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Is Keir Starmer right about communication's ability to break the ‘class ceiling’?

Labour leader Keir Starmer has vowed to improve children’s speaking skills to help breakdown class barriers in the UK, but is better oracy the key to improving social mobility?

In his keynote speech on education, Starmer said: “We must improve speaking skills. This is a subtle and significant layer of the class ceiling – don’t doubt that.  

“The inability to speak fluently is one of the biggest barriers to opportunity, and it’s also a massive challenge left behind by the pandemic, particularly in early language development.” 

Starmer hailed speaking skills, or oracy, as a skill for life, adding: “Confident speaking gives you a steely core, and an inner belief to make your case in any environment.” 

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Alastair Gill, founder of culture consultancy Alchemy Labs, said good communication helps employees stay a step ahead of their peers. 

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Everything we do is subjective, open to interpretation and understanding. I think the last few years show this. 

“In times of uncertainty and rapid change the way we evolve is driven by having to learn, understand and communicate. The ability to communicate fundamentally differentiates us.” 

To support social mobility, Gill advised employers to upskill staff.  

He added: “Focus on the skills that are catalysts for mobility: people skills, communication, storytelling, influence, persuasion and empathy. 

“These skills should be a priority in any human-centric business and mastering them will open doors and opportunities.”  

The Labour leader has received support from social media users, with one tweet reading: “It's not about changing your accent or grammar, it's about making yourself understood, being (or looking) confident and levelling the playing field.” 

However, there has also been backlash against Starmer’s idea with some saying his comments could also contribute to discourse on accent bias. 

Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of charity the Social Mobility Foundation advised employers should move past bias based on the way people speak. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “We know that in the UK, it pays to be privileged and ambitious young people face barriers at work because of where they grew up, went to school or how they speak. 

“Better communication and confidence are part of the solution, but employers must change what they value too, ensuring they are assessing performance and potential over polish. 

“Employers should reward candidates on their competencies required for the job and not the individual's accent, connections and educational background.” 

Atkinson said employers have an opportunity to enact positive social change by ensuring their employees do not face class barriers at work. 

She said: “The workplace is as important as the classroom for improving social mobility and the first place to start is collecting socioeconomic background data and identifying senior champions to talk about why this matters, making both the moral and the business case. 

 “By working together, we believe we can build a society where talent from all backgrounds is nurtured, harnessed, and rewarded.”