Alumnus Matthew Oldham attended the ESU debating summer camp, Debate Academy, three times as a student before coming back to teach as an ESU Mentor.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be involved with the ESU
I’m Matthew Oldham and I work in technology consultancy at KPMG with a specialism in banking insurers and asset managers. I got involved with the ESU when I was still in school and the first debating competition I was ever involved with was the ESU Schools’ Mace. I represented St Frances Xaviers College in Liverpool with my debate partner Matt Handly which was fun and we made it to the national final so that was a pretty cool experience and I enjoyed it a lot.
So how did you come to attend Debate Academy?
I’m was through involvement with the ESU Schools’ Mace that I became aware of Debate Academy. For me the crucial element was the bursaries, I qualified for a scholarship which was really important and made it possible for me to go three times.
Why did you want to do it?
When I went for the first time I’d already done some debating and felt quite comfortable, especially given the success we had making it to the national final. So the prospect of attending a residential debate camp didn’t seem too intimidating so I was quite excited. I was from a state school and the competitive debate world was still relatively private school dominated at that time so the prospect of getting some proper training was something I was interested in as well.
So what was that first Debate Academy like?
It was really, really good! It wasn’t so intense and there was a strong social element. I knew broadly that we were going to be doing workshops, get training and do practice debates but it was actually a more fun than I thought it was going to be! It was laid back and was great for building good networks with people from all kinds of backgrounds it was a real horizon broadening experience.
Why did you come back as a Mentor?
Well, first of all, it’s good to get paid for something you like doing! But also on a deeper level, my experience in debating really impressed upon me the importance of teaching those kinds of skills to people that need them. I care a lot about working to help people from all kinds of backgrounds especially those who can only attend due to the ESU’s bursary scheme. I also tend to like working with the beginner group because that’s where you see some of the biggest transformation of student’s skills.
Do you think attending Debate Academy made a difference to your life afterwards? Either as a Mentor or student.
Certainly both. I mean from a debating perspective, getting that drilling on the importance of persuasion, the importance of appearances and style are very valuable. In terms of a Mentor, I gained an appreciation of social mobility and trying to bring knowledge and experience to people who don’t normally have access to it which is extremely important.
How important are your debating skills in your line of work?
It’s incredibly important, firstly in terms of getting the job the application process involved several essay questions and so I needed critical thinking, expression of an argument, persuasion and being concise which are all debating skills. Then there was an hour long phone interview as well as a day long group assessment so having public speaking experience was really valuable.
In terms of day to day at my work every interaction I have with people involves trying to persuade someone of the importance of an idea or trying to persuade someone that something is a greater or lesser priority. It involves a high degree of critical thinking but also good listening skills and being able to rapidly alter the view that you’re going to advocate for as you get new information and being aware of your target audience.
Why is it important young people learn how to speak at school, as well as to read and write?
I think the importance of being able to speak and articulate your ideas can’t be understated. One of the really good things about the ESU’s work is it essentially fills in a major gap that mainstream education leaves empty. If mainstream education was able to take some lessons from what the ESU does teaching oracy skills I think you’d see huge benefits, particularly in deprived areas.
What advice would you give to kids who haven’t tried debating?
In terms of advice to children who are considering debating I’d say that the first thing to appreciate is that everyone who’s good at debating started off being terrified by it because speaking in front of people is terrifying and that’s a natural and normal response! If someone wasn’t scared by it on their first try then I’d be really shocked. It gets easier really quickly and even after a year or two of practice, you can see a huge improvement. Few people are willing to undertake public speaking opportunities in life so you’ll find that once you can do it you can stand apart and the rewards for doing so are immeasurable.
If you were going to do a debate today, what would the motion be?
My ideal motion is This House Believes there is no such thing as British values.