A 15-year-old pupil from King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, has won a prestigious national history debating competition by drawing on her interest in the Black Country where she spent part of her childhood.
Shivanii Arun reached the final of the Historical Association Great Debate contest in the spectacular setting of the Vicars’ Hall in St George’s House at Windsor Castle after winning the Birmingham regional heat, despite being one of the youngest contestants. The 22 finalists, mainly Sixth-formers and drawn from all over the UK and Ireland, had to devise a 5-minute speech answering the question “What was the greatest failure of the Age of Revolutions.”
While most of her rivals chose either the French or the Haitian Revolutions as their example, Shivanii opted to focus on the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its continuing effects on the population of the West Midlands.
“I was born at Oldbury in the Black Country,” she explained. “Both my parents are doctors and that helped me to find the angle for my speech. I argued that the Industrial Revolution was a great failure because of the dreadful impact it had on the mental and physical health of the people involved. Living conditions were very bad for the factory workers. Many trades like weaving were deskilled by the invention of machinery such as water-frames which made many of the old skilled jobs redundant. Lots of people in the Black Country suffered from mental illness due to the deskilling of their trade. I found out that this psychological legacy still lives on today, as life satisfaction is on average 29% lower in intensive industrial areas like Birmingham and the Black Country. The Industrial Revolution had a big impact on climate change and pollution levels too. During that time the proportion of carbon dioxide in the air went up from 0.03% to 0.04% which doesn’t sound much but it was actually very serious and the increased pollution and cramped conditions meant that many people suffered respiratory infections and diseases.”
The judges praised Shivanii for choosing and thoroughly resarching a local subject which meant so much to her and they highlighted her self-confidence in choosing not to stand at the podium but to deliver her speech without notes. Her composure while answering questions on her speech from the distinguished judging panel helped her scoop the title plus an engraved shield and winner’s cheque for £175.
“It was surreal; I just couldn’t believe I’d won,” she said. “I think speaking from memory helped me stand out. Mrs Hargraves who runs our debating club organised a panel of History teachers beforehand to ask me different questions for practice and it was really useful. We do lots of presentations in all our lessons and I’ve learned a lot at debating club which builds your confidence.
From when Shivanii first applied for the competition, I saw her transform her speech through her own hard work,” explained Gemma Hargraves. “She’s always been very articulate and was in the KEHS side which reached the finals of the English-Speaking Union public speaking contest. She became our Poet Laureate last year, too and it’s all boosted her confidence and self-belief. Lots of our girls enter debating competitions and learning to produce logical arguments and clear explanations helps with their academic work.”
“I hope to study Law at Oxford and maybe become a barrister,” added Shivanii, “so debating is a valuable skill for me. The prize-money? I’ll donate some to my school, some to charity – and then spend a bit on myself.”