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Getting on our soapbox about teaching oracy

Posted on: 04 Jan 2019

Suzie Longstaff, headmistress at Putney High School, discusses her school's focus on oracy, which enables pupils to take responsibility for their own ideas and empowers them with essential skills for life.

Anyone who has ever watched a TED talk will appreciate how very inspirational a good speaker can be. Yes they are likely to be interesting and informative and teach you something that you didn’t know. They might even have charisma, and a certain charm. But above all, the most effective speakers succeed in getting their messages across because they are great communicators - they have mastered the art of oracy – a skill which is now being taught at Putney High School GDST where we have just employed our first “Orator in Residence”.


Intellectual sparring has always been very much part of life at Putney and as our orator, Miss Kiek points out, “Live disagreement is one of the best forums for the development and refinement of new ideas – it leads to intellectual growth.” Aside from teaching formal oracy skills and embedding debating more firmly in the curriculum, Miss Kiek will be introducing a number of initiatives including the Putney “soap box” where girls will be encouraged to stand up and speak on a topic they are passionate about in the hope of drawing a crowd, and a “speakathon” along the lines of Radio 4’s, Just a Minute.


At Putney we recognise that many important life skills can best be learnt outside the classroom. One of my earlier initiatives was to introduce a series of stand-up comedy workshops - great fun of course - but also an innovative way to build confidence and encourage girls to “think on their feet”.


Our Orator in Residence continues the theme. The sixth in a line of residencies which includes Writer, Orchestra and Entrepreneurs in Residence, the aim is to provide exposure to the “real world skills" that build students’ confidence, and that will help them to achieve their future ambitions – whatever those may be.


So what is an “orator”? The dictionary will define it as “an eloquent and skilled speaker”. There is no doubt that public speaking is not for the uninitiated. It demands confidence – the self-possession to literally stand up and speak out. But more than that, a good orator has the ability to tune into their audience and connect with them emotionally – with passion, with humour and above all, with conviction. This is something we believe in fervently at Putney, and crucially, we believe these are techniques that should be taught to young people.


Miranda Kiek says: “I look forward to helping young women gain the confidence and skills to express their views effectively in public. Society still needs more women to speak out about the issues that matter - and, indeed, on anything else!”


As a democratic community, school can provide many opportunities for pupils to find their voice, from standing for an elected school council, to leadership as a prefect or part of the head girl team. An active debating programme teaches pupils intellectual agility; to voice and defend their opinions with clarity and conviction, and at Putney, the development of a planned debating forum - part of our new Science, Music, Drama and Debating Centre – will ensure debating can truly take centre stage.


Let’s give our students the skills and the opportunity to speak out. To express their opinions coherently and crucially, to take responsibility for their own ideas. When young people approach their learning with curiosity, vigour and resilience, it impacts directly on their outcomes both at school and university, but more fundamentally, provides them with essential skills for life. I for one shall be listening intently to what our budding orators have to tell me, and I fully expect to be utterly convinced.

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About Suzie Longstaff

Suzie Longstaff is Headmistress at Putney High School, a girls' school in South West London.