Almost exactly 16 years ago, I stood up in a university seminar room and nervously blurted out a few sentences on nuclear deterrence. As I dimly recall, I used a (terrible) analogy about a Tom and Jerry cartoon where the two characters pull increasingly bigger and more powerful weapons from behind their backs, ending in disaster. That was, I stuttered, just like nuclear missiles, and that was why we shouldn’t have them.
The other people in the room were more sympathetic than they needed to be (I’m grateful, in particular, to Alex Betts – now an academic at the University of Oxford, and – even back then – a genius). It’s fair to say I lost the argument and the university debate I was in. But I was hooked.
Last Friday, the England debating team were victorious in the World Schools Debating Championships in Stuttgart. This was the culmination of a two-week tournament for the squads – whose members were all aged 18 or younger – competing from 55 countries across the world. The England team this year was coached by Lewis Iwu, director of the Fair Education Alliance, and Andrew Fitch, director of literacy at Highbury Grove School in London.
Universities – particularly the ancient ones – have been debating for centuries. Institutions like the Oxford and Cambridge Unions are legendary. But school debating has also taken off massively in the past decade, growing from a minority pursuit to one practised by tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.
That’s understandable when you think of the skills it teaches. To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science, and do so at speed (often speakers don’t know the topic they’re discussing until as little as 15 minutes beforehand). It teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between a speakers. It instils general knowledge.
It is transformative. I debated every week at university, in national and global competitions. With apologies to my tutors, it is easily the single most important thing I did there. The people I met through debating are some of my closest friends, and have achieved wonderful things in life.
And politicians recognise the value. Michael Gove – an ex-debater himself – used to talk frequently about its benefits. Nicky Morgan used it as an example of character. It is likely to play a part in Justine Greening’s push on social mobility.
Although debating is dominated by private schools, a wonderful charity called Debate Mate is changing that from the ground up. Every week, they work with thousands of pupils and their teachers at schools with a high rate of free school meals. And last Friday – among teammates from Eton, Dulwich, Alleyn’s and Westminster – 17-year-old Ife Grillo from Bridge Academy in Hackney, a Debate Mate graduate, lifted the world championship trophy.
There are (too) many things going on in schools, and (too) many pressures on teachers. But if you have time, come September, think about supporting debating. It is life-changing. Just ask the thousands of participants in initiatives such as Debate Mate and competitions such as Debating Matters. Just ask Ife Grillo.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron