Can you break the class barrier with speaking lessons?

“The class cap shaped us all,” said Sir Keir Starmer in his keynote address this morning.

“We all have to find a way to put it aside,” he added.

The Labor leader used the speech on removing obstacles to opportunity to flesh out the fifth of his five missions to government, originally announced in February.

What must a government do to ensure that people from the most disadvantaged areas have the same chance of success as those in the least disadvantaged areas?

The promise is perhaps one of the most important for him and his party. One might even be tempted to call it the defining task of his government.

Much of the politics in Thursday’s speech revolved around education and as such had little to do with politics up here as schools and the curriculum are under Edinburgh control. However, there were a few aspects worth looking at.

More opportunities for professional learning and a greater emphasis on artistic and creative subjects were promised.

He also announced plans to revamp the curriculum to focus more on developing a child’s knowledge and skills.

There was also a promise to focus on students’ speaking skills.

In an article for The Times leading up to the speech, Sir Keir said it was “short-sighted” that the current curriculum did not teach speaking skills.

“The inability to express yourself fluently is a major obstacle to moving forward and being successful in life,” he wrote.

“To do well in that crucial interview, it’s important to convince a company to give you a refund and tell your friend something uncomfortable. Oracy is a skill that can and must be taught.”

He elaborated on the subject in his speech, adding: “Speaking confidently gives you a core of steel and an inner belief to speak your mind in any setting. Whether it’s convincing your mom to buy new sneakers, a skeptical audience listening to his arguments, or…” Even your daughter should let go of her iPhone.

While I’m not sure even the best and most persuasive speaker in the world would be able to get my daughter to hang up the phone, it was an intriguing promise.

This call was welcomed by Jordan Pfotenhauer, program director of Young Speakers Scotland, a Scottish educational organization that aims to use debate and public speaking to “help young people fulfill their potential”.

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He told me that being able to speak confidently is “a crucial skill for young people.”

He added: “Through our workshops in schools across Scotland we have seen first hand how speaking and debating can transform the lives of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“In Scotland, narrowing the gap in performance linked to poverty is a key concern for society, and we firmly believe that improving the speaking skills of young people, whether inside or outside the curriculum, can play an important role in achieving this goal.”

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, told The Herald there was “no point in speaking well unless you have something of value to say.”

“It takes a curriculum that is knowledge-based and professional skills that are knowledge-based,” he added.

“Starmer is therefore wise to also recognize the importance of the curriculum in overcoming inequality – using knowledge to counter what he calls “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

“Scottish politics could do well to place more emphasis on listening and speaking than it has done so far. Unfortunately, unless she re-emphasizes the importance of knowledge, she will ignore Starmer’s realization that knowledge is important.”

HeraldScotland: Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at the University of EdinburghLindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh (Image: BBC)

The scholar also said the other parts of Sir Keir’s speech would do far more to improve equal opportunities.

“When kids are hungry, when they don’t have access to books at home, when their internet connection is unreliable, when they aren’t stimulated by conversation at home, no amount of public speaking training will help them succeed.” Starmer is therefore wise to emphasize the importance of reducing the impact of poverty.”

Could we see speeches in Scotland’s schools? Scottish Labor wasn’t snappy when I asked…

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