The Great Oracy Exhibition

by James Mannion


A brief summary of an inspiring day at the inaugural Great Oracy Exhibition at School 21 in Stratford, London. 

Today, I attended what was probably my favourite ever education conference. And for someone who once wrote six blogs about a single #researchED conference, that’s saying something.

I’ve been to a few oracy conferences before, but this was the first one that’s been hosted by a school, where the vast majority of presentations and workshops were run by practising teachers or involved students. I’ve argued on these pages before that oracy is approaching the point at which it ‘tips’ into the collective consciousness and takes its rightful place alongside literacy and numeracy, and today was perhaps the strongest evidence I’ve yet encountered to suggest that this might actually be more than just wishful thinking.

The heart of Harkness

It’s actually kind of difficult to describe the first session. Picture a packed classroom, with around 60 people staring at an oval table around which fifteen A-level politics students conduct a nuanced twenty-minute discussion about the statement ‘Theresa May is not a true conservative’. See what I mean?

In case you aren’t familiar, a Harkness Table is method for having a discussion that’s more open and collaborative than a lecture or a debate. This was a gripping session with students holding their own in the face of some quite challenging questions from the Guardian’s political editor Anushka Asthana. What was noticeable was not just the quality of talk, but the knowledge these students had to back it up. I learnt more about conservatism in these 20 minutes than in all my years as a news junky. Which is pretty crazy when you think about it.

Raising the bar, closing the gap with an oracy-based curriculum

In the next session, I gave a talk to another packed room about the study that’s the focus of my recently-submitted PhD. In a nutshell, it’s an 8-year evaluation of an oracy-based Learning to Learn curriculum that found significant gains in subject learning, with particularly accelerated gains among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The slides are below; there’s a journal article here and another due out later this year, and a book in the pipeline. We’re really keen to find out whether these positive findings can be replicated in other settings – if you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a line (

Mind-blowing speeches by 8-year olds

Throughout the next session, I sat with fellow Learning to Learn enthusiast Becky Carlzon in open-mouthed incredulity at the quality of the speeches delivered by a group of year 4 students. I have never witnessed such compelling speechwriting and delivery among even A-level students before, let alone among 8-year olds. The quality of the writing, the sophistication of language, the passion, the drama, the delivery – it really was absolutely mind-blowing.

As the School 21 head Peter Hyman said in his opening address, oracy is a really complex and layered thing. It’s certainly about much more than just public speaking. That said, I strongly suspect that if all children were taught and encouraged and supported to speak to this standard throughout their school years, in the space of a generation we would transform society on a tidal wave of confidence and eloquence that we can’t even imagine. So we should probably do that and see what happens.

Adventures in social mobility

The final session was a fascinating conversation between Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Voice 21, and Hashi Mohamed, who came to the UK as an unaccompanied refugee aged nine, and who later became a barrister. Hashi wrote an influential opinion piece for the Guardian last year, and you can hear more about his story, and his take on social mobility, in an excellent programme for Radio 4 that you can listen to here.

One of Hashi’s central messages is that his success is far more down to luck than hard work. He spoke of the countless times as a youngster when he made bad decisions and was ‘shown mercy’ by a teacher or police officer. Food for thought for advocates of zero tolerance and no excuses discipline. He concluded by saying something we don’t hear often enough: that teachers are amazing, and that we are incredibly powerful, and that we need to wield our power wisely.

He’s not wrong.

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