24/05/2012 05:57 BST | Updated 23/07/2012 06:12 BST

Debating and Social Mobility Can be Primary Targets

Why is debating such a great mechanism for improvement for children of such a young age? Debate Mate, whose core work is in secondary schools across the UK, asked just such a question of themselves when considering the future expansion of their primary schools' programme.

Of late, amidst hysteria about academisation and free schools, primary schools have had to work hard for their fair share of coverage in the media. We know of a few isolated supply-side crises--the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, for example, has a shortfall of places thanks to higher-than-expected population growth. We know too of the annual jostling amongst parents of year sixes for places in sought-after secondary schools, accompanied by stories of a postcode-distorted housing market. But nobody is talking or writing about a more fundamental question: what is the true purpose of primary schooling, and what can we do to make the reality equate with the conception?

That absence of discourse is a problem, because of two related truths: first, the lessons learnt during primary years are fundamental to a child's later achievement and aspirations; second, an alarming proportion of children are leaving primary school having fallen short of accepted standards. Turn primary school into a glorified kindergarten, and you risk banalising children's expectations of secondary education. On the other hand, make them swot over past papers, and you ruin their already-receding childhood years. If a way could be found to secure a good grounding for primary school children--by treating them as independently thinking adults--whilst gently nudging them into desiring high attainment, the benefits would be felt far into the future.

For 350 Key Stage 2-level children, in 25 primary schools spread across seven London boroughs, the introduction of an after-school debating programme has been just such a boon. Next Monday, the programme run by Debate Mate, a social enterprise, will culminate in the Primary Debate Mate Cup 2012, and all these young debaters' efforts will bear fruit in a full-day competition held at the University of East London's Docklands campus, neighbouring the city's Olympic Park.

The skills these nine- and 10-year olds, from areas of high child poverty, have picked up from their debating clubs will be brought to bear in a competitive environment; as an added bonus, they get to see what a real university, on their doorstep, looks like.

Why is debating such a great mechanism for improvement for children of such a young age? Debate Mate, whose core work is in secondary schools across the UK, asked just such a question of themselves when considering the future expansion of their primary schools' programme. Debating boosts kids' confidence, makes them think about the persuasive and logical import of what they're about to say (lest it be demolished by an opposition speaker), and introduces them to a competitive activity that isn't reliant on physical prowess.

So far, so ambiguous, you might think. But when it's introduced to children on the cusp of entering secondary school, it's also a strong motivator. They can see on the horizon a point in time when the skills they're learning will help them get a job or secure a place at university. They know by making the effort now, when the stakes are low, they will have had a useful leg-up for when the stakes are high. And, as Debate Mate nears its fifth year, there is sufficient saturation that primary school kids now have a strong desire to get into a school that has a Debate Mate club.

We can conclude that teaching primary school children how to debate is no mere "because-we-can" vanity project. By laying the foundations early on, participants on the programme are driven to succeed, and apply the tools of debating to the rest of their studies. It's a similar argument to that used when advocating the teaching of modern foreign languages, or indeed ICT skills, at a young age. When the mind is young it is more supple; more willing to accept the structure debating brings to their ways of speaking and thinking and aspiring. Observers and adjudicators at Monday's Debate Mate Cup will see for themselves how readily the children take heed of this, and how this spills over into their approach to learning, more generally.

The grand final of the Primary Debate Mate Cup will be chaired by a face familiar to the Twitterverse: Professor Patrick McGhee, Vice-Chancellor of UEL, is an avid tweeter with 2,385 followers. Professor McGhee, who chairs the university think tank million+, is an influential figure in higher education, and it is hoped his university's generosity in hosting the competition will have a powerful aspirational effect on the students attending the competition. Many people scoff at the post-1992 cohort of universities; in reality, higher education is a multifaceted component, and universities should be celebrated for a multitude of achievements--not just the narrow criteria that define league-table success. The University of East London is rightly lauded for its "flexible study options, excellent facilities, [and] an exciting London location" (University guide 2013, The Guardian), all of which should look compelling in a marketised higher education landscape. Look further back, and the university was known for being a "pioneering polytechnic", (Good University Guide 2012, The Times).

Of course proponents of greater social mobility want more of these "students...from working-class homes" (The Times, ibid) to aim high, perhaps for Russell Group universities. But for those for whom this is an unrealistic aim, what matters is vocational prospects--and in this regard, the skills learnt through debating and the University of East London share much in common.