British Academy creates new fellowship – to investigate 'levelling up through talk'

21 March 2022

Speech matters: what they say, how they say it, can determine a young person’s future. And yet ‘oracy’, as it is called, is not on the curriculum in England and this critical life skill is often determined by family background and school type. But, it is considered so important to levelling-up life chances, that the British Academy has funded a new Innovation Fellowship in oracy. Oxford’s Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, a classical scholar, who would like to see rhetoric lessons in schools to help students access the opportunities they currently miss, is to undertake a one year study of oracy.

Dr Holmes-Henderson will be working with Voice 21, the national oracy education charity, carrying out research into the problem and investigating solutions.

Dr Holmes-Henderson says, ‘Training in effective spoken communication and active listening is vital for young people’s preparation as citizens. As British Academy Innovation Fellow, I will be working collaboratively with policymakers in several government departments and stakeholders across the third sector on a project called “Levelling-up through talk”.’

High level oracy skills are fundamental to accessing opportunities, such as employment, apprenticeships and university places, says Dr Holmes-Henderson. But, she adds, ‘In research I co-conducted with the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group and the Centre for Education and Youth in March 2021, 53% of unemployed young people said that their schools did not help them develop good oracy.’

Another poll of almost 5,000 teachers, commissioned by The Careers & Enterprise Company, found that teachers now think workplace skills have a higher value than academic qualifications in preparing school and college leavers for the post-COVID world of work.’

Dr Holmes-Henderson maintains oracy is not just about personal fulfilment, she says, ‘Expressing yourself is at the heart of what it is to be a citizen. It is empowering for people to be able to express themselves clearly.’

According to Dr Holmes-Henderson, the problem has become worse over the last few years, ‘During the pandemic, a lot of children missed out on talking.’

But, she adds, ‘It is not just about the COVID generation - my research indicates that there is a division between rich and poor.’

Teachers working in state-maintained school settings were more than twice as likely as teachers working in private schools to say that online teaching had a significantly negative impact on pupil oracy (Oracy APPG report 2021: 32).

Voice 21, Dr Holmes-Henderson says, has been ‘pioneering’ in delivering whole school oracy training and guidance for staff – leading to some surprising findings. She says, Maths teachers, in particular, have found problem-solving improves greatly with better oral language skills.

Dr Holmes-Henderson’s research will be in collaboration with Voice 21 and will focus on the materials provided by the charity. They will also carry out comparative studies in other countries – including Italy and the UAE, ‘We will have the opportunity to learn from other cultures.’

Dr Holmes-Henderson says enthusiastically, ‘I became involved in this because of my background in classics. In the ancient world, rhetoric was central to education for citizenship. There are ancient handbooks which include tips and tricks for engaging with your audience, cultivating respect as a speaker, using body language and hand gestures to persuade. These are still used by speakers today. Knowing these are helpful both for deconstructing communication - reading between the lines - but also for constructing communication. It boosts critical literacy.’

Notes for Editors

For more information and for interviews, please contact Oxford at or the British Academy here

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