Are Stephen Twigg’s school plans good? Debatable

In response to Stephen Twigg’s latest ideas, columnist Barbara Ellen says sate schools need proper investment, not an attempt to ape the ways of private education. This is from the Observer…

The Labour party has come up with a plan to introduce debating societies to schools. Shadow education minister Stephen Twigg floated the idea, along with more PE and the introduction of cadet forces. The party feels that the state sector should copy private school tactics to ensure pupils gain a range of life skills. The Communication Trust argues that too many children are arriving at school unable to express themselves and leaving in a barely improved state, which urgently needs addressing. Still, debating societies? Really? Haven’t we done enough to underprivileged youth already?

I’m joking. Well, to a degree. The most high-profile debaters are politicians, prancing about, enunciating their stilted scripted “banter” (“My dear fellow”), in a way that suggests their heyday was back in the fifth-form debating society, thrilling the throng with their zingers and put-downs.

Indeed, it’s often all too easy to spot former school debating society leading lights in politics and I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. 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. And these skills are something the yoof of today need? Well, yes, actually, they are sorely needed, certainly in terms of self-assurance and brio, but I can’t see it happening this way.

Those who champion debating societies have hit upon an essential truth. In any walk of life, confidence is key: being able to argue your point, to hold your own, is beyond a mere life skill, it’s the indispensable fuel for everything you want to do.

This is what Twigg seems to be suggesting – instilling private school-style confidence in a state school setting. What he’s forgetting is that this kind of confidence costs and costs big. And, while I imagine good state teachers would volunteer to run these societies, this still misses the point. Private schools don’t just have debating societies; they have the kind of funding, resources, culture and infrastructure that result in debating societies. Try copying all that in an inner city comp.

In this way, it becomes clear: you can’t just put debating societies into state schools and declare the problems of social inarticulacy and lack of confidence miraculously solved. This would be like Sellotaping a dog’s tail on to a cat and willing it to wag. They are totally different beasts.

Who says that state education’s only hope is to copy the private sector anyway? Many state school pupils emerge confident, especially if they’ve started off bright, are blessed with good teaching and have a clear view of their future. They’ve also probably encountered their own version of debating. I have dim memories of myself and some friends, hosting a “CND assembly” to rapturous indifference. If you look around, you can still see confidence bursting through, in the most inauspicious of circumstances. Even those moppets on X Factor have to muster the courage to audition and well done them. In a way, it’s their stab at public speaking and who are we to mock?

With this in mind, it’s difficult to see how Twigg’s ideas could work. For pupils with confidence, a debating society would be a great diversion, not to be sniffed at, but certainly no educational panacea. For those who are struggling, the ones being targeted, simply tacking a debating society on to their state school experience would change nothing. For all of them, a good education, in a stable school environment, with committed teachers, means more than any amount of extracurricular waffling. While confidence building is key, debating societies aren’t the pat answer. State school pupils deserve more than some downgraded version of what the posh kids get.

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