Hearing both sides of the story

16th January 2009 at 00:00
As the benefits of debating receive wider recognition in the curriculum, new resources and training are available for primary and secondary. Tom Drake lends them his ears

Take an S1 student who is terrified of speaking in public. Give her a one-day debating workshop, in a group mixing pupils from several schools. Involve her actively in thinking through both sides of an issue, explain how to structure a speech and an argument and mix this up with plenty of fun and games. Then let her rip in a live debate, and see the transformation.

These are the results which the English-Speaking Union has achieved across Scotland over the last few years through its hugely successful debates out-reach programme.

Working directly with more than 2,000 pupils from 70 schools, the ESU has had a real impact on the lives of young people from Aberdeen to North Lanarkshire, and has made speech and debate a core part of the culture of schools up and down the land. Recent funding from the Robertson Trust will help secure the future of this work over the next three years, starting with schools in the Drumchapel area of Glasgow.

Secondary schools such as Abronhill and St Maurice's in North Lanarkshire, Bathgate and Deans Community High in West Lothian and Braes and Bo'ness in Falkirk have benefited from these programmes, and in many cases gone on to make a real impression in competitive debating.

Largely because of the ESU's pioneering work, the value of speech and debate activities has been generally recognised throughout the Scottish education system over the past few years. Once seen as an exclusive and elitist activity, the benefits of debating have seen more and more schools taking part in competitions, setting up debating clubs or using debating as a way to explore the curriculum.

Debating instils a number of key values which chime directly with the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence - it increases self-confidence and the powers of expression, while encouraging critical thinking, teamwork, research skills and respect for other points of view. It also develops young people's awareness of contemporary issues.

Since 2006, the union has been working closely with Learning and Teaching Scotland to develop comprehensive online learning resources to support teachers interested in debating or wishing to find out about it. Now, in the second phase of the collaboration, it is running a massive programme of continuing professional development courses for primary and secondary teachers throughout 2009.

What does the future hold? The CPD programme should have a major impact in spreading speech and debate to all parts of the country over the next year. Meanwhile, the English-Speaking Union is exploring with LTS ways in which it can work more intensively with primary schools through 2009 and 2010.

One thing is certain - Scottish school debating is on the up and up.

Further information about ESU Scotland's services to authorities, teachers and schools - Rob Marrs: T 0131 229 1528 E debates@esuscotland.org.uk



At St Maurice's we have a long association with the ESU, with Rob Marrs regularly visiting as a judge and delivering workshops to pupils. Our headteacher, Laurie Byrne, was keen to encourage staff to increase confidence in public speaking. The CPD became invaluable. Uptake was impressive. The course was presented in an open and humorous way, with plenty of interactive tasks and strategies and topics we could take back to the classroom. In terms of A Curriculum for Excellence, the CPD had the bonus of bringing together staff from a variety of subjects in the realisation that these skills can be employed by any subject for any topic.


As a novice to formal debating, I found the "How-to guides" useful. They formed the basic structure of the teacher and pupil workshops I organised in the run-up to our "West Lothian Speaks" debating competition. The games on the website were a fun way to introduce debating skills, such as points of information and rebuttal.


The ESU online resources and CPD training days have been devised for practitioners at different levels in their debating expertise, and the training days can be adapted to suit individual schools and clusters. LTS is keen to encourage primary schools to participate in the training days.


Since Rob Marrs and Johon Duncan from ESU visited the school, we have had senior and junior teams competing in competitions. Debating meets the criteria for ACfE - pupils become successful learners because they research the topics, responsible citizens because the debates are often of a political nature, and confident individuals because they speak in front of an audience and a panel of judges. It will also help them to be effective contributors for the rest of their lives.

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