"The British public schools, which educated many members of the present Westminster government, of course place great emphasis on developing the confident and effective use of spoken language. For the sake of social equality, state schools must also teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, and for life in general." (1)
Those words, taken from the Bullock Report into language and education, were written all the way back in 1975. But do any of us truly believe that the problem with "social equality" in Britain identified over 40 years ago has really been addressed (let alone solved), or even that the solution Bullock proposed has ever been properly tested?
It's certainly not limited to politics and "Westminster". Every year, the continued domination of top jobs and professions by the privately educated is laid out in excruciating detail by organisations like the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. These reports reiterate that a "business as usual" approach to achieving "social equality" is simply not working, yet there seems a reluctance to innovate in order to actually break the status quo.
Clearly this is an entrenched and multi-faceted issue with no simple solution. However, I am astounded that nobody has seriously followed through on Bullock's recommendation that state schools teach children better skills with spoken language - especially given the wider lack of progress to date. Over the past few years there have been some very substantial progress in the academic performance of many state schools and there are some great success stories out there.
It has been calculated that if you compare the top 100 state schools to the top 100 private schools, the state schools outperform when it comes to academic performance (2). Take Cheadle Hulme High School, my alma mater, a state school in Greater Manchester placed in the Sunday Times 'Parent Power' top 25 comprehensive schools in the country, and outperforming local grammar schools in the new Progress Eight measure which ranks CHHS in the top 5% nationally. Yet this achievement has not been fully translated into greater life chances for the state schools students now getting better grades - some vital ingredients are still missing from their education experience and we need to address these now.
For example, a prediction of 3 A* grades at A-level does not automatically secure a place at an Oxbridge college, it gets you through to the interview. The interview is intended to measure something other than academic achievement and it is important that students flourish in this environment. Furthermore, Ashley et al posit that elite firms define 'talent' according to a number of factors such as drive, resilience, strong communication skills and (above all) confidence and 'polish' (3). It is therefore imperative that the education system prepares students with the qualities, attitudes and habits they need to achieve their potential in and for society.
This is what we are doing at the Laurus Trust, a new multi academy trust in the North-West of England which launches today. Cheadle Hulme High School, is the founder school of the Laurus Trust, but there is also Gorsey Bank - a high performing local Primary School - as well as four Free Schools in the pre-opening phase.
The Laurus Trust is funded by my foundation, the Law Family Educational Trust. We have been working with the legendary British voice coach, author and theatre director, Patsy Rodenburg OBE to create a unique learning experience called the Cicero Curriculum, which will be rolled out across our schools.
This programme teaches students about everything from improvisation and developing a strong and rigorous speaking voice, through to increasing their presence and improving posture, facial expression and eye contact - all overseen by our full time Head of Culture, Creativity & Rhetoric. We test our students' skills by putting them on the spot and really challenging them.
For example, we run a regular debating group (traditionally the preserve of the public school) called the 'Pit Club' in which our students discuss a topic and are then challenged to justify, re-think and defend their view in the face of deep questioning. This not only develops confidence in speaking, but also the ability to evaluate the words of others, structure a debate and present an argument with courage, conviction and impact.
We've made a significant investment in the Cicero Curriculum because we believe these skills are vital for the long-term success of our students in this ultra-competitive world. Take university applications. It can be a daunting prospect for a young person from somewhere like Cheadle Hulme High School to enter the grand, unfamiliar surroundings of an Oxbridge college and subject themselves to interrogation by an intimidating professor. We know that public school students may be more comfortable with this environment, and chances are they have been better coached in the art of debate and discussion - both at school and at home. We need to level the playing field for students who don't have the family that all went to university. Who aren't used to gothic buildings and wood panels.
Students at Cheadle Hulme High School already achieve outstanding results and the school has outperformed local grammar schools in the new Progress Eight assessments - placing in the top 5% of state schools nationally. This is about building on that outstanding foundation and giving our students the tools to translate their results into the best university places, the best work placements and the best careers. Most importantly, we want to instil in our students the confidence to aim high and not fear failure.
That's why, 42 years on from the launch of the Bullock report, we're investing in innovative techniques, expert teaching and world class facilities to help our students fulfil their potential in whatever they do. It is my great hope that the Cicero Curriculum could become the model for state schools across the country. We believe our methods will get results - whether they end up playing Othello or Ophelia on the West End stage, or use these skills to build their career in a less dramatic arena.
1. The Bullock Report (1975) A language for life: Report of the Committee of Enquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock FBA
2. The Spectator, 28.02.16, The best state schools have pulled ahead of private schools. Why is that so hard to accept?
3. Ashley, Louise, and Laura Empson. "Differentiation and discrimination: Understanding social class and social exclusion in leading law firms." Human Relations 66.2 (2013): 219-244.