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Perse School hosts epic Rotary Youth Speaks regional final

The regional Rotary Youth Speaks debating finals were held at Perse School recently, and showcased how mature pupils have to be when addressing the myriad challenges they face.

The intermediate teams at the Rotary Youth Speaks competition at Perse School, March 11, 2023
The intermediate teams at the Rotary Youth Speaks competition at Perse School, March 11, 2023

This was the first time the debate was held in Cambridge: the stakes were high, with one intermediate and one senior team to be selected for the national final on April 23 at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby (the Perse team was beaten in the district final).

Organised by Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club, the youth debate involved eight teams from schools across the region being judged by a trio of Rev Dr John Barrett, chairman of the World Methodist Council; Sara Varey of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire; and this writer.

The intermediate section (age 11 to 13) began with Beechwood Park School in St Albans addressing the question ‘Should the monarchy be abolished?’.

Each team had a chairperson - in Beechwood’s case the highly capable Joshua Davies - a proposer and an opposer.

Calling the monarchy in the UK “indefensible”, Tommy the proposer said: “Why should any of us be made to feel inferior because of someone's fluke of birth? Monarchs do not deserve their power and we do not need them.

“Do these monarchs even want to be on the throne? It means constant press attention. Princess Diana and even now, her children, constantly have to face the cameras. It’s become one big soap opera, like EastEnders – scandal, fraud, brother versus brother. The monarchy doesn’t suit modern society. It’s outdated and frequently immoral. We must adapt.”

The opposer, Aidan, appealed to the flag-waving benefits of having a figurehead.

“After so many hundreds of years, monarchy has been proven to be worthwhile,” he told the audience of about 100 in the lecture theatre at The Perse School. “Who do we want as our head of state, some unelected celebrity? They’re born for this, they’re trained from birth. If you think it’s not fair well, life’s not fair. The royal family raises £2.89billion a year in tourism. To complain about the cost of the royal family is a bit like tofu. Tasteless. The monarchy is more popular than ever.”

After the laughs subsided Wellington College, Crowthorne took on the topic of ‘Social media and technology are ruining our friendships’.

The senior teams at the Rotary Youth Speaks competition at Perse School, March 11, 2023
The senior teams at the Rotary Youth Speaks competition at Perse School, March 11, 2023

“Social engagement has been held hostage by social media,” said proposer Tom Minors. “What is friendship? A bond in which you like each other and want to spend time together. But on average we spend two hours a day on social media. This is shocking. I think most of us don’t know how to commit to a proper friendship because we don’t know what one looks like. Instead we play XBox or sit on social media. Plus there’s an estimated 500k groomers on social media. How do we know what one looks like? The online perception of someone is often not what they’re really like. Social media prevents us from establishing stable relationships.”

For the opposition, Tom Holborn said: “It’s a myth that young people are giving up their social time to sit in a dark room engaging with the outside world by computer. The truth is, the Platinum Jubilee, the Olympics, the Lionesses last summer all brought us together. Social media isn’t keeping us apart, it galvanises us. Social media can not only make, it can also solidify your relationships.”

The third intermediate team was St Joseph’s College, Ipswich, who considered the question ‘Climate change: Should we really worry about it?’.

The proposer, Ben, displayed symptoms of outrage at the direction of travel for inhabitants of planet Earth.

“Climate change is ever-present, it’s ever-growing,” he said. “It’s not scare-mongering, or a shock tactic. In 2021 in California the world experienced the first gigafire - 4m acres of land, the size of 80 per cent of Wales, was destroyed. The poorer countries are already suffering losses, and the richer countries are seeing property losses, profit losses, and mass migration. In Pakistan the flooding displaced 8m people. The saddest thing is, we create this problem but it is felt by every single animal on the planet. We need to fight for our Earth and for our future now so other generations don’t have to do it for us.”

Opposing, Alex said: “The climate is always changing.”

Alex cited evidence of the total global population of polar bears increasing from the late 1960s (approx 12k) to today (25k) – much of which is thanks to protection orders. Alex suggested the billions being spent on converting to renewable energy sources would prevent a 0.02mm sea rise, which isn’t worth it. (The figure doesn’t survive fact-checking: the Royal Society reports that average global sea level rises have been 3.2mm a year over the last decade.)

“Can we afford it?” asked Alex. “Charging an EV is entirely impractical. Also there is a row about the lithium in electric car batteries, and other rare metals. We’re in the middle of a cost of living and energy crisis, and these should be fixed first.”

Lastly the team from Grays Convent High School in Grays debated ‘Is school the only route for the education of over 14 year olds?’.

The proposer said that youngsters should be able to join the paid workforce, saying: “Just a few hours a week can make a big difference to the system.” You don’t need to factcheck that, the economy needs 1.2m workers to fill the available jobs. Earning is good for your mental health, seemed to be the message, and it gives you vital life skills.

Against that, said the opposer, stood the common-sense argument that “school is the only pathway to education, and children need education”.

