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Reinstate Speaking and Listening – give it the status it deserves!

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‘Could a felt hat have the power to change lives?’ Is the first line of blurb of the book ‘The President’s Hat’ by Antoine Laurain. This relatively entertaining book is a series of four narratives exploring how a hat that once belonged to President Mitterrand, was found by chance, and gave this person the confidence to change their lives. The premise of ‘The president’s Hat’ is simple, you get to wear/own something that belongs to someone which can inspire greatness in you. Therefore on finding the hat, the character Daniel feels he has a new sense of confidence and performs brilliantly at work and gets a much needed promotion.

My initial thoughts in relation to this, is the need in teaching to inspire confidence in students, particularly SEN students. One theory is that 80% of learning difficulties for SEN students is linked to low self-esteem and lack of confidence. One of the most important roles as a teacher of SEN students is instilling confidence in them. This is linked to understanding the needs of pushing them/encouraging them to go in the right direction.

One of my greatest achievements, and strongest memories as a teacher, is encouraging a boy I taught called David to complete the GCSE speaking and listening tasks. David had severe special needs due to a serious cycling accident age 9 leaving him with locked in syndrome. His brain remained functioning, but his body was severely affected, he could move one finger, and his head from side to side – but he couldn’t speak. His brain, ideas, emotions and thoughts were all of a 16 year old boy, but he had to find more creative ways to express himself other than speech. To ‘speak’ he used a talker – similar to the one Stephen Hawkins uses. He used his functioning finger to type what he had to ‘say’. We were in the process of completing GCSE English Literature and English Language – I felt it was important they had a real sense of purpose at school, and that they should be treated – as far as possible- the same as students of their age. We were in the process of completing AQA Speaking and Listening GCSE and I rang the board to ask if using the ‘talker’ was acceptable within their rules. Shockingly, no one had EVER asked, and this was 2005!

We did go ahead with the activities – and the board sent someone out to check. They were thoroughly impressed and complimentary about what students with so many needs had managed to achieve – and they wrote me a report confirming this. They were particularly impressed with David. I can still distinctly remember the passion in his speech as he explored and explained his emotions and achievements. Many people would ask, and depressingly DID ask – what is the point? The point is, that I was even prouder to note that David went on to be Best Man at his brother’s wedding and delivered a humorous and engaging speech that any groom would be proud of. That is the point. It is most definitely a life skill – the confidence to speak publically is a difficult, but invaluable skill that we should still be instilling in our students. As I have said before we should be fighting to reinstate speaking and listening back into the curriculum, and allocate marks to the well deserving students for their achievements.

I know there is still supposed to be an extra ‘qualification’ – but this is nonsense. I was the first year of GCSE and we did ‘Oral Communication’ , a series of tasks for which I received a Grade 1. I have NEVER bothered to write this on any application form for any job. It wasn’t worth anything, and it was never recognised, even we didn’t really know what it was for. We need the proper reinstatement of a proper qualification.

The purpose of Speaking and Listening was debated on ‘The Educators’ on Radio 4, and the conclusion was that it was the lower class students who suffered, because these were the students who need to be taught such skills, and more importantly needed the encouragement from their teachers too.

I hope that I went some way to giving David a ‘President’s Hat’, and I hope that English teachers throughout the land continue to metaphorically place this hat on their students. Self-confidence and self-worth are the key to success, and skills in speaking and listening do go a long way in developing this.

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