on this aural world and where John now roars and jokes in a Scottish accent utterly incomprehensible and yet innately and cosmically endearing. The expressions of emotion in both these opening tracks reflect all of the happy hope and positive romanticism for life and love we all then had a right to wish for and now embrace  wherever it was achieved and still endures – whatever loss being tempered by the beautiful expression of that initial idealism. [Photo: John with Danny]


Third track Sugar Lump reminds us that John was also a rocker and a rogue – the boogie rhythms, the punchy harmonica and the guitar licks presenting his other great musicality; the lyrics reflecting his naughtiness, his wicked charm [of course there’s a long blues tradition of lyrical innuendo aped here, but John was also hilariously obscene when performing, especially in his expletive-laden banter with Danny on stage]: Get down mama to my sugar cube/Get down mama, won’t you try to make it move, my sugar cube.

Tracks four and five, respectively Walk To The Water and Just Now, are further examples of the felicity Martyn had with prettiness in melody and sentiment at this time, the former graced with the surprise of steel drums, the latter the simplest and yet sweetest strummed guitar with piano accompaniment presenting a gorgeous song, reminiscent of a folk sound honed on his two previous albums with then wife Beverley. [Photo: John with Beverley]


And then there is sixth Head and Heart, a song gently but profoundly honest in its expression of love where fear is so much a part of its declaration. The guitar work is again classic Martyn with the slap and pluck of the rhythm and then quick lead licks, Danny Thompson bending his notes and running them up and down in that magical partnership, and the lyrical poetry of lines like

Only got my fate
A bird above you
You know we all get scared from time to time

Love me with your head and heart
Love me from the very start
Love me with your head and heart
Love me like a child

Seventh is the plaintive beauty of Let The Good Things Come with Beverley echoing lines in the background, and eighth is another in the treasure chest of these sweetly crafted gems, the tender Back Down The River – guitar and vocal in the sweet symbiosis of this folk quintessence and time in Martyn’s career.


Not really true – Island was shrewd and commercial enough to see the greater potential in John going solo; and it is technically his third solo album

The penultimate instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne introduces the jazz aura that would become an increasingly strong influence in Martyn’s writing and performance, but more importantly, it introduces the electro-acoustic cosmos of Martyn’s guitar world, here presented through the echoplex prism which electronically echoed and repeated and swirled the beautiful melodies and skills of John’s playing. As I have written elsewhere, it was at Essex University in Colchester where I first heard John playing with his echoplex, having gone to see and hear this acoustic folk god which Bless the Weather had introduced, when at some stage in the set and suddenly without warning John flicked a switch somewhere on a machine and in my and most other unsuspecting heads, and this psychedelic tsunami of echoing sound surged through the PA which, as they say, blew me away. If there was one musical experience that I could relive, it would be this special and extraordinary one which to this day amazes in its recalled surprise and joy.

The album closes on another surprise, John’s simple version of Singin’ In The Rain with all its folk jollity and skill in the guitar playing.

It must be obvious that even though I am not going to produce a chronology for my whole Top Fifty – whenever eventually finished – this album will definitely be at the top. It is there first and foremost for the music, but also for the memories of a time in my life where such perfection in that music and honest joy in its lyrical expressions encapsulated genuine content. The encapsulation also of full awe – no diminishing qualifier for this album!