Turning Boisterous Schoolchildren into Great Leaders and Thinkers

12/12/2011 13:56 GMT | Updated 07/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Among the things purportedly lacking in schools are responsibility and motivation. It's often claimed that pupils come to school "because they have to", and that their relationship with their school begins and ends in the classroom. A closely related point of view holds that children are fast becoming "feral" and "beyond help".

For the past three years, Debate Mate has begged to differ, focusing on "how amazing" children are, and investing in them now to make sure they have every opportunity of becoming the leaders of the future. And now we're starting to see evidence of them taking on responsibility at their schools too.

Take, for example, Lordswood Boys' School in Birmingham, where the prefects for this year have just been elected. The teacher who supervises the school's Debate Mate club took great pride in telling the mentor, Dan, that the vast majority of the students elected were regular attendees at the club. The teacher said she strongly believed it was the students' participation in the programme that gave them the confidence and ability to run for the position. Dan, who is a student at Birmingham University, called it a "fantastic achievement...and a fine advertisement of the benefits that come with the programme".

It's refreshing to see the skills debating gives young people permeating into other parts of their school-life, and encouraging them to lead others to greatness. In one of the schools we've worked in since 2007, Robert Clack School in Dagenham, the sixth-formers are running their own debate club for children in year 7, using the skills they have acquired through participating in Debate Mate to teach others. This year, we're getting other schools to follow in Robert Clack's footsteps with our Ambassadors' Programme. We're sitting down with our older pupils, getting them to figure out how they can create a permanent culture of debating in their schools. We ask them to set targets so when we visit them in school, we know how much progress they've made.

So it's clear that teaching young people to debate lends a framework of responsibility and leadership to the schools. But what's also great is that the content of these sessions is nudging schoolchildren to consider and question the underlying values and assumptions of education. At Greenford High School in west London, the mentors Kriti and Olivia were left open-mouthed when one particularly philosophical Year 9, giving a speech opposing the banning of religious symbols in schools, said:

"But you know, school isn't just there to educate you now. You have to give students the skills for their entire life, and beyond. Do you think it is a good excuse for someone to go up in front of God on judgment day and say, 'Sorry God, I didn't obey your commands [to wear a headscarf] because my school told me not to'? Isn't it morally wrong to just disrespect what - for someone - might be such an important part of their religion?"

An anecdote like this challenges the assertion that energetic schoolchildren are incorrigibly disruptive and must be humiliated in order to be taught a lesson. It recently emerged that a headteacher in Cambridgeshire has been handing out all manner of degrading punishments to children caught talking at lunchtimes--including "holding a teacher's hand or eating their lunches standing in the centre of the hall". In my experience, such reactionary gestures don't get to the heart of the matter: far better and more edifying to give young people the confidence to speak in the right way, and the dignity which eventuates in self-discipline and respect.