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The case for the benefits of debating

Debating coaches, and any teachers pondering the benefits of debating competitions, would do well to watch out for a gem that should have hit their pigeonholes recently.

The Law Society of Scotland has sent out over 400 free DVDs - one to every secondary school in the country - as part of its continuing outreach programme to forge links with educationists.

The DVD includes a guide to debating, with a wealth of advice and encouragement, but for the most part focuses, for teaching purposes, on the showcase event of the school debates scene in Scotland: last June's final of the Donald Dewar Memorial Trophy. This was held for the first time in the prestigious surroundings of the Scottish Parliament's debating chamber.

The Scottish Parliament won more than a few friends that night, as the presiding officer, George Reid, and MSP Nicola Sturgeon welcomed several hundred students, teachers and interested spectators into a building which was, Mr Reid kept emphasising, "your building". Even if he had a biased affection for the eventual winners (Dollar Academy, his alma mater), he was scrupulously even-handed in his chairing of the debates and at pains to encourage contributions from supporting spectators too.

"The pupils really loved the sense of occasion," says Catherine Jones, from Carnoustie High, Angus, one of the finalists.

"It encourages them to formulate ideas, structure arguments, find out new things, test themselves against each other, and enjoy the social aspect as well."

The venue made an enormous difference, according to Clare Kitchener, a debating coach at Earlston High in the Scottish Borders, another of the three defeated finalists. "Previous finals were at the Law Society's headquarters, which is a very attractive venue, but the Parliament debating chamber was highly impressive, even if the students all found it a bit intimidating at first," she says.

Earlston High is a long-standing entrant in the competition (and trophy winner in 2003), and Ms Kitchener has been involved as a coach for the past eight years (six with Earlston High). "What I notice most is the difference in quality," she says. "The standard of debate is considerably higher now and everyone is far more aware of what's needed."

She puts some of that down to materials the Law Society sends out to entrants (they are also available on its website), but especially to the feedback from the judges at debates, "which can be great". The judges range from public figures, solicitors, sheriffs and Law Society staff to experienced student debaters.

The competition has grown over the past three years. Last year it involved 152 teams from 90 schools, which meant a massive feat of organisation for Neil Stevenson, the deputy director of education at the Law Society.

The aim for the 2007 competition is to encourage a further 25 schools to enter and ensure even wider coverage of the country.

The organisers aim to mark the 300th anniversary of the Union of the Parliaments by hosting the regional finals in venues with a 1707 theme, such as Stirling, where the old Scottish Parliament convened at some points in its history, and to debate topics on issues of devolution and independence.

John Mitchell

For a copy of the DVD or to enter the 2007 competition, contact Neil Stevenson at the Law Society of Scotland, tel 0131 226 7411


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