As the government prepares to invest £50 million over two years to increase integration in some of our most divided communities, Michael Hepburn argues that debating is a valuable and underused tool in combating segregation
As much as we might wish otherwise, immigration does not necessarily lead to integration. Even in London, where almost half of residents were born outside the UK, there are clear geographical and cultural divides between different communities. In our capital city, 90 percent of ethnic minority students start year 1 in a school where most students are from an ethnic minority. Across the UK, 94 percent of White British students are in white British majority schools.
This lack of integration is not a UK phenomenon, even in the proverbial melting pot that is the USA, a staggering 85% of new marriages were between partners of the same race in 2010. Unfortunately, a multi-ethnic country does not lead to eclectic communities.
How can debating help cultural and social integration?
It improves confidence
By giving young people a voice, giving them the tools to speak out, feel confident and express themselves, you make them more likely to communicate in general. This leads to a higher chance they will have meaningful dialogue with people of different backgrounds or experiences.
It breeds tolerance
We fear or mistrust that which we do not understand. By giving students a safe space to respectfully discuss a wide range of issues including religion, culture and immigration, students are better able to understand different beliefs and opinions. This makes cultures that may seem strange, other or objectionable more familiar.
It allows us to see the other side
Debating puts students in a position where they have to advocate for, or at least consider, the other side of an opinion. This leads them to understand that often there are two or more sides to a story.
It teaches listening skills A key aspect of the English-Speaking Union’s oracy programmes is the importance of listening. You cannot respond well to an opponent’s speech if you do not listen and understand what they say. Debating also insists on one voice at a time, a radical notion many adults and particularly politicians in the UK could do with adopting.
It engenders familiarity with sensitive discussions When certain topics such as culture, religion, God, fashion sense or even diet are seen as taboo, is it any wonder kids do not know how to navigate sensitive areas of discussion? Debating promotes the notion that controversial issues can and should be discussed respectfully to increase understanding while equipping students with the skills to do so.
It promotes critical thinking and moral behaviour
Simply telling young people what to believe is a blunt and ineffective tool. Throughout decades of teaching debating in schools we have consistently seen that by asking students to consider what they would do if they were in charge, to judge whether a law is just, or an act is criminal, they develop their own moral compass and almost inevitably gravitate towards society’s best ideals – tolerance, understanding, acceptance, nonviolence.
We often underestimate how little primary school students are able to put their English to practical use. For many students whose parents speak a different language at home, school will be the only opportunity they have to use it. Our curriculum is still – unfortunately – weighted heavily to reading, writing and arithmetic with insufficient practical speaking time. Debating is exactly that: it is the best practice for improving English fluency, for everyone, regardless of background.
The English-Speaking Union was formed in 1918 to promote discussion and intercultural exchange, in the hope that doing so would prevent another world war. One hundred years later we are as convinced as ever that getting people from different cultures to talk continues to be vital. Only by listening to and learning from each other can we make progress.