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Young thinkers with potential to stimulate

It takes quite a lot for an old cynic like me to feel inspired these days

It takes quite a lot for an old cynic like me to feel inspired these days

It takes quite a lot for an old cynic like me to feel inspired these days. But inspired I certainly was when I attended the final of the Young UK and Ireland Programme, hosted in Stranraer by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland.

Following a series of regional events, 20 finalists competed for the Richard Wild Award for the UK and Ireland Young Thinker of the Year 2008. Richard Wild was a talented young journalist who was killed in Iraq.

In eight minutes, the speakers had to present an argument on a topic of their choice and then respond to three minutes of questions from Kenneth Roy, a journalist and former broadcaster with BBC Scotland and founder of the programme. The topics they chose were immensely varied and included world poverty, human rights, Aids in Africa, care for the elderly, sexual consent, and organ transplants.

Not all of the topics were as serious as these examples might suggest. There was an entertaining talk on "management speak", which might have made senior educational bureaucrats just a little uncomfortable, and a nicely subversive presentation on the importance of wit and humour. This last speaker had mentioned Oscar Wilde and Kenneth Roy asked him for his favourite Wilde quip. Without hesitation, he cited Wilde's reputed deathbed remark: "Either these curtains have to go or I do."

All the competitors performed well, speaking with confidence and fluency, marshalling evidence and argument, and demonstrating commitment to their chosen subject. I think what impressed me most was their intellectual courage, their willingness to tackle difficult topics and, in some cases, to take a line that was unfashionable (for example, on patriotism or nuclear weapons). As I listened, I contrasted this courage with the bland, conformist rhetoric that we hear so often from politicians and other public figures.

These young people - all at least 18, the minimum age for the programme - had clearly benefited greatly from their educational experiences at school, but they had added distinctive qualities of their own. They had been given the freedom to pursue interests that were important to them and to express them in ways that reflected their varied personalities.

In a school context, it is not easy to get the balance right between freedom and authority, but I think we could sometimes do better in terms of providing opportunities for self-expression and confidence- building.

If we are genuine in our aspiration to produce more active citizens, able to contribute to community life and democratic processes, every pupil - not just a minority - should be encouraged to develop the verbal and presentational skills evident in the Young UK and Ireland Programme. We need to give serious and systematic thought to how best this might be achieved. A healthy democracy requires a supply of independent, critical thinkers.

As part of this process, the 2008 finalists and those who participated in earlier rounds could be invited back to their former schools and asked to speak about their experiences and answer questions. They would provide a much more potent model of what is possible than general exhortations by teachers, however well intentioned. Their power to inspire could be used as an educational resource.

The winner of this year's competition was a Scot, Mairi Clare Rodgers, who went to Strathclyde University and now works in London for the human rights organisation Liberty. She was presented with the award by Richard Wild's father.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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