The Mancunion

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Debate Mate: ‘empowering the youth of today, creating the leaders of tomorrow’

A University of Manchester graduate writes of his experiences helping disadvantaged young people in the Manchester area reach their aspirations through the power of debating

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Debate Mate is a charity which aims to tackle educational disadvantage in some of Britain’s most deprived communities. It does this by recruiting, training and placing university students to run extra-curricular debate workshops in schools with above average numbers of children on Free School Meals. Our programmes raise speaking and listening attainment, as well as improving a range of high order thinking skills and non-cognitive abilities such as confidence, teamwork and leadership.

In doing so, it addresses the widening skills gap between education and employment, whilst raising aspirations and helping students to make informed post-18 choices. Because we believe that every child deserves equal access to a top education, Debate Mate supports the youth of today to find their voice so that they can become the leaders of tomorrow.

The UK has one of the lowest rates of social mobility amongst OECD countries. This means that children growing up in poverty are less likely to achieve in school, to attend university, and to find productive employment as adults. By the age of seven, children growing up in poverty—those who are eligible for Free School Meals—are more than twice as likely as their better-off peers to be behind on expected reading levels. Over 60 percent of these children will fail to achieve five good GCSEs, which significantly increases their chances of becoming unemployed upon leaving school.

Growing up in poverty affects not only children’s prospects but also their aspirations. One in four young people from poor homes believe that few or none of their career goals are achievable, compared to only seven percent of those who are not living in poverty. At Debate Mate, we believe that an important part of tackling social immobility is raising students’ aspirations by exposing them to positive role models, helping them gain confidence, and motivating them to fulfil their potential.

My name is Will Chambers and I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Manchester and now work as the Programme Director at Debate Mate for the Manchester region. Whilst at university I taught a club for an hour a week over my three years of studying. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and found that it helped me both academically and personally. It was a privilege to see the transformation in the students I mentored, who went from timid pupils to articulate and active citizens with a desire to engender dramatic social and political change.

As I went to a state school without a debating club, I had no experience of formal debating prior to university. But Debate Mate weren’t necessarily looking for people with experience of debating, as their programme was more about using the skills taught through debating as a vehicle for social mobility. Many of the other people I mentored alongside studied science subjects, and often proved to be as good if not better mentors.

The reason the programme is so effective is it provides a range of mentors from different backgrounds to act as inspirational role models for the diverse range of young people we work with. Many of the students are inspired to go on and study a variety of higher education subjects or enter a range of professions, and the programme provides them with the communication skills necessary to do so. At the same time the mentor gives them an insight into university life, which many will not have had exposure to previously.

The core programme lasts for 14 weeks, all of which coincide with university term time. The organisation pays for travel and also a food budget for the young people attending the club. On top of this they pay the mentor £20 per session, and up to £50 to attend competitions between schools, which was a welcome top up when my student loan was running out!

When the programme ended just before the exam season at university I was sad to see my students go, but was pleased to find out Debate Mate also offer multiple summer schemes. In my first summer of university I went on a trip teaching debating in Nepal, and on my second I travelled to Rwanda to teach student there. As someone who had never been outside Europe these were fantastic experiences from which I learnt almost as much as I did from my university course!

If you are interested in signing up to the core programme in Manchester please register your interest at debatemate.com/mentors. Training and assessment workshops will take place at the University on three evenings and one afternoon on the week of the 5th of October. They will last for around 3 hours each, and you can choose which one you want to attend. After this we will place you at a school in the local area, give you our curriculum, and you can look forward to that one hour a week where you get first-hand experience of changing young people’s lives.

If you have any questions please email me at will@debatemate.com. Thanks for reading this piece and I look forward to meeting you!