I began debating at school, under the influence of my great English teacher, James Caw, who rightly saw in me a gabby lad who was interested in current affairs and liked an argument. It also provided me with a competitive activity at which I could shine a bit in a school environment which leant heavily towards rugby as way of life and ... religion. So I debated for my senior school years, then debated at university, eventually ending up as President of Debates at the University of Edinburgh.
At school and university, I did well enough until we had to compete against the Glasgow schools – particularly the Catholic schools or, later, against Glasgow University. Then we were always massacred, slaughtered, gubbed – call it what you like. We lost.
Then I became a teacher and, once again to avoid having to run about anywhere wet and muddy, I was ‘the debating coach’. For the first two or three years, the same thing happened – my boys (it was a boys’ school) did well enough until they were mercilessly crushed by the dark forces of the West.
Then in 1985, Scottish teachers went on strike and only private schools, by and large, entered debating competitions – the biggest competition in Scotland saw the number of schools taking part fall from 168 to 24 in one year.
My boys won that year, but they knew, of course, that the giants were sleeping. And despite the great efforts of many individuals teachers in state schools in Scotland, over the past 35 years success in debating has remained, very often, in the lap of independent schools, which only educate about five per cent of the Scottish pupil population.
This is a great pity for all sorts of reasons and it’s now time to do something about it, which will complement the work being done already in a small but increasing number of state schools. Now is a good time, because of the Scottish Government’s laudable intention of closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Now, it’s a fact that lots of really able kids who come from more deprived backgrounds don’t do as well at school as their middle-class counterparts. There are 16,701 reasons for this, and if you would like to sit down with me, I could explain some of them over the course of a week or two.
But one crucial reason, which can be summed up in one word, is confidence. And this is where the funny, wee, niche, extra-curricular activity of debating comes in – get a girl or boy to feel comfortable debating, and they will be comfortable in interviews for jobs or for uni; they will feel comfortable about arguing politics; they will be happier about answering in class and they will become, in this respect, like the articulate, confident middle-class students at more privileged schools. I feel a gap closing.
That is why the two charities in Scotland which promote debating – the English-Speaking Union, which has run debating and public-speaking competitions for decades, and which also encourages oracy in other areas, and Scottish Schools Debating, a smaller charity which I helped to found 25 years ago, with the intention of ensuring that there was always a Scottish team in the World School Debating Championships, have come together in a project called ‘Speak Up Scotland!’.
The object of this exciting programme is to take debating into schools which have no history – or at least no recent history – of debating, focussing particularly on schools in more deprived areas, through a series of workshops and competitions culminating, we hope, in a two or three-day ‘debate camp’ next summer which would be free for those kids who had participated in the earlier stages.
The project, which is being run by the English-Speaking Union’s programmes officer, Jordan Pfotenhauer, a young South African law graduate, who has had success running debating programmes aimed at reducing inequality in his home country is off to a great start, with over 150 S1 and S2 pupils having already taken part in workshops in their schools, including the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, Baldragon Academy in Dundee and Annan Academy. Jordan says of the work so far: “Teaching S1 and S2 pupils around Scotland how to debate over the past few months has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s amazing to see these young people grow in confidence over the course of just one workshop, learning crucial communication and argumentation skills in the process. We’ve covered topics ranging from school lunches to nuclear non-proliferation and are certainly in for a busy coming school year at this rate!”
So it’s maybe time to refresh our outdated thinking about debating – a lot of people think of it as being a fairly nerdy activity and, in truth they have a point.
But Donald Dewar, Malcolm Rifkind, Alex Salmond, Ruth Davidson, Michael Gove, John Smith, David Steel ... etc etc ... were debaters at school and/or university. And another cultural reference – in ‘Modern Family’ the nerdy debater Alex says to her beautiful and very popular sister – “remember, Haley, that one day my friends will be your friends’ bosses”.
All those of us involved in ‘Speak Up Scotland!’ are hoping that this will be a lifeline for some of Scotland’s least well-off young people to feel more confident and – who knows? – with that confidence aspire to be First Minister, or a university student, or simply someone who feels a bit better about themselves. If you would like to know more about ‘Speak Up Scotland!’ or if you work at or know of a school that might like to participate, then please contact Jordan or Gayle at the English-Speaking Union ([email protected]).
The programme is delivered to schools entirely free and so if you, or your company or organisation, would like to help financially, then please access the ‘Speak Up Scotland!’ justgiving page – every donation really helps us give young Scots who need it more confidence.
Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa