Issue 277: 2021 04 29: Debate

29 April 2021


Learning to listen and discuss.

By Lynda Goetz

Last week, Kenneth Baker, former Education Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, repeated his view that the GCSE exams, which he had been instrumental in introducing, should be scrapped.  This opinion is not new.  Last June the Times Educational Supplement(TES) reported that a movement to scrap the exams had the support of the man who had instigated them in the first place.  His reasoning is that the way in which the pandemic has interfered with exams provides an unparalleled opportunity for a thorough review of a system which has ‘run its course’.

Heads of a number of state and private schools, including Eton College, share this opinion and the movement is actively seeking to find ways of re-assessing assessments.  One of the major arguments is that preparation for these exams takes up a great deal of time, which could be more usefully directed into other aspects of education, especially now that the majority of pupils are no longer leaving school at 16.  (Since 2013 young people are required to continue in education, employment or training until 18.)  According to one head, GCSEs “mean very little in terms of getting to the next stage; particularly because the results come out maybe a week before they are due to start college”.  Jonnie Noakes, director of teaching and learning at Eton College, said: “We need to teach people how to be fully flourishing human beings.  Part of the problem we have with GCSEs is that because we’re so focused on GCSEs, all those other really important responsibilities… are getting squeezed out.”

These views are by no means universally accepted and it looks as if there will be plenty of opposition to getting rid of these exams altogether and replacing them with coursework (phased out under Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary) and more informal assessments.  Gavin Williamson, the current Education Secretary, said only last month that the exams will “absolutely” return after the pandemic.  But should they?  Lord Baker now thinks that not only should there be more “lower-stakes internal assessments, but more interconnection between different areas of the curriculum”.  This is something which should probably be looked at even lower down the school as well.  As he points out, “Green issues are an interesting example.  They’re spread over several disciplines – biology, geography, technology.  I’ve seen one estimate that the green economy will need 400,000 extra people in it by 2050.  What will they have studied?”  The debate could be an interesting one.

This brings us on to another educational story which has been in the news, if not the limelight, this week.  Although somewhat buried by the dreadful news from India and the extensive cover about ‘sleaze’ apparently rampant within our government and civil service, the remarks by Dr Spence, President and Provost Of University College London (UCL), about the need for students to ‘learn the art of polite discourse’ come perhaps at an apposite moment and should be given some consideration.  His argument is that students no longer have the ability to engage in courteous debate with their peers.  He points out that students need to learn the art of having a good debate not only in person but also on social media and that this is something which “universities have a fundamental role in teaching”.

I would argue that the ability to debate or discuss courteously is something that should be learnt well before university. By the time students get to university at 18 or 19, many of them are already very entrenched in their views. It is this dangerous polarity which is not only endangering the art of debate, but is leading to so-called ‘cancel culture’ and the attacks on free speech. Although the government announced a crackdown in February and is proposing a new law under which academics or students could seek compensation through the courts if their free speech rights are infringed, in practice, this would be a pretty cumbersome way to deal with the issue.

Perhaps Dr Spence’s idea could be introduced at primary school level and continued as part of the curriculum throughout school, so that by the time students reach university this is an intrinsic part of learnt behaviour.  Teaching students how to have conversations without shouting down the opposition or metaphorically putting their fingers in their ears would then not need to impinge on the teaching of the more specialist degree subjects, because by that stage the 18 year-old ‘adults’ (as they supposedly are – except for any financial assessment, when they seemingly revert to dependency) will already have mastered the art of civilised discussion.

Unfortunately for this idea, it would appear from the results released this week by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that 96 per cent of primary schools surveyed reported being concerned about the speech and language development of many four and five-year olds as well as the effects on reading and writing skills as a result of the ‘pandemic year’.  The advice given to parents on this matter may well be advice which should be built upon in general.  Sophie Mazaz, Middle School Principal at the ACS International School Egham, suggests we stop talking about the ‘learning gap’ and instead focus on the positives of what children have learned, like cooking and helping out at home.  “Social and emotional development needs to very much be a priority for the coming months”.  Maybe not just the coming months; because how to communicate, how to interact and how to socialise are all fundamental in learning how to become tolerant social adults.  If kids are taught this at home as well as at school from the ‘get-go’ maybe this would help their ability to debate and have courteous discussions when they reach ‘adulthood’, or at least when they get to university.

In August 2016 Alex Clark wrote an interesting article for ‘The Guardian’ entitled Why Debating Still Matters after an English team won that year’s World Schools Debating Championships.  He makes a number of very valid points.  At one point he quotes Robert Sharp of English PEN, “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak.  Wrongheaded views will be aired.  But free speech means no one gets the last word.  We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong.  To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public.  Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.”

Maybe, in the light of the terrible debates to which we have been witness in the last few years amongst our politicians, we should also be encouraging them to learn the art of debate as opposed to the art of mud-slinging.  Perhaps they should be sent back to university?



Cover page photo – by Antenna (Unsplash).


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