The English-Speaking Union is a charity and membership organisation, delivering oracy skills for debating, public speaking and in the classroom. Their Branch Education Officer, Alex Bailey, writes about the launch of our 2016/17 Report Card.
As the ESU is a member of the Alliance, myself and a couple of colleagues attended the launch, eager to find out what the latest report card would reveal. The evening started with a foreword from Chair of the FEA, Sir Richard Lambert, who reminded the audience of just what has changed since the last Report Card was released in April 2016 – Brexit, a snap general election and Donald Trump.
There are many explanations for these events and one common theme is that vast numbers of people feel left behind, neglected by wider society and worried about what the future holds. This, he stated, makes the aim of the FEA, to close the gap between the least advantaged and their wealthier piers, more relevant now than ever.
When the departing Director of the FEA, and host of the evening, Lewis Iwu, invited the first question from an audience member, he drew their attention to a detachable microphone installed in the back of the seat in front of them. There was a collective expression of surprise from the audience when we all realised every seat in the auditorium was equipped with microphones built in to our seats. Lewis reminded us ‘this is 2017 people’ as he encouraged everyone to contribute to the live tweets and active commentary projected on to a large screen which sat behind the panel. A fitting backdrop for a notable theme of the evening – social media.
Digesting information in the digital age
Panellist and campaigner for mental health Natasha Devon opened by recalling a worrying surge of calls to Childline in the aftermath of the referendum verdict. The young people phoning in weren’t necessarily thinking through the political, or economic repercussions of the future, but were scared by the barrage of headlines and negative news being sent directly to the devices in their pockets. ‘Things weren’t like this 10 years ago’ Natasha reminded us, referring to the massive shift in the way young people have started to interact with the world in such a short space of time.
Audience member Rachael from Business in the Community asked the panel how we might equip young people with the skills and resilience to deal with uncertainty and worrying information in the digital age.
Natasha put forward three clear solutions:
1. Critical thinking – the ability to question and decipher the deluge of information, especially in relation to social media
2. Healthy coping strategies for stress – we know there are therapeutic benefits related to practising sport, art, music and drama, so let’s not demote these subjects in the interest of a ‘rigorous curriculum’
3. Emotional literacy – the ability to use words and be heard and understood. These don’t have to be taught in PSHE but can be implemented in a ‘whole school approach’.
Also advocating for that very approach was Executive Headteacher of School 21 and former adviser to Tony Blair, Peter Hyman. He started with an appraisal of the ‘regimented’ and ‘rigid’ approach of some modern inner-city schools. He praised Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney for its exceptional results and spoke of ‘shooting into the system’ the idea that you can take a failing inner-city school with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country and turn it into one of the most successful.
However, he then went on to call the tough approach to behaviour in schools a ‘deficit model’ and pointed to the Charter Schools in America where the model originated. He argued that students of those schools, despite doing well in their exams, have struggled at college and university where they are faced with a less rigid environment. The approach doesn’t teach students how to be agile thinkers and hold those critical skills which employers most value – character development, resilience and problem solving. He referred to his approach to education as being one of ‘head, heart and hand’.
Lewis rounded up with the final ‘silver bullet’ question to the panellists:
On what single issue would you place our collective energy to achieve maximum results over the next five years?
Former Lib Dem Schools Minister David Laws summarised another common theme of the evening by saying that we need to collectively ensure that school funding and focused efforts at closing the gap remain a firm priority for government in the years ahead.
Natasha Devon called for a radical shake-up of the education system and said we need to have a serious conversation about creative thinking and its place in preparing children for the future.
Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, Dr Samina Khan, emphasised the importance of teacher recruitment and retention.
The final word was from Peter Hyman who called for us to get behind oracy and make it a national programme.
By focussing on eloquence of speaking, building confidence and setting out a well-being agenda we can prepare our young people across the country for the fast-changing future.
Alex Bailey Branch Education Officer, The English-Speaking Union