Great triumph of substance over style

27th February 2004 at 00:00
On Saturday, March 6, Tate Britain is hosting the final of the sixth-form debating competition, Debating Matters, organised by the Institute of Ideas and Pfizer in association with Hodder Murray. In a crowded curriculum it could be argued that such extramural competitions are luxuries that teachers and students can ill afford and when I was teaching, they certainly seemed to be an imposition. But surely part of the job of teaching in a sixth form must be to make the students' education inspirational beyond the confines of the curriculum. As one of the competition's judges, John O'Leary (editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement) put it: "This competition reminds you that sixth-form study is not just about preparing for A-levels, but marshalling an argument and being involved in something besides study."

But how can you make ideas and debate engaging to the "whatever" generation? Graveney school teacher Dave Perks notes that "the Government's new citizenship curriculum is too woolly, and traditional debating too formulaic to engage my sixth-formers". Ironically, traditional debating can reinforce a "whatever" approach. Form and rhetorical gymnastics become as important as what is being argued. When I've spoken at the Oxford Union, I am always surprised by how glib some students are about the intellectual positions they adopt. When tackled about them, they will say "I didn't mean it. I was simply playing devil's advocate".

It is partly in response to this trend, to counter the culture of spin, that we took a new approach.

We developed a format in which substance trumps style. One particular debate during the regional heats makes the case. One team comprised two impeccably turned-out girls who gave accomplished speeches, while the opposition was two geeky boys, whose presentations were stuttered and hesitant. But under cross-examination from three judges, the girls seemed unsure how to develop their arguments, often repeating phrases from their speeches. The boys however drew on their research. When asked difficult questions they could think on their feet because they knew the material and were not relying on sound-bites. They won the debate and proved that strength of argument and conviction can win the day.

We are keen to take young people seriously. A current public policy mantra is "listening to young people", whether it is local authority youth councils, or "yoof" versions of government consultation papers. But too often these initiatives insult the intelligence of teenagers by lacking discrimination and patting them on the back regardless, just because they are young. "The real way to take young people seriously is to listen to their views and to give them honest feedback," says Debating Matters' James Panton, a politics lecturer at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford university.

This approach is embodied in the competition's judging process. Think Pop Idol with ideas and argument. Replace pop pundits with judges from the worlds of academia, media, science and literature. Replace feedback on looks, dress and voice with an assessment of content, coherence and conviction. The judges force debaters to justify views and fight their corner. This puts pupils under immense pressure, which creates a climate of high expectations and brings out the best in them. As Dr Dennis Hayes, who has already earned his reputation as the academic version of Simon Cowell, notes: "All the debating teams in the final have proved themselves in the heats to be committed and resilient under hard and probing questioning. " So, good luck to all the schools in the final, many of which are new to debating. How will they cope under the questioning of their peers, the public and those dreaded judges? How will they address topics such as junk food, privacy, crime and the precautionary principle? As I write, some students are touring Tate Britain researching the debate on whether "good art is a question of taste". May the best debaters win. But our hope is that the real winner will be debate itself.

Clare Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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