Cast your mind back to your school’s debate team (if it had one) and you’ll probably recall a band of self-styled philosophers, wannabe cabinet ministers and general-knowledge wizards squabbling over economic and foreign policy. There were always a few who didn’t fit the profile, but debating at school has been monopolised by the elite of already elite schools instead of being utilised to help all schoolchildren.
Debate Mate, an educational charity that runs after-school debating clubs, is closing the gap through teaching more than 6,000 students a week in deprived areas how to debate. It works: one Debate Mate pupil, Ife Grillo, was the only state-schooled member of the England team crowned world debating champion in August.
I too can testify to the wide-reaching impacts of debating at my own school, a Hackney academy. When I was 12, I was invited by my teachers to join the Debate Mate club. I was surprised to find that debating was far more than academic disputes with no resolution. It was a tool for change and, with the right people, incredibly enjoyable. With the guidance of an inspiring undergraduate mentor, I began to develop not only my public speaking skills but my awareness of global issues and politics, confidence and teamwork.
My exam technique also skyrocketed with the aid of the strategies I’d been exposed to on the podium. Such results are now true of thousands of students in the UK and abroad, with Debate Mate students on average outperforming their peers academically.
It frustrates me how an antiquated culture is hindering entire schools from taking full advantage of the benefits of debating. Debating creates leaders. It gives students the critical thinking and analytical skills to apply for good jobs, and encourages them to act on beliefs that are only strengthened by being challenged — opportunities that should surely be accessed through the curriculum. For even the shyest student, it is important to be exposed to the skills to articulate their opinions, for free speech is the cornerstone of democracy.