Dedication pays off

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Scottish teenagers took on 35 countries to win the World Schools Debating Championships in South Korea.

"I was speechless, then ecstatic, then there was a bit of an anti- climax, and then it hits you in a second wave, and I thought 'Oh my God we're the best in the world.'"

Joanna Farmer, 17, a pupil at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen (not pictured), explains what it felt like to be one of the five Scottish teenagers crowned winners at the World Schools Debating Championships in Seoul, South Korea, last week.

Her team-mates were Stuart Cullen and Calum Jones, both 18, from George Heriot's School in Edinburgh; Neil Dewar, 18, from the High School of Dundee; and Netan Dogra, 18, from Grove Academy, also in Dundee. "It's a good feeling to have achieved the best in something you care so much about," Joanna continued.

It didn't always look as if the Scots would triumph, however.

"Winning felt very good but it was quite surprising," Neil admitted. "We hadn't expected to win."

The Scottish team was selected in October. And in April, according to Neil, they "got quite roundly drubbed" by England and Ireland in Dublin in a friendly before Seoul. But fast forward a few months and they've defeated teams from 35 countries, including England. So how did they do it?

"As the coaches, we would argue that in Dublin we were lulling the other countries into a false sense of security," said Alex Just, an undergraduate at Oxford University, who coached the Scottish team with George Molyneaux, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (both of whom represented Scotland in the World Championships when they were at school).

Joking aside, hard work seems to have been the key. The championships are physically and mentally gruelling. After flying half way round the world, the Scots had one day to adjust before hurling themselves into the fray, during which they debated twice daily. "We got up around 6.30am most days and kept going until about 10.30pm preparing for the next day," Joanna recalled.

Some motions they had known about for months, for instance, that "This House Believes that Holocaust Denial Should be a Crime." But for others, such as "This House Would Legalise All Drugs," the team had just an hour to prepare. "I like the short prep," said Joanna. "It's just the five of you and a book and you have to come up with a brilliant water-tight argument."

Success in these debates, she explained, depends on knowing a lot. And the Scots knew a lot of facts. Likely topics had been identified by their coaches and swotted.

"We identified fairly broad topics for them to research," said Mr Just. "For instance, science and ethics which, in debating terms, could mean stem cell research, organ donation or genetically-modified food. It's difficult to say how many different topics they knew, but I would say they were ready to debate on hundreds."

Skills were also honed during half a dozen face-to-face meetings before the Seoul final between coaches and team members, usually in team manager Irene McGrath's sitting room in Broughty Ferry.

All the work paid off when, in the final, the Scots beat Singapore, successfully arguing against abolishing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

"It was gratifying to discover that they had also been successful at winning hearts and minds," said Mrs McGrath, head of academic administration at the High School of Dundee. "Some members of the audience painted Saltires on their cheeks for the final."

Next month, the excitement continues with the team scheduled to meet First Minister Alex Salmond. They hope to persuade him that more money is needed to promote debating across Scotland where, in spite of recent outreach projects run by the English-Speaking Union Scotland, most schools don't do any debating at all.

They might be knocking at an open door. During a trip to Brussels last week, Mr Salmond told Scots to "raise their game" on the world stage. And commenting specifically on the debaters' triumph, he said it showed how "a guid Scots tongue can lead to success."

According to Mr Molyneaux, Scottish debating depends upon the dedication of a small number of teachers who devote their own time to training pupils. This is in stark contrast to countries like Canada and Australia where there is a proper debating infrastructure.

Neil feels debating equips people with skills for life. "It gives you the ability to make an argument, to articulate your thoughts and to put them into coherent bundles," he said. "It gets to the stage where your thoughts automatically order themselves quite nicely. It also hugely improves your general knowledge about politics, world affairs and philosophy."

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