This house believes in verbal pugilism

9th May 2003 at 01:00
It doesn't matter what subject you teach, the art of public discussion, properly organised, will bring out the best in your pupils. Even those of primary age. Harry Dodds mounts a hobby horse...

Maths, geography, science, citizenship, modern foreign languages... it's easy to build debates, as formal or as informal as you like, into any subject. Debating gives your pupils responsibility, not only for their own learning, but also for developing their understanding of the real-world contexts that give the subject meaning and relevance to their own lives.

Debating is not just something that English teachers do.

What would you debate in maths? How about: "This house believes metrication will bring us a better future"? Or "This house believes numbers make the world go round"?

You can't address either proposal without thinking about the part maths plays in your life - and suddenly maths becomes less of an abstraction.

It's easy to set up. Involve the whole class in preparing contributions, which might grow into full, formal speeches supporting or opposing the motion, or which might come from the floor, ensuring well-informed question and comment. Choose someone to chair the debate, and identify a couple of speakers for and against the motion. Have the speeches, take some questions, sum up, then take a vote. It couldn't be easier.

What would be the point? Would anyone learn anything? Look at the learning that goes into the preparation: independent research, probably supported by ICT; the writing for a very specific purpose and audience, and all the editorial decisions that go with developing a reasoned argument; teamwork, collaboration and presentational skills.

So much for the speaking. What about the listening? Critical examination of evidence, recognition of (and resistance to) techniques of manipulation and persuasion, tolerance of others' views, the ability to develop counter-arguments at speed - all these, and some new insights into the importance of maths.

It's easier if the school has a tradition of public speaking, though that is by no means universal. It may be written into the curriculum in many independent schools, but, unless it is made part of everyday lessons in the average comprehensive, it may have to fight hard for its place. It is definitely something an NQT could pick up as an extra-curricular contribution. As Nick Quartley, who looks after debating at St. Edward's school, Oxford, says: "All it takes is for someone to want it to happen."

St. Edward's does a lot of competitive debating. I remember debating contests, and not too fondly: the flamboyant poseurs - it was a man's world, in those days - would always win, and the solid arguments just didn't appeal.

Talking to Ben and John, two of Nick Quartley's star debaters, suggests the world hasn't changed. Ben loves debating because "it's verbal pugilism": John, a more solid, potential lawyer type - he's a classicist, and really admires Cicero - likes the intellectual challenge, the reasoning, the logic. However, both agree that debating has given them confidence, social skills, and the ability to think on their feet. And they say it feeds back very positively into their approach to lessons - they know how to make their points.

Ambrose Faulks, president of the Oxford Union, mother of all debating societies, is a chemist. I'd expected someone from the arts. The Oxford Union has a very impressive track record, both for the quality of its guest speakers - Lloyd George, WB Yeats, Michael Jackson, US Presidents Reagan, Nixon and Carter among them - and past members such as Benazir Bhutto, Harold Macmillan and Tony Benn. It is an endless list - but I wasn't bowled over just by that - or by the identity of the two callers on Ambrose's mobile while we were talking. One was a seriously important UN official, a household name, and the other was an exotic Crown Prince. No, what impressed me was the quality and range of the Oxford Union's work in school debating.

This is in the capable hands of Tara Mounce, who runs school debating competitions (junior and senior), with the help of some undergraduate debaters. She also organises debates as part of the university's access programme, a very popular feature with aspiring students. But the real excitement came when she explained her involvement with the English Speaking Union's Tesco London Debate Programme (for schools with no previous tradition of debating), and with the Tower Hamlets and Medway primary schools debating programme.

That's right. Primary schools.

Debbie Newman, head of the centre for speech and debate at the English Speaking Union is behind this exciting project. University students from Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and the LSE, as well as members of the Inns of Court, teach pupils in Years 5 and 6, how to debate, take them to the ESU, and to their local councils, and the Houses of Parliament to meet their MP and to see debate in action.

Tara glows about the impact the programme has had in schools, but her pleasure is justified - informal research suggests that, after four weeks on the programme, 79 per cent of pupils who had been predicted Level 3 in speaking and listening actually achieved Level 4. Debating clearly improves pupils' academic performance. What has it done for their self-esteem?

One more surprise. Shirley Lawes, of the Institute of Ideas Debating Matters competition, sponsored by Pfizer and Hodder and Stoughton and supported by the British Library, is promoting a new style of debate, in which content, force of argument and ability to think on the hoof count for more than amateur dramatics - no "verbal pugilism" here. They reward research and passion and, most crucially for us as teachers, they are "thinking beyond the box" - they want to offer the kinds of educational experience that the national curriculum just doesn't begin to encompass.

Debating Matters competition 2003:

Find out more

* debatabase

Lots of background arguments and information to support both sides of a wide range of motions, and many debate-related links

* www.instituteofideas. comEventscurrentdocsdebate.html

An innovative take on competitive school debating

* . uk 200301debatin. htm

Read what Tom Ogg, winner of the last contest's floor speaker's prize, has to say about the Institute of Ideas programme. If he doesn't inspire you to establish debating in your school, no one will


Details of support for schools debating

* www.esu.orgindex.html

The English Speaking Union

* www.esu.orgeducate centreschdebat.html

The 'Schools Mace' debating competition

* www.ribi.org4_ctte youthclebnews1.htm

Details of the very popular Rotary Club's 'Youth Speaks' competition

* www.schoolsdebate. comhistory.asp

Australian and useful

* Probably the single most useful site for aspiring debaters and their teachers

* www.esu.orgeducate centreschdebat.html

Tesco London Debate Programme, aimed at introducing debate to schools with no previous tradition of the activity.

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