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A previous boss of mine once gave me two pieces of advice: Stop talking about all the debating competitions you entered at school, and stop arguing with every single point people make that you disagree with.

She was right on both counts.

But in addition to teaching me how to wind up bosses, colleagues and a growing segment of the general population of Great Britain, learning how to debate changed my life.

Which is why I’ve found Sir Keir Starmer’s announcement that a Labour government would “raise the importance of speaking skills” so interesting.

Sir Keir talked about “structured classroom discussion”, “overcoming shyness” and “an inner belief to make your case in any environment”.

These three things are not the same, and I think it’s important to really understand what the Labour leader is driving at by saying them.

Improving the quality of classroom discussion sounds like a no-brainer. But as Daisy Christodoulou commented, “developing quality read-alouds and Q&A strategies, that’s great.

"If it means bringing back hoop-jumping speaking and listening coursework, not so great.”

In other words, working with teachers to improve how discussion of subject content is led in classrooms can only be a good thing, provided we can avoid a tick-box implementation.

“Overcoming shyness” is much broader, and links in with other things Sir Keir has said.

Whether it’s music, the arts or ‘oracy’, there is something in what Labour is proposing that goes beyond direct transferable skills and more to underlying feelings of confidence and self-worth.

This might be less about just promoting discussion in specific lessons, and more about the culture of a school.

Speaking in front of a group of people, playing a difficult piece of music or captaining a sports team can all instil a certain confidence that if you work hard you can succeed at anything.  

This also comes through strongly when Sir Keir talks about “an inner belief to make your case in any environment” – an inner belief which many argue pupils from independent schools have in much greater quantities than their state-educated counterparts.

But this is also where the link with debating comes in.

Because Sir Keir doesn’t appear to only be talking about fluency or speaking confidently.

After all, we’ve all met people who speak with incredible confidence but are vacuous and unpersuasive.

As Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, said, “it’s about having a capacity to formulate your ideas”.

That means not just fluency but also logic and reason, prioritisation of arguments and understanding your audience.

In the British tradition, school debaters have just 15 minutes to prepare their speech after they learn their topic. This is about so much more than just speaking well.

Whether it’s arguing about your favourite footballer at the pub, defending yourself to a policeman or magistrate, or showcasing yourself at a job interview, these skills really matter.

So what did Sir Keir actually propose? His main announcement was that “Labour will give every primary school new funding… that will let them invest in world-class early language interventions”.

This sounds welcome, and could certainly help with improving classroom discussion as well as elements of overcoming shyness.

But it feels like the solution doesn’t yet fully match up to the ambition.

There is surely much more to do to implement a genuine culture shift in state schools, one which promotes greater confidence and self-worth as well as the ability to listen to, persuade and influence others.

Jeremy Clarkson, who never lacks the confidence to offer his takes, offered possibly the worst of them this week. “Teaching thick kids oracy is like teaching a tortoise how to make a coffee table,” he said, “and teaching bright kids how to speak is pointless as well, because they’re bright, so it comes naturally.”

Which goes to show the challenge facing Labour. Everyone can benefit from high-quality classroom discussion, greater confidence and the ability to create and deploy logical arguments.

But until we have more clarity on exactly what that could look like in schools, the bad takes may keep on coming.

This article was first published in Schools Week on 20 July 2023

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