Monday 28 January 2013

Debatable assumptions about state schools… and the purpose of debating

A critical response to a recent debate about whether debating should be encouraged in state schools

In May last year, the shadow minister for education, Stephen Twigg, made a speech at the Paddington Academy, west London, outlining the importance of public speaking skills as a tool for reducing inequality in the labour market between state and privately educated kids. As a means of closing this divide, he proposed that encouraging debating clubs in state schools, and fostering the confidence such clubs would inevitably bring about, may be efficacious. Eight months later, something apparently boiled over for Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen; she could no longer contain her fury at this idea; debating isn’t for State school kids, she argued, debating is mere hyperbolic posturing and ‘extra-curricular waffling’.

In order to see how this debate has played out, it’s important to clarify the ideas being proposed by either side. Make no mistake; it is Twigg’s intention to import wholesale supposedly exclusively private school initiatives like ‘debating and… interview coaching’ in order to keep abreast of ‘the modern labour market’.

So what’s wrong with this kind of initiative? According to Ellen, debating is an inherently private school activity which simply doesn’t translate into the state sphere; to use her metaphor: ‘this would be like Sellotaping a dog’s tail on to a cat and willing it to wag. They are totally different beasts’. To the extent that this Frankensteinesque imagery has any meaning, the point Ellen makes is that state schools simply lack the infrastructure, tradition, and funds; after all, debating ‘costs, and costs big’.

The sheer weight of evidence against Ellen’s hypothesis that state school kids couldn’t set up a successful debating club is overwhelming. I work for the Debating Matters Competition, for instance, every single winner of which has been a state school, not to mention the considerable success the Debate Mate programme has had encouraging inner city schools and academies to give a voice to young people.

But beneath the surface of both the proposal and the response, there are more pernicious issues at play. Between them, Twigg and Ellen have presented peculiar understandings of young people, education and debating.

Ellen’s view of school-age kids is mired in the soft bigotry of low aspirations. To assume that state school students are unable to raise the confidence to compete with their public school counterparts in debating is both pessimistic and false, as the evidence shows. Debating is not the resource intensive extra-curricular activity reserved only for the coffers of the wealthiest schools, it requires, as a former ESU Scotland employee put it, ‘a room, a motion, and some keen people. You can do it at lunch time. Schoolchildren run societies themselves’. Give young people a challenge to rise to, not a hoop to jump through, and it can be surprising how they respond.

Twigg’s understanding of education is also odd, though depressingly reflective of the consensus of curriculum makers. Gone is the time when education for all was seen as the process through which the best which has been thought and said is made accessible to all young people; replaced slowly but surely with BTECs in CV Design and Communication Media Skills. The sad fact of the matter is that the most pernicious inequality in education is not the differentiation between how well equipped for the world of work students from state versus private schools are, it’s the intellectual poverty prevalent in curricula that emphasise the skills over and above knowledge. It’s this to which Twigg is subjecting state school students by suggesting debating clubs become mandatory, given his understanding of what a debate should consist of.

It is this misunderstanding which is the most pernicious conflation made by both Twigg and Ellen. Have a look again at Twigg’s proposals; ‘private schools focus on debating and on interview coaching, helping their students get another leg up toward the best universities and jobs’. This conjunction of having a debate and learning how to get through an interview, as though they belong to the same category, illustrates exactly what’s wrong with both pieces. Neither sees a debate as an intrinsically valuable enterprise, the primary purpose of which is to get to the bottom of an idea, or issue.

For Twigg it is a means through which ‘confidence’ is developed, and for Ellen it is a mere exercise in ‘postulating and expostulating’. The two understandings are similar and equally inaccurate. Admittedly, it is a misconception aided by the format of many school’s debating competitions, which give students a mere 15 minutes to ‘prepare’ (as opposed to research) a speech, resulting in exercise in public speaking and rhetorical dexterity, but not a genuine intellectual activity by any means. It is the hoop jumping, box ticking philosophy underlying curriculum initiatives like Twigg’s which are the real problems facing state schools, not, as Ellen would have you believe, that historically private school activities are incompatible with state schools.

This ties exactly in to the confidence issue Ellen has; state school kids simply don’t have the self belief requisite to make up a speech on the fly. While this may or may not be the case (mostly it isn’t) confidence is a consequence in knowing what you’re talking about and being familiar with the format in which you speak it. This may be why competitions like Debating Matters, which prioritises substance over style and provides resources to assist research, have no trouble recruiting state schools which do well.

In short, while Ellen’s peculiarly timed response to Twigg’s proposals do a grave disservice to the hard work put in by school students and the teachers who support them, it’s important to recognise an equal underestimation of young people’s ability to engage in genuine issues by both. 


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