What power, however, comes when the speaker is little over 13 years old and fewer than 10 weeks ago couldn’t say his name aloud? As Debate Mate mentors we soon found out.
Public speaking is a skill that, despite many efforts, is more commonly associated with private school debating competitions that are rarely accessible to disadvantaged students from areas of child poverty. At what point does someone attempt to transform a shy young adult from a less privileged area into a confident, consummate public speaker, ready to take on the world? Welcome to the forum, Debate Mate.
Debate Mate is an educational charity that aims to give children a voice by tackling educational disadvantage in some of Britain’s most deprived communities. It recruits, trains and places university mentors to run extra-curricular debating workshops in schools with above average free school meals. Debate Mate empowers children, develops their life skills and increases academic achievement, aspirations and potential. Its vision is a socially mobile society, where economic disadvantage is not a barrier to higher education and employment. Its tool is debating.
We began our Debate Mate journey whilst BPTC students, eager to help young people find a voice and channel their energy into a positive forum. Monica started mentoring in several schools across the North West of England and Danielle delivered the Debate Mate programme in schools across London. Danielle knew all too well the barriers that children from disadvantaged backgrounds face and the impact this can have on their ability to succeed. Having overcome adversity in her own life with her father spending the majority of her childhood in prison, she was determined to demonstrate that with hard work, determination and a little self-discipline these obstacles can be overcome.
Once seasoned mentors, something became very clear. Problems of bad posture, excessive gesticulation and a lack of eye contact were the least of the presenting issues. Children lacked confidence. They lacked key skills of communication, teamwork and critical thinking. However, this isn’t something that children are “taught” in schools. In fact, in schools where free meals are sometimes above 40%, public speaking, debating and advocacy skills are not always a priority.
Changing the rules
This is where Debate Mate is changing the rules. Through a core programme delivered to around 300 schools globally, assisting over 15,000 students, the organisation teaches students to create arguments, present those arguments and defend them when attacked. Students are taught how to persuade orally and in writing, deal with interventions calmly and rationally, and to speak with an eloquence that 10 weeks previously they, their parents and teachers could only dream of. The children are armed with a toolkit of skills which they can utilise throughout their lives, including communication, teamwork and critical thinking. Whether they wish to be an engineer, teacher or barrister, the applicability of such skills is invaluable. The Debate Mate process teaches the art of advocacy and builds self-confidence – all through a supportive, competitive and enjoyable forum that allows even the most reserved child a place to speak up. Students work in teams, learn to respect others’ points of view and compete in national competitions.
The art of debating, indeed the art of public speaking, can not only bring a person out of their shell but can crack the shell they’ve surrounded themselves in. However, Debate Mate is not solely for shy children. Many mentors have encountered children only too willing to voice their opinions, sometimes at the expense of others. We therefore remind students that advocacy and public speaking is a discipline. Through its teachings of respect, equality and temperament emerges a disciplined and considerate student, able to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. The evidence? Debate Mate students who begin the process as apathetic, troubled children and complete the course as mature, engaged and level-headed young adults.
Students debate on a variety of subjects, from curfews to government spying, quotas in public services to eco-terrorism. They engage in the political world in which they live and open their horizons to the rich social culture of the UK. Children learn to speak in a structured manner, making use of appropriate timing and knowing when it is “their turn”. They begin to appreciate other peoples’ points of view and on occasion, argue against their own views. They emerge as empathetic individuals, long forgetting their days of uncontrolled, unsupported arguments.
Competitions run nationally and are judged by experienced debaters under the categories of content, style and structure. Students are assessed not just on their ability to construct an argument but to support it with valid reasoning and present it in a clear, succinct and persuasive manner. Feedback is given on all aspects of the students’ performance and areas of improvement identified. Over the course of the core programme, students develop in terms of confidence and discipline. The feedback allows them to grow both as debaters and as a team, ready for competition.
Advocacy is what so many of us do on a daily basis, although we often ignore its application outside the legal profession. The empowerment seen within children who, over the course of the Debate Mate programme learn to believe in themselves, trust themselves and voice themselves is a transformation that words can only attempt to describe. The art of competitive speaking and the belief in an idea or argument can transform the life of a shy and nervous child trapped in their own fear to a passionate, confident public speaker. Advocacy is not solely a tool for the legal profession. Debating is not solely is skill. It is a vehicle for potential.
This isn’t something with which the Bar is completely unfamiliar. Competitions such as the Bar Mock Trials exist to increase the appetite of aspirational barristers. Indeed, Lincoln’s Inn kindly assisted Danielle in funding her trip to Jamaica, in which she delivered the Debate Mate International Programme to students in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Kingston. Yet, there is more potential to be realised.
Kings and Queens of Speech
In September 2014, six Debate Mate schools began a journey in front of cameras, producers, directors and, we hope, the nation. That journey was Kings and Queens of Speech, an eight-part prime time TV series commissioned by Sky One from the team behind Educating Yorkshire. It visits schools across the UK, including Merseyside, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and London, charting journeys of students as they make their way through a debating tournament. Aired on Sky One in its Back to School slot from May to early July at 8pm (and on Sky Go and online for free), the programme follows six mentors over an intensive 10-week training period. Viewers will see children transformed from shy to outgoing, cheeky to charming and disruptive to a dedicated. The prize? The opportunity to compete at the Oxford Union, culminating in drama and excitement at the final at the Houses of Parliament.
In this series, concepts of confidence, self-worth and self-belief are tested. Notions of pride, effort and anxiety challenged. This is not a series solely about debating. This is a series about the potential of the future generation and the application of advocacy skills outside the Bar. Joyful, emotional, uplifting and by many an admission, a real tear jerker, never again will we advocate without questioning where our journey began. Moreover, never again will we see a shy child without questioning the lion that lies within.
How to support Debate Mate
Debate Mate is an educational charity that is reliant upon the support of individuals, corporate organisations, trusts and foundations. If you believe in the importance of the work we do and wish to support us in our mission to overcome social immobility, please contact 020 7922 8007, visit www.debatemate.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are extremely appreciative of any assistance in ensuring our programs are delivered at the highest possible standard.
Contributors Monica Savic-Jabrow County Court Advocate and Debate Mate mentor and Danielle Manson Legal Intern at JUSTICE and Debate Mate mentor