I had one of my top 50 most sublime experiences this evening. I went to the next of my Intelligence Squared Debates – this one was about whether schools should be allowed to select their pupils.
There was an extraordinarily impressive array of debate talent on both sides. For the motion was Lord Tebbit, Martin Stephen and Chris Woodhead. Against the motion were Fiona Millar, William Atkinson and David Blunkett. The debate was chaired by Joan Bakewell.
I was consistently amazed at the solid logic, persuasive power and good humour of the proposing side. Who knew that Chris Woodhead was such a top quality orator? I’d never heard of Martin Stephen before tonight but he nearly stole the show by starting his 15 minute segment thus:
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is a well known fact that in politics there are only three stances – namely conservative fascist bastard, bleeding heart liberal and left wing lunatic. For the purposes of this evening I am a conservative fascist bastard.” – Crowd falls about laughing.
He was only upstaged by Lord Tebbit – a man whom I have always had respected immensely while completely disagreeing with almost everything he stands for. He’s 76 now and made his slow way to the podium. He waited for the crowd to fall silent and then with a very slight wry grin and full understanding of his public persona his first words were “I am not a fascist”. Priceless.
The orators proposing the motion were vastly better than those opposing the motion is terms of quality of their logical arguments so it was unsurprising that the pre-debate vote count of 320 for, 200 against, 190 unknown – became 460 for, 202 against and 48 unknown after.
In front of 700+ people it would be very unlikely I would ask a question but in true L’esprit de l’escalier I spent most of the journey home working out what I would have said. It’s this :
“My name is David Durant. Using Martin Stephen’s scale I am a left wing lunatic. I would like to thank the whole panel for a fantastic evening of debate with excellent points made by all sides. That said I think most people here would agree with me that those proposing the motion have made far stronger logical arguments than those opposing. However I will still be voting against the motiont. Why? The reason has to do with the purpose of state education. I accept the logic of those proposing the motion that a selective system would indeed probably help students of all abilities perform better in exams of their chosen specialisation. To take that to an extreme why not ‘hot house’ children like the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods or chess masters of times past – focusing from an extremely young age on making the child the best they can be in one area? I propose instead that academic learning itself is only half the purpose of state education. By going to state schools children enter into a contract where the state provides the opportunity for them to excel in the area of their choosing and in return the children are expected to become fully functioning members of society. One of the most important ways to learn how to undertake that latter requirement is to be exposed to many people from backgrounds different from your own – in terms of income, class, culture, etc. Selective schools by their very nature mean that children will be grouped with people like themselves and as such will miss out on this vital part of their education. You may ask me whether I would be prepared to see a slight drop in educational standards in order to achieve this integration – I can tell you that I would. I understand that most people in the audience, especially those with children, may disagree with me. What does the panel think?”