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African pupils talk the talk

It is very easy to think it's all doom and gloom in Africa. What with wars and genocide in Sudan and the Congo, economic collapse in Zimbabwe and crime in South Africa, bad news has no difficulty in driving off good from most pages and screens.

However, much is being achieved - and a great deal of it is in African schools.

I had reason to ponder this when I was invited to attend the Botswana schools debating finals in the capital, Gaborone, where I happened to be working for a few weeks.

The tournament had started at the challenging time of 8am, with some 60 debaters from eight schools pitting their wits and honing their skills in speaking English to win the coveted shield, and the chance to represent Botswana in the world finals in Washington DC later this year.

TESS readers will recall that Scotland won last year's finals in Seoul with a team drawn from state and independent schools. The new Scots team will have its work cut out to defend its title, if the Botswana pupils are anything to go by.

Some 10 hours after starting, the finalists - a boys' and a girls' team from the same school, Ledumang in Gaborone - faced each other with the motion that "this house believes military force should be used to free the people of Zimbabwe". It was a rather bullish subject for that country's neighbour to consider, never mind its pupils, and one that more senior figures in the African Union seem unable to address.

Of course, with debating, you can pick a controversial topic, turn it upside down and inside out, look at it from every angle and afterwards admit your own views are quite different. Good debaters should be able to argue for either side, and often don't know if they will be in the opposition or proposition until just before the joust begins.

It is the mental dexterity, the ability to articulate a position and argue in a rational, clear fashion, with cunning and calmness, that the contestants need to find. How much harder, then, when one's natural language is Setswana.

The girls, arguing for the proposition, completely routed the boys with their passionate call for African humanity to rise up against Mugabe, neatly sidestepping the inability of the United Nations or South Africa to intervene so far. They were worth their victory, also winning the best and second-best debater of the tournament awards.

Earlier last October, when visiting Japan, I attended the Japanese schools debating finals and was also suitably impressed, not just by their ability but also by the popularity of such competitions across the nation.

There is little doubt now that English is the business language of the world and that the schools of emerging nations, or those simply wishing to maintain their economic advantage, are using debating to help children develop skills for a globalised world.

It is therefore to be warmly welcomed that the Scottish Government has, in principle, decided to award a grant of some pound;70,000 to English-Speaking Union Scotland to deliver outreach support in Scottish state schools.

Using teaching aids already developed by the ESU with the help of Learning and Teaching Scotland, many local schools are already taking the lead. Last year pupils who had outreach coaching shone in national and international events.

Teachers in Botswana believe that strong communication skills empower their pupils. The fact Botswana made the quarter-finals of the world student debates in Turkey last month suggests it is on to something.

Scotland vs Botswana in the Washington finals? It's enough to leave me speechless.

Brian Monteith can talk the hind legs off a donkey, and often does.

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