Why every primary school should teach debate

Debating may be more traditionally associated with older students, but it can bring myriad benefits for younger minds, too, writes Fergus McCloskey

Fergus McCloskey

Why I dropped debates

Out of everything I have learned from my own schooling and my teacher training, the importance of equipping students with life skills beyond the curriculum has always stood out. 

Debating served me well through high school and finally gave me a voice among my fellow 1,900 pupils. 

So, I reasoned, why not give upper key stage 2 pupils in my new school the chance to get a head start and do the same?

The benefits of offering a debating club stretch further than developing pupils’ persuasive writing skills (which, although prominent in literacy in the National Curriculum, is not the jewel in the crown). 

Pupils are given the chance to develop their public speaking skills while thinking about important issues that impact them. Unlike in class, they learn that answers aren’t prescribed and instead hone their listening skills to unpick and build upon conversations. 

What's more, debate is an activity that is easy to practice while maintaining social distancing – or even remotely, should it come to that again.

Here’s how to set up your own successful debating club:

Allocate time

Aside from requiring a dedicated slot each week (I use a lunchtime), you need to spend the initial sessions explaining how debates work, the different roles of responsibility, debate etiquette and how to develop arguments that will stand.

Build a team

This doesn’t mean blowing the school’s budget on T-shirts and a mascot. Before anything else, a successful debating club relies on there being an atmosphere where mutual respect, trust and non-judgement are the foundations. 

Let pupils know that in working collaboratively, they can research, reason and create arguments that lead them to winning a debate. You, as the teacher, are not exempt from this team; the pupils will look to you as the older and wiser counterpart that can give realistic opinions about social issues.

Chat about current affairs

Children’s lives are littered with screens, which means that they have access to a lot of news. Your role is not to shy away from these issues that impact real people like them and their families but to have informal conversations about them to settle unease and establish realities. This benefits the club as you can channel these news headlines into purposeful, kid-friendly motions for debates.

Provide resources

Thanks to an ever-growing fear that Greta Thunberg will haunt my nightmares about my paper wastage at school, the pupils now just write their arguments on mini whiteboards. Although, many take pride in bringing along an old notebook from home as their special debating book and adding to it each week.

Exude energy

The children have to see that you want to be there each week to have these complex and reasoned conversations about issues. The enthusiasm you show through your expressions, answers and energy will show that you aren’t just running the club as a favour to SLT but that you actually care and that they should, too. 

From my experience, children in the club will approach you in the corridor and talk to you about current issues with the expectation that you will engage in a meaningful conversation with them. 

Undoubtedly, this always tends to be on the way to lunch, before you’ve had that first thirst-quenching sip of water for what feels like 17 hours. However, you can take comfort in the fact that it was your debating club which sparked that interest in them.

Fergus McCloskey is a class teacher at Holy Family Catholic Primary School, Ealing, and is completing an MA in School Leadership at St Mary's University, Twickenham

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