Why every school should embrace public speaking

Helping pupils to hone their debating skills may be hard work, but the benefits speak for themselves, says Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie

Why every school should embrace public speaking

Four years ago, I coached a team from my little school to take part in the national Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) Public Speaking Competition – and we won.

The final was held in the High Court in Edinburgh, with the best teams from schools across Scotland represented. 

Beforehand, I had no experience of serious public speaking (let alone debating), apart from reading fiction at a handful of spoken-word events. It wasn’t something I ever remember being invited to try when I was at school. So it was a sharp learning curve for me as well as the pupils.

The winning team we put together had a wonderful combination of qualities: Erin was super-intelligent, confident and fiercely competitive, while Ella was slightly younger, with a strong moral sense of outrage and a taste for dramatic delivery.

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When I say I "coached" the team, my role actually diminished as time went on. In the beginning, the pupils relied on me for ideas and explanations, but I was pretty much told to leave them alone by the time we were in the regional finals.

I should stress that the efforts were shared among a larger team of pupils from across the school, who gave up their lunch hours and converged on my classroom as though it were a military war room. They helped with research, rehearsals, timing and playing devil's advocate, and even came along to the competitive fixtures. They sacrificed evenings at home to support their friends and classmates – it was a beautiful thing.

Soon, Erin and Ella had their speechmaking skills honed to a fine art. We'd start and end the speeches with some well-chosen, relevant quotations from famous folk. In the middle, there would be joined-up arguments, some deeply analytical stuff from Erin and some heartstring-pulling from Ella. Each round had a different theme to discuss, and the quality of argument from the girls increased every time. They had all their pieces in hand – assembling them into the right places was the tricky part.

For any teachers planning on starting up a public speaking or debating club, or working with an established team, you need to know that this is hard graft. The paperwork alone, with risk assessments and letters and consent forms, is time-consuming. And just attending the fixtures means an extra evening out of the house every month, which isn't always easy.

But look at the benefits: cultivating a genuine engagement with world affairs; seeing real teamwork and determination helping pupils to overcome adversity. Plus, most schools you visit will put on a decent spread of tea and biscuits

In so many ways, the rewards of public speaking are palpable.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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