Within days of school closures being announced, I, like many parents, was inundated with lists of online lessons, apps and YouTube channels designed to replace the learning that my children would have been getting at school.
Friends, who had not been in a classroom for 30 years, panicked about getting their heads around long division again or brushing up their French verbs to support their offspring.
Meanwhile, as a former teacher, I watched as old colleagues valiantly rose to the challenge of devising worksheets, learning platforms and lesson plans to enable their pupils to keep learning while at home.
But in the clamour to mitigate the loss of learning that could result from this enforced time out of school, it is more important than ever that we recognise the undervalued but fundamental aspects of education that will suffer most from the impacts of isolation.
The importance of oracy in the coronavirus crisis
The simple act of talking to each other is now more important than ever.
Without the richness of classroom conversations, socialisation of playground interactions and curiosity and critical thinking prompted by purposeful discussion and questioning, our children are missing out on the opportunities for oracy that drive learning and language development, and underpin their wellbeing.
Indeed, in a recent review of existing research on effective distance learning, the Education Endowment Foundation noted the importance of sustaining peer interactions to “provide motivation and improve learning outcomes".
Over the past year, the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group has been advocating the importance of developing children’s oral communication skills – gathering evidence for our Speak for Change inquiry about the vast benefits from improving educational attainment and employability, to supporting mental health and active citizenship.
As we enter our second month of isolation, my colleagues and I want to understand how the current context shines an even greater light on the value and importance of being able to speak well and listen to others.
What are young people missing out on, given that they’re not learning it in the classroom? And, most critically, how will this impact upon those that are already at a disadvantage in society? Will it widen the existing language gap?
What role can oracy play in supporting wellbeing and reintegration into the classroom and school life?
Embedding life skills in education
Beyond the short-to-medium term, there are much wider questions for society.
If we move towards more remote learning for older students on a more regular basis, how can we ensure that we continue to foster oracy and critical thinking skills in this new dimension?
Young people will need to be able to express their feelings and be understood via a more challenging medium where it is more difficult to read facial expressions and social cues.
For the workforce who are now destined to the increasing prevalence of remote working, how can we successfully communicate our viewpoints, effectively collaborate with colleagues and develop working relationships, perhaps solely online?
And how do we make sure that, in an increasingly competitive job market, our education system ensures that young people have the skills and confidence to succeed?
Why it matters
For us MPs, life has changed rapidly. In the House of Commons we are used to debating, rebuffing, bantering and interjecting spontaneously to express our agreement or disagreement.
In our new virtual Parliament, we need to talk slower, use different intonation and emphasis, listen more attentively, and wait more patiently to be unmuted for our turn.
Perhaps the Speaker will have a less challenging role and lessons may be learned about the art of respectful democratic debate, but can we deliberate, scrutinise and hold each other to account as effectively on a split screen as in the chamber?
While our primary concerns lie with the welfare and wellbeing of the nations’ children, I hope we can galvanise this opportunity to truly understand the human capacities and qualities that can never be replaced by artificial intelligence in the workplace and across society, and address the development of these vital life skills that have been under-prioritised in education for too long.
Emma Hardy is the Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, chair of the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group and shadow minister for higher education
The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group is inviting written or video evidence submissions until 30 June 2020. For further information, please visit www.oracyappg.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org