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Why all teachers should attend the Battle of Ideas 2019

Claire Fox interviews novelist Lionel Shriver at last year's Battle of Ideas.

The end of October period was once characterised in my mind as a time of clocks changing and impending cold and darkness. It now signals the annual Battle of Ideas festival. Since 2016 I have become a regular at the Battle of Ideas and, as the Autumn Term gets under way, my tickets are booked again. For once I think that a blog post resulting in a police investigation might actually be justified: having secured twenty two places for sixth formers and staff, for just £10 (both days), I am starting to feel like a thief. The ‘early bird’ tickets are frankly a steal for school students.

The Battle of Ideas is a festival of debating, held at The Barbican Centre, and this year takes place on 2nd and 3rd of November. Across two whole days, each debate consists of a panel of academics, writers, politicians and experts who set out their five minute arguments uninterrupted, before a team of energetic volunteers carry microphones around to the audience for their involvement: if you are determined to speak you will have your say. The topics cover all manner of current issues in education, science and technology, the arts and politics. They are now listed on the website: https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/programme/saturday.

I regard the Battle of Ideas as vital inset training. There are many university lecturers, students and school teachers who attend the event, and it is the only time that I feel as though I find out what people involved in education really think. The staff common room is usually (hopefully) a welcoming place where you can get a cup of tea, but it is not necessarily a place where you can really air your views. Perhaps that is how it should be. Still, if the staff common room is restricted in terms of opinions there needs to be a place where people in education can go to exchange ideas candidly. That place is the Battle of Ideas.

If you catch the opening speech (last year delivered by Institute of Ideas Director, Claire Fox) on the Saturday morning it will be made quite clear that free speech is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This is a crucial outlet it seems to me in education because all too often one has to assume that colleagues are Trump-loathing, Remain-voting, climate-change concerned, modern liberals. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that profile, not everyone agrees. The Battle of Ideas is where you meet that disagreement.

Claire Fox is author of ‘I Find That Offensive’, a book which expresses concern for the modern trend of offence-taking. If you feel offended by the ideas at the festival then it is tough. It is a benefit-of-the-doubt policy which I am extremely grateful for after last year when my comments in one debate inadvertently implied that a panellist was ‘a termite’. It was a genuine accident. He was the least termitic man you could wish to meet.

I have been to many festivals and inset events in the last twenty years, unsurprisingly perhaps of varying quality and relevance. The Battle of Ideas is the finest in terms of value for money, quality of speakers, range of topics and genuine excitement. Each debate carries its own sense of enigma: like being back in a university lecture again where you never quite know what you are going to hear. I could name some of the more high profile speakers, but it would detract from the fact that the speakers’ obscurity is often one of the delights.

I recently attended another education festival which was certainly worthwhile, yet it did not hold a candle to the Battle of Ideas. Whilst the topics were engaging, many were framed in a way that imposed value assumptions which had not been properly analysed. ‘How are schools tackling sexual harassment after Me Too’, posed one event, a title which offered little scope for a critical view over how teachers might approach such a sensitive issue. In one debate at the Battle of Ideas this year the more open question, ‘Is white privilege real?’ offers the chance for a range of views. Where else are you likely to hear an informed academic or expert challenge notions such as ‘white privilege’? And if ‘white privilege' is a thing what better way to establish it than to invite criticism?

The education system, from primary schools to university, likes (I think) to promote the notion of diversity. In many people’s language, the word ‘diversity' refers to demographic factors like gender, age, ethnicity and religious views. These factors are certainly important. The diversity that you will most likely experience at the Battle of Ideas is one of a range of views and opinions. In my view such diversity should be equally protected in education, not to mention in a democracy. Battle of Ideas is an event held in the true spirit of democratic values: free speech, open-mindedness and public debate. I cannot recommend it enough for teachers and students.

Details for the Battle of Ideas 2019 can be found here:


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