Much talk of the great debate

A forum for discussion and argument is giving youngsters an invaluable competitive edge. Jean McLeish reports

Jean McLeish

Their performances during debate are impressive and these 14-year- olds know this is a skill that will serve them well in life. Aberdeen Grammar pupils Eilidh McCreath and Ewan Shand belong to the school's Junior Debating Society and they're competing in the annual Europe Direct Aberdeen Schools Debate at the Beach Ballroom.

This is the fifth debate run by Europe Direct Aberdeen, part of a network of centres offering advice on EU policies and funding.

Seven Aberdeen schools are taking part, focusing on topical issues affecting European citizens. Eilidh and Ewan are opposing the motion that the EU should make more use of social media to communicate and engage with younger citizens.

"I've been doing debating since first year and Ewan started in second year," says Eilidh (S3). "My brother did it when he was in school and that got me into it . It's a good way of being able to think on your feet."

Ewan admits he was sceptical when his lawyer dad urged him to join the debating society. "But then I joined and I was like, `Oh, this is actually really fun - it's a time for me to talk a lot with no one else stopping me,'" he laughs.

Ewan is interested in politics and sees skill as a debater as an asset for the future. Even at 14, he speaks like a politician. "I've learned shed- loads from debating. I would give a message to young people to say: `Start early - because of the amount of information you pick up and the things that help you in other subjects.'"

Other teams here are from Robert Gordon's College, Cults Academy, Albyn School, Meldrum Academy, Hazlehead Academy and St Margaret's School for Girls. They have impressed judges like politician Ian Hudghton, an MEP, who is drawn to the discussion on social media.

"I think that's one of the biggest challenges politics faces - the EU in particular has always had challenges in terms of public awareness of who does what," he says. "I follow quite a lot of tweeters . I am finding it amazingly useful in daily news, because there is so much going on that it is very difficult to follow by other means."

It's the first time pupils from Hazlehead Academy have taken part, and the school hopes to start its own debating society. "It gives us another perspective away from normal school life when we go out and debate," says Andrew McKenzie (S4).

Andrew proposed the motion that the EU should use social media to engage and communicate with young citizens.

"The EU should harness this opportunity to foster relations with its young citizens . and enfranchise them in political dialogue," he says.

One judge says the pupils could give some politicians a run for their money. "The standard was fabulous," says Andrew Glencross, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Aberdeen. "They certainly didn't shy away from controversy and, at the same time, there were plenty of good historical and empirical examples invoked. I was very impressed with the fluency of the speakers and the amount of preparation they'd put into it."

Ewan and Eilidh feel the research they have done for debates across a range of subjects has helped their learning and that they have developed the confidence to respond quickly when challenged by opponents.

They develop these skills debating alongside pupils from their school's senior debating society, who help bring on younger pupils.

"We do take part in a lot of competitions. This year, we've done Glasgow University, Aberdeen University. You do Scottish heats for Oxford and Cambridge debating. We do a lot of university debates, so that's like more senior debates," says Eilidh.


Debaters need to be good listeners as well as good talkers, with coherent arguments and the ability to engage with the other side, according to the chair of this event.

"People who are very rigid and don't listen and don't answer points - for me, that's not good debating," says Antonia Mochan, from the European Commission's UK offices

"Teamwork - that was very much an element we were looking for," says Ms Mochan, who is head of communication, networks and partnerships at the EC in London and a judge in one of the semi-finals of this competition.

She is also interested to hear pupils' thoughts about using social media to engage with young people. "There is definitely some food for thought for me to take back to my office and to think about how can we reach out better to young people - or should we? So it's been interesting in a very practical way as well."

In the final, teams debate the motion that EU student exchange schemes should be a compulsory part of the school curriculum to help foster a sense of being European. Alice Jaspars and Harriet Foreman from Robert Gordon's College, who opposed the motion, are the winners and St Margaret's School for Girls are the runners-up.

Europe Direct Aberdeen is based at Aberdeen Central Library. It provides information to schools on how EU decisions affect people living in Scotland and free brochures on travelling, living and working in Europe.

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Jean McLeish

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