'Debating empowers pupils – but it needs funding'

Debating clubs build confidence – but schools will struggle to organise them as budgets are squeezed, says Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

This week, Ofsted announced that schools with debating clubs will be "rewarded" because such activities "help build children’s resilience".

I couldn’t agree more with the second part of their statement. Debating, in addition to being generally confidence-building, teaches you crucial life skills: how to form a cogent argument, how to combat your instinctual flight-or-flight response during confrontation, how to articulate yourself, the importance of listening to others (if only because it allows you to contradict them with precision) and, perhaps most importantly, the lesson that in any public competition the most charismatic/funny person always wins, regardless of the objective sense of what they say (which, in turn, helps to make sense of the phenomenon that is Boris Johnson).

Debating is also a topic particularly close to my heart.

There’s an advert doing rounds at the moment. You’re probably familiar with it. It’s designed to tempt more people into teaching and the strapline is "every lesson shapes a life". If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself bellowing, "HOW ABOUT YOU PAY/TREAT THE TEACHERS WE HAVE ALREADY PROPERLY, THEN!" in the general direction of your TV/radio, but that doesn’t make the general sentiment any less true. In fact, there were fleeting moments and interactions with my teachers that left an indelible imprint on my soul.

Debating teaches pupils valuable life skills

One of these my former English teacher, Mrs O’Sullivan, claims not to remember (I’m pretty sure this is entirely normal when your job is to shape hundreds of fledgling minds on a daily basis), but it formed one of the fundamental hooks on which I hang my identity: in year 9, I was quietly crying by the lockers in the corridor next to the sixth form common room, which was close to the English department. Mrs O’Sullivan spotted me and asked what was wrong.

I was frustrated because since Year 7 I’d been entering public speaking competitions and never winning. I by no means imagined that I was brilliant at everything – but I did know I was an excellent public speaker and I couldn’t imagine why no one else seemed to be acknowledging that.

"Ah," said Mrs O’Sullivan, who had seen me present countless times during English lessons, "that’s because you’re not a public speaker, you’re a debater. It’s during the Q & A section that you come into your own. You can think on your feet and that’s an exceptional talent. You wait until next year."

Next year (Year 10) was when we were allowed to join the school’s debating society, which, having heeded Mrs O’Sullivan’s words, I did. It was love at first try. I suddenly got why some of my friends loved team sport so much – the adrenaline rush, the verbal jousting, the pleasurable, manageable pressure to perform at something I knew I was capable of (after all, Mrs O’Sullivan had said so). It all conspired to create a hobby I cherished right through the remainder of my academic career.

I went on to become a champion debater, first in my county and then at national level. At university, I was chairperson of my debating society. A lecturer attending an Oxford Union debate I competed in compared me with Margaret Thatcher (and assured me he meant it as a compliment when he saw my stricken expression).

All of this, of course, had intrinsic value, particularly during university when I was severely mentally ill, falling behind in my studies and genuinely felt that debating was the only thing that gave me any pride or purpose. Yet the relevance of the skills I’d learned really came into play when I first started parrying with politicians, both on TV and at Parliament.

Politicians, both because of the rules of parliamentary procedure and somewhat instinctually (owing to the amount of them who went to private school), follow Oxford Union-type debating rules. And I recognised that immediately, which meant I wasn’t intimidated by them. I couldn’t help but wonder how bewildered and out-of-my-depth I would have felt, as an Essex girl from a working-class background who attended a comprehensive, if I hadn’t had debating training.

And therein lies the flaw in Ofsted’s plans: my school might have been technically a comprehensive, but it was single-sex, admitted outside its affluent catchment area according to academic ability (which was how I got in) and had an unusually high number of pupils with Oxbridge aspirations. Of course, we had the requisite resources for a debating society. Most schools, however, do not.

Now Ofsted has acknowledged the value of debating, the Department for Education should take heed and apportion funding and training that will allow schools to put debating societies in place. If nothing else, we’ll have more people from working-class backgrounds who feel qualified to contribute meaningfully to political discourse and, what with the state the country is in right now, that can only be an excellent thing.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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