Argument in favour of the art of debating

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
"Scots are world champions", the newspaper hoardings read a few weeks ago. Had the under-20s football team won in Canada? Was there some minority sport the BBC had omitted to tell us about? Or was it that darn elephant polo competition again?

Punters gladly bought a paper to find out more, but the tartan army would be just a tad disappointed to find it was a team of five Scots pupils from Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh that had triumphed in a daunting week-long debating competition.

But the victory of "Team Scotland" (pictured) was important for more than mere chauvinistic pride. It highlighted the achievement of Scottish schools, as a resurgence of debating in the classroom equips pupils of all ages and backgrounds with skills that will be genuinely useful in later life.

Bizarrely, The Sunday Times ran a feature that suggested little is to be gained from debating except by political hacks or advocates. Try telling that to John Bond, chairman of Vodafone, Peter Bazalgette, founder of Bazal TV productions, and Adair Turner, vice-chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe all of whom are exceptional communicators.

In recent years, government ministers have asked what we can do to encourage an enterprise culture. They could do worse than encourage more debating in schools, for it inculcates many of the attributes that successful entrepreneurs require. The ability to think on your feet, analyse an issue, place yourself in your competitor's position and occasionally take calculated risks all of these, and more, are learnt through the experience of regular debating.

Sponsors have not been slow to notice the talent that debating uncovers and the abilities it develops, with companies as diverse as Asda and Baillie Gifford supporting a variety of competitions in Scotland.

Some schools have found that debating inspires pupils who might not excel in sport or exams, providing a forum where they can build confidence and outwit those supposedly smarter than they are.

While formal debating has remained relatively healthy in Scotland's independent schools, it has declined in the state sector, and yet many of the most successful debaters have come from schools without a debating tradition, and only found their ability to argue on their feet once they started debating in university.

To counter this imbalance, the English-Speaking Union Scotland runs outreach programmes, coaching pupils on how to formulate arguments, dissect opponents' speeches and inject humour, pace and rhetorical flourishes. Supported by a Scottish Executive grant worth pound;25,000 over two years, the ESU has also written training resources for teachers in Scotland that will soon be published on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website.

The hard work of all involved was rewarded in May when a Dundee school, Grove Academy, beat the best in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to win the British championships, with the final held for the first time on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

More important than winning has been the thanks of the teachers who have seen quiet and withdrawn pupils discover they have a tongue and a working brain, and can gain the self-confidence and respect that comes from being able to argue a point with their peers.

The schools want to repeat the exercise, but will the new executive extend the initiative so that it can be taken up by more teachers keen to recognise the benefits to learning that debating can bring? Is anyone against the motion?

Brian Monteith is vice-chairman of the English-Speaking Union Scotland

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