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‘I expected the combatants to go in hard, instead it was rather civilised’

Languages teacher Heather Martin spent Saturday at a day of educational debates organised by Michaela Community School, a free school in North London, and was pleasantly surprised by what she found

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There is something about North London. Maybe it was the heavily waterproofed and steely-eyed Tough Mudder group I ran into coming out of the station, or the proximity of the gladiatorial arena of Wembley Stadium. But I went to Saturday's much-trailed Debating Education event at Michaela Community School expecting combatants to go in hard.

In truth it was a civilised affair, benevolently hosted by Michaela staff along with @MichaelaMallet, "gavelling people offstage since 2015" (and a fair indicator of the good-humoured spirit in which this partially promotional showcase was conceived). Come to think of it, everyone was unusually well-behaved. Not a red card in sight. We dutifully obeyed the imperative KEEP RIGHT and CLOSED notices that steered us around, and headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh praised us all for "arriving so sensibly". Her colleagues addressed each other as "Sir" and "Miss". So it was a guilty pleasure to be instructed to get out our phones and create a "storm" of tweets.

There was no mud, not even a speck of it, on the nattily dressed Jonathan "Jonny" Porter (the nickname captures the cool), who opened the final round. Michaela's head of humanities was a natural orator: impassioned, with an acute sense of timing, making liberal use of direct apostrophe and colourful rhetoric (denouncing "bloodletters" and "flat-earthers" who still believed in brain gym or learning styles). In other circumstances I would have said that only that silver tongue could account for his resounding victory in making the case for Michael Gove as a "great" education secretary, but here he was preaching largely to the converted (the genial MC slipped in something about genuflecting or imminent sanctification).

And that was the risk. Michaela is nothing if not evangelical in its commitment to knowledge and discipline (1:02 Sit, 1:04 Eat) as the twin cornerstones of its educational philosophy. So it was unsurprising that most attendees were like-minded. In her closing address, Birbalsingh remarked that nothing had been predictable, but I doubt that was the general perception. As @HuntingEnglish tweeted from afar, it is possible that "education debate isn't really about the strength of an argument, but more about the strength of our existing biases".

Michaela's undoubted strength lies in clear convictions clearly stated: knowledge equals power, a knowledge curriculum plus strict discipline equals success. And the most successful debaters communicated with comparable lucidity. Daisy Christodoulou, arguing against Professor Guy Claxton on the proposition that "traditional education kills creativity", was crystal clear in her articulation of a knowledge-led curriculum, thereby neatly side-stepping the tired dichotomy of teacher/child. Although, as the day wore on, the repeated use of the phrase "passing on" in reference to a "body of knowledge" (offered by one as the definition of education), with its attendant whiff of perfectibility and the consequent perception of children as empty vessels, undermined this strategic elegance. Christodoulou was equally compelling with her counter-intuitive health warning that the practices (and deliberate targeted practice) that enable creativity may not look on the face of it like creativity at all. But where Claxton hit home was with his hanging question as to whether children become more – or less – curious as they progress through school.

Kudos to James O'Shaughnessy, who gave Michaela's Joe Kirby a run for his money arguing for character to be taught explicitly. He grabbed my attention by casting Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the bad guy for putting about the myth of the noble savage (not to mention a passing allusion to Radiohead), and I was drawn to the concept of "virtue literacy" and the acquisition of a more sophisticated moral discourse. O'Shaughnessy's well-informed eloquence meant that this debate, invoking both Plato and Socrates, was the one in which the greatest number of people willingly expressed a (slight) shift of position. Not that anyone could reasonably take issue with the Michaela view that character education should be embedded in every aspect of school life, not least in discussion over lunch. But while there was sympathy for the opportunity cost argument against timetabled lessons, the objection that character was unquantifiable for assessment purposes merely attracted the incontestable rebuttal that not everything of value can be counted.

In the remaining two bouts, the witty erudition and profoundly moral stance of John David Blake enabled him against all odds to make the necessary case for Ofsted ("You have no chance, no chance at all", were the words from Les Misérables in his mind as he took to the podium), or at least some sort of statutory inspection, while the views of opposing camps on the relative merits of mixed vs ability groupings remained predictably immovable.

Claxton began the day by lamenting the tendency to "either/or-ness" in education discourse and wistfully yearning after a less divisive and slightly mystical "have-it-all-ness". Many teachers would share this idealistic aspiration, however hazy, favouring more of a pick-and-mix approach fine-tuned to time, place and constituency. Or, to put it another way, most are probably seeking to get the practical balance right rather than to shore up any particular dogma.

It is built into the structure of debate that speakers should be hedgehogs (in Isaiah Berlin's terminology), defiantly defending one big idea. But teachers generally have more in common with the fox, synthesising a range of ideas and standing ready to adapt in response to the young people they teach.

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin

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