Schools white paper: Peers push for greater focus on speech and language

Fiona Simpson
Thursday, June 30, 2022

Peers have urged the government to amend the schools white paper to include greater measures around children’s speech and language development.

Peers say the schools white paper is 'silent' on speech and language delays. Picture: Adobe Stock
Peers say the schools white paper is 'silent' on speech and language delays. Picture: Adobe Stock

Labour peer Lord Watson of Invergowrie, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on oracy, tabled two amendments to the white paper, which was published in March, “designed to test the government’s thinking” on its approach to improving spoken language in schools.

The amendments included calls for the Education Secretary to issue an annual report to parliament which examines levels of spoken language across all education settings and provision available to improve this.

Watson is also calling for the white paper to include plans for Ofsted to assess the provision available to develop pupils’ spoken language and communication skills.

Under the proposals, schools rated as “inadequate” in terms of such provision should not be rated “good” or “outstanding” overall, the amendment states.

During a debate in the House of Lords, Watson called for a “step-change” in England’s education system and for “spoken language to be given equal prominence to reading and writing”. 

He said that all children should be able to “develop their oracy at school as a key part of the curriculum. For some children, this will be their only chance to develop their confidence and competence in spoken language.”

Peers backed Watson’s calls for change, with Liberal Democrat Baroness Brinton stating that the schools white paper “is silent on how to reduce the ever-widening language gap for disadvantaged or disabled schoolchildren”.

Lord Storey, who is also a Liberal Democrat, added: “Our national curriculum and SATs do not give teachers the time and space they should have to develop the spoken word.”

However, Baroness Baran, under-secretary of state for the Department for Education, told peers that “it is hard to envisage how the government would report on the overall level of pupils’ spoken language and communication without a new statutory national assessment”.

She added that the introduction of such assessments would “put greater resource strain on the system” and “place pressure on teachers and school leaders”.

Watson’s call for an annual report on speech and language provision was withdrawn, however, his amendment on Ofsted inspections remains unchanged. 

A briefing paper on Watson’s calls by children’s oracy charity I CAN, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and Voice 21, published before the debate, states that “the government has recognised the importance of early language skills in building strong foundations for literacy and numeracy in the white paper.

"Yet, despite the welcome focus on early language, the schools white paper has failed to address the widening language gap between disadvantaged students and their peers as children move through school and is missing substantial proposals to sustain early years efforts to develop all children’s language and communication.”

The paper was backed by 35 organisations supporting children and young people.

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