'Yes, but a healthy lifestyle isn't just about healthy eating, but also dependent on exercise and sport.' So the eleven-year old Muhamad ably rebutted a point-of-information, thrown his way during a debate at the Cambridge Union last Friday on compulsory sport in schools. Pacing around the debating chamber, excitement mingled with nervousness as I listened to those I had introduced the art of debating to only on the Tuesday of that week. It was the trumping point I was hoping would come up, with Muhamad raising it in the concluding speech of the whole debate. His response provoked cries of 'here, here' from the listening children, accompanied by approving tapping on the deep-red leather seats of the Union chamber. The President of the Cambridge Union, Tim Squirrel, who gave feed-back to every child at the end of each debate, said to Muhamad 'You're good. I mean really good'
The slogan of Lauriston Lights-'empowering through communication, inspiring through learning' -was why debating was a big focus during the camp. When teaching debating, we were keen from the off not to patronise the children, but to use the full set of debating terms that are a part of British Parliamentary style debating. Children revelled in using the formal language of debating such as 'rebuttal' 'point of information' and crying 'nay' or 'here, here' from the side-line (at times somewhat over-zealously). Most had only learned about debating that Tuesday, and it was a pleasure to watch each child have their turn participating in a debate in one of the most famous debating chambers in the world. At the end of the camp, we asked the children whether at the beginning of the camp, they thought they could do debating.
Well over half said they thought they couldn't. By the end, all believed that they could.
The debating at the Cambridge Union began what was a wonderful day in Cambridge. These bright eleven year children, from London's borough of Newham and about to embark on secondary school, were taken around by the university student mentors who were volunteering at the camp. We emphasised to the children that the chapel of Kings College or the courtyard of Trinity College weren't just for rich kids, but for everyone. That if this was the kind of university they aspired to go to and if they had the right drive, the right work ethic and the self-belief, then they could in seven years time be arriving to these hallowed grounds as Cambridge University undergraduates.
I walked around the university with a group of six children and three mentors, and as we made our way to Heffers bookshop, where we bought each child a book of their choice, David was telling an attentive Sabir the origins of Western Philosophy and the ideas of Aristotle. David, who was the first from his own family to attend university, remarked to me that day that 'The more I do this the more I want to teach'. During the first week, rumours of Co-Director's Jess Clark Jones's singing talent began to proliferate. Thus, following on from the pleas of the children, Jess eventually relented and as the last act on the Cambridge trip, sang in her own Selwyn College chapel a rendition of Pie Jesu from Duruflé's requiem mass, listened to with baffled awe by mentors and children alike.
Each child's mentor (the person that oversaw them during the camp) presented their mentee with a book of their choice at the Lauriston Lights graduation ceremony which took place the following Friday, with many of the children's parents in the audience. There were a wide range of books, and in Heffers children enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic recommendations of mentor's own childhood favourites, with Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird or Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses proving to be particularly popular choices amongst the kids. The giving of the books, accompanied by a personal letter from the mentor, symbolised the strength of the relationship that had been built up over the two weeks between mentor and mentee. Mentoring sessions took place in which a mentee confided to their mentor their hopes, fears and aspirations, with the mentor in turn giving advice and encouragement. Shenni announced at the ceremony that he had learnt from his mentor Sam that 'over-confidence isn't always a good thing, and that I should put it to use by helping other people.' Earlier in the week, during a mentoring session, Hemmani revealed to her mentor Sarah that 'Usually I don't like to talk about these sorts of things but because you're someone I trust, I can.'
The ceremony proved to be very moving, with many mentors and children shedding tears. I began to feel tears in my eyes when David called upon his mentees to collect their books and said in a soft, wavering voice to the audience that 'I'm just so proud'. We're putting systems in place to facilitate a longer term relationship between mentor and mentee, to ensure that the impact of Lauriston Lights goes beyond the two week camp. But we're hoping that these two weeks can be a key moment in the children's lives.
The emotion of the closing ceremony suggested to me that two weeks can be a long time in education. University students were united with eleven year olds in a coming together which is all too rare: students are an un-tapped resource when it comes to educating young people. Over the two weeks, an environment was created in which the audacity of what was possible, of what the future could hold, began to affect the children. Maybe for most of the children, Lauriston Lights will just become a fond memory of two weeks that took place before they started secondary school. But I feel for some, perhaps even for most, these two weeks will make a lasting impact, as they begin the next stage of their education, and soon go on, as I dearly hope will happen and sincerely believe can happen, to become flourishing teenagers.
This account was of the second camp that Lauriston Lights has run, following the camp's founding in 2013. Interested in what you have read? Want to find out more or get involved? Then email us at email@example.com. Find us on Twitter @LauristonLights.