Greg Ashman

Is Labour right about the power of oracy?

  • From Spectator Life
[Getty Images/Alamy/iStock]

It is no surprise that a speechwriter and a barrister-turned-politician would think the art of speech-making should be taught in schools. It’s like pig farmers at a barbecue eulogising the nutritional value and superior flavour of pork. 

The speechwriter in question is Peter Hyman and the former barrister is Sir Keir Starmer, Britain’s presumptive next PM.

In serious fields of scholarly inquiry, the goal is to make the complex appear simple. Unfortunately, the field of education sits under the social sciences, which try to make the commonplace sound complicated. This is why making speeches and discussing ideas are dubbed ‘oracy’ and are the Labour party’s new big education idea. 

Is this what the good people of Worthington and Dudley North demand from their education policy? If so, I’ve missed it. Will oracy’s purported links to social mobility allow working-class children to enter unpaid media internships or jobbing-actor-with-a-trust-fund like their privileged peers? Is that why Labour is pursuing it? A more likely origin for this initiative lies with Peter Hyman.

Once Tony Blair’s speechwriter, Hyman left the political world for education and founded a free school – School 21 in Stratford, east London. He is now back in the Labour fold, advising Starmer on education. 

While traditionalists want orderly classrooms, the progressivist classroom is a mental assault course

The purpose of the free school movement was to establish innovative schools that could experiment with different methods of education. Other schools could then copy what worked and jettison the rest. Perhaps the two most notable to emerge over the past decade were Michaela Community School in Wembley and Hyman’s School 21.

What can be learned about Hyman’s ideas from his school? School 21 and Voice 21, the organisation founded to evangelise his model, are educationally progressive. This is a distinct philosophy with a history that can be traced to Locke and Rousseau, although it was the American reformer John Dewey who defined its four tenets: learning by doing, discussion, interactivity and interdisciplinary learning.

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