Why Keir Starmer is right about speaking lessons for all

The leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, has advocated speaking lessons for all children in a bid to build their confidence and presentation skills. Putting aside party politics, this is why I agree.

At last! Someone in public life acknowledging the importance of speaking well. Whatever you think of Starmer’s politics, he is absolutely right to shine a light on how being inarticulate and insecure in speech can hold back a young person as much – if not more – than anything.

We abhor illiteracy or innumeracy. But when it comes to whether a young person can express themselves properly, the reaction seems to a collective shrug of the shoulders. Only the private schools can teach that sort of thing. We couldn’t possibly expect children and young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds to get on that particular learning curve. So best not to make them too bad if they can’t put themselves forward for public speaking, or interviews, or anything in life that requires them to put their best foot forward. Let the ums, ahs, y’knows, I dunnos, likes and all the rest of it slide…because we couldn’t possibly expect them to speak any other way.

I believe all young people should learn how to speak confidently, be articulate & present themselves well. It really saddens me when people say they hate public speaking or dread having to give presentations. This is why I think it’s a core life skill.

My state school had a debating society – but only 3 pupils showed up for it. I was one of them. Barely enough to actually have a debate! But our teacher valiantly trained us up so we could enter debating competitions with the best private schools in Edinburgh. Daunting or what!

We’d go from the driech 1970s science block where we debated the same 2 pupils to some posh ancient school where we’d have to go up against pupils with supreme confidence and training. And against the odds, we actually won some debates! And learned a vast amount along the way.

The fact that I had to learn the best arguments for and against a proposition was invaluable in itself, and was obviously a huge guardrail against ignorance and intolerance. But the very act of having to speak confidently and fluently in front of strangers was transformative.

I’m so grateful for my experience and sad that my peers missed out on it. Without it, I wouldn’t have had the guts to put myself forward for a place at Oxford – especially when I was told that I’d hate it and would feel totally left out, coming from a state school. But I didn’t.

I speak to young people now who have so much to share and yet cannot do so because they lack the vocabulary and self-belief to make themselves heard. I always make a point of asking a question or speaking up in every situation I find myself in. It’s helped me no end.

Even though I now do live TV & all sorts of public speaking, I am not afraid to keep critiquing myself and asking what I could do better. If I lapse into ‘er’, ‘like’, ‘you know’ too often, it’s a sign that my confidence is dipping and that I need to address it.

Such verbal tics are not to be banished altogether but too often we make allowances for it among young people when it can be a sign of insecurity & that they aren’t thinking through what they’re saying or don’t really understand what they’re talking about – none of which is good.

So aside from not making those allowances, we can do young people a favour by celebrating good public speaking rather than shrouding it in mystery and fear. That alongside having a decent vocabulary, strong analytical skills, intellectual tolerance & confident self-presentation.

None of these are inherently elite traits or determined by personality (I’m an introvert). These skills can be learned by ANYONE, but it starts with a fundamental recognition that this stuff matters, and it’s not snobby, poncey, trivial or optional. Far from it.

Post script – this story has another happy ending. My old school, Broughton High, now has a thriving debating society (which no longer practices in the driech 70s block because it got knocked down!), is winning competitions and has even been invited to Downing Street to debate. This makes me very proud. It’s high time the state school sector as whole started prioritising debating and public speaking, rather than letting the private schools have it all their own way…

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