Beechwood Park School, intermediate winners. From left to right are Tommy Hubback, Joshua Davies and Aidan Burger. Picture: Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club
Beechwood Park School, intermediate winners. From left to right are Tommy Hubback, Joshua Davies and Aidan Burger. Picture: Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club

He added: “At school you learn responsibility, empathy, and impulse control. You grow in maturity in school. Education opens the mind and provides mental stability. It’s a good place to develop key relationships. Lockdown showed that children missed their friends which worsened their mental health.”

All these arguments and counter-arguments were profound and belied the fact that these were children aged up to 13 speaking. The chairs exhibited the ability to engage in a bit of joshing and jesting which added humour.

There were more jokes from the seniors, especially Langley School, Loddon’s chair who couldn’t resist making rugby references during the debate on ‘The House would lower the tackling height in rugby’. Oh how she tried! The audience was duly converted.

Dame Alice Owen’s School, Potters Bar, argued over ‘The education system can only ensure a student’s best performance through modular GCSEs’. Modular exams are taken throughout the year, the linear approach is to have everything loaded on to the one big exam at the end of the academic year. Again, mental health was deemed a factor. The proposer, Cameron, said of the impact of the end-of-term exam structure: “No student should have to endure such stress, especially in their early teens.”

Didcot Sixth Form college debated whether the voting age should be lowered to 12.

“The UK population today is dramatically different from when voting was first introduced,” said the proposer.

The opposer countered with: “At 12 decisions are made by input from family, friends and social media. They are easily swayed. 12 year olds make mistakes – imagine if they were flooded into politics.”

The Stephen Perse Sixth Form. Picture: Stephen Perse Foundation
The Stephen Perse Sixth Form. Picture: Stephen Perse Foundation

Finally, the trio from Helena Romanes School in Great Dunmow trio considered ‘cancel culture’. Neither debaters defined what cancel culture is. The proposer, Emma, said that “if cancel culture didn’t exist – the right to call out people’s abuse, misogyny, and racism - didn’t exist then what sort of world would we be living in?”.

Marianna, a very effective opposer, said the problem is that, online, “people can twist your words to say what you didn’t mean”.

She used the remarks made by JK Rowling as a case in point. Marianna says the Harry Potter author is not transphobic. Quoting the author’s tweet ‘People who menstruate… I'm sure there used to be a word for those people’, Marianna said: “There’s nothing transphobic about it. We live in a dystopian nightmare so no matter what you say or do someone will find a way to make you a villain. Cancel culture can, of itself, drive people to commit suicide. This is disgusting and we accept it as normal?”

The judging was close. Beechwood Park School, St Albans won the intermediate section with their monarchy analysis. Congratulations to Tommy Hubback, Joshua Davies and Aidan Burger.

English Teacher at Beechwood and co-ordinator of the school’s entry into the competition, Helen Beavis, said: “Having battled their way through local and district rounds, the team from Beechwood Park school in Hertfordshire, were excited to win with their thrilling debate, questioning the role of the monarchy in the UK.

“The team was debating against predominantly Year 9 pupils in the Intermediate Category. The year 8 pupils displayed the key skill of seasoned debaters. The ability to think on their feet and their fabulous sense of humour made them the incredibly worthy – and happy – winners. This win means that Beechwood has entered uncharted territory, and will be competing at the national finals next month.”

The winners of the Senior Section were Didcot Sixth Form who debated lowering the voting age to 12. Congratulations to Jessica Dubock, Chloe Cormack and Becky Stacey.

The chair of the judges, Rev Dr John Barrett with Beechwood Park School winners Joshua Davies and Tommy Hubbard holding their winning certificates. Pictures: Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club (third member Aiden Burger had to leave early)
The chair of the judges, Rev Dr John Barrett with Beechwood Park School winners Joshua Davies and Tommy Hubbard holding their winning certificates. Pictures: Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club (third member Aiden Burger had to leave early)

Kate Thompson, teacher of English and oracy lead at Didcot Sixth Form, said: “The Didcot Sixth Form team were thrilled to make it through the regional finals, particularly given the outstanding speeches from the opposing teams. They are extremely grateful for all the feedback and support from the Rotary Club judges and are looking forward to the finals in Rugby, where they will try again to convince the audience that the voting age should be lowered to 12 years old.”

Judge, Sara Varey, said: “It was a delight to see so many enthusiastic and eloquent youngsters taking part. They demonstrated great passion for their topics and an ability to express themselves beyond their years. They also demonstrated a delightful courtesy towards each other and their audience. These are valuable skills that will stand them all in good stead in whatever path they choose to follow as they approach adulthood.”

Rev Dr John Barrett, the chair of the judges, said: “It was a great pleasure to be asked to judge the Regional Final of the Rotary Youth Speaks competition. It was very encouraging to see the confidence shown by all the speakers, and the skill with which they handled their chosen topics.

“We were extremely impressed by the standard achieved by all the teams, although we were unanimous in our judgement of the winners of both age groups. We wish them well in the national final in April.”

Robert Lovick, Cambridge Rutherford Rotary Club district youth debate co-ordinator, concluded: “It was great to witness just how significantly the standard of student presentations had improved since our club event last November, emphasising how important it is for Rotary to give students this opportunity to become confident public speakers.”

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