The Transformative Power of Debate

Monday 1 May 2017

A World University Debating Champion, World Schools’ Team England coach and now director of the Fair Education Alliance, Lewis Iwu is a firm believer in the transformative power of debate. He tells Dialogue his story, and where he thinks we should go from here.

Lewis Iwu is drawing a pie chart of how he spends his time. As you – and certainly his employer – would expect, his job as director of the Fair Education Alliance, which works to reduce educational inequality, takes up most of his time. But a significant chunk – well over a quarter, if not quite a third – is devoted to debate in various forms: either through his coaching of Team England (which he does for the ESU along with co-coach Andrew Fitch), or through mentoring schemes he runs for Debate Mate, a charity he helped set up which aims to improve social mobility through debate. Only a tiny sliver is ‘downtime’ – a chance for Lewis to enjoy a game of football or to relax and listen to the soul and R&B music he loves.

While many 30 year olds might bemoan this state of affairs, Lewis seems to thrive on it. ‘Helping Team England win the World Schools Debating Championship last summer was probably one of the best things I’ve ever been part of,’ he says. ‘It was incredible – absolutely incredible. There’s something about working with five kids, all from very different schools, all with different backgrounds and different personalities, and getting them together to work as a team and to compete internationally. And to do it in Stuttgart, the city where I failed 12 years ago [the team Lewis was part of in 2004 lost out to Australia in the semi-finals] – even better!’ Such positivity is all the more astonishing when you realise the amount of time that goes into this venture alone: he and Andrew spent every other weekend for a year coaching, discussed tactics and the team’s performance for around an hour a day on the phone, plus took two and a half weeks off work for the tournament… In total Lewis estimates he spent well over 1,000 hours on the project.

Not everybody would be willing to commit so much time and energy to an unpaid venture, but then not everybody believes as passionately as Lewis in the transformational power of debate. Lewis’s first introduction to debate was at school, an East London comprehensive, where he remembers his science teacher ‘dragging him’ to the staff room to talk to the teacher in charge of the ESU-run debate club, suggesting his talkativeness might be a boon.

‘I didn’t know anything about it,’ says Lewis, ‘except that you stood up and had an argument.’ What did appeal to the sports-mad teenager, however, was the competitive aspect. ‘I was fascinated that our school would not just debate internally but against other schools – that was the bit I really enjoyed.’ Hooked, he made rapid progress and was selected for the first team who, as a result of winning the ESU/TESCO Debate Challenge for state schools in inner London, soon found themselves at Buckingham Palace being introduced to Prince Philip.

More national contests followed before Lewis tried out for and won a place on Team England, an experience he now credits with influencing his successful application to Oxford University, his choice of subject (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and his idea that he might want to be involved in public policy campaigns in some way. ‘All of a sudden my debating partner and I were spending more time with our debating peers than we were with our school friends, partly because we were going to competitions every Saturday but also because they were interesting people. Particularly among the private schools we visited, there was an expectation that everyone would apply for Oxbridge – it made us raise our game.’

They were spending more time with university students too, debating against them and then socialising with them afterwards. ‘You start to learn more about university life, and to think more deeply about what you might want to study,’ says Lewis. ‘I think debating pushes you to think laterally about the world and your place in it – it requires you to be a self-starter.’

Now, as director of the FEA, Lewis’s mission is to close the gap in educational inequality, a task in which he believes debate can play a key part, helping to reduce the attainment gap, increase employability and boost young people’s self-esteem. ‘When I was younger I liked the competition and the clash of debating but now, for me, it’s more about being able to unleash the potential of young people and giving disadvantaged kids the ability to navigate the world.’

While increased confidence is undoubtedly a benefit of debating, Lewis believes there are other, equally vital outcomes that are overlooked. ‘I think the link to academic achievement is underplayed,’ he says. ‘Debating had a notable effect on my essay writing – being able to analyse quantities of source material, to organise your thoughts relatively quickly in a structured way and produce a coherent argument – all these things are invaluable in any essay-based subject.’

The subjects covered in debating encourage a deeper knowledge of the world and foreign affairs, something Lewis believes helps prepare students for interviews for university and the job market beyond – where debating can also play a more concrete role. ‘I think poor careers advice and a lack of understanding of how to navigate what is a complex labour market is one of the biggest barriers to social mobility,’ says Lewis. ‘Debating gives you access to a network of contacts and mentors who can help you.’

Inevitably, there are barriers. ‘I think there’s a perception debating is only for bright kids,’ says Lewis. ‘I’ve never thought that; I think all abilities benefit, and many teachers have told me that kids who struggle with written work embrace debating.’ The anecdotal nature of this information is another problem. ‘Debating is not an evidence-rich area,’ says Lewis. ‘I think it’s right to look at the effects of debating on kids with learning difficulties, and on how debating affects your chances of getting a good apprenticeship or of getting into a Russell Group university for example.’ He sees it as the task of Debate Mate, the ESU and other organisations such as Noisy Classroom to work together to marshal this evidence to tell a compelling story. ‘Imagine if by 2020 every child had access to a great debating club at school irrespective of their ability,’ he says. ‘I think that would be transformative.’

If you would like to read more of this issue of Dialogue, click here.