Debating in State Schools

In a recent article in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen laments plans to introduce debating into state schools and indulges in some revolting inverse snobbery as well as missing the point and benefits of debating at the same time. Her article bought into the idea circulating at the moment as to the deficit in confidence in state school children compared to their private school confidence, with Glosswitch commenting on a similar theme in the New Statesman. They hit the key point that confidence counts for a lot in life, just ask Adam Pacatti who spent his last money on a billboard advert which gained him a job. The mistake they made was to locate private school children’s confidence as arising solely due to wealth. This mistake is convenient for their argument, as it means nothing can be learnt from private schools and that they are inherently a bad thing.

The first mistake is that private schools are better because kids are richer. Firstly, smaller class sizes are linked to success, private schools can afford this more. Another factor ignored entirely in the matter is grammar schools, whose pupils are not rich yet have a rich tradition of debating. Just look at those who fare well at World and European level debating championships if you don’t believe me. Also, private schools foster an environment where intellectual curiosity is embraced in a manner not matched by its state school counterpart. This is where debating could help. Debating teaches academic curiosity in numerous ways. Firstly it looks at issues, even familiar ones in a new angle. For example rather than debating an old issue such as abortion, it will ask should we ban tests for severe disability before the abortion limit is increased. This is similar to how exam questions function, rather than asking how did the First World War begin, it will ask, was the build up of arms the most important factor in the outbreak of World War One. Another divide between rich and poor in education is in access to further education.

At most private schools entrance to sixth from and university is almost expected. Debating in state schools does not solve all of this but does two significant things. The key topics debated normally fall into categories of social policy, economics, ethics and political philosophy. All of these are found more towards the latter end of education. By introducing them to children at a younger age through debating in state schools it tells them that interest in these fields is normal, and as such normalises intellectual curiosity necessary for further education. The inverse snobbery of Barbara Ellen with remarks such as ’The sad truth is that we know, maybe even they know, that all the posturing and expostulating, so highly prized among the green leather benches, would get them glassed within 10 minutes if they tried it on in the average British pub’ reflects the divide in education. Perhaps if debating was taught it would become normalised and this great divide would not be so much more. Indeed is there not something inherently patronising in claiming that state school children could not possibly benefit from access to this policy. Does it not undermine the notion that expectations can be instilled into them?

Another point I take exception to is the notion that schools simply need more investment, as if spending on schools did not rise by over fifty percent in the New Labour years, and as if the country has money to invest at all. It also buys into the myth that to solve a social issue all that is required is money. By locating the cause of divide in our education in the confidence which comes from having rich parents, they assume no methods of private schools can be adopted. In any field other than education, a succeeding company would have developed methods for results which others would follow. Why is it regarded as so callous to attempt the same for education?

The final point is on confidence. Is private school children’s confidence innate or does it develop? Debating is not an inbuilt skill but rather something developed. Plenty of great debaters stood up for their first speech and froze. So this notion of an inbuilt superior confidence is a fallacy. The reason debating flourishes among private schools is that an expectation emerges that one debating is normal and secondly encouragement is given to try it again. If these same methods were applied to state schools surely some pupils, if not all, would benefit immensely.