I remember it vividly. The debate had just started and I was the guest chairman. The topic was abortion and a woman's right to choose, one of the most controversial debates I had ever chaired, let alone spoken in. I was slightly nervous and acutely aware that I was the only man in the room. The speakers took turns to deliver their opening arguments, each offering informed and sophisticated insights into an issue that has frustrated great minds and divided great nations, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, for generations.
By the way, did I mention these speakers were 11 years old? The week before they had been debating whether fashion prematurely sexualised young girls. This was no ordinary class. This was the debate club. Two years later and I now have the privilege of teaching debating to both children and adults for a living.
You can imagine my chagrin then, when Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen, writing in Comment is Free, responded to Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg's commendable proposals that more state schools be encouraged to teach debating by saying: "a good education, in a stable school environment, with committed teachers, means more than any amount of extracurricular waffling".
What makes her think that one must come at the expense of the other? That wasn't the worst thing she said though. I reserve that honour for the following quote: "you can't just put debating societies into state schools and declare the problems of social inarticulacy and lack of confidence miraculously solved". Why not? After then appearing to assert that working class kids don't need debating anyway because the X-factor is their equivalent of public speaking, she finished with the casual throwaway remark: "State school pupils deserve more than some downgraded version of what the posh kids get". Such paternalistic snobbery has no place in the British education system.
Of course, it is merely my humble opinion that state school pupils are just as capable of learning how to construct an argument as their private school counterparts. It would probably help to have a little evidence. So, I decided to do something that Barbara Ellen, in her infinite wisdom, neglected to do: I talked to an actual state school teacher.
Kim Kotchanski is a science teacher at a Comprehensive in Berkshire. Educated in a state school herself, we met while at university together in Nottingham, where we were both active members of our student debating society. I asked Kim to read Ms Ellen's article and tell me what she thought.
This is just some of what she said:
"Debate is already in the curriculum. It's part of a balanced curriculum, from formulating a decent essay, to persuasive writing and speaking and listening skills in English, to how science works and considering the ethical applications. Debate encourages public speaking, confidence, and structure."
"I've seen my London comp school hold their own against Eton and beat Harrow and a load of other grammar schools. They wonder around in awe of the facilities but then compete and take these kids on their own turf. What a better confidence boost to show the working class they are equals."
and in conclusion....
"Teens love having a say, they are getting what they want and learning lots at the same time: current affairs, critical thinking, persuasive speech, confidence, public speaking, summarising, thinking on your feet...and the resources argument makes no sense. Its cheaper than a science club. You need a pad of A4 paper. You need teachers time, granted, but build it in PHSCE or SEAL and it's no big deal."
Thank you Kim. Barbara, take note.
However, it is with only cautious optimism that I welcome the shadow Education Secretary's proposals. This is because it appears his only motivation for supporting debate lessons in state schools is to ensure that private schools do not have an unfair advantage. Does that mean that if private schools did not teach debating, he would see no reason for state schools to do it either? Speaking as someone who fervently believes that the purpose of education should be to promote equality of excellence and not just equality per se, Mr Twigg's insistence on prioritising the class divide over the best interests of each individual pupil, irrespective of their background, makes me somewhat uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, there is real potential here, precisely because the benefits of this policy are so much broader than even he may realise. Debating can be the silver bullet to apathy and ignorance. It can help to build a generation of active citizens who engage in their democracy, challenge bias and prejudice, and rigorously scrutinise figures of authority. Never has this been more important, with public distrust of politicians at a record high and turnout in local and national elections at a record low, than it is now.
In addition, it can also help to better connect schools and their students to the needs of the modern workplace. Indeed, several months ago, I carried out an informal poll on Linkedin of experienced professionals and business owners, 81% of whom said debating should be taught in schools owing to the dearth of basic presentation and analytical skills required of graduates and school leavers entering the job market.
Finally, speaking as someone who has watched timid wallflowers grow into gifted orators since I joined my first school debating club over ten years ago, I cannot overstate the phenomenal impact debating can have on the confidence of a child, especially one struggling to find their voice or assert themselves in the chaotic environment of the school playground.
Today, I look back at those 11 year old students taking highly complex social issues in their stride and my only complaint is that such clubs are the exception not the rule. Critical thinking and public speaking are techniques not abilities. Anyone can learn them. Presently, most don't. This has to change. Debating must be taught in every school across the country.
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