Building confidence to speak in public; a skill for life
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

A number of Old Abingdonians recently returned to the School to share insights into careers. It’s always great to catch up with former pupils and I really enjoyed hearing the stories they recounted of where life had taken them after Abingdon. Their routes were extremely diverse but it was striking how they had continued to draw upon their experiences at school in their working lives.

One former pupil, who described himself unashamedly as a ‘geek’, had spent as much time as possible at school programming, dismantling and building computers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he moved into the tech industry after university and he now runs his own start-up, working in the US and the UK. His time in the school computer suite has clearly paid off but he also described how his role as CEO now required him to speak frequently in public, in order, for example, to give presentations to groups of potential investors. He explained that on these occasions he drew directly on his experiences of playing in concerts at Abingdon, experiences which had taught him to control his nerves and perform with confidence.

The ability to speak confidently in public is a vital one in many professions and I believe that there are many different ways in which we prepare our pupils for this undertaking. As the Old Abingdonian I described above showed, there are many different ways in which pupils can develop the confidence to hold an audience’s attention. It might be through music or drama, by teaching younger cadets in the CCF or rousing your mates to greater heights in an impassioned half-time team-talk. I’m often struck by the way our teachers are able to draw out thoughtful and extended answers from their pupils in lessons by skilful questioning, giving ample opportunities for the development of oracy in the classroom.

House assemblies are often run by pupils, sometimes describing experiences they’ve had or focusing on the house values. I’ve heard great reports of a recent house assembly where two pupils spoke with great honesty and courage about the significant health challenges with which they have to deal, inspiring a hugely positive response from their peers in the house.

A great way to finish the week at Abingdon is to drop in on the debating society, which meets at 4pm every Friday. The society is the oldest non-sporting club at the School and there is a proud tradition of discussion, argument, debate and dispute, which has seen some notable Old Abingdonians, such as David Mitchell, hone and refine their wit. The society is very much pupil-led as its committee decides which motions to discuss each week, always promoted with entertaining posters which are spread liberally around the school. Although the committee is made up of Sixth Formers, the society is one of the places where different year groups mix together and it’s great to see the younger pupils learning from their elders and gradually developing the confidence to deliver speeches from the floor before moving up to become speakers in their own right. Entertaining rivalries spin out week by week, as pupils with differing ideological perspectives front up to one another. The ability to engage in debate and especially to listen to your opponents’ arguments and then counter them requires thinking of the highest order and is a superb way to learn to think critically on your feet.

Another forum for public communication is the Model United Nations. The MUN gives pupils a great opportunity to think about and address global issues with pupils, once again, at the forefront and also taking the lead in organising events. It is fascinating to see how the discussions and debates unfold in the various committees, with Abingdon represented by pupils from all years from the Third Year upwards.

With so many opportunities to develop their speaking skills, the spoken word at Abingdon is in great shape and so I hope this will stand our future Old Abingdonians in good stead, whatever field they choose to go into.

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