One of the most significant deficits faced by pupils in more challenging socio-economic communities is one of vocabulary. Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words).
Put plainly, many children are exposed to a pitiful level of word use, whereas others spend their first few years listening to stories and conversations peppered with rich vocabulary. Even by the age of five, this gap is almost too wide for schools to address.
There is a second divide, also related to vocabulary. This is to do with confidence, the ability to speak in public with assurance, drawing on a sizeable armoury of words. Privately educated pupils fare particularly well here, and it is no surprise that the two candidates for Prime Minister were both educated at Eton College. Their self-confidence, allied to lots of debating practice at school, assists them in giving the impression of intelligence and detail (whereas both appear to be pretty vacuous underneath).
I am therefore a huge fan of oracy in schools and, most importantly, giving children real and exciting opportunities to use their growing vocabulary and phraseology, preferably for the common good of our communities.
So it was with a sense of great satisfaction that we left London this week after some of our pupils had presented their work to a room full of leading environmentalists and business leaders. They were launching a campaign called ‘Backyard Nature’, aimed at persuading children to look after their local patch of land, assisted by free bags of seeds. It is run by the charitable arm of Iceland Foods Ltd, a company way ahead of many in its commitment to sustainable development and community involvement.
But the children were the advocates here. They were the ones seeking to take the message out into the world. This living and breathing opportunity allowed them to develop a rich vocabulary around this subject, and then talk to all these important people with natural confidence. Not arrogance, but confidence.
Even more impressive was their poise when faced with a set of questions, none of them seen in advance. Yes, there were a few stumbles and a few ‘errrrs’, but they coped very well. One girl, eight years old, referred to ‘adults sitting around like lemons’ instead of getting up and saving the world. I’m not sure if this qualifies as rich vocabulary, but it certainly showed some confidence and was rewarded with a hearty laugh.
For me, here was the future of education. Whilst I’m a fan of the Swedish pupil-activist, Greta Thunberg, her campaign requires pupils to play truant; this is its way of gaining attention. Schools are therefore rendered mute. I can see the point, but I would much prefer to see schools as the hubs of activism, campaigning, volunteering and advocacy. Good schools can frame language development, reading and writing around this. Words and ideas are more likely to be remembered. Why? Because it all means so much more.
Companies such as Iceland are ahead of the game in providing children with such opportunities, but they are not alone. A larger focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) means everyone is looking for ways of engaging with the very communities that provide them with their profits. As a result, we’ve got restaurants working with our tuck shop business, tech companies assisting our pupils with coding, local co-operative bakeries assisting us in making our own bread. And loads more. These interfaces allow for higher level and technical vocabulary to be used effortlessly, particularly in the hands of a skilled teacher. And I haven’t even mentioned the cultural capital gained from such initiatives. It really is a win-win.
Thank you to Iceland Foods – their belief in our pupils was, I hope, vindicated. We will see how the campaign succeeds. It has certainly got off to a great start. The Duchess of Cambridge has thrown her support behind it. The lead singer of ‘The Vamps’ tweeted his support (and I’m now officially an old fart because I had never heard of ‘The Vamps’.) The big ‘seed giveaway’ day will be in September when every Iceland store in the country will give away millions of seeds.
And that all started with our pupils’ interest and activism.
*Here’s the launch video. Make sure you sign up! #BackyardNature