Over the past few weeks, politics became vibrant and edge-of-the-seat watchable. The palpable tension in the Williams household was surely a reflection of homes across the UK. It was politics to excite and engage the generation which is on the threshold of voting age – a generation which has already shown itself more concerned about our future in Europe than any previous one, if the turnout from the EU referendum and 2017 General Election is anything to go by.
But while the rest of the nation is absorbed in the political repercussions, and the way in which they have been represented by their MPs, the committed education geek will see the potential of the footage to supply a thousand schemes of work and illustrate a thousand more.
The most obvious applications must be A-Level politics, British government and PHSE lessons, not to mention citizenship. What were the amendments to the Withdrawal Bill? Why were they not debated more fully? What does our constitution allow for? How were British values presented in the whole exercise?
But actually it’s the drama and English specialist who stands to capitalise most on these events. The narrowed eyes locking across the front benches assured us that this was serious stuff, passions kept in check by the protocols of the House of Commons and the quite strenuous efforts of the speaker. Fellow thespians would have relished the dramatic conflict as the opposition and government stared each other down during the debate, acknowledging a hit by only a minuscule flicker of the eyes. There were many MPs eager to stand up and deliver a speech on behalf of their constituents. And from their ranks must be many stars in the making.
For my own scheme of work this debate could not have been better timed. It’s the key stage 3 Oracy week again, in which all students across the year groups have to deliver their evaluation of 2018 to their peers. Now this is not the high-stakes stuff of parliamentary debate, but let’s not forget that these young people are embryonic public speakers whose futures will contain many an opportunity to state their case, defend or promote a cause and make a marketing pitch. How can they best combine style and substance?
Previously we have covered speeches, manifestos and debate during our study of Animal Farm in the autumn term because it usually coincides with the party political conference season. A few years back, one of the speeches of the century was Gordon Brown’s version of Remain as he stood against the movement to secure Scottish independence. It was a fine, heartfelt performance… using a number of rhetorical devices that Year 8 could identify and analyse.
This week our students have seen and heard the experts in action. So, what can they take away with them? Had they spotted the political posturings and animated frisking (metaphorically speaking) of a Squealer or a Snowball in the run-up to the vote of no confidence? Did they spot the makings of an Old Major here or there from the back benches?
(The trouble with studying Animal Farm is that once you know it, it is so very applicable to political life in any context. And as a nation we are all the more likely to understand its sophisticated satire and wisdom because of its inclusion in the reformed examination canon for 14-16 study.)
Those who take on debate and public speaking in co-curricular activities will have spotted techniques and tactics from school and university debating societies. What I hope discerning students will recognise is that it’s not always the best speeches that get the rapturous applause.
Very rarely do teachers get to see the long-term benefits of their endeavours. It’s usually a spreadsheet capturing a moment in time. As products of our education system, how well did these MPs use the skills and training they had received? And, given the new buzz-words, were there instances of character education, grit and resilience? It would seem so. The most surprising speech came from the deputy leader of the opposition, paying tribute to his opponent’s courage and determination – before he went on to annihilate her negotiating skills!
But he did have a point. In Wednesday night’s debate, the prime minister underwent a long and protracted appraisal, the like of which very few of us would receive. It is possible to admire traits in an opponent even if you disagree with them.
So, a successful couple of nights in the country’s debating chamber, certainly. And, for teachers, not just some bulky lesson material but also a chance to evaluate the products of the education system in action.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the South of England