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Home > News and views > Re-engaging with the ESU – Sarah Harding

Re-engaging with the ESU – Sarah Harding


I’ve recently become re-involved with the ESU after many years away. Reconnecting has been a real pleasure. I’ve found that the organisation remains rooted as the nurturer of culture, ideas, and expression just as it was in my teens, and is imbued with a wonderful forward-looking attitude taking it into the future.

As a schoolgirl I was involved with the ESU in public speaking competitions, and in 1990 I went to high school in the USA on the Secondary School Exchange programme. That took me to Providence, Rhode Island, and the Moses Brown School. Those experiences shaped who I have become, enriching my life. After a law degree I became a chartered accountant, and my career has been in finance and business administration. I have two children, both teenagers. The interest in debating ideas and exploring culture which the ESU gave me has been a hallmark of my life. I’m also happy to say I remain in touch with people I met through those ESU activities all those years ago.

I’ve been to two events over the last month that have both reminded me of what is so fantastic about the ESU and brought me bang up to date with its modern persona.

The first was the ESU Sunday debate on 27 February in the Churchill Room at Dartmouth House, and I must say that personally I found it wonderful to be back there again. The four speakers were all excellent: erudite and entertaining. Well-considered and compelling arguments made on both sides provided plenty of food for thought. Deft humour and dramatic flourishes added panache to the discussion of serious topics. I was struck by the speakers’ individually distinctive personal styles which made for a dynamic and engaging event. When the time came for the audience to comment and ask questions it proved to be bubbling over with enthusiasm to add thoughts and probe the arguments; a great sense of participation. I was also delighted to see the very many young people present who came and spoke with heart and clarity.

Perhaps too, the event felt important in a way it wouldn’t have done 30 years ago. With today’s 24-hour news-cycle and an ongoing bombardment of sometimes shouty opinions from all sides, seeing high-quality speaking and listening was a real pleasure. The debate exemplified positively how good humour blended with an exploration of important questions can lift discourse meaningfully. I came away very energised by it.

The second event was one of the round 4 sessions for the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking competition. I went along to watch 24 Year 9-11 pupils, 8 different teams, compete for a spot in the final. Having had some travel challenges, I arrived just in time on the dot of 4.30pm and stepped through the doors of Dartmouth House to that vibrant atmosphere you get around excited teens, the heightened anticipation and exuberant energy. Being in Dartmouth House gave the event a sense of occasion that was clearly not lost on the competitors, and it was palpable that they rose to it. They were all excellent. Considering the competition format of mixing up the chairs and questioners with speakers from other teams, it was hugely impressive that each and every person and team performed smoothly and with confidence. All eight of the speeches were personal and passionate, and very absorbing to listen to. The finesse of the Chairs handling the flow throughout the whole performance was impressive, and the questioners consistently nailed several key points. I did not envy the judges their decisioning task one little bit!

Watching took me back to my own public speaking back when I was about 15, and although I was never anything like as good as the young people I watched last week, I do remember the rush of relief and pleasure at having ‘got through it’. Seeing those kinds of emotions around the room reminded me of the significance of this kind of activity and underlined how important this kind of opportunity is. Barbara Firth, judging, spoke about how we will be seeing and hearing from these young people again in the future as they forge their own careers, and I am sure she was right. The evening showcased our brilliant youth.

The final comments I’ll make are about the London Branch and its committee. They have welcomed me with warmth and generosity. They’re a fabulous group, clearly all very talented in a multitude of ways. The committee meetings I’ve been to have been adroitly run, packed with plans and ideas, and that sense of constructiveness and positive-energy I’ve found generally. There is lots to look forward to. I hope that I can make myself useful and am thrilled to be getting more involved.

If you would like to get more involved with the London Branch or to volunteer for the competitions, please email

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