I should start by congratulating you all for making it to today’s Debating Matters final.
I hope that my public speaking skills do not fall short of the high standard that you will have all set during the earlier rounds. You are likely to be a tough audience to impress.
As Minister of State for Schools, I greatly admire the ability of Debating Matters to bring together schools of all different backgrounds in the spirit of competition. It is a delight for me to talk today with a mixed group of pupils from state schools, independent schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools, all-through schools, and sixth form colleges.
When I consider the demands posed by the world of work, I can think of few better ways for a sixth form pupil to spend their extra-curricular time than competitive debating. Whatever career you pursue after graduating from university, you can be sure that you will – at some point – be required to speak in public.
And if any of you are harbouring a desire to seek public office, this will be unavoidable. As a Minister of State, every working week that I have is punctuated with public speaking. Speeches to teachers and parent groups, opposition questions in Parliament, warm words at education and constituency events, select committee hearings, and so on.
And to be entirely honest, each appearance still makes me a little bit nervous, as I am sure most of you are feeling nervous about your debates this weekend. But a few nerves are never a bad thing: when faced with an audience, it is always better to be nervous than complacent. The secret is to make those nerves your ally. I am sure that you have all already gained from the increased confidence, quick wittedness, and coolness under pressure that are honed in a school debating chamber.
But what Debating Matters does is far more important than simply give pupils a practical preparation for working life. Without wanting to sound too grandiose, by participating in school debates, you are participating in one of the most important rituals of democratic life in the United Kingdom. It is clear that Debating Matters does not hold back when it comes to selecting topics to debate. Issues such as gender roles, drug use, the burqa, and the legacy of slavery are thorny, sensitive topics to debate, but that gives all the more reason to have them aired.
And never take for granted that we live in a country where these topics can be discussed openly. Such freedoms are not easily achieved: they are the product of centuries of political reform, compromise and tradition. And though they are difficult to achieve, rights such as freedom of speech are very easily lost. Which is why organisations which encourage the free and open airing of ideas such as Debating Matters, and the Institute of Ideas, are so vital.
The more that I work in politics, the more I come to believe that the elections that occur every 5 or so years are only a small fragment of what constitutes living in a democracy.
Every week I talk to my constituents – the people of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton – and I do so in the knowledge that my position as a Member of Parliament depends on their having voted for me. And when I talk to my constituents, when I read their letters, when I read the newspapers, when I watch political interviews on television, I know that no laws or threats of arbitrary punishment limit what British citizens can say.
And one should never expect people to hold back when it comes to discussing politics. This country has a great tradition of rude and insulting political discourse. “He can’t see a belt without hitting below it” was one verdict on the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Lloyd George himself said of Winston Churchill, “he would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises”.
And one of my favourites – for any history A-level students in the room – Benjamin Disraeli said of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.” And we can say those things about our politicians, and get away with it, because freedom of speech is a treasured national principle.
Freedom of speech, of course, walks hand in hand with the freedom to ignore someone who is speaking nonsense. That is why I admire Debating Matters’s principle that if you are to speak about an important and topical issue, you should do so from an informed perspective. My less favourable memories of school and student debating competitions are those where we were judged more on the length of the words we used, or the vigour of our hand gestures, than how well we had got to grips with and learnt about a difficult subject. But Debating Matters, to its great credit, favours substance over style.
And here I think there is a link that can be made between the outlook of Debating Matters, and the education reforms our government have pursued since 2010. There is a view that is popular in education circles that an academic core curriculum is outdated and redundant in the 21st century. In place of an academic core curriculum, some claim schools should teach pupils ‘skills’ and ‘dispositions’ such as curiosity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving.
This is a view with which I do not agree. It is, quite simply, impossible to think critically without having some background knowledge about the subject at hand. In the same way that it is impossible to debate well without any knowledge or understanding of the motion. That is why for pupils to prosper once they leave school, both in the world of work and as well-informed citizens who can engage in public life, schools need to teach an academic core curriculum.
All pupils, irrespective of birth or background, can and should benefit from reading timeless works of literature; learning about the wonders of science and the natural world; understanding the geography of the world and the history of their own country; and communicating in a language other than their own.
But this is not the direction in which schools were travelling before 2010. GCSE entries in history, geography, and modern languages were all falling. Instead of taking these core academic subjects, thousands of pupils were pushed to take so called ‘equivalents’ – low quality professional qualifications, many of which counted for nothing when it came to post-16 education or the workplace.
What is more, evidence from the University of Durham found, “it is not whether there has been grade inflation, but how much.”
Since 2010, our government has ended grade inflation, and encouraged a flight, not away from, but towards the academic core curriculum. One of the reforms about which I am most proud is the English Baccalureate, a school performance measure which encourages schools to enter pupils at GCSE for a combination of subjects including English, mathematics, the sciences, history or geography, and a language. The impact of this policy has been clear.
From 2010 to 2015, the proportion of pupils entering history or geography in state-funded schools increased from 48% to 66%, the proportion entering the science component of the EBacc rose from 63% to 74%, and the proportion entering languages has increased to 40% to 49%. In total 28 GCSEs, including catering, hospitality, and leisure and tourism, are being withdrawn, making way for GCSEs that support an academic core curriculum.
And these GCSEs are becoming more, not less, academically demanding. In the new history GCSE, pupils can break away from the previous diet of predominantly 20th-century history that has been studied in recent times. History teachers with a passion for the medieval period can now teach in-depth studies on the Norman Conquest or Edward I at GCSE. Those teachers with a passion for the early modern can choose between Spain and the ‘New World’, or the Restoration.
Year 10 pupils are currently half way through being taught the new English literature GCSE. The texts that exam boards are offering for the new GCSE show a rich and rewarding span of literature old and new, from ‘Animal Farm’ to ‘Anita and Me’, Charlotte Bronte to Kazuo Ishiguro. In 2010, 90% of pupils studying for an English literature GCSE with 1 exam board read, as their only text, the same short novella – no prizes for guessing which one. Such narrowing of the GCSE curriculum is no longer possible.
This culture of increasing academic ambition is having a beneficial knock on effect for A level studies, where since 2010 there has been a 27% increase in pupil entries for further maths, a 15% increase in pupil entries for physics, and a 15% increase in pupil entries for chemistry. Non-STEM subjects are seeing similar increases at A level. Economics, up 29%. Religious studies, up 19%. Spanish and geography, both up 16%.
Ever since I was your age, comments about ‘the youth of today’ in public debate have implied decline and disappointment. But today’s youngsters will be better educated and better informed about the world that surrounds them than the generations preceding them. Though there are many things to be uncertain about in the years to come, meeting with and speaking to your generation today is one thing that always leaves me feeling reassured about this country’s future.
I wish you the best of luck in this weekend’s competition.