THE debate in the historic council chamber at York's Guildhall was really hotting up.

Jennifer Varlow and Guy White were at loggerheads over whether York Art Gallery was right to charge visitors for entry.

At first, it seemed as though Jennifer had the upper hand.

"When I went to get a Mars Bar from the shop around the corner, I didn't expect it to be free!" she said, waving one of the chocolate bars in question to illustrate the point. "Some things are worth investing in."

That included York's art gallery, she said. It had to raise money to pay for staff, to maintain the building, and to keep adding to its collection - otherwise it wouldn't be worth visiting anyway. Nobody would dream of going to the theatre for free. And some of the finest galleries in the world charged for entrance - so why not York's. "Take The Louvre, for example..."

Guy was having none of it. York Art Gallery wasn't The Louvre, he pointed out acidly. And York's art collections shouldn't be available only to the privileged few who could afford to see them. "We're always hearing about the National Debt," he said. "But we have to protect funding for museums and for the arts. Where better to go for inspiration than an art gallery? Of course they should be free." He couldn't resist stooping to a pun. "If you have charges, 16-year-olds won't have the 'Monet' to visit them..." Cue a collective groan from the audience.

York Press:

No Monet for the arts: Guy White (left) and Jennifer Varlow of Joseph Rowntree School

Puns aside, it was great to hear an issue of such central importance to York being properly debated in the council chamber at last. And best of all, these weren't battle-weary councillors trying to score political points off each-other. They were York schoolchildren squaring up against each-other in the city's ancient home of democracy.

Jennifer and Guy were both pupils at Joseph Rowntree School. But it wasn't long before two more teenagers - Poppy Kyle and Lottie Ibbotson from Millthorpe School - weighed into the great art gallery debate too.

Janet Barnes, the former chief executive of York Museums Trust, had made it quite clear that, in times of public funding cutbacks, charging for entry to the art gallery and to York's public museums was the only way forward, said Poppy.

"But education doesn't have a price!" Lottie responded.

York Press:

Poppy Kyle, left, and Lottie Ibbotson

The cost of entry to York's art gallery wasn't the only hot topic on the agenda at Wednesday night's Secondary School Public Speaking Competition organised by York Civic Trust at The Guildhall.

Also up for debate was the thorny question of how to reduce York's chronic traffic congestion; whether the 'Railway King' George Hudson had been good or bad for the city; and who should be the next person or building to get one of York's famous 'blue plaques', which mark historic buildings or events, or places where York's most famous sons and daughters were born, lived or died.

Among the suggestions for the next blue plaque: Dame Judi Dench; the Quaker philanthropist William Tuke; and Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford, who was executed with the assent of King Charles I in 1645, despite having been a loyal follower of the king.

Twelve pupils from six York schools took part in the competition. Each school team of two had eight minutes to debate the topic of their choice. At stake: a £25 voucher and a beautiful wooden trophy in the shape of an obelisk for the winning team.

Most of the speakers were a little awestruck by the grand surroundings of the council chamber when they first arrived. "It's overwhelming!" said Isaac Burland, 14, from Manor Academy, before adding quietly: "I'm a bit nervous!"

Two sisters from Fulford School, Maya and Lorien Birch, took it in their stride, however.

York Press:

Lorien, left, and Maya Birch

"This place is so cool!" said Lorien, 12, glancing around her at the magnificent chamber. "Just gorgeous!" agreed Maya, 14.

In the end, it was Maya and Lorien who ran out the winners on the evening, with their entertaining riff on the importance of York's blue plaques - and why Judi Dench, William Tuke and the Merchant Adventurer's Hall all deserved one.

Dame Judi was an inspiration, both sisters agreed. "For me, the highlight of her career was playing M in Bond," Maya said. "She was the first female actress to play the role, and she did away with the stereotype!"

As to William Tuke, he was the York philanthropist who helped develop more humane ways of looking after people with mental health disorders, Lorien said - and helped found The Retreat. And the Merchant Adventurer's Hall? A lovely, mysterious building that was once the heart of York's social scene and the headquarters of the city's medieval merchants, which visitors could now reach down a 'stumble of steps', Maya said. Lovely turn of words, that.

Maya and Lorien may have emerged as the night's official debating champions.

But all the youngsters who took part were winners.

"The quality of debate was astonishing," said head judge Darrell Buttery, as he presented the results of the judges' deliberations. "We all agreed that out of all the speaking competitions we have organised so far, this was outstandingly the best."

  • York Civic Trust organises two school speaking competitions every year: one for primary school children, and one for secondary school children.

The next competition is the primary school event, which will be held in July next year. Watch this space...


What the other youngsters had to say

Isaac Burland and Rachel Walters, Manor Academy. Topic: York's blue plaques..

York Press:

Isaac Burland and Rachel Walters

"I have a great idea for the first new blue plaque," Rachel said. "One Direction! I heard that when they were in York they stayed at the Premier Inn in Shipton Street. We should put a plaque on Harry Styles' door!"

Cue a scornful look from Isaac. "There are criteria!" he said.

Eventually, the pair agreed on three candidates: Thomas Wentworth, the 1st Earl of Strafford and loyal supporter of King's Charles 1, executed with the king's assent in 1645; Dame Judi Dench; and (Rachel's suggestion) Manor CE Academy.

First you wanted One Direction, and now you want your own school? scoffed Isaac. But the school was established in 1812 so the children of the poor could get a free education, Rachel said. For the first time, it meant the children of workers could get an education and make something of themselves.

Hard to argue with that...


Yasmin Hardraker and Laurena Hall, The Mount School. Topic: York's traffic congestion

York Press:

Laurena Hall, left, and Yasmin Hardraker

The pair began with Yasmine standing impatiently on the floor of the council chamber, looking around for her schoolmate. Laurena arrived out of breath a few seconds later. "Sorry I'm late!" she gasped. "I was stuck in traffic."

Yasmin rolled her eyes. "That sounds familiar."

What followed was a lively discussion about ways to cut congestion and pollution in York, including trams ("in the Shambles?" asked Laurena, disbelieving); hybrid cars to cut down on fumes; more Park & Rides; and doing away with traffic lights. "Do we really need them?" Yasmin asked. "They create congestion." Don't be silly, retorted Laurena - before coming round to the idea. "They do provide an opportunity to apply your make-up or straighten your tie..."


Iris Greany and Tom Matthews, St Olaves. Topic: York's railway barons

York Press:

Iris Greany, left, and Tom Matthews

George Hudson was a corrupt racketeer who defrauded people out of their savings and brought York to the verge of bankruptcy, argued Tom. "There's no such thing as clean money. He persuaded people to mortgage their houses and then used their money for his own ends."

Hudson wasn't perfect, Iris agreed. But he did a great deal for York nevertheless. It was Hudson who persuaded George Stephenson to bring the Newcastle to London railway through York - transforming the city's fortunes. "Just look at what he achieved. Without him York would have been a very different city..."