The great debate

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Iain MacDonald encourages schools to take up verbal jousting in competition

To many teachers, formal competitive debating has a slightly old-fashioned, unreconstructed aura. Many colleagues will know the enthusiasm with which Year 8 students launch themselves into a class debate on the rights and wrongs of school uniform, but these days few English state schools actively foster a culture of "serious" debating within their own walls.

Students therefore miss out on a sphere of English that rewards a unique combination of skills: teamwork; general knowledge; research; the ability to think logically and clearly; and the ability to express these thoughts cogently in a "competitive" environment. Schools miss out on a network of support and training, offered principally by the English Speaking Union (ESU), but also by the universities which, along with the ESU, sponsor national competitions.

In recent years I have introduced competitive debating in two schools and been delighted with the range of students drawn to it. The classroom debates popular in lower school English are worthwhile and great fun, but seldom move even able students beyond a well-prepared speech often read from the page and delivered more or less in isolation from the contributions of the other three main speakers.

In competitive debating there is a greater emphasis on engagement with the opposition, or "clash", and this is where a quite different range of skills comes into play. As the culmination of a competitive debate, a judge awards the debate to one or other side, based on the quality of this engagement, the cogency of the speakers and their mastery of the subject and teamwork.

This last point is important - a successful debating team is in constant sotto voce communication - scribbling notes and adjusting prepared lines of argument.

Clashes between opposing sides can take the form of simple rebuttal of points made in previous speeches. Most of the major national competitions also allow for points of information to be offered. This device allows an opponent to offer a challenge to a speaker in the middle of his or her speech - a challenge which must be accepted or declined before the speaker knows its precise nature. Speakers who decline all such challenges lose marks for their reluctance to engage: speakers who meekly accept every challenge are penalised for passivity. Beginners can be daunted by the prospect of incessant interruption, but once they get the hang of debating in this way, they love the drama of it.

A further variation on the standard classroom debate, essential for any school hoping to enter the major university competitions, is the introduction of the British Parliamentary Debate format. This involves eight or more speakers all debating the same motion, taking turns to offer brief proposition and opposition speeches. With the inclusion of points of information it becomes a vigorous, dynamic form of debating and involves a greater number of students.

Each of my school's internal competitions begins as an eight-team knockout, and while the first round debates are generally held within English curriculum time, the semi-finals and finals are public events, and attract a sizeable audience. I've enjoyed excellent support from my senior management team, but then debating is not an activity any headteacher would wish to discourage.

My problem now is finding the time to meet the demand - driving 60 or 80 miles after school for a regional round on a rainy winter evening has only limited appeal. If more schools in my remote corner of England were to enter, we could have our own regional round... * English Speaking Union

Wildword Publications produce a helpful booklet, Developing Debating in Schools. Send a cheque for pound;2.50 to Wildword Publications, The Driffold, 8 Devoran Lane, Devoran, Cornwall TR3 6PA.

Information and ideas on debating topics are at

Iain MacDonald teaches English in west Cornwall

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