Year 5 pupils at Bovington Academy have been preparing for a very special project organised by The Economist Educational Foundation, a charity established by The Economist newspaper to encourage engagement amongst disadvantaged children with social, political and economic issues.

The prestigious organisation has partnered with Aspirations Academies Trust to train teachers within the Trust’s sixteen schools to lead current affairs discussions which will encourage critical thinking alongside speaking and listening skills.

The Economist’s Topical Talk Festival brings together young people from across the globe in online discussions of the big issues of the day. Ahead of this year’s seven week festival Bovington Academy teacher Verity Painter has been piloting some of the resources developed by the Foundation.

“The materials are really well thought out,” she says, “and clearly developed by people who understand the challenge of getting everyone in the class to participate. The children are learning to listen to each other respectfully as well as to think about their own opinions on difficult subjects like world hunger or online misogyny.”

Steff Young of the EEF commented, “Developing critical thinking skills has never been more important. There are so many sources of news now and teaching young people to question whether information is accurate or trustworthy is essential if they’re to navigate an increasingly complex world, and it’s something employers are increasingly looking for. The Topical Talk Festival provides opportunities for students in the UK to engage with young people from other countries and cultures and to share perspectives. Last year we facilitated online conversations with classes from Palestine, America, Uganda and Romania to name but a few. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Ms Painter’s Year 5 class enjoyed a lively discussion on sustainability in sport, directed by Steff and structured so as to encourage reasoning through different contexts.

“There are no right or wrong answers,” she says, “and it can be difficult at first for the teacher to step back but it’s crucial that the students feel free to share their thoughts and opinions. It is often surprising to us how much they know – and sometimes disconcerting. When you’re confronted with the reach an individual like Andrew Tate has, you realise how important it is to educate pupils to interpret information they receive through social media.”

Watching the participation of her class, Verity added, “The children were clearly engaged with all the activities and the ideas being presented. I’m looking forward to watching them develop their listening and speaking skills over the coming weeks and months. I know they’re going to be very excited to meet children from different parts of the world online!”

Topical Talk Festival 2023 runs from April 10th to May 26th.