At a recent debating event in Doncaster, acclaimed children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce opened proceedings by reminding all present that "if people don’t listen to each other; if people don’t feel listened to, terrible things happen". His example was that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver who didn’t listen to directions, took a wrong turn and presented 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip with the opportunity to assassinate his target, thus triggering World War One.
This example might seem extreme but, delivered as it was on the morning after the centennial of Armistice Day, it resonated with all present, namely around 150 Doncaster schoolchildren and their teachers. These schools were not the public or independent schools that have historically dominated school debating events. Instead, they were state-run primary schools with high levels of disadvantage. None had fewer than 30 per cent of students on free school meals (FSM); one had 26 languages in the school with 54 per cent of students speaking English as an additional language (EAL); and teachers spoke openly about the low aptitudes for speaking and listening when students enrolled.
These students, and the adults they become, represent the part of society that too often goes unlistened to. All over the country, people speak for them, claiming to understand their lives and issues; feigning to know their best interests. Too often, students with this start in life are never given the chance to speak at the tables of power themselves and, what is perhaps worse, most of them are never given the skills that might enable them to do so.
Evidence shows that oracy – speaking and listening – skills are a key factor in social mobility, the ability to progress and to thrive in life. It’s obvious really. How much time in your day-to-day life is spent talking, explaining, listening to deduce meaning or ease conflict, persuading people to your point of view, or to do something you want doing, versus writing essays or doing maths? And yet oracy receives much less attention in the school curriculum than literacy and numeracy. A recent study estimated that pupils in inner-city classrooms contributed on average just four words per lesson and in many parts of the country, over 50 per cent of students start school lacking vital oracy skills.
Organisations like the English-Speaking Union use public speaking and debate as the means to raise oracy levels. The disciplines not only encourage speaking, they emphasise listening and enable students to consider, argue for and defend opinions other than their own, a powerful asset in today’s increasingly polarised world, and a crucial part of social and emotional learning (SEL). They also boost overall academic performance, itself a key factor in social mobility. American studies have found that debaters are both more likely to graduate from high school and perform better on the ACT [university entrance exam], while a study of a mandatory schools’ debating programme in Broward County, Florida found literacy scores increased by 25 per cent and an at-risk student’s chance of graduating high school rose by 70 per cent.
Given that Britain shows no signs of following Broward County’s example, the question then is how to incorporate debating and the benefits it brings into school life? A lunchtime or after school club can be a good place to start, although the students will generally be self-selecting, precluding many of those who might benefit the most. Far better is to work with teachers to embed oracy into the curriculum, particularly in schools in disadvantaged areas. In this way, teachers can not only teach students how to talk – how to structure a speech, summarise information, listen critically and to consider and address different audiences for example, they can help students to learn through talk. By debating current affairs and topical issues – in any class or subject – students acquire not only deeper subject knowledge, but a greater awareness of the world around them, broadening their horizons and raising aspirations. As students progress, debating competitions recognise success and provide a motivation to improve. Importantly, they also acknowledge speaking as a skill worthy of acquiring, and help the whole school take pride in its students’ achievements.
Getting used to speaking in front of an audience – no matter how large or small – builds students’ confidence and sense of self-worth, instilling the belief that their thoughts and opinions matter.
And this of course is at the heart of it. If students, like those in Doncaster, are never listened to, how will they believe they have anything worth saying? Tommy Seagull, a pupil barrister and former winner of the ESU Schools’ Mace debating competition, perhaps sums it up best: "If you teach kids to debate, you give them a chance to have their voice heard, and you give them the power not to be ignored."
The English-Speaking Union’s Discover Debating programme is currently offered free to state primary schools in areas of the greatest disadvantage
Natasha Goodfellow is a consultant editor at the English-Speaking Union