Winning way with words

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Debating is alive and well in Scottish schools, says John Mitchell, who acted as a judge in a new competition

Anyone who thought that school debating societies were victims of the 1980s industrial unrest and subsequent decline in extra-curricular activities needs to think again. Debating, and the essential skills it imparts to young people, is in a very healthy state in Scottish schools today.

Debating Matters, a competition run by the Institute of Ideas and making its initial foray to Scotland, is notable for its attempt to move away from traditional, parliamentary debating style. Judges are actively involved in debates by way of a five-minute interaction with each team after initial presentations. This helps to avoid the formulaic forms of address and the more confrontational format of debates. Indeed, judgmental pleasure is bestowed upon teams who make a genuine attempt to engage with the opposition's viewpoint at some stage.

As an employee of one of the competition sponsors, I was asked to judge an opening round of a Scottish heat and duly turned up at the Royal High in Edinburgh last November with, I confess, a slight grudge regarding the time involved. I went home nearly four hours later, simply blown away by the experience.

Four teams, totalling 16 pupils - from Falkirk High, Royal High, St Thomas of Aquins High and Merchiston Castle - had offered a life-enhancing rebuttal of the fact that young people are too often generically categorised by yob culture headlines.

Overcoming nerves, both debaters and audience demonstrated enthusiasm for discussion of important issues, and displayed maturity, awareness and an appetite for rational debate that was heartening. They were a credit to their teachers, schools and communities.

Debating Matters is a UK-wide competition involving 108 teams this year, including 16 teams taking part in four heats across Scotland. The regional finals, including the Scottish one, take place next month, with the grand final in London in July.

Janet Stevens, a teacher at St Columba's in Kilmacolm, Inverclyde, welcomed the unusual format and said her pupils found it a "real intellectual challenge, with the judges being so involved in the questioning".

Tony Gilland, the organiser of the competition, has been delighted with the enthusiastic responses and looks forward to more entries next year.

Meanwhile, the Donald Dewar Memorial Debating Tournament, organised by the Law Society of Scotland, is enjoying a peak year, with 152 entries (an increase of nearly 50 per cent on last year) from 92 schools from Stornoway to the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

Neil Stevenson, the deputy director of education and training at the Law Society, credits the increase to better marketing of the competition (including a useful guide to debating, which emphasises that anyone really can do it) and to the immense amount of time given up by teachers in coaching and supporting their pupils.

There is a significant degree of altruism in the society's support of debating in Scotland, notwithstanding Mr Stevenson's admission that the fruits of school debating will often be found in legal careers. "Certainly, debating skills will prove useful if a student goes into law," he says.

"It's also true that solicitors - many of whom give up a lot of their own time to judge in the competition - benefit from maintaining contact with their local educational community.

"But there's also a wider social benefit to our support of debating. It gives students confidence to stand up and develop their arguments, to build a logical case around the research they have carried out, and to develop analytical skills. All of these are hugely important skills as they enter the job market."

Scotland's other major debating event is organised by the English-Speaking Union. Mr Stevenson sees the two organisations' activities as complementary rather than in competition, an assessment shared by John Duncan, the director of ESU Scotland.

"Our competition, the ESU Scotland National Juniors Debating Competition, is aimed at first to third year pupils. This year, we have 88 entries from 56 schools.

"We're also involved with public speaking competitions and the UK Schools Mace Competition."

However, Mr Duncan's biggest excitement is reserved for their Debates Outreach programme, piloted last year in North Lanarkshire and Aberdeen.

Focusing on schools from relatively disadvantaged areas, the programme aims to encourage debating skills by running workshops for 60-80 children from four schools each session, with eight mentors on hand to foster enthusiasm and skills for arriving at solutions to problems through discussion.

Evaluations from the pilot study offer stirring endorsements and lend hope to Mr Duncan's vision of a full-time debates outreach officer implementing a national programme over the next five years. Now that really would put debating on the educational - and curricular - map.

Institute of Ideas, tel 020 7831 Law Society of Scotland, tel 0131 226 7411English-Speaking Union, tel 0131 229 1528

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