WITH CHILDREN FROM poor homes just as likely to underperform now as 30 years ago and four million children living in poverty, social immobility in the UK is a problem that just isn’t going away. Internships in particular have taken a beating recently for being a new means of social divisiveness, presented as the privilege of kids whose parents have enough money to subsidise their unpaid placements.
That may be so, but a related problem is that children from impoverished backgrounds who attend local state schools are not developing the skills and confidence they need to be suitable for university, internships or the workplace. Debate Mate, a charity set up four years ago by commercial barrister Margaret McCabe, is doing something about all this.
Debate Mate sends students and graduates of top universities — many of whom are debating champions themselves — into 120 schools in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. And recently, they have been deployed further afield, with the charity now running programmes in the USA, Nepal, India and Jamaica. Their mission is simple: to teach pupils the art of debating and, by doing so, increase their ‘verbal intelligence’ — namely their articulacy, powers of reasoning and self-confidence.
By supplying children whose talents have been neglected by state education with the skills they need to compete with privately educated kids for university places, internships and jobs, Debate Mate hopes to increase social mobility.
McCabe’s professional experience has been instrumental in her founding of the charity: ‘Communication is the main skill of a barrister, and it is the one thing that young people are leaving school without being able to do. I was galvanised by the lack of social mobility in the UK and, as I am an entrepreneur by nature, I set up a social enterprise to deliver social mobility and tackle urban child poverty.’
Its Core Programme runs over sixteen weeks, targeted at pupils aged twelve to fifteen in areas of high poverty, and offers one hour-long after-school workshop per week. Using university students from Russell Group universities as mentors is not just a cost-effective way of providing the workshops: peer-to-peer teaching is also more engaging for the pupils, many of whom are not initially inclined to show respect for authority.
So, is the charity’s belief in the social power of debating backed up by results? Yes. Two students currently studying for their GCSEs at the Robert Clack School in Dagenham have won full scholarships to Eton for sixth form.
Another Debate Mate beneficiary, seventeen-year-old Dangelo, caught the attention of the London Evening Standard back in September when he spoke of his refusal to participate in the August riots. A former gang member who was sent to a correctional facility at the age of fourteen, Dangelo is now studying for A-levels, wants to read law at university and has a job with Debate Mate. He’s also debated in the House of Lords. He said: ‘If I hadn’t done Debate Mate I would have been part of the riots, but I’ve changed my outlook. I’ve realised you’re not tied to what you were born into.’
It’s hard to think of a better example of the kind of social mobility that Debate Mate wants for all its students.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
You can offer Debate Mate candidates internships, training and advice on writing effective CVs.